Where the Wild Things Are

“A little to the right. . .perfect!”

(part 2 of a series, see part one here: Every Picture Tells a Story)
OK, this photo was taken a little before 1970 but in the same general era. And that’s not my family but I suspect that if my dad got a whiff of an atomic explosion anywhere near where we were driving, that could have been us. 
It was a different world then. One that didn’t understand fallout patterns and, those who did, weren’t keen to tell people downwind that this might crop up as unexplained cancers 20 years down the road. 
The west back then was different. As hard as it is for me to believe it had been only six years before this picture was taken that discrimination against African-Americans travelers was prohibited by law. Even in 1970, there were still some Sundown Towns – towns in which blacks were tolerated during the day but had to leave before the sunset.
In the entire time we were out west I don’t recall seeing one black person. Not one. 
The Interstate highway system was still a work in progress in many of the western states. Freeways would end in cornfields and you’d have to exit to some rural two-lane where desperate motel and restaurant owners would do whatever they could to get some business before the freeway passed them by completely.
I got to see a little of a vanishing America from some of those two lanes. I kept looking for cowboys but there weren’t any. But I could imagine them ‘out there,’ among the buttes and draws.
Kids can be awfully annoying on long road trips (No! really?!) and my sister and I were no exception. At Yellowstone, every gift shop had these little black bears stuffed with straw. I wanted one and went on a multi-day campaign to wear my parents down into buying me one. Days of effort paid off but that was on the condition that this would be my one and only souvenir.
I spent the rest of the trip home holding this straw-filled bear to the window and narrating a travelogue on all the sites we were passing because, well, it was a magic bear and needed to know about every cow I saw.
All. The. Way. Home. That’s about 700 miles. To this day it’s a wonder my dad didn’t grab that bear and fling it into the South Dakota road dust.
There were real bears – everywhere. Any time one showed up in the park, the tourists would cause a traffic backup the rangers called ‘bear jams’ and throw all kinds of Great American Junk Food at the bears. Our contribution was marshmallows and we probably rotted the teeth of half the bears in the park before we were through.

NatGeo photo of a 1972 bearjam at Yellowstone.
Of course, at seven, I thought bears were harmless furry creatures who just wanted someone to pet them and give them a marshmallow. Kind of like ‘Gentle Ben’ on TV.
So one time we stopped for a roadside brown bear that was absolutely adorable. We were supposed to throw marshmallows from the van but somehow, I sneaked out of the van with my trusty GAF 126 film cartridge camera and moved to within six feet of said bear.
“Ed where’s the kid,” mom said. “I’m right here taking a picture of this bear.”
The next thing I knew, my dad grabbed me and yanked me back rather unceremoniously back into the VW van through the side door. It must have looked like a child snatching because. . .well, it was.  Aside from the usual stream of Marine cursing, I was told under no circumstances ever to do that again. “That damn bear would have ate you in seconds,” Dad yelled. 
“But. . . “
“Shut up and never get out of the car unless I tell you,” Dad said. 
Years later when watching ‘Apocalypse Now’ with my high school friends they couldn’t understand why I was laughing so hard at the scene where the one guy gets chased by a tiger back to the swift boat screaming “never get out of the goddamn boat.”
Fucking A right. Tigers, bears, Jungle Larry’s African Safari (lions), it’s all the same. Little kids are tender and crunchy.
But I got my photo.
‘Doesn’t that kid know he should stay in the car!?’
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