It started as a lark. Six of us guys sat watching TV one evening in our college dormitory lobby. Someone absently picked up a copy of the local newspaper lying on the sofa.
“Hey, here’s something we can do,” Joe M. announced. (Names are abbreviated to protect the chronically stupid.)
“Doesn’t anyone want to know what it is?” Joe continued.
“What is it then?” someone asked, irritated that Joe was talking during an episode of Soul Train, a music-dance television program that aired from 1971 to 2006, featuring performances by R & B, soul, and pop artists.
“It says we can win $300 just by wrestling a bear.”
In our time with him, Joe had earned a reputation as a shameless schemer, an incorrigible huckster, and an inveterate liar. A native of Memphis, Joe claimed he’d attended high school with Cybill Shepherd when she dated Elvis. He swore he’d been invited to a party Elvis once threw for her. Each guest was given a pink Honda Cub 50 and urged to ride wildly about the grounds of Graceland. Elvis led the caravan.
Joe went on to explain that the bear grappling event was to occur at intermission during a pro wrestling tournament at the local National Guard Armory.
A big, beefy, slow talking Texan named Ray halted Joe’s prattle.
“Look, ain’t nobody can whup a bear. Thems is wild animals. I’m the biggest person in this room, but I got more sense than to try and tackle a bear.”
Ever since October, Ray was expecting a call from the Draft Board. One fateful autumn evening we’d all gathered around the selfsame TV we were watching now. The occasion was the annual draft lottery, during which every nineteen-year-old able-bodied male in the country would discover whether he could continue his education or be plucked out of college and issued a one-way ticket for an all-expenses-paid vacation to Saigon. The war in Vietnam was raging and a good portion of the American public was starting to see the absurdity of our involvement there. The absurdity trickled down to the selection process itself.
Imagine our collective shock when a shapely young woman wearing a bikini was designated to draw slips of paper from two barrels, one containing the names of the months, the other revealing numbers from one to 365. The order in which she drew people’s birthdays was the order in which young men would or wouldn’t be drafted. On separate sheets of paper, we wrote down our dorm mates’ birthdays. The first date drawn from the barrels was March 4. “Ray’s birthday.” For a moment he sat motionless as a stone. I broke the spell of silence.
“Ray, you okay, man?” I asked.
Ray stared straight ahead.
“I’m fine,” he said, then paused. “But I’m going to kill that whore in the bikini.”
The recollection of that evening led me to conclude that wrestling a bear wasn’t nearly as dangerous as being ambushed in the shadows by the Viet Cong.
Meanwhile, Joe was working hard to diminish the dangers of tussling with a four-hundred-pound black bear.
“He’ll be on a leash. He’s got a handler. It only costs thirty dollars to enter. It’s not like it’s a grizzly.”
“I’ll donate to the cause if you’ll wrestle the bear, Joe,” quipped Ricky, my college roommate of two years.
“Not me!” Joe protested. “I’m pudgy. See.”
He pinched a roll of fat hanging over his belt.
“If not you, then who?” Ray sneered.
“Francisco,” Joe declared confidently. “He knows Karate.”
“Kung-fu,” I corrected.
“All the better!” Joe seconded.
I could detect a shift in the lobby’s magnetic field. Those assembled were musing at the prospect that I might prove victorious in my epic battle with the furred colossus, given my superior martial skills. I felt my manhood increasingly on the line. Summoning every molecule of bravado, I heard myself accept the challenge, outlining three conditions.
“First, I get $100 of the $300 prize money. Ya’ll can split the rest. Second, you buy me a steak dinner two hours before the match. Third, you supply me with a quart of Jack Daniels to sip on the way to the venue.”
The event was on! Word traveled throughout the dorm that in forty-eight hours I’d be pitting my fighting prowess against a North American Black Bear with nightly experience in the ring. For two days I tried psyching myself. Attempting to allay my panic, I strode to the library one night and sat for two hours studying the habits and anatomy of black bears. Then it hit me. The newspaper pictures of wrestling bears always showed them rearing on back legs to gain a height advantage. For some reason, human opponents faced the bear straight on, mano-a-mano, trying to grapple with an animal enormously strong and deceptively fast. I reasoned that a bear’s paw strike wasn’t as fast as Sugar Ray Leonard’s jab, but it didn’t have to be. There was more than 400 pounds of impact behind the swat. Often as not, the bear slapped most of its opponents silly. When the would-be warriors folded onto the canvas, the bear’s torso came down like an avalanche. The unfortunate human victim, if quick enough, rolled under the ropes, out of the ring, and onto a cold and unwelcoming floor. Most pictures showed the handler rewarding the bear with a Coca-Cola.
At once, I saw what the puny pugilists had gotten wrong. It was a matter of physics. I abandoned their failed strategies, adopting logic as the golden arrow in my quiver of bear-baiting ploys.
After a hearty meal at the steak house on the eve of the competition, we piled into someone’s car where I sat in the back seat. The front seat passenger passed me the requested bottle of Jack Daniels. I broke the seal and swigged, all pretenses of sipping gone. At first, the whisky cleared my head.
“I’ve got this!” I announced triumphantly.
My bravery escalated by the minute. Unfortunately, alcohol and testosterone impair judgment and retard the memory. I barely recalled the pro wrestling card I’d watched before the intermission when the bear was led into the ring. I sprang out of my seat, barely cognizant of slaps on the back and urgings to join the line of human centurions awaiting their turn with the bear. I tried to focus. In my alcohol induced fog, I recited my painstakingly developed game plan. I just had to remind myself to follow it. Of the two fighters in line before me, both succumbed to the bear’s prowess – one fighter thrown from the ring, one pinned to the canvas. It was my turn. I slid under the ropes, stepping onto the ring’s surface. People I didn’t know cheered me on. The bear’s handler had the behemoth tethered to a chair. To my relief, the bear was muzzled.
I sized up my opponent, telescopically pinpointing my targets of attack. I’d earlier surmised that bears have knees, giving the creatures a center of gravity located between the bear’s hind paws and below the knee joints. If possible, I had to attack the beast at the knee. A side or crescent kick wouldn’t be effective.
Instead, I’d need to body roll a step or two toward the bear’s paws but under his knees. Then I’d scissor one of the bear’s legs and roll in the opposite direction. The bear couldn’t help but topple. It was an immutable law of physics. I congratulated myself for my superior cognitive ability.
What I didn’t count on – the discovery of every Darwin award winner who prefaces a suicidal feat with “Watch this!” – was that the bear would be startled by me. In retrospect, it made sense. If I slipped beneath the beast’s line of vision, that alone would activate his startle reflex. That knowledge came too little too late. I rolled. The bear stutter-stepped backward a pace, making his legs inaccessible to me but making my chest accessible to him. His front paws began the slow-motion descent downward before landing squarely on my pecs. The air squeezed out of me in a rush. The bear’s handler, a toothless old man trickling snuff from his mouth, was laughing it up, deliriously enjoying my misery. With my last gasp of air, I squeaked out: “Get him off!” The old man waited a few seconds before tugging the bear’s chain and pulling him off me. I saw stars, then heard the distant underwater voices of my buddies shouting for me to get out of the ring. As if by instinct, I rolled under the ropes, dropping with a thud onto the floor. My dorm pals hoisted me to my feet. I don’t recall saying it, but they say I said in a tone of battle-tested authority. “Boys, you can’t whup a bear.”
I enjoyed a brief period of notoriety for simply getting into the squared circle with what scientists call Ursus americanus. For some time, people asked what it was like to wrestle a bear. I’d warn against comparing a bear with a large human. “It was more like wrestling a Volkswagen Beetle. You couldn’t hold onto it, but you didn’t dare let it go.”
Years later, I related my erstwhile exploit to my friend David Brown. David was drawing a deck of Hillbilly Tarot cards at the time. Deriving inspiration from my experience, David featured me on a card – wearing a coonskin cap and taming a bear.
I appreciated David’s effort to reproduce my epic struggle with the beast. However, I was no bear whisperer and certainly no Saint Francis. I came clean, telling David then what I’m saying to you in my best hillbilly twang just for the occasion: “If it’s one thang I know fer sure, it’s that you cain’t whup a bear.” Trust me, friends. I can bear witness to it.
**Featured Image: Marc Olivier Jodoin — from Unsplash