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WVU grad documents a Cold War, Duck-filled quest

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On the surface, it was simply a crazy idea.

A group of seven college guys retrofit an amphibious Army vehicle, christen it El Pato Valiente (The Valiant Duck) and head south to launch a madcap goodwill tour of Central and South America.

The year is 1961 and troubles quickly ensue that will take a president -- one named John F. Kennedy -- to help untangle.

This tale is told in a new documentary by West Virginia University graduate Matt Twomey, titled "The Duck Diaries: A Cold War Quest for Friendship Across the Americas."

The 89-minute film was recently screened at a film festival in Oaxaca, Mexico, and has been entered into competition Oct. 20 at the New York City Independent Film Festival.

There are big lessons and small from the dramatic arc of this tale.

A big one?

"My hope and the hope of my subjects in this film, the guys who went on this trip, is that it may particularly inspire young people to go out into the world and see for themselves," said Twomey, a writer and editor for CNBC.com in New York. "And to do so in a spirit of goodwill and intercultural outreach. To learn about other people rather than to lecture them."

A small one?

Never take an amphibious vehicle into places it was never designed to go or you may need help from your president to get you un-marooned and back on the goodwill mission thoroughfare.

It was the height of the Cold War. The man who would become the filmmaker's father, Dan Twomey (who would later teach management at West Virginia University) was attending Cobleskill College in New York with twin brother, Tom.

There, they met a Colombian student who had a few choice and outspoken words to say to the brothers' circle of friends about how the United States treated its Latin American neighbors.

"This relationship was kind of eye opening for these guys who were upstate New York farm kids, really," said Matt Twomey. "That friendship inspired them to come up with this crazy idea."

Crazy idea No. 1: buy a surplus amphibious six-wheel drive vehicle known as a DUKW, but colloquially as a Duck. Get some press coverage, including driving the Valient Duck into Rockefeller Plaza in New York for a live segment on the "Today" show.

Crazy idea No. 2: head south for thousands of miles and a long water-borne crossing never intended by the vehicle's designers.

"One classic example of what the army designed this vehicle for was the Normandy invasion in 1944 -- from the big ship into the water and up into the beach. That's a very short trip into the water," Twomey said. "The army did not envision either taking it on the road for 27,000 miles like these guys did or taking it several hundred miles in the water."

But being intrepid and of stout heart, they attempted a dangerous sea crossing between Panama and Columbia, intent on reaching Pedro, their Columbian friend, in pretty glorious fashion.

"As soon as they hit Colombia, they were going to be able to meet with him and show him they were down there to learn about South America and Colombia just as that student had suggested they do."

Reality intervened.

"They were just getting rolled by these sea swells far greater than anything the vehicle was designed for. At one point, the wire that controls the rudder breaks. On their third day the propeller comes loose," Twomey said.

After three days of trying, they pulled up on an isolated tropical beach with a broken Duck. Stuck in the jungle, their first human contact was a black man who comes canoeing across the lagoon. "What are you fellows doing here?" he asks in perfect English.

"They said, 'Well, what are YOU doing here?' And he told them that he had murdered someone in Bluefields, Nicaragua, and that basically he'd come to the jungle to live and get away," Twomey said. "So you can imagine this didn't make them feel much better."

They were determined to stick with their mission. One of their number hitched a ride on a passing coconut trading vessel. Their story got into the press. It worked its way up the governmental food chain.

"It eventually rose to the level of the president's office and JFK ultimately intervened so these guys could continue," Twomey said.

The Valiant Duck was repaired and its mission reconvened.

"They continued on for tens of thousands of miles more through South America," Twomey said. "When they went to campuses they developed some kind of silly skits. A couple musicians put on musical presentations. They also played basketball with the school team.

"It was part of this kind of friendship outreach. Of course, in some places the students were hostile -- this tended to be a minority of the students they met. But for the most part, they were received very warmly and were happy some American students had come down there to learn about them."

The Duck proved so valiant that upon its return to America the young men took it on a cross-country tour in 1962 from California to Washington, D.C. They raised enough funds along the way to be able to help pay college expenses in the United States for three Latin American students.

In telling this tale, Twomey said he usually doesn't mention his dad was a part of it until the end of the telling, thinking some people may think he's just pitching some kind of glorified home movie.

Creation of the documentary, which had a budget of about $30,000, was indeed helped by the fact that the young men on their trip shot 16-millimeter film along the way, but "my personal connection to it is somewhat incidental to me," Twomey said.

"To me it was always the power of the story that made it worthwhile," he said.

The story packs a twofold punch for him.

"One is the importance of intercultural outreach. And secondly the power of total commitment. Because so many times on this trip they ran into situations that seemed impossible to get out of -- they had mechanical breakdowns, they had no money sometimes. They had officials that were against them and wanted to stop them.

"They faced roadside bandits, some drunken soldiers had stopped them. Then, marooning in a tropical jungle. But they never considered stopping and going back. When you're truly committed to a goal or a mission, you can be amazed by what you can overcome."

It would be hard to measure the impact these fellows had on the thousands of people they encountered along their travels, Twomey said. "But it had a profound impact on each of them and really shaped their lives."

One founded a company devoted to agricultural development in developing counties. Two later served in the Peace Corps, which was just in the process of being formed then. In recent decades, Twomey's father started a program where he takes students to Costa Rica to teach sustainable development practices.

"They started out as fairly unsophisticated farm boys. But having this life-shaping experience had profound effects on their lives for decades to come and how they looked at the world and how they interacted with the world."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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