Have you ever been asked to fill-in for a co-worker – doing some less than desirable job, which sounded like it might be fun, but which turned into a nightmare?
I have. Unfortunately.
Nearly 30 years ago while working for the Forest Service, I was asked to don the ubiquitous Smokey Bear suit and pay a visit to a class of pre-schoolers. This task usually fell on the shoulders of the fire prevention and engine crewmembers. For some reason, though, they were all busy (or hiding out somewhere). I’m a big guy and it takes a large person to fill the Smokey suit, so an offer was made (“Puhleeze - we REALLY need someone – anyone!”), and I accepted, graciously (“Oh hell – OK”).
As I now recall, it was late summer or early fall….maybe the start of the school year? It was very warm, probably in the high 80s or low 90s.
I had never ‘played’ Smokey before, but had seen people getting into the furry costume. It is a very complicated lash-up; furry boots, denim overalls, a large padded chest that is worn over a cage to make you appear to have a 70” chest and even larger belly and to top it all off a large plastic head. A head with a classic flat-brimmed campaign hat, all trimmed with more furry pieces to make it blend into the chest piece.
The plastic head is the most involved part of the suit. It takes a helper to get into it. Once you have it on, you are stuck in it until you are assisted out of it. One looks out of the “eyes” with a about a 5 degree cone of vision. There is NO peripheral vision to the side, nor up or down. Because Smokey never speaks and his jaw is fixed, the wearer’s chin fits into the space where Smokey’s mouth and tongue would be.
I got into the Smokey suit with the help of a co-worker at the Ranger Station. Then, with difficulty, I got into a truck, and we drove to the preschool located in the local Community Center. I sat in the front seat of the truck, fully dressed, facing south. In the Sun. In 90 degree heat. My driver/helper went into the school to check that the kids were ready for Smokey. I waited and began to sweat.
After what seemed like an hour, my helper re-appeared and said it would be 20 more minutes before Smokey could enter the classroom. I sweat some more.
I have always sweated a lot. Many people have remarked on the amount of my sweating. Sitting in the truck, I felt sweat running all down my body, but especially from my scalp and face…where it ran down my face, dripped off my chin and collected on Smokey’s tongue.
Finally, the helper came back, helped me out of the truck, and led me up the stairs and down the hall to the classroom. Upon entering, the teacher said “Look, children –its Smokey the Bear!”
Shuffling into the classroom Smokey was instantly mobbed by 15 or so 5 year olds. Since I had such limited vision, and swarms of 3-foot tall screaming children were headed for my groin, just under my vision, I did the obvious – I looked down. Whereupon I douched at least 2 or 3 of the little tykes with a cup or two of Bear drool –aka my sweat - which had been collecting on Smokey’s tongue. The most wet of the bunch started screaming, which set up a chain reaction…..and soon the entire class was screaming, crying, and trying to escape the salivating bear who of course was about to start devouring small children.
Many parents had been on hand to assist in the classroom and be there when Smokey appeared. These parents all sought out their wailing children. A near melee ensued. In the excitement, Smokey dropped his shovel (a real one), which clattered to the floor and then Smokey promptly tripped over it.
I wheezed to my helper “get me the hell outa here”. Smokey beat a hasty retreat as his helper quickly guided him out of the classroom. There wasn’t much in the way of fire prevention messaging done that day. Those kids didn’t get to hear “Only you can prevent Forest Fires!”
Strange – I was never asked to play Smokey again. I just hope that the population of 35 year olds in the valley has got over their Bear phobia and that they have a reasonably healthy relationship with fire.