I found this bear claw in a box full of little trinkets and treasures in my father’s closet nearly a year ago. It was in the same box with his pocket watch, along with some other neat stuff.
This was during my Walk-About days, when I would hoof it all the way across town once a week, to see my parents at The Old-Age Home, have a visit, a meal and a story, and then hoof it all the way back. I had a tight ass, then, dammit. Not even a year ago. Man, things change fast.
Dad was sick then, and getting more sick by the day. I wish now I’d asked more questions and got more stories. On this particular day, The Idiot Child was with me at her Grampa’s request: his finger nails were getting long and sharp, and Ky was the only one who could give him a manicure without him yelling.
As she was filing his newly trimmed nails, I heard her ask him about a scar on the back of his hand.
“That? I got that in a bear fight,” Dad said.
“You did not!” Ky replied, astounded and suspicious. “…did you really?!”
I perked up, of course. I’d never heard about any bear fight before. I didn’t even know he had a scar on his hand. I’d heard the story of his “Skidoo Foot” a million times, and the one about him hitting the Big Mulatto Fella in the head with the cabbage during the War, but this was new to me.
“I did so,” said father.
“Did Grampa really fight a bear, Gramma?”
My mother kind of laughed, kind of snorted. “If he says so,” she replied.
“Well, I did!” said my dad. “Bernie Johns came to my door one day wanting help to get those bear cubs, remember? I must have told you about that.”
“Maybe…” said my mother.
“What bear cubs? What bear cubs, Grampa?” Ky was expecting a cutesy story out of this, I think, but I knew better. I reached for my pen.
“There was a family of bears down at the shore – a mother and two cubs. Bernie Johns happened upon them and shot the mother, but he couldn’t get both cubs by himself, so he come to get me-”
“HE WAS GONNA SHOOT BABY BEARS?!”
Not exactly the thing to impress my kid with.
My dad laughed. “No! He was gonna sell them to somebody. Nobody had any money in them days, you know.”
“Was he going to sell them to a circus?”
My dad laughed again. “Probably to somebody who would show them at some road-side stand, or a gas station. As a draw for customers, see?”
Ky was not really impressed with that, either. Nor was I. This story was going in the wrong direction.
“Tell us how you got that scar, ” I said.
“Well, Bernie Johns banged on my door and told me to grab a couple burlap bags. Said he had two cubs to catch and needed me to help him do it. The deal was that we’d sell them, and split the money.
So, I grabbed the bags and we jumped in his truck and away we went.
When we got to the waterfront, the cubs were sitting by the mother, crying, and I figured they’d be easy enough to catch, assuming she was really dead. I didn’t much like the idea of tangling with an injured bear, but Bernie swore she was deader’n a door nail, so I crept up on her and the babies with my burlap bag.
Well, the cubs figured me out in a hurry and run straight up a tree, one up one side, and one up the other, just out of reach.
There was a pile of brush below the tree and Bernie figured we could climb up on that and if I held a bag under the branch, he’d shove a bear into it. So, that’s what we did. I held the bag open and he just sort of scooped the first bear into it, slick as snot…”
“Matt!” My mother didn’t like that term much. “That’s an awful thing to say!”
My dad laughed. There’s nothing he enjoyed more than getting my mother going. Except maybe pie.
“I coulda said ‘slick as shit.’ Is that better?”
When my dad stopped laughing, my daughter reminded him that he was in the middle of a story.
“Did you ever hold a bagful of bear cub, Kyla? I bet you never did, did you?” Dad asked. “It’s like- well, it’s like holding a bagful of bear cub! It fights back, don’t it? I had to try and hold that bag shut while Bernie got a rope around it, so we could put it in the truck. We finally managed it, and I went back for the other cub.
He was a smarter bear, though, and every time I got close to him with that bag, he’d scuttle round the tree to another branch. I tried backing off and waiting him out, and after a while, he’d come down the tree, but the second I moved toward him, back up he’d go.
Finally, I just stood still on that brush-pile and didn’t move. After a while, he came over onto the branch just above my head and sat looking down at me. I don’t know why Bernie wasn’t helping me, but I figured I’d just scoop him myself, I guess and I reached up to grab at him.
And that little bastard of a bear reached right back and clawed hell outta my hand, he did! I guess I was lucky he didn’t get me in the face.”
“Did you get him in the bag?” asked Ky.
“You know what? I don’t remember! I think I must have, or else Bernie did, but it seems to me we got them both in the end. I bled for a long time, though, I’ll tell you…”
“Who did you sell the cubs to?” I asked.
“I don’t remember that, either… Say, Maude, do you remember that bear cub I caught at the Garage?”
~~ ‘The Garage’ was my dad’s car dealership/show-room/body-shop/gas-station, situated right next to my parents’ first house in Teeny-Tiny Town. There’s a church on that lot now – my father’s funeral was held there, because we couldn’t have it at the family church on account of a bum elevator – struck by lightening on the day my father died, can you believe that?! My dad would have loved the idea of being buried out of his old show-room, and My Brother the Trespasser, during the eulogy, told the congregation that the coffin was manufactured by the Ford Motor Company. My dad would have loved that, too… ~~
“Yes, I do,” said my mom. “You locked it in the furnace room at the Garage, and it tried to climb out the stove-pipe and got stuck.”
“That’s right!” Dad laughed again. I had to climb up on the roof and poke it back down with a pole.”
“Well, how else was I gonna get it back down!? I sold that one to Jim Roberts in Blind River. He had it in a cage outside his gas-station for years, remember that, Maude?”
“Yep,” said mother.
“Dad, that’s awful,” I said, but he kept laughing.
“No, really,” I said. “You deserve that scar.”
He just laughed harder.
“What happened to the mother bear that Bernie Johns shot?”
“Oh, he probably ate her.”
“Oh.” Long pause…. “Well…. at least she didn’t go to waste.”
That’s my kid. Apparently, the mother bear didn’t die for nothing in her eyes.
“Look at your mother, scribbling away… What are you gonna write now?” Dad asked me.
“I’m going to blog this story. Can I get a picture of your scar?”
“Can if you want. I got a bear claw somewhere around here, though. That’d make a better picture for it…”
It did, too.
Random Song-for-the-Day: “High Roller” – The Crystal Method