In deference to my own kids’ request, I’m going to first relate the tale of Dennis and the bear.  This is not a bear story full of fright, full of misery and spite, menace and cruelty, daring and deceit, full of that proverbial conflict between nature and boys – and the natural conflict between boys.  It’s a bear story of mostly four young lads out hunting for something to do in the waning hours of daylight one summer, probably more than one summer, on an unpaved country road many, many years ago.  No one or anything dies, nobody is really hurt, not painfully, but someone does cry – actually, they all do in one way or another.  Everyone and everything, it seems, gets dirty.  All are slated for baths at the end. And everyone seems to know it.  It’s that kind of story.  But it’s also the kind of story that happens a few years after it all began.        
In early 1954, right after my twin brother Dennis and I were born, my family moved from the coastal Newport, Oregon, area to a little mountain community of Gunter.  Counting my mom and dad, his parents and us, there were ten additions to the Gunter pot, an influx that nearly doubled Gunter’s population; it was that small.  But despite its size, Gunter was a wild place of bobcats and deer hunting, lots of minnows to catch in the babbling brooks we called rivers, trees and rain everywhere, and a civilized place of old narrow dirt logging roads where on the roadsides one could always find in the bushes and amongst the trees the not-quite genteel and common household discards of rusted appliances and battered cars.  And it was also a place where my dad had grown up.  He and Mom had moved all of us there because it was where his folks had wanted to return after nearly a decade of trying a go in other parts.  Grandpa was sick and longed to spend his remaining time back on the old homestead.  Dad went along and we with him to look after the old man.  Besides, there was work logging and the promise from Grandpa of 40 wooded acres that we could call our own.
Now, Gunter was not more than a pass up in the mountains of Western Oregon some 30 miles south of Eugene and about fifty miles east from the coast. The closest town was to the east: a little place called Drain, literally down the road about 12 unpaved and winding steep mountainside miles – the kind of miles that often lasted on our rides up or down them just long enough to make at least one of us carsick.   Also winding through this pass was the Smith River, which was really just a creek at this point in its journey to the sea, but a namesake nonetheless for the Smith River Road. 
      It was on this dirt road that we lived across the way from the spot where my dad had grown up and to where his parents had returned.  In my dad’s youth the road was a trail of wooden planks that ran parallel to one another.  It was like the track of a railroad, laid by loggers to keep the wheels of their trucks from sticking in the mud.  Cars back then traveled the road, too, but only always in the same direction as one of those logging trucks, which made a lot of sense to all concerned save the occasional traveler whose misfortune it was to be going in an opposing direction.    
I remember the road, though, for its dirt; by far, progress from these earlier times.  It was all dirt, but wide enough for two lanes and traveled enough both ways that the County felt obliged to grade it now and then and oiled it every summer to keep the dust from spreading or the frequent rains from saturating the dirt to mud.  Whether the grading and oiling did what it was intended to do was beyond our capacity to understand or care much about the workings of County government.  We saw the oiling for what it really was:  an opportunity for painting black the leaves and sticks and other debris that we would lie in the road and remove after the oiler had passed.  It was art, creation, fantasy as we stood along the road waiting for, then watching the truck pass, spraying its mist of what can only be likened to black licorice only pouring like candied syrup across cakes in the road that we could have tasted were our imaginations this one time less interested in touching than eating.
As quick as it was gone we’d be in the road removing our pieces and cooing amongst ourselves over the unoiled patterns that formed in the road where our contraband had lain.  It was quite an adventure and worth an entire week’s worth of waiting and planning for. 
Naturally, in times like these, we were gratified that our parents had selected to make our home in such an awe-inspiring place as this.  Nowhere else in nature could living be as grand or as colorful.  Only the blackened shores of a Santa Monica Bay or Prince William Sound could have excited us more.  Our gratitude and awe often changed to dismay and other worse things when my mother naturally found some stick or rod of her own and used it not on the road but on us and not to blacken but to redden an important part of our nature so as to vigorously and lastingly reminded us that the adventure of tracking the oil on our shoes across her livingroom floor was also not what the County had in mind for its road.
But I’m getting away from the story I had promised: the bear story.
It was Saturday.  Dinner was over the evening of Dennis and the bear.  All of us helped clear the table, which meant that we got out of my mother’s way, in fact got clean out of the house.  The three girls would sometimes go with the boys for some after-dinner sport, but on these bear story occasions, I recall that they stayed close to the house.  Perhaps they knew already what was in store and were not in as great a need for adventure.  They, after all, had their dolls, sometimes puppies, to baptize and raise as good Roman Catholics on the front stoop that often doubled as an altar or entire church and nunnery depending on their needs.   We boys could sometimes be persuaded to join them as the priests and administer the communion wafers from the leftover bits of biscuit or cracker that had miraculously survived dinner.  Usually, there weren’t any miracles to hold us and we boys went our separate and secular, perhaps pagan, ways from the house or church or altar or whatever it was that kept the girls from joining us.
It was still not dark and the ground was not wet outside on these occasions, it being just September and no rain for a couple of days. We were likely having a dry spell in Western Oregon.  Dan, the oldest of the boys and all of seven years in age, was already on the other side of the barn. He’d be in Summit Creek Road that let up the hill behind our property and into the woods.  He was kicking up dust, looking for footprints, he said, when the rest of us caught up with him.  That declaration got us all thinking and acting like puppies with a whiff of the excitement we all knew was going to be great mischief.  We were quickly in the air and on top of one another and yelping, grabbing at the dust we were stirring and making contortions of all sorts as we twisted our bodies and heads and eyes in multiple directions so as to see the footprints in the road Dan had told us we were looking for and, we hoped as dogged explorers, some sighting of the forest beasts these footprints belonged to. 
We didn’t see anything through the dust, though, but in the spirit of joining our leader in another adventure, we didn’t really care.  Then like a shot, Dan let out for higher ground up the road.  We, naturally, followed him, shouting, “What’d ya see?” 
Now, Dan has always been one of few words.  Whether he saw anything or thought he did didn’t matter. He wasn’t telling – just running a good run to get most likely as much distance from us as he could and as quickly as he could.  He knew we’d follow, and we did.  When he figured he got far enough ahead, he’d stop.  And he did. 
Mark and I didn’t call this play; it was far too serious for us that we keep up with our older brother.  Dennis grinned that slow I-can’t-contain-myself grin of his and thought of the game we were playing mostly like good food.  He wasn’t chasing after anybody, just looking as though he were expecting to get fed.  He was that kind of religious puppy – always the first to check for miracle wafers on the stoop.  But Mark and I played it like a struggle, shouting at Dan to stop or tell us what we were after.  We’d yell at the top of our lungs, and choke a little on the dust we were kicking up.  Then we’d laugh a little that kind of spontaneous laugh kids get whenever there’s just no explanation, just plain panic and greed for keeping the adventure going.        
Dennis, of course, hurried like the rest of us in his loping stride, always the last.  He and I were both four years old that summer, but I was faster and slightly leaner.  Not that I was stronger or quicker than Dennis, I was just more in a hurry in most matters and usually got ahead of him.  Mark and I usually got to Dan long before Dennis would reach the spot where Dan had finally stopped.  I often looked at Mark as a competitor for getting there first, which he always did, and competed with a deadly seriousness for besting my older brother, which I never did.  Mark, I’m sure, was oblivious to my intent, maybe even my presence.  He was just a year younger than Dan and his goal and obsession was to catch up with him. 
    As back as far as Dennis clung, that big grin of his always managed to catch up with us, which was his undoing.  No one we figured should be enjoying this adventure as much as Dennis the slow poke was.  So, as soon as he reach us, Dan would immediately shout “Bear!” and dash back down the road toward home.  Mark and I would follow suit, screeching out, “Bear! Bear!” as we raced downhill.  Dennis would stand there frozen, wondering at first what had all of a sudden happened to fun, then just as quickly burst into tears blubbering, “Bear! Bear! Bear!” 
    His cries were louder, but not as clearly understood as ours. He was, after all, all alone up a dark hill and only, remember, four years old, crushed by fear or serious disappointment.  But though his tears were genuine, he never faltered, slowly turning himself in an inaudible yet loud way, and, like a locomotive that starts out slow, then gradually picks up speed, he’d begin his descent down the road toward the bottom of the hill where we’d be standing, laughing and pointing at the some kind of bear. 
   When Dennis got to us this time the grin was gone, streaks of tears had formed in the dust on his face, and he’d deliberately bump into me as if to say, “That wasn’t funny”  – which was as close to being a bear I think I’d ever seen Dennis come.  I’d, of course, bump him right back with a “was too” bit of the physical, but before there was too much more bumping between the two of us, we’d all be bumping and laughing like puppies again, maybe cubs, scuffling for more of the same adventure (or food – depending on whose imagination and which animal you’re willing to believe). 
    We’d usually repeat the scare in exactly the same way three or four times before everyone got bored with it or it became too dark.   And the woods could get dark.  Even on clear nights moon shadows crowded the road in jagged dagger-like forms and imponderable, invisible sounds crept all around.  All the open space we’d had in daylight became full of our over-active imaginations.  Before too long Dan, the brother we sought to follow everywhere, at last followed us as we one by one quit all this fun and hurried to the safety of well-lit obligatory baths and other Saturday night rituals that readied us for Sunday morning Mass – all this before we really met a bear with that big stick of her own.


One Response to “Story 003 – Dennis and the Bear”

  1. Mr. Dennis Says:

    Mr. Joe Fuss,
    So! I’m a blubbering, crumb-grubbing, slow-poke, CHICKEN!!. With a grin on my face?
    God I hate you.
    Love Dennis

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