The Bear and I

 

When I was young, just starting school, I loved bears. Bears were my friends, bears were my brothers. I identified with bears. Part of this was no doubt due to watching “Gentle Ben” about a gentle bear. I also loved watching “Daniel Boone”, the TV series. But me and bears, bears and I – I don’t know why, or what it was. Perhaps it was because I was like Gentle Ben – big for my age, tough, strong, with an ability to withstand pain, climb trees, and rescue people. I was always rescuing people – usually little kids from fights, often my own ‘big’ brother – sometimes from my friends, sometimes from certain enemies that he’d made. I wade into the fight – hackles up, fists furiously flailing – rescuing the underdog, again and again, time after time.

Or maybe it was my Teddy bear, the one I still have from when I was young (he currently resides at my momma’s). He was with me when I was born; he’s been with me ever since. He was my best friend; my chosen friend: I would sit and whisper to him all my most awful secrets and about the times of my life. He and I would ‘play’ with all our other friends: the stuffed animals. Those were about the only ‘constant’ in my life sometimes. I can still call up – again, they reside at my mom’s – those little hand-puppets that entertained me for about a lifetime. But Teddy was special – very special – because he was my connection with my ‘friends’ – the bears and I.

But this isn’t a story about my stuffed bears and animal toys – often my only comfort and solace for hours if not days on end. It’s a real story about a real bear and me.

We’d taken a trip from the sand hill pine barrens south of Augusta one year – not too far from Tobacco Road. I had to be in first or second grade; my father was home from the war, it was spring, we were celebrating by traveling as we often did – up to the Smokey Mountains and beyond. Being poor, we did what so many families did back then: we camped. My parents had either rented or bought a small pop-up camper – just right for two adults and two children. It had a stove and a table that swung down from the wall; while cramped, it was okay, and there was a river that ran nearby.

We were somewhere around the Cherokee, North Carolina, and the Cherokee Indian reservation there. I know that much. I still remember the tourist town, with its concrete teepees, trinket stores, and hot sun filtering through clear mountain air. And those mountains! Emerald green rough curved diamonds rising all around us, traced here and there through with silver running streams. Here, some forty-three years later, I can still remember the big open air shelter where the Native American Indians put on their spectacular and touching “Unto These Hills” show. It was quite dramatic, even though I didn’t understand what it was about. I was fascinated watching the Indians dance in their regalia and hearing the pounding drums. It was high excitement at the time for a boy my age. I remember, too, how we begged and begged every time we went into one of those stores that had “Authentic Indian Souvenirs” for one of those fancy Indian headdresses. My parents eventually broke down and bought us each one – a luxurious expense for a family so poor – but we were on vacation. And as kids, of course, we had NO idea we were poor – plus my dad was back from Vietnam, which meant more money in the household since he was no longer giving it to the missionaries or whoring around.

Sometimes while we were going down those curvy mountains roads we would see black bears next to the road or in the woods. Sometimes they were in parking lots – those overlooks they build on the mountains. At which point all the cars would slow to a crawl, and I would get excited. Maybe ‘excited’ isn’t the right word. There was more to that than just that thing: ‘excited’.

“Brother Bear!” I’d yell, pointing out the car window. I knew these bears were my friends; that they were good and gentle and friendly and fun. I was absolutely fearless towards them. These were my my brothers – they were just in black furry coats, that was all. Big black furry coats, with rounded ears and tufted gray noses – it didn’t matter. I was their brother and they were mine – in spirit and in mind, despite the differences our bodies. And they would know that. I knew that.

Then it happened. One day as we’re driving along my mom and dad see a bear surrounded by a crowd in a big parking lot. He slows the car and turns to pull in; I am craning my young neck to the point of popping my spine in an effort to see. We pull in and he finds a parking spot along the loop of cars that have been drawn in. It’s a wide “U” with the bear on one end; the pine woods are right behind him. People are either milling around or standing beside their cars in order to get a picture of him. My parents get out as I look towards the source of this excitement. And oh! Look! Brother Bear! I’m hopping up and down in my seat, anxious to get out and see this great animal – a friend of mine. My dad opens the door, and we tumble out. My mom and dad – well, I don’t know. Maybe they started snapping pictures like all the other tourists, craning their necks at this thing. At any rate, they took their attention off me – my momma’s hand slipping from mine as she got out and used her camera.

I didn’t even think about it. I just went. Brother Bear!, I was thinkng, cutting through the crowd like a curious chihuahua. I didn’t even pause as I went to the front of the crowd. I was just going to say hello to my furry fuzzy friend from Appalachian wilds. I paid absolutely no attention to the crowd. I was just overjoyed to finally get to see my friend up close. He was snuffling along in the parking lot. He was big — but not that big — and he was furry — rich and black — and oh my yes, what big claws, too. He stopped his snuffling and rambling to look up, no doubt wondering what kind of idiot — or tasty snack — this human thing was.

I stopped just an arm’s length from the bear.

Oh my! Brother Bear! How happy I am to see you after so long! How glad I am that we finally meet again! And what a fine coat of black hair you have! And what curious beady black-brown eyes you have! And what a long pretty snout that is, with its short brown hair. And how cute your whiskers are!

Brother Bear stuck out his head with interest. I could swear it was grinning, it’s face just inches from mine. The big black eyes regarded me with interest.

My, Brother Bear! What big teeth you have!

Smiling, I did what any six or seven year old boy would do when presented with this situation.

Reaching up, I stroked him on his black and shiny nose.

 

 

That I lived to tell this tale tells you something — but what, I haven’t a clue. The luck of a child? A well-fed park bear? A really fast parent? Or maybe Fate’s fickle finger, or the hand of God reaching down, pausing, and saying, “Hmmm — not this time.” Who knows?

 

All I know is that the next thing I knew, I was getting snatched and tackled like a fumbled football and hustled away from my friend. I was both awestruck (I had touched a bear) as well as devastated (how dare you take me from my friend!). I tried to wave goodbye, but do you know how hard it is to see when you’re getting shaken and bounced under someone’s arm? But at least I tried to wave, feeling sorrow for my friend. We had just barely met – and now we were being parted – me, forcefully, by one of my own parents. I wasn’t afraid the bear was going to eat me up. I just wanted to be friends. And things had been going swimmingly – just fine – until my dad showed up.

I know it must of made for some excitement to the crowd; it would of been a great photo op for someone, and I rather imagine it about gave my mom a heart attack. (My brother, meanwhile, would of been muttering under his breath, “eat ‘im! EAT ‘im!”) And of course nowadays, my mom and dad probably would have been cursed and faulted for not keeping track of their wayward child. And, no doubt, someone would of posted it on Youtube or one of the video sites. Heck, I might have been famous.

As for me — I was just sad that my meeting with my friend had been so rudely interrupted, and I knew we weren’t going to be meeting him again. And I knew he was my friend; he had to be. He had stared me right in the eye; I had felt the warm breath from his nose; I had given him the chance to eat me and he didn’t. And I just knew:

The next thing that bear was fixin’ to do was give me a sweet little lick. Just to say hi. Or eat me. I don’t know which. And to tell you the truth, I don’t care.

Either way: it would have been an interesting experience – one to write home about . . .

providing I get there sometime.

 

With me and my Bear friends.

 

 

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