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Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Bear Story, a True One

Hey, all,

One of the ways I have been allotting my hours every day is to spend some time looking over past writings, most fictional. I came across this piece and today I share it with you. It's true. It happened around 45 years ago and I wrote about over 30 years ago, so please keep that in mind when you do your judging about its social and political correctness. It was a time. Please enjoy:
       Bear Story  
  
by Scott Merrick   

For most of the summer of 1975, my first summer in Alaska, my friend and I lived in a tent. We pitched that tent the first afternoon we arrived in Rainbow Valley, seventeen miles out of Anchorage, up off the only road south out of the city, State Highway 1. We settled on a spot in a little clearing, on a high ridge about a third of the way up into the valley, where we could look out our mosquito netting screen door and see the polymorphous silt-flats of the Cook Inlet's Turnagain Arm, its glistening shapes only partly obscured by thin alders. The silver underbellies of the alder leaves flashed and flickered, stars in the sunlight, as the wind tore through the valley along our ridge.  

The first night in our new "home" was in the second week of July. Although I was already acclimated -- after our long drive through British Columbia, the Yukon, and central Alaska down into Anchorage -- to the late sunset and the never-quite-dark nights, I did not sleep. I dozed, rather, my heavy-lidded eyes opening of their own accord, frequently, to gaze at the panorama that sprawled beneath us.  

I spent the next month performing music in the several little "whole foods" restaurants that dotted Anchorage. Their names betrayed their hippie origins: "The Bridge," "The Bread Factory," "The Chanting Gull."  

My favorite "gig" was at The Bread Factory, where in exchange for playing two hours every Wednesday night, the owner paid me the huge sum of twenty-five dollars. But the real payment kept me alive: I was allowed one meal a day, each of the six days the restaurant was open each week.  

The other gigs earned me better money, but money was a secondary consideration, once the issue of food was settled. More important, they were all places where a mustachioed young feller with a long black pony-tail and an acoustic guitar could meet young ladies. It was (almost impossibly to imagine in this day and age) a time before AIDS, before blood-tests were prerequisite to making love. Anchorage Alaska, in 1975, was a fair slice of heaven.  

My friend Steve, who had landed a job as a draftsman in an architectural firm, often picked me up at the end of my gigs. Most of the places I played were so small that, even as I sang and played, I could hear the old VW camper pull into the parking lot outside. Nights Steve was otherwise engaged, I would either stay in town with other musician friends, pointedly pursue a feminine sleep-mate, or simply hitchhike home the seventeen miles, then walk the mile up into the valley from the highway. I was an artist. I was a star. I was a happy slut.  

One Thursday night Steve had taken in my whole last set at The Bridge. His barrel-chested ruggedness and his bearded, shaggy swagger often won him fair company on the sexual playing field. This night he shared his small table with a very lovely young lady.  

Do not let my casual description of our sexual explorations mislead you. We were, all of us, brave young wanderers in a remote and often frighteningly different world from the one we had grown up in, down in Nashville, Tennessee. Hindsight says that our sexual strivings were a perfectly natural denial of our fears. A night of lovemaking somehow reaffirmed our right to exist in this alien world. To be held was to be comforted. To be comforted was to gain renewal. One could again be brave.  

This night Steve had made the promising acquaintance of an attractive young brunette. Even better, Emily agreed to ride down to Rainbow Valley with us. I guess I knew who would be sleeping alone in the tent while those two enjoyed the warmer, cushier environs of Steve's camper. No problem. I was happy for him. Sort of.  

The drive down was lively, with Steve at his raconteur-ish best. He didn't go through the whole thing, but he performed snippets of his famous "David and Goliath" monologue, with which he had regaled small audiences from Nashville to Nome. I pulled my twelve-string Yamaha from its glorified cardboard case and launched into a couple of the rowdy songs I'd learned (or invented) that I couldn't sing in public.  

As we crunched our way up the steep gravel road toward our makeshift pull-out at the first ridge, Steve called back to the rear of the camper, "Hey, Scott, did you hear about the pest brown bear the Hollingsworths have been having trouble with?"  

"I think John said something about a bear, but I didn't know it was a problem," I replied. I was packing up my twelve-string.  

"Yeah," Steve continued, "apparently it started by rootin’ around in their compost pile, then got brave enough to peek into the cabin one evenin'. John says he's keeping the safety off his magnum. Once they start getting brave like that it's only a matter of time before a human bein' gets mauled." His last few words adopted that ominous gravelly edge native to the scarier portions of his tales.  

"Wow. That seems a shame," interjected Emily, tossing her long, full, chestnut-colored locks around over one shoulder. In the odd light made up of the weird darkening twilight and the dim glow of the dash lights, I noticed her lips for the first time. They were unusually ripe-looking, and though they looked nothing like plums, they made me want to take a bite out of them. She wore a gauzy peasant blouse, cinched tightly at the waist above her ankle-length denim skirt, and I noticed that one of her hiking boots' laces wanted tying. I wondered if I should mention it. I didn’t. 

"Yeah, really," I replied, all of a sudden wanting to agree with anything she said. "But, you know, Steve's right. You read the bear mauling story in last month's Alaska Magazine?" She nodded--everyone had seen that one. The copy I had read was literally falling apart after two weeks of being passed from hand to hand.  

The gist of it was that a Denali State Park ranger, who had spent years in the wild, was headed from his campsite to a creek down below it, for water. He carried two cans hung on opposite ends of a pole across his shoulders, a common way to haul such heavy loads over long distances. He had a .357 magnum pistol at his waist; but his arms were draped over the pole, so he wasn't able to get to it in time. The bear had charged him blind, sucker-punched him from the side, and, semi-conscious, the ranger did the thing all the books suggest: he rolled himself into a ball to protect his vital organs.  

The bear, in this case a medium-sized grizzly, batted him around a while and then went away, bored with the game. The ranger attempted to make his way back to his campsite and the radio that was in it, but old Mr. Grizz jumped him again, this time taking off most of the left side of his face.  

Fast response from base-camp was his only salvation. When he missed his evening radio check-in, the officer in charge went out after him, and he was rushed by MedEvac helicopter to a Fairbanks hospital.  

The story itself was scary enough, but the accompanying "before" and "after" pictures were enough to make anyone afraid to be in the woods without a weapon.  

"Steve and I like to think of his shotgun as emergency medicine," I said. "It's much better to have it in your kit and not need it than for you to be out in the wild and need it, and not have it." I paused to see how she was buying this, then uttered, wistfully, "I would do everything I could, I think, to keep from shooting a wild creature. I don't even know if I could if I had to. I love the natural world that all of us share." I smiled and looked up. 

Amazingly, Emily was casting her own and much more lovely smile my way. I thought, perhaps irrationally, that maybe I had a chance to swing it so that Steve would be the one alone in the tent at bedtime. God, she was a pretty girl!  

Steve said, in a sincerely half-amazed tone, "Old buddy, don't wimp out on me here. If you give that bear half a chance he'll be on you faster'n a pig on swill. A bear encounter isn't a place for an ethical quandary. I know you. You'd kill it, just like I would. What if you let it go and the next time it visited the Hollingsworths it decided little Katy was just the right size for lunch?" That menacing edge crept into his voice again.  

Emily looked back, and I saw I'd been busted. She smiled, not at me, but to herself, and she reached out for Steve's hand, resting on the black plastic ball that vibrated at the top of the long, skinny VW gear-shift lever. "Well," she said, "in spite of my sympathies for old brother bear, I would rather be a live Goldilocks than an ethically justified hors d'oeuvre."  

Outside of the van it was that eerie half-light that was as dark as it would get at this latitude in mid-August. Through a slice in the trees, I could see a piece of the Talkeetna Mountain chain that ran parallel to our gravel valley road. There was the slightest smattering of white, glistening on the highest peak. "Termination Dust," they call it. Winter was insinuating itself early this year.  

We wouldn't have needed a flashlight, but Steve used one for Emily's sake, and I followed a few steps behind. I carried my guitar and Steve's 16-gauge shotgun, spacer out, five lead slug loads in. We had spent some time target-practicing with the slugs, since they fire quite differently than a normal shotgun load. There's a hell of a kick, for one thing, and for another, the slug projectile will fell a small tree. We made our way up the fairly straight trail our month of commuting had pressed into the woods. After all the bear talk, I had a nagging sensation that we were not alone in those woods.  

In single file, we came through the trees, into our little clearing. I heard Steve say in his burly Middle Tennessee drawl, "Good Lord God in Heaven!"  

I stepped into the clearing. Illuminated by the panning flashlight beam, the tent was hanging in shreds from its central internal frame. Stuff was strewn madly over the whole clearing: sleeping bags, boots, books. "Vandalism? Here?" I thought, until I strode up beside Steve, who shone the flashlight on a wrecked still-life of twisted canned goods. They sprawled frozen in the little spotlight, several number 10 cans which had formerly been filled with various dried vegetables. They had each been torn open, and as I leaned down to pick one up, I couldn't help thinking that someone had been using our pantry for target practice. The can was punctured at regular intervals by holes that might have been made by a twenty-two, or maybe (more realistically) by a thirty-eight, and bent, like a redneck bends a beer can after draining it dry.  

"Claw holes," said Steve, flatly...  

"Will you look what the sucker did to your tent," I half-whispered. There was a clean long rip almost directly opposite the zipped front flap; but the front of the tent had been torn to strips, as if the bear had grown claustrophobic and/or frustrated inside, and just sort of thrashed his way out. No regard for zippers whatsoever. No "calmly exiting the lighted escape hatch."  

"Scotty me boy"," Steven murmured, "I don't think this is our pest brown. We had that food cache up twelve feet. A brown can't reach that high, unless it's the biggest brown in Alaska."  

He was right. All of the food that now festooned the clearing floor had been in a duffel bag, tied with a rope, and hauled high to hang, every time we left the camp. "Grizz?," I ventured.  

"Maybe. Probably. So," he laughed a little too loudly, an overcharged version of his trademark barrel-chested guffaw. "What the hell are we going to do now?"  

Emily, all the while, had been taking the whole picture in, and, I was hoping, making the proper inferences about just what deep trouble we were in. I touched her shoulder. It was warm through the cream cotton. "Sweet lady," I began, "how would you like two out-of-town house guests at your place tonight? Nothing kinky, of course." I flashed my most winning smile. It fell a little short of its usual flair. I added, still smiling, "Very kinky."  

Emily's previous exuberance for the great outdoors had understandably dampened. "I'd love to, Scott," she said, haltingly, "but...I don't have a house. Well, I do have an apartment, but I can't go back yet. Not until the morning. You see, I sort of loaned it to my sister for a little 'thing' with a man."  

I looked confused.  

"He's married," she added. "They sort of don't want any company."  

There was a ponderous silence. 

I thought I heard something rustle out past the clearing's perimeter.  

"Well..." I was floundering here, and I didn't like to flounder.  

Steve came to the rescue. "The only thing to do is build a big fire," he said, maybe too cheerfully, "and sing a few songs."  

He was right. I couldn't very well crawl into the camper with the two of them and I damn well was not going to sleep alone in a bag under the dim stars on this night. The thought of pulling out and stringing up one of our camper hammocks was badly colored by the hanging remains of the rope which had once held our food stores.  

There came another rustle from the woods.  

I started singing. I think it was something of Kris Kristopherson's, like "Me and Bobby McGee," or maybe something of my own. But sing I did, and the term "whistling in the dark" never felt so close to home. We pulled some wood from our pile behind the tent, and I opted for twisting some magazine pages for kindling rather than rambling around in the woods looking for natural downfall.  

Before long, we had a roaring fire, and the world didn't look so scary. Steve and Emily had parked themselves side-by-side on one of the large fireside stones we'd furnished our "living room" with, and I perched on another, twelve-string in hand and guitar case shut beside me on the ground to my left.  

I laid the shotgun down beside my other foot, closer to me than to my woolly-faced friend. Steve had already strapped his big pistol to his waist.  

I'd made sure that Steve was watching and Emily was gazing out over our picturesque vista when I reached down and clicked the little red safety lever into its "off" position.  

By this time it was probably around two o'clock in the morning. I had already done five sets at "The Bridge," and I had made pretty good use of the free beer that came along with the job; but somehow I was now neither drunk nor tired. I knew I had to keep things lively. And loud.  

Steve helped things along by digging out a quart of Jack Daniels from the one pack that the bear had not messed with. "Don't have any problem with this bear," he drawled, "he respects a man's wheeeesky."  

"Ah, our little piece of Tennessee," I commented, taking a hefty slug from the bottle and passing it back to him.  

It was a straight three hour set. There was an unspoken agreement that music, or at least some kind of racket, could not be allowed to falter. I kept it up, deferring to Steve for some verses. He had a rare memory for lyrics, which I envied. I even had trouble sometimes recalling all the lyrics to my own stuff, yet it was my original songs that Steve seemed to have most committed to memory. I was already compiling a goodly catalog of songs about Alaska, and Steve knew them all by heart.  

I sang my "Alaska Song," and Steve joined in on the chorus:   

I want every friend I've ever had 
to watch the colors of the Northern Lights 
dancin' on a starlit crystal evenin' sky, 
but I can't seem to tell them how 
when I saw them first I laughed aloud 
and when they danced away, I went inside and cried. 

I've tried to tell in letters 
of the magic that's surrounding me 
aboundin''', astoundin' like it's never done before, 
but they only say that's right but Scotty, 
what of all that snow and ice 
it surely freezes all your toes 
and must displease your ears and nose: 
whatcha doin' what you're doin' for?  

I don't know any more: 
I've given up on trying to tell what for. 
It's a place I'd never seen before I really had to see, 
and now Alaska lives inside of me..."  

We sang a rowdy one again, a fun little ditty only partly written by moi, called "My Ya-Ya is Stuck to My Leg," and sung to the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean."  

We sang Dylan's "Buckets of Rain," off his most recent album, for a good twenty minutes. I had transposed the song into an open "G" tuning, and I followed it up with my whole open "G" set. Once you tune the twelve-string down you might as well go for it. It's a hassle to retune over and over, going in and out of different tunings, but they lend themselves well to the twelve-string's voice, at once twangy and rich -- pleasant anomaly.  

We sang "Doctor My Eyes," Jackson Browne's first hit.  

Somewhere in there we did a long blues thing, even though I sensed that it might be a little mellow for warding off brother bear. I got gravelly with my voice and hammered out some raunchy lead licks on the guitar, interspersed amongst the chords. All three of us took turns making up verses to "Stormy Monday," laughing loudly at one another's attempts. We sang John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” and I was pleasantly surprised to note that Emily knew all the words. When I followed with “Hello in There,” Prine’s achingly poignant ode to loneliness, I looked up and her bright, lively eyes were sparkling with tears.  

The light changed by such slow degrees that it was dawn before we really realized it. Steve took the final swig from the Jack.  

Emily yawned and stretched, letting out a long sigh. Man, did that stretch look good. It pulled her thin blouse tautly over her perfect breasts. "Wow, I guess I could get into my place now," she all but whispered.  

Steve looked very, very tired. But he came alert, "Won't your sister still be there?"  

"No," Emily replied out of the last of her yawn, "she and her boss need to get to work early." She looked like she realized she'd said something she shouldn't have.  

"It's okay," I said. "We don't know your sister, and we don't know her boss. We'll probably never have the pleasure, anyway."  

"Oh, I hope you do," she smiled. "I hope we'll be friends, Scott." It was purely and simply a friendly smile, and to my surprise I found myself satisfied with it. 

She took Steve's hand.  "Will you be so kind as to take a damsel in distress home to her warm bed, kind gentleman?"  

Steve wasted no time. "But of course, fair maiden. Scott, want to ride along?"  

Now, there was a friend. He cared about me. Didn't want me out alone in the woods with a fiend bear at large. Then I noticed that the eye away from Emily was shut. The bastard was winking at me.  

"No," I extemporized, "I promised John Pursley that I would help him strip some logs for his cabin early today. He should be coming in in an hour or so from Valdez. Let me walk you down to the van."  

"Naw," said Steve, "it's only a hundred yards or so. I'm pretty sure that we've scared ol' Briar Bear away with our caterwauling by now, anyway. You keep the shotgun, though, for your walk up to Pursley's. We'll shout for you if we need you to come to the rescue. Tell John hello."  

He knew as well as I did that Pursley was welding a pipe somewhere far to the southeast of us today. John was away working on the pipeline, although I had actually promised that I would help strip logs when he took leave at the end of the month. White lies aside, I did appreciate the gun, not that I really thought I would need it.  

After some brief farewells, which included a very warm full hug from Miss Emily, they were gone. Just to stay on the safe side, I tuned back down to open "G" and did another rousing rendition of "Buckets of Rain." My plan was forming subconsciously. I would wait a little, until the sun was really up, and then make my way up the road to Pursley's vacant basement. That was really all it was. One day it would be a beautiful log cabin, but right now (and for the past two years) it was only a solid foundation for one, with a load of raw spruce logs piled out beside it. I'd thought of it as a sanctuary the past night, a notion that was ruled out by the daunting prospect of the hike up the road to reach it. Besides, as it turned out, the night had been sort of fun. Lord knows we'd spent many a night singing songs at friends' houses in Anchorage. This one was special: a command performance, so to speak.  

I waxed a little melancholy. I sang another Jackson Browne song, called "Something Fine," that I'd arranged into the open tuning. When I finished, I let the silence take over. I sat, listening to the whispered rustling of the leaves.  

After a while, I began tuning my twelve-string back up to standard.  I never heard him.  I was working with those pesky double "B" strings when I looked up. Down on all fours, ambling, like he was sauntering into a bar, yawning, so that those huge yellow teeth were ominously bared, came the bear. Around what was left of our tent. No grizzly -- there was no tell-tale hump over his shoulders -- it was arguably the biggest brown bear in Alaska. Steve had nailed that one.  

It was a huge male, with a superb dark brown coat of long fur and little wet eyes, as if he'd been crying. Had my song moved him that much?  

He stopped. He looked at me. And then he did what I was hoping he would not do: he stood up on his hind legs.  

Now, all the tourist brochures and travelogues about Alaska have a few wise things to say about the bear, in the hopes of saving the lives of "cheechakos" (outsiders). If you see bears while driving through a park, or on the side of the road, stay in your car. Don't feed them; it only makes them bold. And if they rear up on their hind legs and get their ears back while baring their fangs, kiss your cheechako ass goodbye.  

There was good news, though: the ears were relaxed. So far.  

I lowered my guitar to the ground, slowly, still holding its warm rosewood neck in my left hand. With my right, again very slowly, I reached down and picked up the shotgun. And before I knew what I was doing, I started talking.  

Once, when I lived in the basement of the Methadone Maintenance Center behind the campus commercial strip in Knoxville, Tennessee, I owned four kittens. They, and my guitar, and my sanity, were about the only things I had escaped with from a young and poorly considered marriage. I came home from my job at the UT library one afternoon to a wild and mad cat. I had given all of them flea collars that morning before leaving for work, and Nefertiti, the little gray, had gotten her jaw hung up under her collar.  

She was bonkers. She was wailing like a dying banshee and bouncing off the dingy enameled concrete block walls in a frantic effort to shake out of it. Who knows how long she had been at it, but there were dishes and stuff broken and her three siblings were cowering in a corner beside the giant steam furnace, helpless. I went to the desk for a pair of scissors, intending to snip the thing off her, but she wouldn't let me near her.  

So I hypnotized her.   

I talked for nearly twenty minutes, which seemed like days, in a low monotone, saying anything, nothing, just laying out a mesmerizing vocal track which, in the end, allowed me to ease up to her and cut the collar off.  

Do it.  Start reading now, in an oh-so-quiet, calming, unwavering tone, aloud but very very quietly, as you might read to a baby a nighttime picture book.  

No one will mind, and it will immeasurably increase the drama of what is to come.  


so now guitar in one hand and shotgun in the other i talked mister bear seemed uninterested as far as i was concerned that was fine i kept talking and stood moving as slowly as i had ever moved before i kept talking and backed up the bear was between me and the trail to the road and i certainly wasn't going to just say "excuse me" and ease past him my only hope was to make my way through the wild woods on up the ridge to where it intersected with the road  did it even intersect with the road i wasn't sure but i was sure that i wasn't going to wear out my welcome with this giant carnivore my only option was to talk and to walk.  

So far so good. The animal lowered himself back onto his four legs, and he didn't charge me. He sniffed around the tent like a gargantuan dog. His massive musculature rippled under his coat as he moved. I kept talking. I kept backing carefully away. My finger slipped, slowly, the same way every other part of me was moving, onto the trigger of the shotgun.  

As I backed away, I watched the bear, careful to look just away from his eyes when he looked my way. He appeared much more interested in the few remaining cans of food than in anything this tall, lean, pony-tailed young man could offer. I looked for a shot. I knew enough to know that a shot to the cranium would be as likely to bounce off his incredibly thick skull as to do any real damage to him. The ticket, said all the literature, was to go for the soft cleft above the rib cage, and to hope to hit the heart. If you were really good, and had the time to pick your target, the eyes were the pathways to the brain.  

I guess my earlier attempted animal-lover snow job with Emily was closer to the truth that I had thought. I did not want to kill this creature. He was glorious. He seemed something more, not less, than human. Still, I looked for my shot as I slowly, so slowly, backed away talking. I hoped that wherever the first 16 gauge Gualandi rifled lead slug hit the beast would slow it down enough for me to achieve a kill shot. I hoped I wouldn’t have to drop my 12-string to take that shot.  

 Near the upper edge of the clearing my foot caught a rock and I nearly came down. But I didn't. I just kept talking, and backing up, and talking, and backing up, and talking and backing up...                                                               
 © 1997 by Scott Merrick, all rights reserved 

Bear Story, a True One

Hey, all, One of the ways I have been allotting my hours every day is to spend some time looking over past writings, most fictional. I cam...