I got to see Smokey Bear Monday and was awash in a flood of childhood memories.
You see, a Smokey Bear doll was my first toy and he slept with me in my crib. As I grew older, he accompanied me most everywhere, usually in a backpack.
Smokey and I moved with my parents to the coastal range of Oregon before we were 3 years old and spent a lot of time exploring the woods around our home on a U.S. Forest Service compound. There were real-live bears, deer of course and Sasquatch all around, which we sought while avoiding “garden” snakes and getting lost.
Smokey and I went to gymnastics camp two years running and he was recognized as “The Quietest Camper” the last night at the awards dinner.
On cross country flights to see my grandmother, he was my seat companion, and when we arrived at St. Mary’s College of Maryland our freshman year, we met my roommate, Jenny, and her lifelong companion, Henry the dog. I was happy to know I wasn’t the only college kid who clung to her childhood best friend.
Smokey had major surgery while still very young when his jeans tore apart. Eventually he was to lose both his button eyes, his hat and his badge, but he was just as handsome in his old age and I loved him more and more as time wore on.
My brother had a Smokey Bear as well, and when my nephew discovered him at his grandparents’ house, he quickly adopted him. I gave him one of his own when he was a baby, but he prefers the pre-loved one.
Last week I bragged to friends that I was going to get to see Smokey soon. They got out their own well-loved bear who was missing his nose and his badge. This guy had a pull-string that made him say, “I’m Smokey Bear” and a variety of other pithy quips.
On Mother’s Day, my mom took it upon herself to tell stories about my childhood. She said when I was asked to bring a doll to stand in for Baby Jesus in the Christmas pageant, it was Smokey wrapped in swaddling clothes who laid in the manger. At the time I rationalized all of my dolls were girls and Smokey was a boy.
I fought fire during my college summers and Smokey went to the guard station with me. I began acquiring Smokey posters for my dorm room, still attached to the cartoon image of fire prevention and safety who had been with me my whole life.
After college, I moved to Colorado and ran a fire crew. My boss, Paul Gleason, was a well respected former Zig Zag Hot Shot fire crew supervisor who started digging fire line when he was 18. By the time our paths crossed his philosophy had changed from one of total suppression to a strong belief in reintroducing fire to the ecosystem. This was a new idea to me and new terminology. By the end of the summer, I was Gleason’s disciple and began preaching about fire’s natural. However, Gleason hated Smokey.
I have a Smokey Bear wristwatch I showed off to him one day and he pretended to smash it, blaming Smokey for the fire suppression that has overstocked our forests and led to their unhealthy state. I argued that prevention and safety, which Smokey professed, were not the same as suppression. I still shudder when
Monday morning, Smokey came to Wallowa and gave out high fives and hugs to kindergarten, first, and second graders. I happily watched the children’s reaction to the cuddly embodiment of fire safety. Each child was given a T-shirt and at recess the lot of them were a field of gray T-shirted Smokey Bear fans.
Older kids walked down the hall wistfully looking for the iconic bear, and their teachers lamented that they were too old for a visit from Smokey.
Oh, I don’t know about that — are we ever too old for Smokey?