NORTHERN CALIFORNIA, 1960’S…
On a meandering highway cut into mountainous terrain and flanked on either side by towering majestic redwood cedar trees, a huge gas-guzzling boat of a car (a.k.a. the family station wagon) floats along shepherding a toothy-grinned family to a typical weekend amongst the bucolic natural and unnatural wonders of nature.
With a mound of camping gear strapped to the roof and burning enough fuel to heat a few small homes, it soon passes through the entrance to a national park - an event marked by a high arching sign made of rustic timbers and painted the usual chocolate brown with the name of the park carved and contrasted by creamy antique white lettering.
As the wagon sails clear of the majestic enormous bulky sign, this typical nuclear era middle-class family, mom, dad, a daughter and two boys, are soon greeted by a selection of roadside billboards promoting a myriad of amenities inside this vast rustic oasis. Wide-eyed with wonder, they scan the colorful signs loaded with cheesy slogans offered to visiting patrons. The first, a huge towering ten-foot-tall advertisement immediately appears and metaphorically hits the family over the head:
“Come get wet at Tornado Springs Water Ride!!”
“You’ll be glad ya did!!”
A group of subversive words encapsulated in a speech balloon attached to the mouth of a soaking wet, comically drawn huge cartoon-bear wearing a goofy satisfying grin and with one of his thumbs thrust up in the air as if signifying his approval of the thrill ride greets the family.
Spotting the enormous sign, the three young'uns in the back of the car suddenly erupt with excitement, “Oh can we go on that ride!! Pleasssssse!!!” The trio scream in unison, wound-up at the very thought of being tortured for fun on a suspect apparatus that shoots water in every direction while soaking its customers thoroughly. All part of the fun of course.
We’ll see, we’ll see,” Dad cheerfully answers.
Pressing on with gobsmacked allure as if never seeing a park, forest, or anything resembling nature in their lives before, the family gleefully beams at the large wooden graphically stunning artwork that continues to cuff park patrons as they tread on further. Then, and saving the best for last, the final billboard promotes gas and free ice cream with fill a up just ahead. (Another funny looking larger- than-life cartoon bear declares while flashing two thumbs up this time.)
“Hey’a everyone! How ‘bout a swell ice cream cone while I get some gas for the ole family wagon!” Dad says gleefully spotting the sign and merrily spouting with gagging amounts of sugar-coated goodness. The three tykes in the back cheer delightedly, still wound from the promenade of bear-signs they witnessed while mom and dad don an even wider grin as they gently lean into one another. (No doubt pulling some facial muscles in the process.) With that affirming consensus, dad guides the domestic land-yacht into said gas station, eases up to the pumps and stops. Flipping off the ignition, he hops out and grabs a pump. Mom disembarks and opens the back door releasing the brood which now scramble out like a bunch of freed squirrels. Liberated from their cage and with mom in tow, the screaming threesome then sprint in the direction of a cozy rustic-looking store offering the tempting and tasty sugary hook.
“Make mine rum raisin!” dad shouts cupping his hands to his mouth, finishing with a clicking sound and topping it all off with another ‘60s style sit-com sugar-soaked smile. He then conjures an easy listening tune in his head and begins whistling the same as he starts gassing up. While fueling the family boat, he straightens and scans the bucolic surroundings taking in deep satisfying lung-filling breaths of optimum oxygenated air and soaking up all the smells and sights the forest has to offer. Yet, suddenly, his refreshing connection with nature is interrupted. Between the cars passing on the road in front of him, he sees it. Something unbelievable, something unfathomable, odd, peculiar, preposterous, improbable. In disbelief, he moves his head to one side as if to improve his sight line and find a better view. Settling on a position, he then watches the entire incredible scene unfold.
It’s a bear. A bumbling walking-upright and shuffling-along kinda bear that’s groovin’ as if moving to a melody in his head all the while pushing an old shopping buggy through a gravel parking lot. Peering through windows of the coupes, sedans, and vans he dismisses one, two, three vehicles shaking off what he sees and turning up his nose at the lack of prospects. Yet suddenly, at the end of the row, he finally spots a favorable bounty in the back of a nice shiny brand-new station wagon. Delighted, he moves to open the door, but it’s locked. Furrowing his brow and rubbing his chin with his paw as if temporarily foiled, he appraises the situation and contemplates another way in. Suddenly, he notices the tailgate window left rolled down. With his eyebrows shooting up with glee, he scoots to the rear of the car and thrusts himself through, what is for him, a very diminutive opening. Still, he manages to comically wiggle his way inside.
In no time, the wagon is rocking back and forth while the furry intruder rummages around inside. Then, moments later, the back door is flung open and out tumbles an abundance of coolers, bags, and other camping paraphernalia that spills onto the ground. Then, the bulky vittle-thief slides out back end first, steps down, lifts himself up, rubs his hands together, licks his chops and stacks his confiscated bounty precariously into his nearby shopping cart and proceeds to shuffle off.
Meanwhile, back at the pumps, dad, seeing the entire sorted event unfold and with his jaw nearly hitting the ground, rubs both eyes in disbelief, “What the…” he deliriously mutters to himself.
Just then one of his sons, Johnny, arrives on scene with ice cream cone in hand. Licking his tasty treat, he calmly alerts his distracted father to the gas that is now spilling out of the tank and all over the ground.
“Uh, dad? The gas?” still licking. Mom, the other two kids looking on confused, doing the same.
Still dazed and confused, Dad soon realizes what he’s doing and fumbles his way right. Recovering, he quickly glances back in the direction of the bear and his shopping buggy. But the surreal event and the main character in it, have long since disappeared back into the woods.
CHAPTER TWO MUCH
Huntin' and a Gatherin' Day
The next morning, inside a nice dark cave just right for bears to be sleeping in, is Gus the bear and his lovely wife Minnie who are, well, sleeping. Stretched out on a rustic-looking timber bed, Gus is snoring like a trucker while his little Mrs., not wanting to be awoken from her beauty sleep by the high-decibel racket, is cagily sporting a pair of bright pink earmuffs.
Suddenly, an alarm clock rings causing Gus to wake and shoot up like a missile ready to launch then quickly silencing the abrupt noise with one of his huge furry paws. Though large and round and looking very bumbling and fumbling, as evident by his spare tire for a waist, this bear is surprisingly nibble for his size and completes this complicated task in one smooth graceful motion.
Swinging his huge lumbering legs out onto the floor, he stands, straightens, stretches, scratches his derriere and then pinches two wrinkly-looking crumpled hats from a nearby hook wedged into a small crack on the cave wall. He hastily tidies his mane of hair, somewhat, then plops first a pork-pie cranium-cover then a ball cap atop his head. Suitably dressed, he moves for the door.
“Where you goin’ hon’?” Minnie asks, still groggy but somehow hearing the going’s on even with her ears covered.
Gus freezes in his tracks then answers his wife’s unsuspected question, “That time again dear, huntin’ and a gatherin’ day,” he whispers with an enthusiastic grin as he spins and gawks at the two hatted-head-covered reflection of himself in a tall mirror near the door.
Minnie murmurs something inaudible, yanks the blankets over her head and goes back to sleep.
About to leave once again, he stops, fidgets with his hats one more time, then turns, smiles, and tucks in his wife. He then tip-toes out of the bedroom and closes the door softly behind him.
Exiting their humble abode and stepping into the tranquil warm morning light, Gus halts and takes a deep breath as he basks in the glory of mid-summer in the A.M. The sounds of twittering birds, the sun-soaked landscape, the distant mountains, the huge redwood cedars all around and the fresh intoxicating scents filling the air. It’s enough to make a bear feel real good about himself he figures. Taking another huge, deep, cleansing belly breath then letting it all out, Gus smiles and with a giddy-up in his step, shuffles onto a nearby trail bobbing along as if to the beat of a big band tune, swingin’ his arms, in total harmony with nature.
Soon and seemingly out of nowhere, another bear, Toad, wearing a small lime-green vest that looks like he retrieved from his dad’s discard pile and donning a buzz-cut, smoothly joins in Gus’ rhythm not missing a beat. He’s shorter than Gus but rounder and with goofier looking facial features.
“Top-a-da-mornin’ to ya Toad my good man,” Gus says, tipping his hats, “Sleep well?”
“Yup…like a log…in a log actually,” Toad answers, realizing.
Then another bear, Delbert, even shorter and rounder than the other two and sporting a hair cut that looks like someone used a bowl as a guide, slides in completing the descending yet boogying line-up in order. He, with a more innocent and eager look, glides along side the other two and too joins in the established rhythmic shuffle.
“Hey ya Delbert, ready for another big day?” Gus asks as he pinches the ball cap off his head and plunks it onto Delbert’s noggin.
“You betca Gus-Man. And boy, am I starvin’,” straightening the cap then rubbing his belly as he glances down at his growling stomach.
“You’re always starvin’?”, Toad shoots back as if stating the incredibly obvious.
“I know, what can I say? I have a sensitive stomach…needs constant feeding. Did I mention I’m starving?”
Toad rolls his eyes.
As the trio keep time while bouncing along, the trail they’re on soon merges with another larger path. With that, a group of other bears mix in with the jiving threesome. Gus and his small band of musical merry men soon become aware of the others, their well-kept features, their fur neat and tidy and how they’re all walking with a sense of purpose rushing like cars jostling on a freeway. Toad, seeing the situation unfold, mocks the interlopers by straightening his arms and holding them out, walking quickly along all the while making funny faces. But the other bears don’t seem notice or care. In a morning rush hour trance, they give off an air of indifference and haven’t the time for these three would-be-non-conformists. Soon, the herd passes by leaving the three at the rear of the pack.
Up ahead, a fork in the trail appears and the gang of busy-bears take a left down to a nearby river while Gus and the other two take a hard right. Parting ways, the threesome can’t help but stop, turn back, and watch.
“Well, there they go again. Like lemmings…blindly following orders, always doing what they’re told,” Toad mocks the do-gooder bears.
“I hear ya. Kinda sad really. Gonna miss out on huntin’ and gatherin’ day… again,” Gus says with an air of pity.
Delbert, conjuring as thoughtful look as he can muster, opens the can of worms the other two won’t acknowledge, “Hey guys, I’ve been thinkin’…”
“Really?” Toad says wide-eyed.
Furrowing his brow at the insult, Delbert continues, “Think maybe we should be doing that too? You know…whhhatever that is?” Delbert says quivering while watching the crowd descend into the icy cold river.
“What, you wanna be a part of that…that mob?!” Toad snaps at his shorter, rounder friend. “Uh uh, not this amigo, I’m my own bear!” Toad says puffing out his chest and straightening his vest that doesn’t straightening.
Delbert nods in agreement, somewhat, as they all continue to look on and scrutinise the others now standing on a mound of boulders and snapping their powerful jaws shut on fish that hurl themselves upon the rocks trying to swim up river.
“I mean, how can they… do that? Catch, catch, those…things, with they’re mouths. Just ain’t right,” Toad says disgusted.
“Heard it can very unhealthy too…for their fur. I mean, wouldn’t it smell for like days?” Gus adds wincing as he watches as the mob of bears willingly douse themselves in the frigid H2O.
“Yeah, not to mention the taste? Yuch! Nope, just not natural if you ask me,” Toad concludes with finality.
Delbert’s moral dilemma quickly fades as he becomes distracted, suddenly remembering more important things, like his stomach which is growly very loudly,
“Umm, ya know, speakin’ of not natural, not natural to keep me from breakfast,” Delbert lobbies for them all to move on.
Gus and Toad motion as if about to turn away from the other bears and their millennia of bear-feeding instinct.
Meanwhile, relieved as he sees his friends depart from their analysis of the other bears and rejoin him, Delbert quickly moves to the front of the line eagerly setting the vector for their long-awaited date with breakfast.
“I mean, what are those things anyways?” Toad and Gus suddenly stop and spin back as if to resume their discussion which they obviously can’t let go of – continuing to analyze the situation, continuing to voice their misgivings, continuing to beat the dead horse all while unwittingly ignoring Delbert.
Delbert, still excitedly strutting, glances back over his shoulder, grins, presses on, then suddenly halts and turns back miffed as he sees the other two dragging their feet once again.
“Think they’re called…fish or something,” Gus adds as if trying to vanquish their conscience.
“Huh, ya don’t say. Well, the rest of the clan can have their rustic grub,” we have higher aspirations.”
About to lambaste his lagging friends, Delbert then hears Toad’s closing remarks and changes his mood from annoyed to hopeful once again. Then suddenly, with a succulent scent wafting downwind from a distant destination, Delbert fills his snout with a huge deep breath then melts from the aroma. Having enough of the other two’s delay tactics, he demands his two compadres let it go and move on, “Okay, like, can we get goin’? My stomach is doin’ flip flops. If I don’t get something in here…!” looking down, rubbing his stomach for a third or fourth time and wincing from the pain.
“What? Oh, yeah, sure,” Gus realizes they’ve been keeping their friend waiting while they study the others on their aquatic adventure.
This time though, Delbert, hands on his hips, tapping his foot, waits for other two to draw in front so he can keep an eye on them and keep them from stalling. Eventually, the three head down the shoreline and the trail that leads in the opposite direction.
Back on track and with a spring in their step once again, they soon find themselves reverting to their carefree glide once again, oblivious to the travails and troubles of the world and just basking in the beauty and possibilities of the day. Then, just as quickly, they’re stopped in their tracks and the bubble of good feeling above their heads rapidly deflates, punctured by the abrupt nasally sound of a terse voice beckoning at them from behind.
“Hold on there morons!” The shrill words of a tall cerebral looking bear, Freedrick, wearing a red bow tie, dark wire-rim glasses and toting a book of some obscure scientific principle all the while scanning the three buffoons before him, hang in the air.
Freezing hastily, the happy wanderers slowly turn around.
“Oh great, wondered when we’d see the wet blanket,” Toad sighs, irritated with the arrival of the group killjoy.
“Sorry would-be gate crashers…you know the drill, no huntin’ and gatherin’ until I get here,” Freedrick says scolding the threesome as he pushes his glasses up on his snout. “Somebody’s gotta supervise you three boneheads.”
“Hey, this trio is perfectly capable of looking after ourselves,” motioning to Gus, himself and Delbert. Besides, we’re like ninjas, ain’t nobody got anything on us,” Toad says while awkwardly hopping around while chopping and kicking at the air.
“Really?” Freedrick says sarcastically seeing Toad’s feeble performance. “Look more like…hang on a second, where’s Charlie?” saying as he does a quick head count of the dim-witted entourage.
“Good question,” Toad says straightening, wincing as if pulling something. “Haven’t seen him for days, probably still hibernatin’.”
“In July?” Freedrick questions the ridiculous notion.
“Well…I dunno.” Toad snaps back quickly tiring of the line of questioning.
“Last I heard, he was working the human parking lot…out near the edge of the campsite, across the road from the gas station,” Gus clears the air.
“Really? Brilliant, talk about askin’ for trouble,” Freedrick shakes his head.
“Hey, guess that makes me the point man,” Suddenly brightening, then spinning and strutting off in the opposite direction.
The other three flash comical looks at each other as they digest Toad’s self-appointed promotion. Then, just as quickly discard the thought, shrug and continue to plod along.
Freedrick reluctantly follows.
Soon, they arrive at their secret destination and all (almost all) grin when the see the familiar sign. It reads:
“Tall Cedars Campground - Your Home in the Woods!”
“Ah, our home away from home,” Toad says sighing contently.
Meanwhile, another sign just below, and looking as if it has just been made and posted recently, reads:
“No feeding the bears!”
“Hmmm, that’s new,” Freedrick says looking concerned, rubbing his chin with his paw while spotting the warning.
“Really? Think maybe… they’re on to us?” Delbert says suddenly looking worried once again, clamping his fingernails with his teeth.
“Ahhh, it’s nothing. Be fine,” Gus dismisses the warning. “That’s for those… other bears. Besides, we’re just gonna get a couple of snacks that’s all. Be in and out just like always, won’t even know we were there.” Gus says trying to reassure his friends and neutralize the sudden outbreak of cold feet. He quickly wins Toad and Delbert over as evident when they nod in agreement, but Freedrick isn’t so sure. Instead, he warily studies the large warning all the while scanning for any hints of trouble.
Ignoring Freedrick and his legitimate concerns, Gus urges the other two to get busy before the whole idea cools off, “Okay men, you know what to do, grab your transportation and let’s get started.”
Freedrick slowly folds his arms disapprovingly and furrows his brow as he watches Gus shuffle off behind a bush and grab an old shopping buggy. The other two eagerly follow and quickly snag themselves a cart as well. Quickly removing some stray twigs and leaves stuck in the spindly metal sides of the cart, they then whisk themselves quickly into position forming a starting line alongside Gus, poised, ready and awaiting the go signal.
“To huntin’ and gather’ day!” Gus says aloud, the three clink their buggies together as if making a toast.
“Oh brother,” Freedrick mutters.
“The usual, twenty minutes Freedrick?” Toad says setting an old watch on his wrist that looks like he snatched from a garbage can, shaking it, wrinkling his brow as if unsure it it’s keeping time or not.
“Better make it fifteen, you lot look a little slower today,” Freedrick snaps while sizing up the pathetic sight unfolding in front of him.
Delbert looks himself over somewhat confused. Then scrunches his face playfully as he realizes it was an insult.
“Sure, ya don’t want to come with us this time?” Toad asks prepping himself further, straightening, licking the palms of his hands and running them through the fur on his head.
“Yeah, we’re really feelin’ it today,” Delbert joins in bobbing and weaving.
“Uh, no. Think I’ll sit this one out…keep a safe distance and all that,” Freedrick answers warily.
“Okay wimp. You know what? You worry too much there book worm,” Toad says mocking the group intellect as he completes his primping and regrips the handle on the buggy. “Gus-Man here?” thumbing at Gus who has a sheepishly goofy grin on his face as if embarrassed by the accolades, “He’s got everything under control. You know he wouldn’t let us to do anything really dangerous. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen?”
“Uh, you could get caught, we could all get caught. And for what? Just so you ga-dupes can indulge in a bunch of human food of suspect nutritional value. Do you dopes have any idea how thin the ice we’re all on is?” Freedrick says while scanning nervously as if fully expecting someone to leap out and nab them as they hatch their half-baked plan.
Hearing Freedrick’s veiled threat, Delbert quickly slips back on a troubled fearful look, “Ya, ya think so there Freedrick? We might get caught? Really?! And…and then we’d be…caught?” Delbert says quivering.
“Easy there Freedrick. You’re freakin’ out poor Delbert here,” Gus scolds Freedrick.
“Yeah poindexter. Leave the poor little guy alone,” Toad barks.
Freedrick rolls his eyes,” Whatever, who am I? Just the voice of reason. Go ahead, have at it…just don’t say I didn’t warn you,” crossing his arm, rolling his eyes.
Gus sighs, tilts his brows as the lone dissident in the group keeps letting the air out of their exalted plan.
“Ha! Warning schmorning, what’d a we need one a those for anyways huh? Get caught?! No way. We’re ninjas, remember?” Toad says smarmily as he jumps back into his martial arts routine one more time, kicking, bobbing, weaving…then stumbling as he trips over a nearby rock.
Everyone suddenly turns, straightens and dons a comical wide-eyed awkward look.
“Heh, heh. Who put that there?” Toad says sheepishly, grabbing his back as if pulling something again.
“So uhhhh… Freedrick,” Shaking off Toad’s performance gone wrong and the awkward tone that follows, “You want us to grab you a sub sandwich of questionable nutritional value or what?” Gus asks grinning wryly.
“Oh, yeah… sure. But, hold the mayo though this time,” Freedrick answers quietly, somewhat embarrassed.
The others smirk. Delbert, feeling the energy going back into their adventurous plan perks up, straightens and flashes a corny tilted salute.
Back on track the three amigos, toting their buggies, subversively sneak into the campsite.
Later that morning, on the banks of the river not too far from the campground, the gang is sunning themselves and their swollen bellies, sprawled out and sleeping off their confiscated breakfast. Evidence of their raid is strewn all over making the place look like some kind of county-fair-hangover with a debris field of wrappers, coolers and cans spread everywhere.
Freedrick, nose in a book of course, is finishing his SSofQNV, tossing the last bit of it in his mouth and licking the mayo off his fingers one by one.
“Wow, now that was fun. One of our best hauls yet. Might’ve even beat my record of twelve hot dogs,” Toad says patting his protruding belly, “And you were worried there book-nerd, told ya we’d be like ninjas…in and out like the wind,” saying mystically while waving his hands in the air for affect(he’s too full to get up and actually be a ninja again).
“I’m sure Hattori Hanzo would be very impressed,” Freedrick says as he glances up from the pages of his book and notices the carnage. Besides, Ninjas…wouldn’t leave a campsite looking like a typhoon, earthquake and hurricane hit it all at once. Poor humans, probably waking up to nothing but crumbs. I mean, did you guys leave anything behind at all?”
“A little. The unhealthy stuff, fruits, vegetables. Besides, humans got lots of food, won’t even miss it.
“Oh, great. Well, in that case, I’m sure no one will suspect a thing,” Freedrick says caustically then continuing to read.
“Guess we could have left behind the low-mayo sub?” Gus says smirking as if trying to back off the sarcastic cerebral attack from Freedrick.
“Oh, good one,” Toad says chuckling.
Delbert giggles too.
Freedrick quickly and sheepishly licks the fingers on his other paw.
“C’mon boys, forget all that stuff. This is the life! Man, a bear could really get used to it,” Gus says stretching out even more.
Delbert noticing, copies Gus.
“You said it Gus-man, you said it,” Toad adds relaxing, stretching out too.
Freedrick tentatively goes along albeit reluctantly feeling the dishonour from downing his low-mayo sub, half trying to relax, half ashamed, not comfortable with either one.
“Hey, to Gus-Man, for showing us the way to a more a plentiful, tasty and well, easier way of life,” Toad suddenly perks up, grabs another hot dog and scrambles to his feet from his reclined position.
Delbert joins in on the pledge too, leaps to his feet then raises what’s left of a huge bowl of chili he’s been working on.
Gus smiles awkwardly as he joins in on the tribute being paid to him.
Freedrick grudgingly goes along as he gropes for something to make the toast then settles on the crinkled wrapper from his sandwich. He raises his hand, albeit slow and timidly.
With the clinking or clunking of suspect nutritional goodies, Toad then pops the entire dog in his mouth and swallows, licking his lips, “Ya know, let’s make it a baker’s dozen…plus one.” Quickly grabbing two more hot dogs and hoists them in the air.
The gang then lower their arms in unison and gobble up their elevated vittles - Freedrick as if lacking willpower, sheepishly licks the wrapper of his low-mayo sub – eyes darting.
“Well boys, can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m actually full. We can save the rest for later…time to head out, gotta get my nap in before the little Mrs. starts her house work.” Gus says as he slowly rises, does a big stretch, arms high in the air, body contorted.
The rest of the gang freeze raise their eyebrows in unison. Gus notices.
“The little…Mrs.? Huh, last time I called my wife that I had to duck from an incoming frying pan,” Toad says off-the-cuff, wincing as he recalls the near fatal close call.
Delbert, eyes wide, nods quickly in complete agreement.
“What? Ah c’mon what are ya talkin’ about. She loves it when I say that,” Gus says oblivious to his insensitive and possibly dangerous remark.
“Oh, yeah, yeah. Sure, if you say so,” Toad agrees, somewhat, eyes shifting.
Gus looks over his entourage, squints, examining as he looks over his human-food-raiding friends.
The others looking around awkwardly pretending to putter with the wrappers, moving the coolers slightly.
“You guys worry about the silliest thing, c’mon,” Gus says waving off the gang’s concerns while getting up, tossing some leftovers in his buggy then heading back home. The others, looking at one another as if silently commenting on what Gus just said, then do the same and follow.
“Hey-ya Gus Man. Shouldn’t we, you know, clean up a little?” Delbert pipes up while looking back and seeing the mess they’ve made.
“Nah, the wind’ll blow it all away. Be like we were never here. Ninjas, remember?” Toad jumps in and dismisses his innocent- minded friend’s concern.
Delbert nods satisfied with the answer.
Freedrick, exchanging looks between his friends and the damage of what looks like a grocery store explosion, quietly mutters to himself, “Man, we are so gonna get caught,” sighing and unenthusiastically following the gang.