Why you should care

Because stupid is as stupid does.

If we hadn’t been so bored, I swear to you we would not have roped the bear. But I was 19 and grass-green.

A buddy and I had team-hitched a couple thousand miles to a summer job with the Forest Service. For reasons I cannot remember and cannot now comprehend, as a college kid, fighting forest fires in Idaho seemed like a fine idea. I was rewarded for my folly by being hired and banished to a line camp deep in Clearwater National Forest in northern Idaho, where mostly we cut brush, poisoned tree cankers and spent occasional days fighting lightning strike fires deep in the woods.

In those days, summer Forest Service grunts slept in bunkhouses and would eat at a communal mess, military style. My bunk mates: a coal miner from Virginia escaping a shotgun wedding, and, among others, a Nez Perce kid who swore he was related to Chief Joseph (related or not, he had both a lazy grin and a cousin scarred from hairline to chin who staggered in one night, produced a rifle and announced he was going to kill us all).

Filling out my roommate roster was a grizzled old guy with ropy muscles who never talked except to mutter “college shitheads,” and a sprinkling of other college kids along with a few itinerant hobos, just-out-of-jail types who never seemed to stick more than a week or two.

The first person I met was Ervie, the college shithead mutterer and a knurled dwarf of an old mountain man. I stuck out my hand.

“Listen, you college fuck, keep the hell away from me.”

The second person, Tim, was a rangy lad from Oklahoma. His claim to fame was he could play guitar a little, sing like Caruso and was bedding the only woman within 50 miles. On hearing this, I opined his true name was really the Golden Grub, which, over his ongoing, pissed-off protestations, stuck to him like glue.

Nobody gave a damn what anyone else did except when it came to the actual work. Our ranger, Bob, who led our motley camp, had no sense of humor at all. Worse yet, he knew damn well how much work should be done in a day, whether it was by two men or 10. The formula was pretty simple: If Ranger Bob decided someone was screwing off, that particular crew was immediately assigned every crap detail that came down the pike, and there were a hell of a lot of them, some involving actual crap.

So there you have it: mostly hard, physical labor–filled weekdays, followed by empty hours in the evening and long weekends. Occasionally we’d go to the booming metropolis of Orofino, Idaho, but after I was given a couple of bunkhouse lessons in how to shoot craps and lost all my money plus one future paycheck, that wasn’t an option. The Grub, an inveterate gambler, had not fared much better, so mostly on evenings and weekends it was the two of us sitting around wishing we either had better sense or better luck.

“So,” the Grub says to me one day, “on a scale of one to 10, how bored are you?”

We knew that bears hung out at the garbage pit — four black bears. And there were only two bear trails leading in and out of the dump, so we figured setting up an ambush would be easy. The Grub maintained he had done all the intel required by watching these bears on many boring evenings and chucking dirt clods at them to make sure that the bears ran away from rather than, with mayhem on their minds, toward humans.

Vastly reassured, I stole some thick rope from the helicopter kit. The Grub procured a railroad tie.

One early weekday evening, we tied one end of the rope around the railroad tie and looped the other end, tied into a lasso, over what we had determined was the bear exit trail from the dump. Hiding in the bushes, we saw all four bears arrive at the dump right on schedule for their evening snack. The Grub gave the signal — a piercing, warbling whistle alerting the bears, Ranger Bob and our bunk mates that something was amiss. Probably — no, definitely — a tactical error. We leaped up shouting and hurling dirt clods, both to not hurt the bears, but in truth mostly not to piss them off by throwing rocks. The bears thundered down the exit path and right through our lasso –– one, two, three, gone. No. 4 we nailed — the rope caught him around his head and his front leg for a perfect catch.

We had successfully executed our plan: We had roped a bear. Then, the next obvious but previously unasked question: Now what?

The bear, squalling, climbed right up a big, tall tree, lifting that heavy, tar-laden railroad tie an easy five feet up off the ground. Looking toward our bunkhouse, we can see our bunk mates spilling out of the bunkhouse and heading our way, closely followed by Ranger Bob carrying a gun and a very grim expression.

The only hope of salvation we could think of at this point was to pull the squealing bear out of the tree. Yes, we panicked, I suppose — but then if you’ve never heard a bear howling in distress, you simply cannot imagine the decibel level or the horrifying sound. So I hopped up and grabbed the railroad tie while the Grub seized the rope, both of us heaving downward.

The result was similar to pulling the chain on an old-fashioned overhead toilet. The bear, feeling the pull of the rope, immediately pissed all over us. A copious bear bucket of warm pee was immediately followed by a huge load of ursine crap, all of which, heartily assisted by gravity, unerringly found us as we stood at the base of the tree, looking up.

Ranger Bob and our laughing-to-tears bunk mates arrived just in time to find us covered in bear pee with the poo chaser, glumly staring at the tree where the bear, still howling, had now moved to the very top, tangling the rope in branch after branch. Ranger Bob was fingering his rifle, a little .22 caliber thing, while slowly looking up at the bear and then back to us.

Finally, after a long, drawn-out silence: “I am just trying to decide who to shoot.”

In the end, they had to cut the tree down. The bear rode it to the ground, screaming the whole way. It bounced when it hit the soft soil, threw off the rope and ran away.

We never lived it down, although the story, told in raucous detail by our bunk mates, was always good for a few free beers, so the episode had its merits. And Ranger Bob? He shot no one, but true to form, gave us every rotten job there was for the rest of the summer. Which we did cheerfully while counting ourselves lucky. Undoubtedly, exactly what we were.

OZYTrue Story

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