Thursday, September 25, 2014

Smokey Makes History

As a Baby Boomer, I grew up in a generation of kids who loved their bears. Of course, by the time I arrived on the scene, "The Three Bears" had long been prominent in the kiddie lit world, and the market had been saturated with teddy bears. (Mine was named "Sandy.")

But with the arrival of our family's first black and white TV in 1958 came "Dancing Bear" on Captain Kangaroo and the  "pick-a-nick"-basket-stealing Yogi ("smarter than the a-a-a-average bear") who, along with his sidekick Boo-Boo, modeled for us many clever ways to outsmart forest rangers. It was at about this same time that I first became aware of Smokey, who convinced me that I and I alone had the power to prevent forest fires.

Every year since I can remember, I have seen Smokey at our Missouri State Fair, held every August in my hometown. He is a staple in the Department of Conservation building there.

This version of Smokey is a large mechanical creature, decked out, as the song says, "[w]ith a Ranger's hat and shovel/and a pair of dungarees."  Against a backdrop of forest timber, he stands ready to deliver a little mini-lecture on fire safety in his gruff bear voice anytime a little forefinger dares to reach out and push his button. After a number of such button-pushings, Sooby poses with Smokey at last month's Fair:

As it turns out, Smokey celebrated his milestone 70th birthday on Aug. 9, the third day of our Fair. Hoai-Tran Bui in USA Today (7 Aug. 1014) identifies Smokey as "the face of the longest-running public service campaign in the U.S." Conceived primarily for children, Bui reports, Smokey came about due to the danger forest fires could pose in the western U.S. due to enemy fire during World War II.

The lovable bear's popularity got a further boost a decade later when a cub saved from a New Mexico fire was dubbed "Smokey" and given a home in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. "Smokey even had his own zip code to accommodate all his fan letters," Bui writes.

Smokey's image has kept pace with the times and with modern technological trends. Not only does he have his own website, but he also has a place in today's social media. According to an Aug. 11 post on the CBS News website, Smokey has "joined Facebook and . . . has nearly 25,000 followers on Twitter."

The grandkids and I had a good time talking about Smokey's birthday. The occasion added a little something extra to our visit to the Conservation Building this year, although little Zoomie still prefers to keep a safe distance between himself and any bear,

When I told the kids that Smokey is just about the same age as Pa-pa, that really made them think. But then, when one of them asked me if Smokey had any grandkids, I had to do a little quick thinking of my own.

"I'm pretty sure he does," I said. "They probably had a big birthday party for him in the forest before he came out here to the Fair."

Happy Birthday, Smokey. Thanks to you, CBS figures the number of forested acres destroyed by fire is less than a third of what it was when you were born in 1944. Keep up the good work, my furry friend, and we'll see you at the Fair again next summer.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Teenage Girl Chickens

Last Saturday Pooh and I were sitting in his mama's van waiting for her to fetch us a couple hot drinks from their small-town coffee shop. On a day that, technically, was still supposed to be summer, the morning temp had registered 39.

Pooh had just finished a soccer game that pretty well froze his fingers and ears, and I had tried to keep warm by pacing up and down the sideline while he dribbled and kicked. (Let the record show that he scored the first goal of the game, which his team went on to "win" 5-4.)

With Mama stymied by a long line of frozen soccer fans and slow service, it occurred to Pooh and me that we would be warmer if the side door of the van were closed. (Yes, we are that astute.)  But when I got out to shut it. I was reminded that their van doesn't have a push-button door like mine does. I was standing there puzzling over how to close the door when Pooh suddenly yelled, "Pull it!"

I am always amazed by the triggering process whereby some random sensory stimulus pulls a seemingly unrelated thought up into the consciousness. In this case, I immediately associated "Pull it!" with the word pullet, meaning a young chicken.

From there my mind tripped down a neural pathway where I found a long-hidden game my dad used to play with us. Of course, I had to share it with Pooh, so I clambered back to where I could reach him strapped into a back seat and began.

I touched his forehead with a forefinger and said, "Rooster," his nose and said, "Pullet," and his chin and said, "Hen." Then, as Dad did with me many, many times, I went back to his nose and asked, "Now, what did I say this was?"

"Pullet," he said, and I said, "Okay," before giving his nose a little tug. Pooh cackled at the joke in his best chicken fashion--but he didn't know what a pullet is.  To get my facts exactly right, I consulted Mr. Google before explaining.

"A pullet is a girl chicken that is not quite one year old," I paraphrased. "She hasn't lost her feathers yet, but she has already started laying eggs." We both pondered this. "It's kind of like a teenage girl chicken," I added.

Pooh marveled that a chicken could be a teenager in just a year. I marveled at the timing of this spontaneous little episode on the day that marked the third anniversary of Dad's passing. It was almost as though he had come back for a moment to laugh and play with us.

I finally got the door shut. The drinks arrived, coffee for me and hot chocolate for him. The magic of the moment was gone, but the memory of it is still as warm and delicious as the first sip of coffee on a cold morning.