Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Day My Father Brought The Bear Home To Dinner

Tales From The Old South

By Guest Blogger Eric Crowe

This story first needs some background and explanation about its setting: south Florida, Palm Beach County in the 1950’s. In those days there were three very distinct versions of that place. They coexisted geographically on an east to west axis, with only a few areas of uneasy overlap. There was First Florida, or Florida One. It was the grand, old-money winter resort inhabited periodically by the likes of the Kennedys, Vanderbilts, Whitneys, Reynolds and spawn of other robber barons and society elite. It had chic shops, art galleries, live theatre and lots of royal palms that waved in the ocean breeze. You could get an extra dry martini, Lacoste polo shirt or a yachting cap there at, well, the drop of a hat. It had lots of private beach clubs, many golf courses and even some polo grounds. Its boundaries ran along the coast from Vero Beach south to Boca Raton. (There were lots of places south of Boca that were as moneyed as First Florida, but still did not inhabit its own special cultural niche.) First Florida started at the edge of the Atlantic ocean and stopped pretty much at the edge of the Inter-Coastal waterway. 

Then there was Second Florida. It was peopled mainly by less-moneyed snowbirds of a lower social and cultural class that those in First. They were people who came from places like Canada, New York and Ohio to stay for a couple of weeks or a month. Along with them were lots of pipe-suckinggiant-hat-glasses-and-orthopedic-shoe-wearing retirees. In Second, many of the restaurants featured early-bird seating and sunset specials. Second was also where most of us permanent residents who earned their living providing goods, services and entertainment to First Florida and Second Florida lived. You could readily get some sansabelt slacks, a shuffleboard cue or some fuller’s earth for your pool filter in Second. Except for a few odd pockets like Briny Breezes and Lantana that intruded into first territory, Second lay to the west of the Inter-Coastal, where it extended a few miles, or sometimes only a few hundred yards further west-ward. Second ended at about the point where no trace of the ocean breezes penetrated inland unless there was a hurricane. 

Then there was Florida Three, the old-original Florida. It ran west from about the point the trade winds no longer penetrated eastward into the wilds of lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. Florida Three had few resorts, not many snowbirds or retirees and little to no patience or regard for Florida One or Two. Instead, what it had were ranchers, farmers, swampers and other people who lived mainly off the land in one way or another. You could get catfish and hushpuppies, shells for a 4-10 or Can’t Bust-em overalls with the front-flap in Three quick as you could spit some chaw. Its inhabitants were mainly black, brown or red of skin and/or neck. They didn’t need or use Coppertone and were proud of it. 

Three was filled with things that bit, scratched, punctured and poisoned. Things that made you jump when they went bump in the night. It had stuff like gators and garfish, rattlesnakes and water moccasins, snapping turtles and big land tortoises. It had lots of insects that bit, like mosquitos, chiggers, and fire ants. It had giant, leathery bugs that looked like they would bite or sting, even if they didn’t. It also had lots of plants that cut, poisoned and stuck you. Plants like sandspurs, saw-grass, palmettos, Spanish bayonets and many other thorny or itchy things. Most of the dogs that lived in Three had ticks, and it was not considered remarkable if they had lost an eye or a leg. A great deal of Three consisted of miles of palmettos interspersed with scrub pines and grassland, but there were also lots of canals and swamps covered in algae and hyacinth. It was pretty uniformly hot, humid and flat in Three. 

My earliest memories are of living where Florida Two ran into Florida Three. We lived on Luzon Avenue. It was way west of Lake Worth and even west of Military Trail, a geographic and cultural dividing line. If you wanted to be charitable you could say Luzon Avenue was a westernmost outpost of Two, but most of it was really in and part of Three. We lived there because this was where my father built our house. 

My dad worked in Florida Two as a dispatcher and foreman for the Rinker truck drivers. (More on that later.) Our house was pretty large for just the three of us because, as the dispatcher for a concrete block and transit mix company, he got a very good deal on these main construction materials (i.e., free). But since we also had to have some land to put that house on, that land was in Three. This was because land was cheap in Three. Moreover, you could build pretty much whatever kind of house you wanted to, and build it however you wanted to do it. No pesky building inspectors involved. This suited my father’s philosophy, as well as his house-building skills. It also explained the rather unique means by which the hot water heater connected to the bathrooms and the kitchen. 

So our house was on Luzon Avenue-nominally a far-flung outpost of Two, but really in Three. The first clue about this was that Luzon Avenue wasn't paved. It was a "shell rock" road of crushed white coquina and coral. Everyone could spot this as an old-Florida road material. If that wasn’t enough tip-off, conditions at the end of Luzon Avenue left no doubt. While the first house on the street was a tidy bungalow with green awnings, in which Emily and Vincent Pangalon lived (i.e., some of the people who put the Luzon onto Luzon Ave.), the shell rock ended at the gate to the O' Neil's place. It was just sand and dirt from that point onward. 

The O'Neil's were large and a lively bunch. Their family had been living in the area way before anyone else moved in. They turned out to be good neighbors and friends, especially in a pinch. But this was hard to predict from first impressions. None of the senior O' Neil’s, Grady or Lynne, or Grady’s brother Jelly, had any teeth of their own. Moreover, Grady actually still made moonshine and made it on the premises in a still. But I digress. 

The only reason any of this relates to the story of the bear who came to dinner is simply that you must be introduced to the fact that our house and roads we travelled to get to it were in Three. These roads were frequented by all sorts of travelers who were not often to be found in One or Two. This is why, as my father and I were heading back home one Sunday afternoon, from some sort of errand or other, he didn't seem to be all that surprised when we came upon the man standing on the shoulder of the road next to the canal, with his thumb out, hitchhiking with the bear. 

When he saw them, dad immediately began to slow down. We pulled to a stop just past where they were standing. Dad backed the Impala up and asked the guy if he needed a ride. He said they did. So dad and the guy talked for a while about whether the bear was a good passenger. The guy allowed as how he was. He said the bear was well mannered, used to car travel, and what's more, unusually presentable at the moment, since it had just had a bath in the canal. After a little more discussion it was decided that there was plenty of room for all of us in the car, as it was a convertible and we already had the top down, as long as all the humans rode in front. 

So I scooted into the middle, the guy got in next to me and the bear got in the back seat. I could tell that the guy must be telling the truth about the bear’s bath as soon as it got in the car, because it was still pretty damp and smelled like canal water. My father and the guy quickly became occupied talking about where he was coming from (a town somewhere south of us where a circus had just ended its season) and headed to (Winter Haven, a circus winter-quarters town to the north). But I was too preoccupied by the bear in the backseat to pay much attention to this conversation. 

I was kneeling on the front seat facing back toward the bear because somebody had to keep an eye on things. The Impala had a red leather bench backseat. When the bear sat on it, the whole seat squished down to no more than about three inches high. This seemed surprising, not just because of what it revealed about the weight of the creature sitting on it. It was also surprising because my father usually worried about preserving the condition of the leather so much that whenever I rode in the back seat I had to take off my shoes. 

At first the bear just sat there, enjoying the breeze of our passage that had chased away the gnats and bugs that were surrounding it. The bear had a muzzle on. The muzzle was attached to a chain and the guy was holding onto the chain. That seemed somewhat reassuring. At least for a while, until, as I watched it and the bear looked right back at me with its big, dark-brown eyes, it just reached up and unsnapped the muzzle. Surprise! 

It seemed like it took forever for my exclamations to penetrate the conversation going on in the front seat. When I eventually broke through with pointed comments about "hey, it took off the muzzle" the guy finally turned around and looked. He kind of jerked the chain around and said something like "cut that out." Then (I swear this is true) the bear just put the muzzle back on. No further fuss or discussion ensued. Nothing about the fact that the bear could take its muzzle off-or put it back on. 

At some point, while I was focused on seeing if it would remove the muzzle again, or maybe do something others thought was remarkable, my father invited the hitchhikers to our house for dinner. Although I might not have known that bears were such good hitchhikers or could take off and put on muzzles until just then, I knew that this spelled trouble. 
Arla and Eric Crowe

It was not just the surprise of suddenly appearing home with unannounced and unexpected dinner guests. My mom was pretty used to things like that happening. She was almost always happy to have company, but the problem was way more complex than that. It involved first, that mom was now sitting at home with a broken leg in a giant cast. (More on that later.) Second, it involved the fact that it would be Auntie Anne to whom we were bringing these guests home for Sunday dinner. 

Auntie Anne had raised my mother. Although she was not vocal about her disapproval of my father, it was still palpable. While my mother often enjoyed it when my father hatched some crazy plan, Auntie Anne did not. Auntie Anne not only did not much approve of my father, she was also not that happy to be stuck in Three. In winter she was usually in One, where she spent her time in a cabana on the beach enjoying those trade winds and going out to dinner someplace that had a view. Instead, she was now sweltering at our house, where the fan just made you hotter, while she tended to Mom whose leg cast, from toes to hip, severely limited her usually prodigious ability to dispense hospitality. 

So I smelled trouble brewing. When we pulled up in front, my father jumped out and began to yell: "Arla, Ar! You gotta see what I brought you." "What is it?" "A bear." "A what?" "It's a bear that was hitchhiking with its owner and we picked them up." "Well bring them in, you know I'm stuck here on the couch." (Mom later related that at that point she thought, given that my father was somewhat prone to exaggeration, that he must have been referring to a big dog, or to one of his hairier buddies, but not a real, actual bear.) So dad dutifully began to escort the guy and the bear toward the front door. 

Then the screen door opened with a bang. Auntie Anne stood in the doorway. Her arms were crossed and she was quietly composed, but the look of frosty resolution in her eyes made everything just stop. It was only many, many years later, when I saw the scene where Gandalf confronts the Balrog on the bridge, that I ever encountered anything quite like that moment again. "Bob Crowe, you are NOT bringing that bear into this house." She stood there, all five foot one and ninety pounds of her and she didn't even yell, except for the NOT. But we all knew that bear was not coming into the house. Even the bear knew. Bear, you shall not pass! 

After a while things calmed down. My mother was able to peek out the front window and see for herself that it was indeed a bear, whereupon she concurred that it was not invited into the house. The guy was invited to dinner. The bear stayed in the yard. I think we had chicken and the bear had some Gravy Train. Many stories were told, but the only other clear memory I have left of the evening from that point on, was about after dinner, when we went out to hang with the bear. 

It had been sitting out there for quite a while by then and had attracted a pretty good sized gathering, at least for our sparse neighborhood. Among the onlookers was my arch-rival, Butchie Holmes. So it felt pretty good when the guy had the bear do a few tricks for us, and really good when the guy asked if I wanted to ride the bear. He put me on the bear's shoulders and it kind of loped around the yard for a minute. Beat that, Butchie. A couple of other kids got rides, but not Butchie. 

Then the guy and the bear got back in the Impala and my father drove them somewhere to catch the next ride toward Winter Haven. 

Bob Crowe and Santa Claus


  1. Oh wait! Your brother wrote this! Kudos to him, too!

  2. Fantabulous writing - well rendered and very funny.

  3. This looks like "The New Yorker" (magazine) material!

  4. Cute picture of young Eric on his tricycle!

  5. Wow. Really fun read. Loved it. Write some more!