When I was a child, I wanted to be Smokey the Bear when I grew up. I don’t really remember why, but looking back, I can see that Smokey’s story contains many of the elements that move me the most. Like Bambi, Smokey had a tragic childhood. His mother was killed in a forest fire. He lost his home, his friends. That is assuming, of course, that bears have friends. I like to think of baby bears, bunnies, squirrels, and fawns frolicking together in a sunlight dappled glade in the forest. In reality, if a bear saw a fawn, rabbit, or squirrel, his thought was probably not, “Look mama bear. New friends. Can I go play with them? ” Instead, cute little fuzzy baby bear was probably thinking, “Mmm…lunch.”
My mother, Audrey, was, in fact, not killed in a forest fire when I was a child. She is still alive and kicking, despite several frightening episodes with her heart not beating too regularly. My mother didn’t die and I didn’t frolic in the forest with my animal friends, but I still felt drawn to the little bear in the big hat with the story that often brought me to tears.
I had a book about Smokey, and I read it a lot. I probably knew the story by heart, but I really liked the pictures, too. I remember that in most of the pictures, Smokey was wearing pants. And in some, his paws were bandaged because the forest fire that killed his mother had also burned his little paws. Poor baby bear. I am kind of a klutz in the kitchen and always have been, so I could relate to the burned paws. As a child, and even now, I often have burned paws, too. I remember once, as a young adult, I saw an actual photograph of Smokey, taken in his pen in the Washington Zoo shortly before he died. I remember being surprised to see that he looked like a real bear. Where were his pants?
By now, you’re probably thinking, “What does this have to do with trust? Are you going to tell us that you learned about trust from a pants-wearing bear?” My answer is yes and no.
For me, Smokey played the role of the invisible friend when I was a child. He was the one I told my deepest secrets, the one who, because I was actually playing his role too, always agreed with me, always reassured me, and never laughed at me, however outlandish my ideas or fears. In that way, Smokey did teach me to trust. He, or at least my idea of him, taught me how to trust myself. He taught me how to dream and how to take risks, even if most of the risks I took as a child were in my imagination. Even now, I have a stuffed Smokey that sits on a shelf in my office to remind me to persevere when things get tough, to challenge myself when my inclination is to take the easy way out, to always do and be my best. Important lessons for all of us, don’t you think? We all learn these lessons from many sources: wise mentors, life experiences, books, movies, teachers, colleagues, friends and family. But maybe, some of you, like me, learned them from a little bear with scorched paws, sad eyes, and little denim pants. Thank you, Smokey.