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Dancing with Bears

The Journal of Prevarication

By Jim Cook, Official State Liar of Arizona

The old log store building at Clints Well is still there, if you know where to look. A “new” store nearby has reached middle age.

I may be the only one alive who remembers an earlier store, or Ralph Miller’s steam-powered sawmill. The rodeo arena has been gone for 60 years, and so has the old log dance hall. They tore it down that autumn, after my father danced with the bear.

Some people think of Clints Well and Long Valley as being the same place. Clints Well is at the north end of Long Valley, where the highway from Payson splits. One branch goes 60 miles northwest to Flagstaff, the other 60 miles northeast to Winslow.

The place was named for Clint Wingfield, who ran cattle in Long Valley. An outlaw named Black Jack Ketcham killed Wingfield in Camp Verde in 1899, during a robbery of the store Wingfield ran there.

Now that I have dazzled you with that critical piece of historical data, I will hereinafter refer to the place as Long Valley, and not worry about the niceties.

Nowadays, I blow through Long Valley on my way to some other place. But in the 1940s, it was a bright and shining metropolis, compared to where we spent our daily lives.

During summers, Dad was a Forest Service fire guard at General Springs. That was twenty-five hard, unpaved miles from Long Valley. He was on duty twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and to my credit, I will not abbreviate that.

Once a month, after sundown, we were allowed to drive to Long Valley. The ranger at Long Valley Ranger Station, or more likely his wife, phoned the Long Valley Cash Store to let Frank and Nell Hough know we were coming to buy supplies. They would keep the store open for us.

That was an exciting evening. During the previous month, we had only the company of each other–Mom, Dad, my brother Dean and me. We got bored with one another.

Dad was my hero. He took on dangerous jobs, and faced down his fears. He could outhink a forest fire. But he was not an easy man to be around. Mom, a stoic, spent a good deal of time trying to keep Dean and me off of Dad’s nerves.

I can see now that the monthly trip to Long Valley was a safety valve. On this special night, we got to visit with Frank and Nell and their kids, and anyone else who might happen by the store. We first stopped at the ranger station to pick up our mail, then drove about a mile north to the store.

What is now Arizona 87 was then a narrow dirt road, and I was already a Roads Scholar. As the road curved, the store came into sight–a log store building, with living quarters above and behind, lighted like a beacon by the thrumming generator out back. Two red, gravity-flow gas pumps, with calibrated glass tanks at the top, stood out front.

If Nell had been to Winslow or Cottonwood to stock up, she might have some fresh meat for us, supplementing our usual diet of Spam, canned corned beef, Spam, salt cod in little wooden boxes, and Spam.

During World War II, it was hard to get good candy bars, like Hershey’s, or Mars, or the Mounds bar from Peter Paul. If Nell had acquired good candy bars, she’d save a few back for us. But we took whatever we could get.

The drive home was long and dark. The best we could hope for was that we didn’t have a flat tire. One night an elk, crossing the road south of Long Valley, jumped right over the hood of the car, like one of Santa’s reindeer on steroids, flying through the night.

During these trips, Dean and I would caculate how to make our new candy last for a month. The best we ever did was to make some of it last until the next day.

Other things happened at Long Valley in late August, after summer rains had removed the threat of forest fires. I saw a knife fight there, my first encounter with life-threatening violence.

There was an annual rodeo before World War II. I remember only one of those, the year we lived in yet another old log store at the edge of the rodeo grounds.

In 1946, they tired to revive the rodeo, and the dance that followed. The dance hall also was built of logs, and it had six sides. There were benches all around the sides of the dance floor, and a little bandstand.

I envied the dancers moving so gracefully around the floor, and vowed that someday I would become one of them. That dream was never fulfilled, despite any number of dance lessons. When I am on a dance floor, my hips are made of Tinkertoys.

Two things stand out about that night. One was when a drunk sawmill hand ran into the side of the building with his 1937 Ford sedan. That old dance hall did a lively boogie.

The other was the bear. A rancher’s wife was visiting the privy out back. She yelped and came running back into the dance hall, her face pallid. She said there was a bear in the outhouse.

Several men started for the door, thinking about the guns they had so gallantly left in their cars and trucks. But before they could reach the exit, the bear walked in.

Dancers froze. The music trailed off and finally stopped when the fiddler noticed that no one else was playing.

An Arizona black bear is rarely a big animal, but just knowing he’s a bear makes him loom large when he’s right in the room with you. This bear was full-grown, and he seemed supremely self-confident.

All the men longed for their firearms, but none dared go for the door, which probably saved the rest of us from massacre. I stood frozen like the rest, wondering why the grown-ups didn’t do something.

Dad walked over and asked the bear to dance.

After his second request, in a more commanding voice, the bear stood up and embraced him. The band started playing “We’ll Meet Again”–that song still brings tears to my eyes–and Dad began to waltz the bear around the floor. As they danced around and around, Dad whispered into the bear’s ear. At the end of the fourth or fifth lap, he edged the bear over to the door. They bowed to each other, the bear shuffled out, and Dad slammed the door.

Dad never would tell us what he whispered in the bear’s ear. He didn’t want to talk about that night.

Years later, after Dad was gone, I asked Mom what she thought Dad had said to make the bear leave.

She smiled and said, “You never danced with your dad, did you?”

Shoot, I guess it’s hereditary.

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