Howard the Duck Stops Here
Randy Bechtel
Howard the Duck Stops Here

I’ve found that encouraging people to read my blog only ensures that they won’t. However, recently I had an epiphany that this can be valuable. For the benefit of strangers, I will explain why.

When the two of us are together with other people, my brother-in-law invariably mentions that both of our careers began as reporters. Many people, particularly family members, have heard this before only to forget it because Gary soon segues to one of countless anecdotes about himself. With a straight face he can segue from any topic to any other, a trait he acquired as the anchor of a morning news program during the final of his four years in local TV news.

Although I saw Gary anchor the news only once, one of his segues still haunts me: “. . . After being stabbed in the kitchen by his mother-in-law, Munsie allegedly drowned the old woman by holding her face down in a sink of dishwater. Going from bad to good dunks, a slam by Sacramento Kings center La Salle Thompson downed the Lakers last night at Arco Arena—right Del Swift?”  Such a hideous segue is permissible because, as Gary likes to observe (and no doubt does when he media trains executives and clients as vice president of communications for a pharmaceutical company): “Credibility in television depends less on what you say and more on the way you say it.”

Gary’s problem is that he lives TV, which makes his segues very bizarre and annoying in real life. Listening to him is like watching the finale in the Marx Brothers film “A Night at the Opera,” in which a Gypsy sings by a campfire as Harpo is backstage swinging by ropes that raise and lower the stage’s backdrops. One moment the Gypsy is in the forest, the next on the deck of battleship, the next atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill with a cable car, and so on. The only thread that connects Gary’s anecdotes is autobiographical narcissism.

In Newport Beach Saturday night, Gary segued his way to dominating conversations at our niece’s wedding rehearsal dinner. Assigned to our table were my wife, Gary and my sister, and two couples related to the groom—a neurologist and his Superior Court judge wife, and the married owners of an engineering firm. Gary fatigue was palpable when, in the interim between dinner and dessert, Gary noted that he and I were once reporters, then segued to his yarn about playing a TV reporter as an extra in a Clint Eastwood movie. (Or, as Gary puts it, “. . . the time I appeared with Clint Eastwood in a movie.”)  Hearing this, I tuned out. I tuned in again when Gary spoke the word “reference,” aware that the anecdote was about to end as it always did with a claim so nonsensical it had to be false: Clint Eastwood volunteered to be a reference for Gary that proved decisive in Gary landing his first corporate executive job.

Gary’s next segue, however, crossed me up.

“Randy there has a Hollywood movie claim to fame himself,” he said. “Tell us about ‘Howard the Duck!’”

Everyone looked at me. Worse yet, they looked at me enthusiastically. My guess is, after listening to Gary tell narcissistic anecdote after narcissistic anecdote, they longed for one unflattering to its teller. Any anecdote labeled “Howard the Duck” had to be that. Lowering the bar even further would be familiarity with the 1986 movie, which suffered from overtones of bestiality between a mini-skirted Lea Thompson and a 3’6” duck. 

Cornered, I tried to abridge the story only to be thwarted at every turn by Gary. “Yeah, but don’t forget about . . . .” Gary repeatedly interrupted me. Forget? The only thing I forgot was ever telling Gary this stupid 35-year-old story which incredibly he remembers in detail today. I shrink to think of how many other people do as well.

Any request to hear my “Howard the Duck” anecdote will now receive this response, “It’s a fascinating story, but too lengthy to tell as you’ll see if you want to read it on my blog.” Which now it is, unabridged, below:

Calls had trickled into the newsroom all morning from various people claiming that George Lucas was filming a movie in Suisun Marsh. I didn’t care. As inconceivable as this might be, I considered George Lucas a maker of cheesy science fiction movies. Then there was the issue of finding a film crew in Suisun Marsh, which was an endless maze of gravel roads following grassy marshland amid waterways created by the meeting of the Sacramento River with San Francisco Bay. This was territory fit for toothpick-chewing fishermen and escaped convicts, not makers of cheesy science fiction movies.

My city editor disagreed and assigned me the role of playing Stanley to George Lucas’ Dr. Livingston. Accompanying me would be photographer Arnold Ripley, known to everyone as Spud, a nickname probably inspired by his circumference or the French fries responsible for it. Spud had Hollywood pedigree. A magazine recently paid his father $2,500 for photographs of Tony Danza drunk. To our mission Spud brought two cameras and three lenses. One lens would later be described by a sheriff’s deputy as “the size of a bazooka.”

Thirty minutes into Suisun Marsh, I calculated that after another ten minutes we could turn back. At the very least we would be in Suisun Marsh 80 minutes. More likely we would be there 20 to 30 minutes more as a result of being lost. In any event, my city editor could not say we didn’t give it the old college try.

That plan changed when, rounding a bend, I brought my car to a stop. Fifty yards away was the front of a half-size World I Sopwith Camel biplane. Staring at us from its cockpit was an enormous duck. The always astute Spud observed, “This might be it.”

I eased the car forward. Thirty yards from the plane we began to see a clearing to the right where there were tents, trucks, fake police cars, film equipment, and dozens of people. With no room on the gravel road, I drove through knee-high grass to pass the duck’s ultralight airplane. A camera fixed to the dashboard pointed to the duck’s face.  Behind him in a second cockpit sat a man spitting sunflower seeds.

I parked and we got out. A woman approached and asked who we were. I told her I was a newspaper reporter and asked whether this was a George Lucas film shoot. She replied they were shooting action exteriors for a Lucas film called “Howard the Duck,” but the man in charge here was an assistant director. She signaled to the assistant director. His pace quickened when he saw Spud remove his camera equipment from my trunk.

“Are you from publicity?” he asked.

The woman told him we were from a newspaper and I presented my business card.

“Okay, go ahead and check things out,” he said. “But no pictures! Howard’s image is top secret!”

A pouting Spud returned his equipment to the trunk. His mood was soon buoyed by free access to the crew’s lunch buffet.

I briefly interviewed the assistant director before duty called him elsewhere. After interviewing various crew members, I gained one significant but useless insight: Moviemaking is much like the Army—an exercise in hurry up and wait. Only the director (or assistant director) is constantly occupied.

I went to the ultralight airplane and asked the duck for an interview.

“Carmelita,” the man seated behind Howard said. “The duck is a woman named Carmelita. Unless you speak Spanish, she won’t understand a word.”

No George Lucas + no stars + no Howard the Duck = no story.

I asked the man the same question I had asked others: “What’s your job here?” His snort told me my question implied I believed the pilot of this airplane was a Spanish-speaking dwarf in a duck costume. I revised my question: “I mean, who are you?”

He replied that he was a stunt pilot named Buzz Lanigan. Silently I praised Providence for nicknaming him Buzz.  No George Lucas + no stars + no Howard the Duck + one Buzz the test pilot = one story about Buzz the test pilot. (To this day, I believe my article about Buzz Lanigan somehow inspired the character of Buzz Lightyear.)

I asked Buzz why he and Carmelita sat idly in the plane. He answered that aerial shots taken the previous three days had been beneath blue skies and today’s shooting was delayed until the marine layer burned off. If, when and how long the sun would appear no one could say. When it did, he would be ready to go.  

Beyond ready was Carmelita, who now said, “Necesito ir al baño.”

It took about 10 minutes for two handlers to extract Carmelita from the plane, after which she waddled off on webbed feet with her handlers to a portable toilet. The overcast had dissipated when 30 minutes later she returned. Buzz was a volcano of sunflower seeds during the 20 minutes needed to insert Carmelita back into the plane and ensure the camera was positioned on her face.

Buzz revved up the plane’s engine. On a walkie-talkie, the assistant director shouted directions to camera operators. Carmelita’s handlers scurried away.

Then, around the bend, a pickup of authentic rust appeared. As I had, the driver stopped about 50 yards away from the plane. As I had not, the driver remained where he was. Visible through the windshield were two heads with wide open pie holes.

After spewing seeds, Buzz yelled: “To hell with it!  I’m going!”

The plane shot toward. In an instant the distance between the plane and pickup went from 50 yards to less than 20. Then, on a dime, the ultralight shot straight up. Its ascent was parabolic.

Everyone cheered.

Everyone except the two fishermen in the pickup. Ten minutes later the pickup crept forward. The fishermen’s expressions spoke of what in their lifetimes had been the ultimate WTF.

By then I had seen enough of the plane diving and soaring. I collected Spud and we drove away without anyone appearing to notice. On the other side of a grassy rise, Spud asked me to stop and pop the trunk. I watched the plane repeatedly appear and disappear in the distance as Spud removed a camera and his bazooka-sized lens from the trunk.

“Where are you going?” I asked as Spud walked across the road.

“To shoot that duck!” Spud said.

Ethically I disapproved. Practically, I doubted my disapproval would stop Spud. Selfishly, I knew a picture of Howard could lead to my article being picked up by Associated Press.

“Make it fast!” I told Spud.

Watching him disappear over the horizon, it occurred to me that the path Spud had plowed through the waste-high grass could have been visible from a satellite, let alone an ultralight plane.

I listened to the buzz of the plane as I waited. Thirty minutes passed. The plane was still flying when I looked, but low to the ground, infrequently appearing above the horizon. I was out of the car pacing when two sheriff’s patrol cars approached. I stood passively waiting to be investigated when both cars passed me. It was then I noticed the plane must have landed.

I was pacing again when one of the sheriff’s cars reappeared and parked in front of my car. The officer got out and we met halfway.

“You know a man named Arnold Ripley?” the officer asked. After I nodded yes, he said, “And who might you be?”

I told him and handed him my business card. He read the card, then asked to see my driver’s license, apparently to verify the name was the same as the one on the card.

“What does this Arnold Ripley have to do with you?” he asked.

“He’s one of our photographers.”

“Uh-huh. And does this photographer usually carry a bazooka with him? Because a film crew radioed our HQ that a man was aiming an anti-aircraft weapon at their stunt plane.”

In the words of Ricky Ricardo, we had “a lotta splainin to do.”

“That was only an enormous zoom lens,” I said. “Look, check out my trunk. His other equipment is in there.”

The officer examined the trunk.

“A camera lens, you say,” he said.

“A zoom lens,” I said. “Find Spud—I mean Arnold—and he’ll show it to you.”

“Oh, we’ve found Arnold, all right. Finding Arnold is not hard. All this started when the pilot saw Arnold and transmitted to his people, ‘A walrus in a white T-shirt is pointing a bazooka at us.’ Lost in the transmission was the beginning of his sentence: ‘A man the size of . . .’  His people finally figured out he was referring to a man and not a walrus. They chased your boy through the weeds until Arnold finally rolled down a bank into a bog. A rope and four men were needed to pull him out.”

“You can’t find his zoom lens?”

“Not unless someone wants to dive down through several feet of water and search through muck and mud.”

A call came on the patrol car’s radio and the officer went to answer it. When he returned, he said, “We’ve contacted your newspaper and you check out. So here’s how this is going to work. You’re going to put Arnold in your car and I’m going to escort you to the freeway. If either of you are seen back here, you’re going to be arrested.”

The second patrol car arrived and parked behind my car. The officer got out and snarled, “This dufus stinks!”  He opened the back door and out poured someone unidentifiable because he was so covered with mud, slime, silt, cattails, pondweed, worms and bacteria. A pool of water formed at his feet.

Suddenly it struck me: My poor car! Damn you, Spud!

POSTSCRIPT: My wife learned through channels that my niece’s in-laws refer to me as Howard and Gary as Dirty Harry. I relayed this to Gary via email, although, now that I think about it, I may have mistakenly told Gary that they refer to me as Howard and to him as Spud. My wife did not say what my niece’s response to these nicknames was, nor did I ask.

Copyright © 2019 by Randy Bechtel

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