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.