The Time My Dad Went WILD!

My big brother and I stood with our father at a railing, gazing down through iron bars at a big brown bear that lay sleeping directly below. I was 6. "HEY, BEAR! WAKE UP!" I yelled.

Dad gave me a disapproving look, and I explained, "I want to see if I can grin down a bear like Davy Crockett tried to do on TV."

"Grin him down?" he asked.

My brother Steve, age 8, explained, "Yeah, it's how you hypnotize a bear. You stare into his eyes without blinking and smile a big smile."

"Like this:" I said, showing a double-row of baby-teeth while squinting into my dad's eyes.

Steve said, "If you do it long enough, the bear is supposed to calm down and become friendly."

Looking back at the bear, Dad said, "You can't get much calmer than that and still be alive." But he went and found a flat stone about twice the size of a lima bean. We didn't suspect what he was up to until he took careful aim and dropped the stone through the bars so it landed on the bear's side. "Dad!" we exclaimed, first looking at him and then looking around to make sure there had been no witnesses.

The bear didn't stir, and the stone remained on the bear's side, rising and falling with the relaxed breathing of the big creature. "I guess he's not going to wake up for us," said my dad.

Someone could come along any minute, see the stone on the bear, see us, put one and one together, and accuse us of throwing rocks at a helpless caged animal. I willed the bear to move so the stone would slide off, but he didn't. Pretty soon we went away, leaving the circumstantial evidence behind to excite speculation by whoever came along next.

The incident is seared into my memory because I never saw my dad do anything else half as reckless and illegal.

It didn't occur to me during my childhood, but my dad was a paragon of virtue. He never cursed, littered, cheated, complained or spoke ungrammatically. He thought that the best bargain was to buy quality goods at full price. He bought us loads of books, took us to places of wonder and history all over North America, and treated us to four years at any college we could trick into accepting us. He knew every joke that had ever been made and was known for his wit. He loved his wife more than life itself and always bought his gasoline at the same filling station. He treated all men and women with respect, paid his bills early, and never called in sick. He read lots of newspapers and watched only solemn TV shows like "Meet the Press." He would as soon have watched "The Brady Bunch" as he would've danced naked in the street. He advised us that "liars need good memories" and that "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions." He saved his receipts. He believed that a hitch in the Army would straighten out almost anyone. He distrusted artificial sweeteners.

When I was a kid, I thought my father was pretty much the basic model. I assumed that making a child write a 300-word essay on "Moderation" was a standard punishment, and that nearly all fathers shave on their day off and make their children a gift of Niagara Falls, the Alamo and the Grand Canyon.

I always aspired to meet my dad's moral high standard, and about six years ago I asked him about it. He never was a religious man, but I expected to hear some kind of uplifting expression of the ideals and principles that had kept him on the straight-and-narrow path.

Imagine my letdown when he attributed his lifetime of good behavior to one motive: "I was always afraid I'd get into trouble," he said. Talk about stripping away the mystique!

Here I'd been hoping that someday I'd see the light and be magically transformed into the disciplined and righteous specimen I'd been raised by. I would be a guiding beacon to my children, the way my dad has been for me. I'd been hoping for grace, when all I'd been needing was anxiety.

So I guess my dad deserves extra credit for dropping a stone into the bear-pit; he risked public disgrace just to gratify a child's whim. Which reminds me that I never did get to see if Davy Crockett's trick can really work. My grin nowadays isn't as winsome as it once was, but it is larger. Maybe I'll indulge myself on Father's Day and take my wife and kids to the zoo, seek out a promising subject for hypnosis, and see if I remember how bear-grinning is done.

Or maybe we'll go see my old dad. I know HE can be charmed by my smile. One time long ago, it caused him to turn outlaw for a minute.

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