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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 38 page 17


Dad and the Bear

by Robert N. Friedland

“Your father was on television, again. The girls went wild.” The girls were our three daughters, ten, eight and six.

My wife had never met my father, but from everything she had heard, she disliked him intensely. What now, I thought? My father and I had not spoken in more than a dozen years. Every once in a while, a paper would run one of his opinion pieces and people would ask, “Is that your father?”

“He was riding his bicycle and was attacked by a bear.”

I was overwhelmed with emotion. “Was he hurt? Is he all right?”

My wife laughed. “Hurt? There wasn’t a scratch on him.”

Now the girls rushed in, the three of them. “Daddy, Daddy, Grandpa beat up a bear.” The girls had never met him, either. But he sent them gifts for every birthday and Christmas.

I sat down too quickly, making the vinyl seat on the kitchen chair whoosh. My father beat up a bear? How was that possible?

“It’s true,” my wife said. “Three other cyclists got it all on their telephone cameras. He stood toe to toe with a huge black bear and kept punching it in the nose. We have the clips. You’ll see.”

I wanted to see them.

There was my father, seventy-two years old, in a cycling vest and shorts, with a yellow helmet and orange safety vest, punching this huge bear, eight, nine, ten times, right on the nose. Finally, the bear turned and started to move away. Incredibly, my father went after him and, with his foot, pushed the bear over the edge of a small rise, so that the bear tumbled down. Then, without any rush, my father got on his bicycle and rode away.

The cyclists who took the pictures rode after him, but my father would not be drawn into any discussion about the encounter. Nor would he give interviews to any reporters.

The phone started ringing. “It’s probably your mother. She called several times.” She and my father had been divorced for thirty-five years. She had wanted the divorce. He had not. It was not amicable. My brothers and sisters and I were young. There were six of us. I was the oldest. Looking back, we probably saw him through our mother’s eyes, and probably still do.

The caller on the phone was one of my partners from the firm. He sounded like he had been drinking. “Is that your father who beat the crap out of that bear? Maybe we should ask him to join the firm. Great stuff!”

I wondered what my father could have been thinking, why he didn’t drop to the ground and play dead, or try to run away. But it was just like my father to push back when attacked. He always did.

My wife had tired of my stories of how my dad had been the greatest back-country skier of his day. That he had been the greatest trout fisherman on the North Platte River, never failing to bring home an eight to ten pound rainbow trout for our dinner. He never took a picture of the fish. He was the greatest elk hunter, too. But he always hunted and fished and went skiing alone. He had no friends.

My wife always added, scornfully, “But no one ever said that he was the greatest husband, or the greatest father.” She was right. No one ever said it. No one ever thought it. He was a terrible father. My mother insisted that he had been a terrible husband too.

He told me once that he had invented the Marathon Skate cross-country ski technique in 1970, but that others had later taken credit for it. I believe it. He said he wasn’t bitter about it.

Some people he had gone skiing with back then told me a story about how twenty of them had skied into the university’s science camp in the Snowy Range, intending to spend the night. They had forgotten to bring the key to the padlock and were dejectedly preparing to ski home in the dark. My father looked carefully at the lock and then walked over to the wooden gate and took a short twisted strand of baling wire from the loop that secured it. He untwisted it, and shaped it, and stuck it into the keyhole. He wriggled it just once and the big old lock popped open. The other skiers were surprised and amused, joking about how it was probably a skill my father had learned on the sidewalks of New York.

Probably because he had refused to be interviewed, the network news readers played the bear story for laughs. They on-air speculated that the bear had been a man in a moth-eaten bear costume. Or that the bear had simply been bemused by the attack and for that reason had not mauled my father to death.

Bemused? Do bears laugh? They say that apes and rats are the only animals known to laugh. Maybe dogs. Maybe dolphins. Bears can smile. But the bear my father punched was definitely not smiling. And it was no man in a costume.

A tanned and rugged fish and wildlife guy said it was a mature male black bear, about six feet tall, weighing some six hundred pounds, and likely around ten years old. The fish and wildlife guy chuckled, saying that he had never seen or heard of anything like this before. But it was clear that he liked it, and that he admired my father for fighting back, adding, gazing seriously at the camera, “Don’t try this at home, kids.”

About twelve years ago, my father broke off all communication with the six of us kids. I felt like I should know why, but I don’t. My father would not be drawn into any discussion as to why he had anathematized his children. “He’s angry,” my wife said. It was the kindest word she ever had for him.