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Smokey Signals

Deconstructing the story of Smokey Bear.

 

It seemed appropriate, in this crackling-dry season when every blade of grass might as well be a matchstick and the whole Southwest is holding its breath against the inevitability of fire, to visit the hometown of Smokey Bear. (Not "Smokey the Bear," as a friend recently reminded me. Just "Smokey Bear," as if "Bear" were his last name.) That would be Capitan, NM, of course, along the rim of the Lincoln National Forest.

The author with Smokey in Capitan. That's Smokey on the right. Photo by Lisa D. Fryxell.

The signs with stern-visaged Smokey and his shovel, which ordinarily rate the fire danger from "Low" to "Extreme," have gone off the charts for the Lincoln National Forest this year, and now say simply "Closed." No wonder: Locals told us that the snowfall atop nearby Sierra Blanca, home of the Ski Apache slopes, normally totals 180 inches; last winter only 16 inches fell. Rain? Forget about it. Between the picketing pines, the ragged stems of grass are the color of dust. The ground looks thirsty.

Smokey Bear must be looking down from ursine heaven and be worried as hell.

But the drought didn't keep the faithful from trekking to Capitan for the town's annual Smokey Bear Days, which we just missed. In-between telling us about her trip to see her grandson in Germany and relating her great-grandchildren's cute demands for Smokey Bear hats, T-shirts and Thermoses, the talkative women staffing the Smokey Bear museum and souvenir store told us how collectors from as far away as New York City just can't get enough of Smokey collectibles. They're like her great-grandchildren, we gathered, only with deeper pockets. Anyway, they packed Capitan, population 1,500, for Smokey Bear Days. Presumably the Smokey fans were careful coming and going from this parched place, knowing full well that "Only you can prevent forest fires."

We grew up on that slogan and with the looming presence of Smokey Bear—arguably, according to one display at the Smokey Bear State Historical Park, the world's most famous made-up character besides Santa Claus. We're big believers in Santa, however, and knew perfectly well that Smokey was a real bear, rescued as a cub hanging from a burnt tree after a 17,000-acre forest fire near Capitan in 1950. (Smokey Bear Days is held each year the week of May 9, to commemorate the anniversary of the plucky cub's rescue.) Imagine our surprise, then, to learn that the cartoon Smokey—ranger-style hat, dungarees, ubiquitous shovel for smothering campfires—actually predated the live one. He was created in 1944 as part of a wartime effort to preserve timber supplies. The rescue of a real live version of Smokey was just a happy accident.

But after the live Smokey's death in 1976, following a long life and millions of visitors at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, the fire-prevention ad campaign had to shift gears to remind the public that the cartoon was the "real" Smokey—and it had not died.

Much as the live Smokey caught on almost too well, we learned in the displays at Capitan, Smokey's "fire is bad" message likewise proved overly effective. A whole generation, weaned on "Only you can prevent forest fires," grew up eager to suppress all wildfires. Choked with underbrush and denied the natural clean-up of lightning-sparked fires, the nation's forests turned into a tinderbox. We're still getting used to the notion of "prescribed burns," which sound like something Smokey would frown on.

Despite all these echoes from childhood, though, I almost suggested we skip Capitan and Smokey Bear. Who cares, really? It's 2006 and we're—well, not kids anymore.

 

But there we were, listening to the friendly rambling of the souvenir storekeeper and eyeing the shop's collection of old Smokey Bear pins and trinkets and stuffed animals. Flipping through a half-dozen bulging blue binders of newspaper clippings, letters and kids' paeans to Smokey. Buying a Smokey pin for my wife and a little stuffed Smokey for our daughter.

We even shelled out two bucks apiece to tour the Historical Park and visitor center next door, sitting through a 10-minute film about Smokey's story and fire prevention and shuffling through the exhibits. After this indoor portion of what pushier marketers might call "The Smokey Experience!," we followed the signs outside to the park proper, which offers a mini-tour of New Mexico's native plants, with an emphasis on trees. The plants are arranged by climate zone. The cacti from our corner of the state didn't look so good.

After winding through the park—less than a city block—we came to a pleasant manmade waterfall and a shady grove sheltering Smokey Bear's final resting place. The furry Smokey, not the cartoon. It turns out that after Smokey's death, Capitan locals and New Mexico politicos put on a full-court press to have his body returned from Washington, DC. Now the famous bear lies here, beneath a stone marker and a well-tended patch of grass, only a few miles from the forest where his amazing round-trip journey began in fire, charred branches, a cub's frightened whimpering and, of course, smoke.

 

I feel foolish even typing this, but I confess: I found myself strangely touched by the sight of Smokey Bear's grave. I pretended to be giving it a close inspection, to put off having to make any comment through the sudden lump in my throat. Something smarted at the corners of my eyes—probably from the stabbing New Mexico sun.

Was it my childhood memories of good ol' Smokey Bear welling up? Truth be told, I don't recall any special childhood fondness for the character. Certainly his "don't play with matches" mantra was lost on me, since (as I believe I've previously admitted in these pages) I was a bit of a pyromaniac as a boy. I doubt Smokey would have approved of setting plastic army men on fire with a Bunsen burner—the things they used to let kids play with in the guise of a "chemistry set"! He probably would have growled as the soldiers' ashes slowly precipitated out of the air of my parents' utility room, making a fine gray patina atop their formerly white chest-style freezer. (Much as my parents would have growled if not for some frantic cleanup before they came downstairs.)

No, I think somehow it was the saga of the real, live bear that moved me. Anthropomorphizing shamelessly, I thought of the terrified cub, hanging from a charred limb with its singed paws until kindly game warden Ray Bell came to the rescue. We'd seen the famous photo of Bell's daughter, Judy, with the cub; she and Bell's wife, Ruth, helped nurse Smokey back to health. Another photo showed Smokey flying to his new home in Washington, DC, in a tiny Piper Cub (appropriately), looking like an ursine Lindbergh. And I'm sure I saw Smokey as a full-grown black bear (the cartoon version looks brown) at the National Zoo, though I don't remember that part of that childhood family vacation.

After all that—more, surely, than even the most imaginative bear could ever have dreamed of—Smokey came home at last to this forested piece of New Mexico. Never mind whether he would have been "better off" living in the wild all those years instead (though likely he would never have lived 26 years as he did in captivity). I don't think I was mourning Smokey's lost freedom. Rather, I was touched by the thought of his homecoming—to the forest country where he was born, which he likely remembered, if at all, only as some smoky dream. Nonetheless, Smokey came home, to rest under a tree that's not fire-scarred, by the gurgling lullaby of a waterfall.

I don't care that the cartoon Smokey Bear came first, or even that his stern lessons about the evils of wilding fire may have gone overboard in their impact on the national psyche. Like all true stories, the tale of the living, furry Smokey Bear resonates more deeply than any cartoon concoction because it really happened. And, after his astonishing star turn as the most famous bear in the whole, wide world, after a job well done, Smokey came home.

Riding towards our own home, as the sere landscape of Smokey's birth flashed past through the car windows, I couldn't help silently mouthing the words: "Only you can prevent forest fires."

OK, Smokey, we'll do our best.

 

David A. Fryxell, editor of Desert Exposure,
promises to stop playing with matches.

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