It was a family tradition in the ‘thirties, a car trip, to include Grandma. Some place out of Cheyenne, Wyoming, to as far as Portland (provided the depression would allow such expenditure) but more likely someplace like Yellowstone Park or Jackson Hole. One such excursion provided a memory that would last us all — Grandma, Mom, my Father, and me.
Everybody fed the park bears in those days. You could spot a gaggle of cars from a mile away. It meant bears — and people. People feeding bears, almost by hand. I recall one tall fellow with a bear’s forepaw on either shoulder, the bear’s head thrown back, drinking from a large cask of honey. Some around him were wondering what happened when the cask ran dry, but then they saw the bear’s pink tongue working its way around the bottle and knew it would be some time. Longer than we had to wait.
We drove a bit and there was a medium-sized brown bear alone by the side of the road. We stopped and I began tossing cookies to him. He really could snarff down a cookie. Grandma was in the passenger seat beside Dad and she threw a couple also. Mom and I were in the back. I remember this configuration because of what happened next. Suddenly Mr. Bear was at the side of the car, reaching up toward the window. I looked down and he had both hind feet on the running board!
For those to whom “running board” is strange, all or nearly all cars had them in those days… little steps that aided folk like Grandma to enter the car which was higher from the ground than those we now know.
Suddenly Grandma had stopped the cookie giving and was leaning hard left, toward Dad.
“Ray,” commanded Mother, “better step on it.”
“What?” I thought. “Step on the bear…?
The car was moving forward. So was the bear. His head and shoulders were by now inside the front of the vehicle.
“Gun it, Ray,” Mom said again.
We shot forward, down a straight reach of road. Mr. Bear was still with us. In the re-telling through the years the mileage has increased, but I do recall my Father turning this way, then that, with Grandma leaning as far to her left as possible. From my vantage point I could smell a strange odor: bear breath.
Came a point the road bore to the left and Mother commanded “Step on it, Ray!” We veered, the car rocked rightward. Suddenly, I saw the giant paws slipping from the window aperture. In a moment bear was tumbling behind the car and down the escarpment. He had escaped. As I watched him grow smaller, I saw with some satisfaction his rolling up right. He had survived a car ride of several miles.
There were several victims, however. Mother suggested Father had not driven fast enough soon enough. He countered, any faster would have had us off the road along with the bear. But the most aggrieved party was next to him, trying to restore her gray hairdo. Grandma averred she had just had a permanent upon leaving Lincoln and from what she could see in the rear-view mirror it would never be the same. We would be forced to make the rest of the trip impermanent. Bear saliva does wonders for a new hair-do.
Mother and Dad continued some give and take, Dad taking mostly. Grandma wondered aloud if perhaps her grandson had been careless in dispensing the cookies. The grandson kept silent, knowing that no other bear that day, nay, that year, had taken a running-board ride through Yellowstone Park and we would have a story to tell for as long as any of us lived.