This story is true, all true, narrated as it happened, only a name or two changed to protect those who are innocent, especially the poor bear. You can rest assured that we have dutifully changed the name of the bear in order to avoid any embarrassment on her part.
Our Boy Scout troop was sponsored by the Methodist church, which means they allowed us the use of their basement, although I imagined they probably gave the place a nice Lysol bath after we left, just in case.
Despite being ostensibly Methodist, our troop was very diverse, representing all of Lewistown's known religions. Only in the Boy Scouts could such hated ancestral enemies as the congregants of St. Leo's Catholic Church and St. Paul's Lutheran Church stand the sight of each other.
I was one of the Papists, along with a friend of mine named Mike Judge. He was my friend from the first day we'd met at St. Leo's. He was just probably the smartest kid I knew - the type that might carry a slide rule in his pocket protector. You won't offend me at all if you begin to suspect that he's smarter than me. He was, and is.
One prominent family, the Dougals, had three or more boys in our troop. The oldest boy from that family was a year or three older than Mike and me, and probably a quarter ton heavier. He went by Rocky, and I never did know if that was his real name or a nickname. A huge boy, as strong as an ox, he might have been born in the wrong time - I could easily see him ascending to the chieftain's place in, say, a tribe of barbarians.
His brother Jedidiah was a year younger. His friends called him Jed, and everyone else, including some teachers, nuns, sheriff's deputies and other traditional figures of authority, just looked at their shoes and called him "sir." Every bit as big as Rocky but with the addition of a hair-trigger temper, he was local Golden Gloves champ. If you told me he'd gotten to be champ just by flexing and staring at his competitors, I'd have believed you. But no, he punched the snot out of them.
But the scariest Dougal was, without a doubt, the boys' father, Hap. He wasn't mean at all. In fact, he had a big friendly laugh that shook the trees and made you want to be near him. But he was big enough to burn diesel.
His eyebrows may have started their lives separately, but they gradually became closer to one another until they evidently resolved never to be apart again. His massive hands were too callused to be called leathery, and he always had a wet cigar between his teeth. Every half hour or so, he'd relight it and take a puff or two, but it was too soggy to burn well, and he seemed happy enough to chew on it. Put a Barbie doll in his hand, and he could play a convincing King Kong in a community theater production.
The Dougals owned a sawmill out just a little past the edge of Lewistown on Spring Creek road, and their property contained every machine you could shake a stick at, and every Dougal could jump on any one of them and operate it like an expert. None of that family were afraid of a long day of hard work, so having them along on a Boy Scout expedition was ideal, as long as you were fast enough to escape the occasional noogie or atomic wedgie.
As the dead-center of the state, Lewistown was an obvious site for the 1967 Montana State Boy Scout Council Jamboree, or more specifically, Crystal Lake in the Snowy Mountains. Our troop lived closest to the Snowy Mountains, so we got to camp first and occupied the best camping spot for ourselves.
Shortly after we pitched camp, a forest service guy pulls up in his green pickup truck, and tells Hap that there is a sow black bear and two cubs that have been a real nuisance to campers all summer. He stated that he was "frankly a little worried, what with all these kids expected. There could be trouble." I remember old Hap busting out laughing, "a black bear around these noisy renegades? Ha ha ha!" Here he paused to indulge his smoker's cough and spit a brown wad of tobacco-stained effluvia into the dirt. "Nah, she'll take her cubs and be four ridges over in no time. There'll be no trouble from any bear with this many boys in camp."
Personally, I had camped at Crystal Lake many, many times and had only once seen a lone bear fleeting through the woods on one of our hikes to the ice caves. I never gave the rangers warning another thought.
Sometime in the thickest part of the night, Mike and I sat up in our sleeping bags, awoken by a frightful commotion seemingly coming from the cook tent. I could hear screaming and pots and pans banging, and a profusion of creative profanity. Going out of the tent, we saw a confusion of flashlights, pajamas, and brown fur.
We discovered all of the week's worth of bacon, some fifteen pounds, gone as if it had never existed. Also missing or splattered around the vicinity were about 30 dozen eggs.
Everyone was mad, but none more so than the Dougals, who hadn't gone a morning without bacon since they were in the womb. The next morning, as we tucked into our pork and beans, the only food we still had, I saw the look on the face of the Dougal boys, and I didn't like what I knew it to mean.
"Cripes, pork and beans is a poor breakfast," I groaned.
Mike, as always, enjoyed a smarter vantage. "Heck, I'd eat baloney and Pepsi as long as I don't have to fight a bear."
On cue, Rocky said, "we're getting revenge tonight! Me, and Jed and you, Gary are sleeping in the cook tent tonight, if that fat sow comes along we'll put a collar on her."
"Ahem. A collar?" Mike asked.
"Yeah, smart boy. A collar. We're making one outta all these g*dd*mn pork and bean cans and putting it on her neck. The faster she runs, the more noise it will make, the more noise it makes the further she will run," Rocky said. Then, in case I needed anymore convincing, he added, "It's genius, Shelton!"
Genius? Hmmm. Hard to say. Could be, could be... I quickly thought it over. On the one hand, being asked to be part of the plan was certainly an honor, given that Rocky was a natural leader and an inhuman behemoth as well. On the other hand, the plan seemed a little ill-advised, and now that I thought about it, I didn't really need the bologni either, thanks. I could survive on Pepsi for the week.
But I realized there was no saying no.
The tent had three entrances. The one in the middle was kind of for the cook. The two on the ends allowed the line of hungry guests to proceed through the tent in an orderly manner.
"Now, if that bear gets in here," Rocky said, "We've got to trap her in here, see? It'll help if she feels real panicked. Maybe even if we could trap one of her cubs and show it to her so she knows we mean business."
It was at that point that I realized that the greater danger may not have been the bear, but the Dougals. Never much for math, I nevertheless set my mind to quick calculations: what's a black bear weigh? Three hundred pounds? What's Rocky weigh? 275 easy. Jed? Add another 300. Me? Add another 136. Way I saw it, that was 711 to 300.
Still, I was kind of freaking out. On the other hand, Rocky had specifically asked for me, and I certainly couldn't let him down. If I did, and he survived, he'd probably eat my family.
I spoke up, "Rocky, we need two guys to guard the middle door. It's the biggest door. The widest. Maybe one of you guys should-"
Without any hesitation at all, he said, "Ok you 'n Mike here share the door."
I looked over at Mike. The color was draining out of his face.
Mike and I spent most the day fashioning crude weapons out of whatever we had laying around. Rocky spent the day lifting rocks. Jed just sharpened a knife and stared into the sun. I don't know if Hap knew about the plan, but if he did, he sure didn't try to stop us. We took our posts at about 8:30, just as darkness set in.
Sure enough, that night, the sow returned, creeping on padded feet towards the tent, lured by the appetizing scent of Oscar Meyer bologna and boy sweat. Arriving at the tent, the bear found four sleeping boys. She gingerly stepped over two of them, perhaps associating them, on some primal level, with her cubs as she tested the air for the location of all cured meat.
I might have failed as a guard, yes. I might have dozed off. But I became aware of the bear about the same time Rocky did, just as she was adroitly using her paw in combination with her nose to open up the large cooler in the middle of the cook tent.
"That's my bologna! Hand it over, you ****!" Rocky bellowed as he sprang, cat-like despite his many pounds, into action. Without so much as a sorry ma'am, he managed to put the rudimentary collar over the head of the bear.
He and his brother at the same time came down on the bear's rump with their clubs, swinging at anything they could see, or not see, in the darkness. I heard, more than once, the distinct sound made by the meeting of wood and human shin. At that moment, the tent crashed down around us as the bear pulled out a peg in it's frantic escape.
Nestled like a bug in a rug under the tent, Mike and I listened to the crashing, thumping, curses, laughter, and breaking branches as it trailed off well into the distance. We survived the incident unscathed, and went forward into history as participants, if not exactly heroes, in what I assume is legendary scuffle still talked about to this day by awe-struck merit-badge hunters.
But we weren't heroes on par with Rocky and Jed, that's for sure. I don't know what happened to them, but I assume they went on to become professional bear wrestlers.
Hap chuckled when he heard the story, but then I suspect he didn't believe it. Regardless, one day without bacon was enough for him; he took the truck back into town and returned with another 15 pounds that afternoon.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.