Sunday, January 20, 2013

Dad's Polar Bear

If you read last week’s story you know that staying in oneplace was not my specialty. As a child I had the tendency to wander off where my imagination and little feet would take me. Being the fourth of five children it was easy to wander off unnoticed. Or at least it would have been easy except for my nosey neighbor Mrs. Gilman.

She would sit on her front porch watching all the happenings in the neighborhood. Frequently she would call my mother, “Mrs. Johnson, do you know where Marty is?” My mother would look out the back window into the yard where she had left me and then have to admit to Mrs. Gilman that she actually did not know where I was.  “Well she’s out in the street playing in mud puddles. Do you know how dangerous that it. She’s just a little girl. It’s just not safe blah blah blah . . .”

Finally mom grew tired of Mrs. Gilman and informed my dad that on Saturday mornings I was his responsibility. Dad rose to the challengeand engaged me in a wonderful building job in the back yard. We went to the lumber store and spent several Saturdays building in the back yard. I worked with dad banging nails and painting. I didn’t know what we were building until it was finished and my dad placed many of my toys inside and closed the gate leaving me inside. It was a pen meant to contain me! Oh NO, that was not happening; I climbed out and chased my dad back into the house.

I grabbed his hand and said, “What are we going to do next?” He looked down at me, then back outside at the pen and answered, “I guess we’ll take it down now.”  We did.

And that is how it came to pass that I spent Saturday mornings at the Forest Park Zoo. We would get up early, make pancakes for everyone and then head out to the zoo. We’d walk down Magnolia Terrace, across the meadow, down the wooded path and up to the front gate.

We visited the lions, tigers, giraffes, the reptiles and the bird house. But best of all, we ended up at the Polar Bear’s cage. My dad would stare at that bear pacing back and forth, back and forth until finally the bear would stop pacing and stare back at my father. I would stand quietly next to my dad watching him watch the bear and the bear watching him. It seemed to me they could stare at each other for hours.

And that was what we did every Saturday for weeks and months and years. One day as we walked home I asked my dad what the bear said to him. He walked on for awhile and then finally stopped at the end of our drive way and said, “Out. The bear says ‘Out.’ “  I could certainly relate to that. Out was my favorite word.

One Saturday morning Dad and I headed out to the zoo as usual. We walked down Magnolia Terrace, across the meadow, down the path through the woods and into the zoo.  We made our usual rounds and arrived at the Polar Bear cage. It was empty.

My dad stared into the empty cage for a long time. I stared at my dad and then stared into the cage where nothing was staring back. After what seemed like an eternity, the zoo keeper came over to my dad and said, “Mr. Johnson, I am very sorry to tell you this but a teenage boy tried to break into the bear cage this week.” He pointed up to the corner of the cage that had been cut open. He explained to my dad that the bear had mauled the boy’s leg. He assured us that with the exception of many stitches, the boy was fine and would heal with no problems. He then said to my dad, “I’m very sorry to tell you that we had to shoot the bear.”

My dad did not say a word. He just continued to stare into the empty cage. He stared and nothing stared back. I stared at my dad staring into that cage and saw nothing staring back at him. Dad remained silent and frozen in that spot. I stayed frozen next to him until he finally crabbed my hand and whispered, “Let’s go home, Marty.”

We walked through the zoo, up the path through the woods, across the meadow and down Magnolia Terrace. We were almost to the end of the drive way when my dad stopped, shook his head and said, “They should have shot the kid.”