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Fiction #385
(published June 5, 2008)
Oh Bear-Attack Pamphlet!
by Michael Ray Laemmle
Tourists to America's national parks will sometimes meet a man handing out pamphlets on surviving bear attacks; at a booth near the entrance, or accosting visitors within the boundaries of the park itself. His name is Mario Getty, forty years old. He asks if they've heard of Sarah Mills. Sarah was a promising young law student. An avid cycler and outdoorswoman, she was thirty-two years old when murdered by a grizzly in the Canadian Rockies.

Mario shows them a small glossy photograph of an attractive young woman. A blonde-haired natural beauty with a winning smile, radiating with unsinkable joy and innate compassion. She seems truly blessed and an angel.

Mario says Sarah climbed a tree to escape the bear, but it had come up after, grabbed her round the ankle and flung her off, climbing down to finish the kill. He claims Sarah hadn't been properly educated. If she had climbed to the top of the tree, then jumped onto the bear while it was climbing up, she would have lived. She could have used the animal's enormous body to break the impact of the fall.

It is considered wisdom not to climb a tree when being chased by this species. Mario agrees in spirit, but contends that if one were to climb a tree, then jump down on the bear, using its body to cushion the fall, one had a strategy for success. Before excusing himself, Mario answers any questions the visitors might have, then leaves them with a pamphlet of his own design: 10 Things They Don't Want You to Know About Surviving Bear Attacks.

Mario claims the Park Service has undergone what amounts to a public disinformation campaign. They condition us into thinking the best way to thwart hostile bears is to play possum, letting the animal believe you're dead. Bears aren't scavengers and won't eat carcasses. But Mario believes with sufficient public outcry, one day the Park Service will confess that playing dead leads to nothing but becoming an unwilling supper. He has made it his life's mission to raise this outcry.

Other than his eccentric zeal, Mario is a model citizen. High school history teacher, recipient of prestigious state and national awards. He takes summers and weekends to visit state and federal parks. Sometimes he comes as a tourist. Mostly he comes to spread his gospel. He has been arrested several times for trespassing. His peers call him a madman, as have park visitors hostile to new ideas. He is a famous figure within the Service, his face and file in their databases. He believes his work is public service, but authorities consider his crusade in quite another light. He is a nuisance whose shenanigans must be dealt with in haste.

The first day of his visit he sets up an informational booth in the main parking lot. Sometimes four hours will pass before he is reported to a ranger, who tells him to pack up his tent and table, and either enjoy the park without soliciting or find himself forcibly removed. On day two he enters park grounds. He hikes and picnics. But the bulk of his visit is spent introducing himself to persons or groups and offering his sometimes unwelcome sermon. Occasionally he lasts an entire day before being removed, but usually by afternoon a ranger, likely the one who cautioned him the previous day, will grab his elbow and escort him back to his vehicle. Mario doesn't often push it by entering the park a third day, but he has. This customarily leads to his arrest.

Higher-ups in the Park Service consider this a sticky situation. National Parks are public property. Use of such property is subject to limitations and oversight, but Mario's forced removals come dangerously close to violating First Amendment rights. This makes officials more wary than they might be otherwise about having him arrested or thrown out. There are even people in positions of influence who believe his method for surviving bear attacks has merit. Wildly improvisational, yes. Daring and dramatic, of course. But aren't those the very qualities essential to fighting one's way out of a tight and unprecedented jam? These people contend that if Mario's peculiar technique was found superior to the old prescriptions, the Park Service would have egg on its face, and possibly be staring down its nose at a class-action law suit charging the government with gross neglect and public disregard.

Mario has no doubts as to the source of his illiberal prejudice. His father had been an Air Force colonel, reassigned to an air base in Alaska. Their belongings shipped, the family drove in early spring through Canada. They passed the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Bears had recently come out of hibernation. They were aggressive, hungry, and naturally unfriendly. Approaching them was ill-advised. It was no guarantee that because these beasts proved adorable munching berries they would prove equally so when swinging a powerful claw across your face, or gnawing on the crown of a loved one's skull.

As the family left Banff, Alberta, they heard a radio report. Thirty-two year old Sarah Mills had been mountain biking the previous day on a jeep trail deep in the hills. On her left the road rose up bluntly to form a ridge about six-feet high. As Sarah pedaled past a particularly shady cluster of trees, a six-hundred pound male grizzly let out a bellowing roar and leapt upon her. Authorities say the attack more closely resembled that of the mountain lion. This fiendish feline is famous for sailing through the air onto the back of its prey from stony ridges and high branches. Simultaneously as it lands, it clasps the back of its victim's neck in its crushing jaws, using pressure and violent thrashing to snap the spinal cord. His prey thus paralyzed, he drags it into the trees and enjoys his wicked repast. But to sail through the air accurately, great agility is required. The bear is a burlier beast not known for its catlike nimbleness. Usually it bursts up unexpectedly from a foxhole in the ground which he has camouflaged with a thick layer of leaves.

Lacking elegance in flight, this bear knocked Sarah from her bicycle with his foreleg, gnashing his teeth uselessly at the air. Her landing was lucky, falling softly on a thick bed of wild grass. The bear landed gracelessly, skidding headlong on his belly across the dirt, crashing into a roadside gulley. Shaking the trauma off his great brown mane, he plodded dizzily toward his intended target, swinging awkward blows. Sarah pulled a large fallen branch from where it was entwined in the grasses at her feet. Brought it smashing down across the flat crown of the grizzly's skull. It broke over his head in an explosion of dusty bark and splinters, and brought the brute crashing down onto his belly.

She ran. Through trees, across streams, over ditches, the monster chasing without halt, gradually gaining ground. Opportunities for decisive action growing slim, Sarah surveyed the landscape. Aware it was an ignorant if instinctually satisfying move to climb a tree, she still deemed it her last possible chance. It was either deal with the disadvantages of being treed or fall beneath his terrible claws while on the ground. Ahead was a large pine. Sarah planted her foot and climbed the tree like a true champion, coming to a perch as near the apex as she dared.

The bear's claws shot out like loaded spikes, to the utmost limit of their extension. He stabbed them bayonet-like into the trunk. With deliberation and swiftness he climbed, using his front claws as anchors and his rear paws to scramble up. He slithered through the network of branches, his body bending, distending, and contracting like a serpent. Sarah jumped across to the nearest tree, securing herself by a desperate hug to the top limbs. Without losing stride, the bear leapt after. He reached up and grasped Sarah's ankle. With one brutal yank he flung her off and through the air. On the ground she attempted to crawl away. The bear dropped from the lower branches. Sarah knew her demise was close at hand. The bear drank in the clamor of his kill. Her protests, denials, struggles to break free. "You don't have to do this," she kept repeating. "I won't tell anyone." He smelled her loathing for him and was orgiastic. His stomach rumbled, and with sinister delight he licked her face before angrily making the killing bite. And thus he began his nauseating luncheon.

In light of Sarah's recent murder, authorities were emphasizing standard protocol for avoiding and dealing with bear encounters. Wear a bell attached to your belt or backpack. Bears are not naturally hunters of people, but surprise them in the woods and death is assured. Carry bear spray, a giant can of mace about the size of a thermos. Empty the canister into its eyes, then bring it crashing down over his head. If one has neither bell nor spray, lay on the ground in perfect stillness. Bears aren't scavengers and won't eat the dead. Don't move or make a sound while the bear checks your vital signs. He may slash, bite, and nibble at you, but the slightest flinch or whimper and you'll be the bear's next sup. Note: humans cannot outrun bears. In open space they're fast as horses. If you must run, run downhill. Being hind-heavy, bears will tumble headlong down even moderate declines. Most important: never climb a tree. Bears are skilled and avid tree-climbers. They will not hesitate to follow you up. In fact they relish the chance to feast on your flesh amongst the panorama of the treetops.

As a youngster Mario knew bear protocol. In Boy Scouts he was taught it as a mantra. But after hearing Sarah's story, he knew one more thing with cold clarity, as firm in his mind as dogma: This poor woman could have thwarted the beast by jumping down on top of him as he climbed up after. He saw it most lucidly in his dreams. Sarah looks down at the juggernaut lumbering upwards toward her firm foothold in the sky. She drops, sailing pike-style upon the bear's head. He is knocked loose and Sarah grabs his chest fur, pulling herself in close. His body becomes a shield against the branches as the two are yanked by gravity to the forest floor. The final branch cracks the Grizzly's spine, impact on the ground severs it completely. Weak but determined, she makes her way back to her bicycle, scuffed but in working order. She pedals through the pain to the highway, where she is picked up. Later, still recovering in a hospital bed, she recounts her escape to Mario, who in his dream is a journalist for Outdoor magazine. Through Mario's article it becomes public knowledge that to survive a bear attack one climbs a tree then jumps down on the bear as he comes up after. They fall in love. He awes at her bravery and grace under pressure. A great admirer of Hemingway, she appears an incarnation of the values the author promoted in his writings. She thrills at his sense of adventure, and his skill at artfully communicating sublime moments in nature by way of a casual but sophisticated prose. The two are married at the site of her attack.

But Mario had to awake from this dream, and the real world made mockery of his happy ending. Eventually he awoke for good, but by then the dream had formed his youth. He wanted nothing more than to become spokesman for the new strategy. Professionally he became a history teacher, instructing seniors in American culture and government. In his spare time he was director of a memorial charity called the Sarah Mills Foundation.

"So who is Sarah Mills?" some tourist would ask.

"The most beautiful woman in the world," Mario would reply. "Killed by a bear."

"That's terrible."

"I think so. I also think it's terrible that thirty years after her death the same things are being said about surviving bear attacks."


"Quite simply, one survives by climbing a tall tree. When the bear climbs after you, jump on him. Grab onto his fur if possible and ride him down. Either the bear will break his back on the branches, or will die from blunt trauma when striking the ground. You may sustain injury, but the bear will be in worse condition. While the beast is stunned, take your pocketknife—always have one handy—slit the bear's throat from ear-to-ear. Or stab it repeatedly in the trachea, or his eyeballs if they seem vulnerable to assault."

"Goodness! Are bear attacks common in this area?"

"No," Mario would say while ruffling through a briefcase on the table. "In fact they're quite rare." Then pulling out an 8x10 glossy photograph of a smiling Sarah Mills, would shove it into the tourist's face. "But tell that to Sarah! Tell her family these carnal events are exceptional! Even if a bear held Bacchanalia over the corpse of just one promising young woman, it would be too often. Sarah was an angel, just thirty-two, once divorced, and seeking true love. But her first love was nature. But this lover betrayed. Left her dying at the hands of some blood-lusting mongrel. If only she had been properly educated! Landing on his broken body the way a mattress lands on a mountain of feathers!"

"Have mercy!"

"But did the Grizzly have mercy on this angel, beloved by all and scorned by none? May God have mercy on us all if we think that arch-fiend of the forest deserves anything less than extermination!"

The tourist, trying to soften the intensity of the encounter, would often say with a wink and sly grin, "Sounds like these animals are downright unbearable!"

Nipping their gaiety in the bud, Mario would cackle, "Ha-ha-ha! Truly hilarious! But was there much laughter on the day Sarah was so heinously wrought?"

Then the tourists usually backed away, perhaps frightened for their safety, asking the next ranger they came across whether the crazy man handing out pamphlets was endorsed by the park.

Jeremiah McLaughlin was one of many park rangers obliged to confront Mario over the years. He had received three complaints already that morning. He had met this vigilante before, having reprimanded him outside Yosemite. Now years later, long transferred to Rocky Mountain National Park, the two men must meet again. Jeremiah started his Jeep and drove out to the main gate.

Mario, always anticipating trouble, was not surprised when the ranger pulled up. The tall, thin man in the green uniform approached the table, taking a moment to thumb through the stack of pamphlets. He looked up at Mario and said, "So, what have we here?"

"We have a revolution in the making," said Mario flatly.

"I see. You don't have a permit, so I'm asking you to pack it up and go home Mister Getty."

"My reputation precedes me."

"We've met before."

"And do you realize now what you didn't then? That I'm trying to save lives the Park Service puts at risk?" Mario strategically laid out the glossy of Sarah, but Jeremiah took no notice.

"Mister Getty, we all appreciate your enthusiasm for public safety, but you're a little misguided in your approach." Jeremiah thumbed through the pamphlet. "Besides, the tactics you advocate really aren't very practical are they? The official strategy was developed by forestry employees, experts in the field. It's completely verified from experience."

"Tell that to Sarah Mills," said Mario coldly. "Your so-called tactics didn't leave her a chance."

"But yours are senseless," said Jeremiah, running his finger beneath a line of text. "Climbing a tree and jumping on top of the bear as he lumbers up after you? The woods isn't a martial arts movie, Mister Getty. Most people don't have the agility to perform this kind of stunt. Besides, the fall would as likely kill you as the bear."

"You have been indoctrinated nicely, Mister McLaughlin," said Mario, reading the plastic nametag on the ranger's uniform. "But I'm in the business of arming people with information. I'm inclined to think you and your colleagues are the greatest enemies of truth and public safety. My method hasn't been verified because it's never been tried. It's never been tried because people haven't been made aware. The Park Service bureaucracy moves at the pace of a glacier, but these are dynamic times, and the problems of the day call for equally dynamic solutions."

"If it were demonstrated, if studies were done, you could submit those and we might include them in our safety brochures. As it is, your methods are nothing but conjecture. I ask that you leave now, before I'm forced to arrest you for trespassing. These pamphlets are ludicrous."

Mario was willing at times to go to jail, but preferred not to. He broke down his tent, folded his table, and boxed up his pamphlets. Jeremiah watched him until his van turned out of sight.

This happened on Sunday. On Monday Mario returned to the classroom. The ranger's words had kept him awake all night. His method was unverified, admittedly. He had always assumed its utility was self-evident. But the great number of scoffers he had encountered over the years must if anything convince him his plan wasn't so obviously reasonable. With hard empirical data, no reasonable person could deny his tactics. He must prove to the world his methods were sound. As the ranger said, if it were proven it would be included in the Park Service's bear safety pamphlets.

His morning period had already passed World War II and the Civil Rights Movement. Today's lesson was supposed to be on Watergate. But he told the students to put away their textbooks. Today would be a special lesson. They were going back to the origins of American civilization and the expansion of the Frontier.

"Your generation," Mario said, "having been raised on a steady diet of conservation and protectionism, has no idea that at one point in our history wild animals were considered anathema to the American way of life. As enemies of progress, even of civilization itself. Until the 1930's a landowner was allowed to kill any animal that ventured onto his property. It was thought best if mountain lions, bears, wolves, and other dangerous creatures were disposed of. When it was seen that various animals had been hunted near to extinction, the government changed their tune, distancing themselves from their previous policy of extermination. No longer a serious threat, the public began to idealize these once loathsome creatures, and longed that they should return to bountiful numbers. These laws were usually passed by urbanite politicians at the behest of their city-dwelling constituency. Those forced to deal with the savage monsters on a practical and frequent basis were hardly considered. Putting bears and mountain lions on pedestals was easy when one wasn't in danger of becoming their next meal.

"The animals rebounded to close their original numbers, yet conservationist laws are still adhered to. This may appear to some as counterintuitive. Because of their rareness, certain ferocious beasts are protected. But we see that murderers are rare, yet there are no attempts made to increase their number. In fact, there is great effort expended on making them even more rare. How is it we respect the murderous bear? What perverse fancy makes us preserve its habitat, little more than a killing grounds? The currently intolerable arrangement might be ameliorated somewhat if the public were given proper education on surviving attacks. Instead they deliver us nothing but dreams and fantasies. They say play dead, but neglect to inform you playing dead is the fastest way to becoming dead. It's as if they sought to protect the bear from injury. They tell us never climb a tree, but they won't tell us climbing a tree is brilliant strategy, provided one is willing to jump down on top of the bear's head as he climbs up after. They won't admit you can ride the bear's body to safety on the ground, fatally crippling the animal in the process."

Mario went to the window and stared out for a long time. Until the bell rang to end the period and his students shuffled quietly out the door. In Mario's eyes was a peculiar gaze, as if he were staring not at the bare wall of a high school outbuilding, but towards some distant horizon. Somewhere out there, he thought, is the spirit of Sarah Mills and she walks this Earth. A ghost. She calls to him, he hears his name on the breeze. Her spirit is trapped here, but he can free it from its Earthly bond if he does just one thing: disseminate the knowledge that would have saved her life.

Calling in a substitute the next morning, Mario made preparations for his field experiment. He knew if he verified his tactics in solitude nobody would take him at his word. So he phoned Rocky Mountain National Park asking to speak with Ranger McLaughlin. Jeremiah was hardly shocked by the strange scenario Mario Getty proposed. He told the ranger that with or without Park Service assistance, he would be taking to the woods to prove his theory. He requested an armed escort to accompany him, and because Jeremiah had inspired the venture it would be most appropriate if he were directly involved. Jeremiah wasn't pleased, and felt this man Getty had cornered him unfairly. Yet there was truth in his accusation. Jeremiah had unwittingly informed him how Park Service policy could be revised. He explained the situation to his superior, who agreed it was foolishness and utter madness. But the last thing the park needed was gossip about some famous eccentric forced to test his deadly theory alone because the government denied him supervision. Ridiculous as it was, this endeavor might finally get Mario out of the Park Service's hair. If Mario would sign a waiver releasing the Park Service from responsibility in the event of his injury or death, Jeremiah was to escort this idiot into the woods along with whatever entourage or supplies were deemed necessary. Jeremiah was granted two assistants and three rifles modified for shooting large-dose tranquilizer darts. At the first sign of trouble Jeremiah would put down any bear the party came across. Mario would be given some leeway to test his method, but Jeremiah had no intention of letting the man commit suicide-by-bear in front of his eyes.

Early Saturday the following week three park employees met Mario in the main lot. Jeremiah's hand-chosen assistants were Maxwell and Sergio. Mario had already agreed to the waiver. After he signed, Jeremiah informed him they would be spending the next two nights in the East River Valley, known to have the highest concentration of bears in the park. Their store of supplies included a canister of bear-bait, used by the Forestry Service when luring animals for forced relocations. The four men drove circuitously around the mountain nearest the entrance and for a long time on a rough, rarely traveled dirt road through dense woods. They stopped deep in the forest and set up camp in a small clearing beside a riverbed. Jeremiah had deliberately parked just down from a large tree with branches laid out in such a way that a man could easily climb it.

The night passed uneventfully. It was early next morning that true horror lumbered into camp. They awoke before the crack of dawn. In the grayish light Jeremiah prepared a fire. The canister of bear-bait hadn't been unsealed, and nobody expected ambush. Mario took up reciting his pamphlet, Jeremiah stoked the fire, and Sergio pulled out sausages and eggs. Being the last one up, Maxwell went to the edge of camp and began urinating into an enormous stand of bushes. Mario absentmindedly glimpsed at him, then stood erect when he caught sight of two flashing yellow eyes in the darkness of the foliage. Without warning, a bear's arm shot out from the leaves, grabbed Maxwell around the throat, and yanked him forward with a violent jerk. He disappeared in a flash, sounding out nothing more than a gurgled scream. A mighty roar issued from the thatch as the leaves and branches shook with some terrible struggle. A bear's hateful growls, Maxwell's agonized screams. Jeremiah and Sergio went immediately for their rifles, bolting tranquilizers into each chamber. The struggle in the bushes stopped, giving way to an eerie silence and stillness. The two men cautiously approached, guns at the ready, while Mario was told to fall back.

With lickety-split suddenness, accompanied by an awful roar, Maxwell was violently thrust halfway out the bushes, his face and torso shredded to ribbons. His startling appearance caused both Jeremiah and Sergio to fire off their rounds. One burst through poor Maxwell's forehead and implanted in his brain, the second in his neck. He thrust his hand out desperately, clenching his fingers at the air as if trying to grasp some invisible thing, then flopped over dead. Sergio dropped his firearm and cradled his colleague's body in his hands, crying out his name.

The bear leapt like a demon from the bushes, tackling Jeremiah and knocking the rifle from his hands. The beast howled in triumph. Sergio grabbed his rifle. He cracked the butt-end hard against the bear's skull. The monstrous grizzly snarled and leapt up from Jeremiah's body, murder blazing in its eyes. He punched his right paw through Sergio's diaphragm, so deeply the pointy tips of claws shot out the man's back. Sergio belted out a choking gasp. Keeping the right paw buried, the bear lifted Sergio overhead by the groin and flung him hard into a tree trunk. Where Sergio hit there were many pointed branches, the limbs having been broken off for firewood. Poor Sergio was impaled with a sickening thud. One branch burst through his chest, another his shoulder, a third through his pelvis. His muscles shot rigid, then limp, and his body hung loosely like a bloodied rag doll.

Jeremiah yelled at Mario to load another dart. While Mario dug through the case, the ranger pulled his buck knife from its sheath and jumped upon the monster's back, securing himself by a handful of fur and stabbing deep, penetrating thrusts into its shoulder. The bear rolled forward, Jeremiah went somersaulting over its head, but expertly landed face-forward in a crouching position, holding his knife out protectively before him. With one hard swipe the bear took off Jeremiah's arm above the elbow. Jeremiah stood in shock, holding his spurting nub up for examination. This pause gave the bear lethal opportunity. Standing straight, pivoting fully on his waist for maximum strength and ultimate carnage, he sprung back swiping his right paw across Jeremiah's abdomen, slicing through his flesh like straight-razors. Hot entrails spilled out like noodles. Swiveling the opposite way, the bear swung his left paw against the side of Jeremiah's head, which was ripped from the body and sent flying through the air.

Jeremiah's head landed softly in Mario's hands as his body slumped to its knees. Mario looked down and was surprised to see the ranger's disembodied head mouthing something. The eyes were frozen in bug-eyed surprise, but the jaw and lips contorted deliberately. Jeremiah was saying: "Shoot the damn thing." Then the head began to shake wildly in his hands and Mario dropped it in surprise.

The bear walked up to Mario, who grabbed the empty rifle and aimed it uselessly. Wrapping his paw around the stock, the bear wrung the firearm from Mario's hands, flung it to the side, yawned aggressively and slashed across the field of Mario's face. Mario ducked the blow by a hair's breadth and took off sprinting wildly toward the designated climbing tree. Panting with exertion, adrenaline surging through his veins, he pulled and kicked his way to the top. In quick glimpses down Mario saw the grizzly angrily shaking the trunk, but it was so thick the tree was not perturbed. With impressive swiftness the bear pulled his way up branch by trembling branch. Mario braced himself for the drop, his knees shaking uncontrollably. Just below, the bear paused to catch its breath.

Determined Mario daintily leapt from the branches and came crashing down on the beast's head. The two went reeling downwards. Unable to grasp the animal's fur, Mario bounced brutally from branch to branch, breaking and bruising things, the startled bear smashing down headlong beside him. Mario hit the ground first with blunt force. The bear tumbled out afterward, landing viciously on his neck. Mario heard a disgusting snap report, and the giant grizzly lay beside him writhing in the dirt. The two creatures squirmed in the dust, looking into one another's eyes, the bear making flimsy pawing motions.

Mario found the strength to unfold the photograph he had been carrying in his back pocket. He held it out for the bear's edification. His portrait of Sarah, wholesome and radiant. As the bear died, Mario swore a glimpse of recognition passed across the animal's glassy gaze. Perhaps it was nothing. Certainly this bear was not the same who murdered Sarah so many years ago. But her spirit, Mario was sure, had walked the forest and become a specter haunting the animals who lived there. Mario turned onto his back and watched the cumulous clouds shifting against the bright blue sky overhead. His front teeth were knocked out, and he smiled toothlessly as one of the cumulous cloud formations took on the countenance of the young woman who had inspired his life crusade. Through the pain a kind of elation surged through his breast. He would survive. There would be rescuers. There would be changes in attack survival pamphlets. He had released her spirit from Earthly bondage, and angelic Sarah Mills now found her just repose amongst the Heavenly assemblage.

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