DONT FEED THE BEARS by Peter Nolan Smith

My second youngest sister has frequently called me a liar.

In some ways Pam hasn’t been not wrong, for my remembrance of the past differs from the collective memories of family and friends.

Several years ago I headed up to Maine for my younger sister’s birthday. Watchic Pond was a short distance outside of Portland. Not much had changed along Route 25 and even less at the lake, except the pine trees were taller and we were a little older.

After a long day lazing around the camp on Watchic Pond we sat outside on a long wooden table for a lobster dinner. One-and-quarters were cheap that season and my brother-in-law boiled a two dozen in a huge pot. My father, aunt and uncle, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews consumed big bottles of white wine, as the sky darkened to a cobalt blue and lake lapped at the shore speaking a wind-driven language.

In the evening we ate lobster at the family camp at Watchic Pond. The night sky darkened to a cobalt blue and the lake lapped at the shore speaking a wind-driven language. All my family was in attendance and we broke the shells to get at the succulent white meat. The empty claws, tails, and legs, and knuckles grew into a substantial pile.

“That’s going to make some bears happy.”

“What do you mean?” my uncle asked from the other end of the table.

“Don’t you remember the bears eating garbage at the Standish dump?”

“I never saw that.” My 85 year-old father drew a blank.

“I remember seeing them sitting on their haunches, eating food from people’s trash.”

There had been no plastic bags in the 50s.

“Are you making this up?” my aunt and uncle asked in unison.

“It wasn’t a dream. I was standing on the bluff looking at the bears. They ate with good manners too.”

My older sister and brothers rolled their eyes and Pam demanded, “Were you on LSD?”

My younger sister was a trial lawyer and I was thrust onto the stand for interrogation.

“No, I was only five.” I was almost sure of my answer, then again no one had proven that the CIA hadn’t experimented on children in the 1950s.

“Maybe it was a flashback.” My brother-in-law laughed at his joke.

Everyone from our generation joined him.

I was the family’s one hippie.

“What’s so funny,” my father grumbled from his seat.

“The bears at the dump.”

“Never happened.” My father returned to his post-dinner stupor.

“No, I swear I saw them.”

“Well, there are bears in these woods.” My uncle Russ looked over his shoulder. He was also partial to a good story.

“Not these woods.” Pam had heard too many lies from her clients. None of them ever told the truth and nothing but the truth.

“Maybe not this time of year, but I had a cousin up in Naples.” My uncle was a Maine native. “This bear kept on eating his garbage. My uncle locked the lids and build a shed. The bear found a way in. He finally stored the trash in his house,”

“Did that solve the problem?” My brother-in-law was good around the house.

“No, the bear crashed through a kitchen wall.”

“What your cousin do then?” my older sister was scared of any animal bigger than a cat, although her twenty-pound Shadow was no kitty.

“He shot the bear in the ass with buckshot and the bear ran away. Never to be seen again.”

“Like the bears at the dump.” Pam wasn’t letting it go.

“I saw what I saw.”

My older brother had been there then and I looked to him.

He shrugged to indicate I was on my own.

“I believe you, but everyone else thinks you’re lying,” my sister joked to the laughter of our gathered family.

“Here’s to your 38th Birthday.” I raised my glass.

“You never mention a woman’s age,” my aunt admonished me.

“I can live with 38.” Pam was on the other side of 40.

“So some lies are good.”

“36 would have been better and bears at best left in the woods.”

After dessert I helped bring in the plates.

“What about the lobster shells?”

“Leave them outside. We don’t want them to stink up the house.” My brother-in-law loved his camp.

We washed the dishes, while my family disappeared into the bedrooms. My brother-in-law and I had a vodka for a nightcap and he said,”I love that story about the bears at the dump.”

“It really did happen.”

“All stories are true, if interesting.”

It was an old family adage.

I bid him good night and went to my room.

Lying on the bed I thought about bears.

We had a long history and I went to bed remembering my teddy bear. His name was Billy. I have no idea where he went astray. Maybe it was during our move from Maine to Boston in 1960, but I wished he came out of the trees tonight and rolled over to shut my eyes.

My next connection to bears came from the book GOLDILOCKS. My dearly departed mother read it to my older brother and me before switching to Lynd Ward’s THE BIGGEST BEAR as a bedtime tale. The plot followed a nicer version of THE YEARLING, in which a boy adopted a bear cub in a Maine farming community until the bear grew too big to be with humans. The happy ending was the capture of the bear by hunters from a city zoo, although the bears at Franklin Zoo in Boston did not seem to happy with their lot in life.

Once we moved from Maine to the South shore, bears figured less and less in our lives, but they popped up as Yogi and Boo-boo on TV and I read THE BIGGEST BEAR at least three times a year. I begged my father to take us to Franklin Zoo in Boston and he relented one week. The lions and tigers slept on dusty soil and I said in front of the bear den, “These bears don’t look very happy.”

“Bears are bears. They’re only happy when they’re eating,” explained my father, but I never asked to visit the zoo again.

THE BIGGEST BEAR was retired to my top bookshelf in my teenage years to be replaced by my adoration of the Boston Bruins. They won a Stanley Cups in 1972 and I drank beer toasting THE BIGGEST BEAR and the Big Bad Bruins.

That summer I hiked into the White Mountains and camped without a permit. I trekked from the Swift River to Sawyer Pond. I carried no tent, only a drop cloth and a sleeping bag. A little before sunset I set up camp in the shelter of a glacier rock.I ate cold beans for dinner rather than risk the rangers spotting a fire. The Red Sox game on radio guided me to sleep under a starry sky.

A snort disturbed my sleep. Something big was lumbering through the underbrush. My hand grabbed a flashlight, but hesitated turning it on in case the prowler was a ranger. The noise went away and I spend the rest of the night watching the darkness for the fangs of a black bear.

In the morning I found bear tracks twenty feet from my shelter and hurried back to the road.

Bears were best left in the wilderness or hockey rink.

The folk singer Dave Van Ronk performed frequently in Harvard Square and sang a wicked version of THE TEDDY BEARS’ PICNIC with his coarse voice lending the children’s song an unintended menace. One time I brought him THE BIGGEST BEAR to autographed and the bearded singer laughed, saying, “I’ve been asked to sign a lot of things, but never a kid’s book.”

“Glad to have given you a first time.”

I loved Dave Van Ronk, the Pope of Greenwich Village.

In 1974 I worked at a restaurant on Cape Ann. The entire staff was gay. We smoked pot after work at a friend’s house on Bear’s Neck in Rockport. Gay men mauled me worse than any bear, but I escaped with my masculinity intact as my universe of bears jumbled with images of them eating garbage at dumps, cartoons, movies, and story books along with hairy gay men.

When I moved to New York to be a famous writer, I visited the Central Park Zoo.

The elephant was chained in a smelly barn and the gorilla dodged trash thrown by school children, but the polar bears seemed content as the bears at the dump with a swimming pool, free food, and a mate. I imagined THE BIGGEST BEAR to have shared their fate.

In 1982 I left New York for Paris, where a German friend had decorated his 16th arrondisement house with bear furniture. Jurgen thought I was the next Henry Miller. I wanted to be John Steinbeck. My spelling was atrocious enough to be Hemingway.

Jurgen hired me to work at a nightclub in Hamburg. The mysterious German’s Reeperbahn apartment was packed with bear figurines of all sizes. One night we were drinking there.

When I asked about his collection, Jurgen said, “This? This is not a collection. These are my friends. I am a bastard. My father never came back from Russia. As a child I had no one to protect me. Believe me Hamburg is tough. I created an imaginary bear and he was inside me to get me out of any trouble. After I started making money, I bought these. They protect me now. You want another beer?”

Beers tasted better than bear or so I have heard.

Jurgen died in 1985 under mysterious circumstances in Paris.

I wasn’t even sure that he was dead, until seeing him in the morgue. I wanted to make sure that his death was natural and broke into his apartment on Montmartre. There was no blood on the floor, but I wiped the surfaces for my fingerprints and stole a small bear as a keepsake. His step-brother put the rest up for auction. I still have mine somewhere, although I misplaced my edition of THE LITTLEST BEAR in New York and the Bruins avoided the Stanley Cup with frustrating regularity.

Despite their lack of success I continued to wear their shirt with the old logo.

In the 80s bears became beasts from Wall Street. Brokers hung in the East Village. They spoke about ‘bulls’ as their friend. Bears were their enemy.

During my journeys throughout Asia in the 90s, I ran into trained bears in India. These creatures were gaunt shadows of the grizzly bear of legend, a golden beast towering over man.

I was seeing Mrs. Carolina at this time. The married blonde waited for me and I came back from my trips to her.

My father asked about our relationship.

Since she was married, I answered, “We are traveling companions.”

“So that’s what they call it now.”

Ms. Carolina originally hailed from the Adirondacks and on a trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains I told her the story about the bears eating garbage at the dump.

“We had bears too.” The police decided the proximity of bears to humans was a danger better not tested and used firecrackers to scare them away.”

“And did they?”

“I guess so.”

“You know how to escape a bear?” asked Ms. Carolina.

“Run faster than the people with you.”

“No.” She considered that ungallant. “If you’re being chased by a bear, throw your jacket at them.”

“You mean like giving a mugger your wallet.”

“No, a bear can run 30 mph. The jacket will make him curious. At that point you’re supposed to get a tree between the bear and you. Maybe you’ll be lucky.”

I was a big believer in luck.

On a trip to Montana and Wyoming May 1994 we stayed at the Chico Springs Hotel. I hiked into the mountains. After an hour I reached a sign stated, “Anyone proceeding after this point without a guide will be prosecuted if not eaten.”

It didn’t make any sense.


By what?

I gazed around the slopes.

The bears in the Rockies didn’t eat garbage.

They ate everything.

Across the river the wind swayed over a pasture. Bears could be in the high grasses waiting for me to get closer. I picked up a rock and threw it hard. The invisible bears didn’t break from cover and I hiked back to the lodge very fast.

I found Mrs. Carolina soaking in the springs and joined her.

“How was your walk?”

“Fine.” She didn’t need to know that I had been scared.

The next day we stopped in Yellowstone National Park. A huge fire in 1988 had devastated its forests and huge swathes of the volcanic plateau were charred from horizon to horizon. Ashes clogged the streams and burnt bones laid as humps along the river banks. The fire had been a disaster, but the torched trees allowed motorists unrestricted vistas. Bison cruised the road and elk grazed the meadows, plus some sections of the park were untouched by flames and hiked along a river.

Bear tracks led away from the stream and Mrs. Carolina asked, “What are you doing?”

“Following these tracks.”

“And why do you want to meet a bear? Maybe a grizzly bear?”

“No reason.”

“It’s spring. Bears are hungry. How fast can you run?”

“A little fast.” My best time at the 440 had been 55 seconds. A little better than 15 MPH. “Maybe we should go back to the car.”

“It’s probably a good idea.” Ms. Carolina didn’t fool with big animals, only me.

Later that week nearing Glacier Park we spotted a grizzly loping across the road at a good clip.

“He must be in a hurry.” Ms. Carolina was driving and sped up the car. She didn’t believe in rubber-necking with her life on the line.

“He’s probably going to the town dump.”

“I don’t think so.” Ms. Carolina stepped on the gas. She had a heavy foot at the best of times.

At the park entrance I told the young ranger about the grizzly.

“It looked like a big dog.”

“Just be glad you didn’t pet it. They can be mean this time of year.” A young ranger told us, as he made change. “They like to stay away from people, but the brown bears are very friendly, unless you get between them and they’re cubs or food.” His associate was a man of regulations. “We don’t condone feeding them. Only make them dangerous. We had two fatal attacks in the last ten years.”

The young ranger handed Ms. Carolina the ticket.

“You be safe.”

As we drove away, Ms. Carolina asked, “Why didn’t you tell them about your dump story?”

“Because those bears aren’t these bears.” Mine wore a smile and had good manners.

For the rest of the trip we didn’t get out of the car, except at the scenic stops on the pass.

We were playing it safe, because in the wilderness we were the garbage dump for the bears.

Recently I watched a movie GRIZZLY MAN, in which this incredibly naive amateur naturalist traveled north every year to live with the bears. Without them Timothy Treadwell had no life and Werner Herzog assembled Treadwell’s video recordings into a documentary.

The pay-off was a bear mauling ‘grizzly man’ and his girlfriend.

Neither survived the attack.

I felt sorry for the girl. The guy had put her in a bad spot. The bear was just being a bear and the next morning after the lobster dinner on Watchic Pond I woke early for a swim. Everyone else was asleep, except for my father, who was doing a crossword puzzle in the kitchen.

“How’d you sleep?”

“I dreamed a lot about bears.”

“I haven’t seen a bear in years.” He still lived on the South Shore. Bears were extinct south of the Neponset River. “But they’re out there.”

“Not as much as mosquitoes.” The Maine woods were famous for the swarming insects.

“They shouldn’t be that bad this time of the morning. Enjoy your swim.”

“I exited from the cabin. A thin mist hovered over the lake. Two loons cried out in the mist. I passed the long table and looked down on the ground. The lobster shells were gone. I searched the dirt for tracks. The paw prints were unmistakably those of a bear. My head snapped to the right and left. The bear was nowhere in sight, but they are very clever for such a large creature. I almost went back inside to tell my father about the bear, but if they didn’t believe me about the bears in the dump, then there wasn’t a chance they would believe me about the night intruder. I went to the end of the dock and jumped in the water. It was cold and upon breaking the surface for air I laughed about my discovery.

Over the years I have told the story about bears eating garbage all over the world. Some people believed me. Some thought it’s a good story. Others feel I’m lying, but those bears were there in the Standish dump. Maybe they weren’t smiling, which I will not admit to my sister.

After all we sometimes need to believe in something that isn’t the truth, especially if it’s interesting.

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