On top of Old Smokey

What’s a kid in diapers to think?
From the time we arrive and our first toys are offered to us, very likely at least one of them will be some form of a bear. And they are always huggable and cute.

There are, of course, Teddy Bears—named for President Teddy Roosevelt. (The President Fillmore “Milly Bear” was not commercially successful.)

There are Paddington, Berenstain and Care Bears—not to mention Winnie the Pooh, which comes in all forms including the disturbingly named Baby’s First Pooh. (I am sorry to say I am not making that up.)
From one of those Toy Story movies comes Lots O’ Huggin’ Bear. Sounds a lot cuter than Lots O’ Maulin’ Bear, which is actually the more accurate behavior of your average ursine mammal.

Only later are kids informed that bears are, in fact, not good sleeping companions, and if you go nighty-night with a real one—not a toy—you are likely to wind up inside of him by morning.

Despite the fact that holiday-giving toy bears wearing graduation outfits, wedding clothes and Cupid’s bow and arrows are very popular, they are reportedly not so friendly when confronted in the wild – even when clothed.

Except maybe one.

Smokey Bear has been the Advertising Council’s mascot since 1944, making him 70-years-old, and Medicare eligible for the past five.

Kids in the 1950’s and 60’s could not escape Smokey’s fire prevention message.

My memory is that his official name was Smokey the Bear. But in fact, his middle name is not ‘the’, and never has been.

“It’s simply not true,” said a spokesman I called. “You must be thinking of the singer, Smokey the Robinson.”
What I DO recall was that Smokey wore dungarees and a forest ranger hat, but no shirt. His contemporary however,—Yogi Bear—wore a tie, but no shirt or pants. This has been a major reason for my years of psychotherapy.

(A tie only. Yogi? What was the point?)

Smokey’s obsession is, and always has been, preventing forest fires, which has recently been broadened to wildfires, so that people who live in arid climates will also pay heed.

A song, Smokey the Bear, came out in the 50’s wherein the lyricists added ‘the’ into Smokey’s name to make the song work better rhythmically. This is reportedly the same reason the 70’s band Parliament added the same to their hit song, “Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Give up the Funk).”

I remember Smokey’s voice in those early public service announcements being very gruff and threatening: “Remember! Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”

Really? Only ME? What about the neighbor kid down the street? He was a pyromaniac if ever there was one. He didn’t just play with matches—he played with blowtorches.

Anybody remember the Sahara Forest? No. Because that kid burned it down.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that Smokey’s voice became less threatening. He started to sound more gentle and reassuring. Maybe he’s discovered forest mushrooms.

He’s still shirtless though, and if he’s got tattoos, you can’t see them for the fur. He’s become Smokey Bearable, and far less scary.

But make not mistake about, Smokey’s new mellowness should not trick us into thinking that all bears in the wild should be trusted. They are bears, after all, and you should know what to do if you encounter one—even it’s wearing pants and a hat.

Make an irritating noise walking through the forest, compelling the bear to flee. One idea: Wear your fingernails long and carry a small blackboard.

Keep your distance. If, for example, the bear is in the North Cascades area of our state, you should be somewhere in Southern California.

Stand tall. The bear will be less likely to attack if it thinks you are bigger than him.
If the bear is a 12-foot grizzly, remember to wear a really, really tall stovepipe hat.
If all else fails, start moving as fast you can – backwards. Moonwalking saves lives.

After all, it is far better to scat—than to become such.