Alan Vernon via Flickr
Let’s talk about bears.
During the past couple of months I have spent considerable time sitting in bleachers beside the running tracks of area schools, watching our kids navigate the crucible that is the middle school track & field season. As the latest development in a series of traits that make me question whether they can really be my children, Mathilde (800 meters, mile relay) and Charles (800 meters, 3200 meters) have turned out to be keen runners and look forward to track meets with the sort of enthusiasm that, at their age, I could only muster for fishing. Or pizza. As a teenager, on occasions when authority, peer pressure, or imminent danger compelled me to run anywhere, my strategy was only to get to the finish line without passing out or being sick. But in the days leading up to a meet, my kids research and plan their race strategies with the precision of a military campaign. Mathilde’s best distance is the 800 and, while she has great endurance and a terrific kick that keeps her competitive, she’s been frustrated by getting boxed in at the start, which she feels has stopped her from getting comfortably placed in the field early in the race. So last week she was encouraged when Coach Holland—a keen strategist—took her aside to explain about the body’s Alactic Energy System, the anaerobic process in which chemical compounds stored in muscles combine to provide a five- to eight-second-burst of explosive energy from rest. Coach Holland explained to Mathilde that this system (essentially our evolved “fight or flight” mechanism) meant that right after the starting gun, she would have several seconds when she could go flat out without depleting the energy reserves she’d need to make it to the finish line. She could—in other words—start fast, break out of the pack, and avoid getting boxed in.
She explained all this after practice at dinner. “So how our ancestors escaped when a bear came at them out of the bushes?” I asked. She brightened. “Exactly!”
An image floated into my mind. It involved a story from my wife’s childhood that has been repeated to me more than once by former elementary school classmates of hers. During the late seventies, Dorcas, my mother-in-law and founder of this venerable magazine, would throw a Halloween party that remains burned into the collective memories of every Wilkinson County Christian Academy alumna of a certain age. Each year, after the costume competitions and pumpkin carving and marshmallow eating were done, Dorcas would load her children and all their little neighborhood friends onto a trailer and take them on a hayride through the darkening woods to the banks of Thompson Creek, where a large bonfire would have been lit. There, as night’s chill settled over the huddled gathering, Edwin Holt would tell ghost stories so spine-chilling, none of the kids would ever notice when another grownup snuck off into the trees carrying a bag that contained a large, hairy bear suit.
About the time Edwin’s story was reaching its climax, this sadist would come roaring and galloping out of the trees towards the campfire, to the delight of the parents and party veterans in on the joke, and the absolute therapy-inducing horror of the first-timers. According to Dorcas, half the kids would wet themselves, while the other half sprang up and spent five to eight seconds running screaming into the woods. Sometimes they’d be quite hard to catch, proving (a) that Coach Holland’s strategy seems likely to work; and (b) that as a defense against being eaten, bolting into the woods is better than sitting still and wetting your pants … even if you do happen to be dressed as a pirate. Hey, it was the ‘seventies.
Clearly, in the right hands, fear of bears can be a powerful motivational tool. Now if only we could think of a way of triggering Mathilde’s flight response in the starting blocks …
I wonder what ever happened to that bear suit, anyway? We test the strategy tonight.
James Fox-Smith, publisher
* A Note from the Publisher: Sometimes this column has a way of wandering off-topic. Sometimes it doesn’t ever wander back. You might notice that the feature focus of this issue is supposed to be “Festivals.” But this month’s calendar and feature sections are chock-full of festivals, and no interesting personal anecdotes involving festivals leap immediately to mind, so I thought I’d indulge in this bit of free-association instead. If you’re feeling cheated by the lack of thematic relevance, I’m pleased to direct your attention to our listing for the Bayou Teche Black Bear Festival, the fourteenth iteration of which returns to Franklin, Louisiana, this April 21 and 22. You’ll find it here.