I Wrestled a Bear
for Ten Dollars
on the Fourth of July.
Sippin' a Few Olympias
with Paperlegs Pete.
By DeWayne Davis
DATELINE: Saturday, March 1, 2003
Rachel, Nevada, USA
It is true that I wrestled a 350-pound black sow bear in a cage for ten dollars in McCall, Idaho, on the Fourth of July, 1953.
I was working in the Smoke Jumpers, and had just completed my training, which was quite rigorous. One requirement was to climb an inch-and-a-half-thick rope, twenty feet from ground to the top. We had to hold our feet straight-out, making a right angle with our bodies, hand-over-hand, twenty-feet up, twenty-feet back down. At the bottom we had to dust our fannies without releasing our grip on the rope — then back up and down again, without hesitation. We had very rigorous training on the order of what the Seals do these days, but all dry land.
A Way of Tellin' Tales.
Now listen. I'm going to tell you this story as best I can, because I know there's still some flint left to spark my aging mind. But I'll let you know up-front that I have a way of tellin' tales that slips in and out of linear time. Every day here in the desert of my memories is like a dream, and they just keep bubblin'-up from what Jung calls The Collective Unconscious. I wish I could invent a dream recorder to catch my memories on the fly before the conscious mind forgets them, and then re-files them behind the conscious screen.
A bit of history: Smoke jumping began in the early days of Word War Two when army paratroopers were dispatched to remote areas of the Rocky Mountains to fight otherwise inaccessible forest fires. Later, the U.S. Forest Service, employing army paratrooper veterans and a few other intrepid men, fought the remote forest fires. Smokejumpers were deployed in Ford Tri-Motors, Noorduyns, Ford Travelaires, and C-46 aircraft flown by skilled mountain pilots from the Johnson Flying Service out of Missoula in Montana, McCall and Idaho City in Idaho, and Cave Junction in Oregon. By the time I signed up, a few adventurous college students and professors were also spending their summers as Smoke Jumpers.
By the Fourth I had six practice jumps and a couple of fire jumps under my belt. I was packin' parachutes, too — a rare privilege for a first-year Jumper. Rule One was: You practice packing until your mentor clears you. My friend Paperlegs Petersen trained me. Rule Two was: a packer jumps the first chute his mentor approves. Sort of gives old Murphy a headache! (For you youngsters, Murphy is the mythical character who created the law that states: If something can go wrong, it will go wrong. We call it Murphy's Law.)
Well, as I said, it was the Fourth of July. I'd done the usual routine to keep my weight under one-hundred-eighty pounds. First the standard extra set of calisthenics, then a jump on the trampoline for about an hour, and then beatin' the speed-bag for another hour before a quick dash over the obstacle course. I threw in two rope climbs for good measure. I'll admit, the food was so good and so healthy that I really had to work at it to keep my weight down to the max jump limit of one eighty. I pushed the limit to the edge, but I was lean.
Me 'n Pete Get Thirsty.
After a shower, me and Paperlegs decided to walk the mile or so downtown to McCall, and have us a beer. Paperlegs was about six-feet tall, slender with blond Swedish hair. He earned his nickname during an army jump in which he broke both legs. Seeing Pete stride along the road in easy rhythm, one wouldn't have guessed him to be a Jumper. He was easy mannered, not quick to rile, but he could whip his weight in wildcats if the necessity ever arose. His way of disarming a potential foe was to turn the conflict into a joke.
McCall was a typical Rocky Mountain town of about five thousand year 'round people, whose number swelled to about twenty thousand during the summer tourist season. In 1953 there were several bars that were supposed to close at midnight, but often the only thing closed were the doors. Inside, the parties continued.
Geographically, McCall stands about a mile above sea level and is surrounded by mountains that rise at least twice that high. It's downright beautiful with a valley of meadows punctuated by forested hills with the Payette River running through it. The river meanders through the valley and meadows. In the summer the Payette River becomes a raging torrent as the mountain snow melts. McCall people are proud of their Jumpers. We save their forests, which are their bread and butter, so to speak.
On our walk to town, Paperlegs, with his subtle and macabre sense of humor, kept talking about the danger of crystallizing D-rings and other such theoretical hazards that Murphy might have in store for a rookie jumping in his first chute-packed-to-jump. The one I'd packed was an Eagle chute with two control slots, but no tail like the other chute called the Pioneer. An Eagle snapped open and had a propensity to form May-Wests and inversions, both nasty things for a Jumper. I'd experienced one May-West while jumping an Eagle. The chute twisted into a nasty thing we called an inversion, which moved the control slots to the front. Result: I drifted toward earth backwards instead of forward, and when I pulled the right control cord, it sent me to the left, and vice versa. I think that's the way it was. I was totally confused! Let's just say that Murphy was calling the shots on that jump, but I was pretty sharp, and other than landing in knee-deep water a half-mile from the jump target, I was pretty cool.
At the bar, me and Pete got thirsty. We never were content to down just one beer. We drank Olympia lager in one of our favorite bars down on the main drag. There were other Jumpers there, along with tourists and the regulars, mainly lumberjacks.
The Path Led Right to the Bear.
After about three Olys each, we headed back to camp. Pete was still carrying-on about crystallizing D-rings and other Murphy pranks, said they are just hangin' there in the wind for rookies. For some reason we took a different path back to the camp, a path that led right past a man in a circus cage. We stopped to watch a couple of ten-year-old kids tryin' to pin a cinnamon colored black bear cub to the floor of the cage. Of course they couldn't do it. The five bucks the carnival barker had offered the boys if they could win the match — well, it remained unclaimed.
When the boys stumbled out of the cage, the bear-owner traded the cub for a full-grown, 350-pound black sow bear. "She's gotter teeth pulled and all her claws clipped," the barker-bear master chattered in his grating voice. "I'll pay any man ten dollars if'n he can wrestle this old she-bear to the floor and hold her there for a minute."
"Well," I said boldly to Pete, "I could use ten bucks." I was thinkin' about the coming fall of the year and Texas A&M. A hometown Aggie benefactor had offered me a three-hundred-dollar academic scholarship with the promise of a full, four-year football scholarship if I could make the freshman team. But I still needed spendin' money. All the same, I was too bashful to volunteer for the wrasslin' match.
Courage Is Roused by Memories.
As I watched that old bear, I began to work through certain memories to build-up my courage. Yes, I'd been in the United States Marine Corps a couple of months when I was sixteen. I remembered my fight with an ex-professional football player named Cherry, who was the platoon bully. Cherry poked me in the eye with his elbow when we were "playing" touch football. Marines, I'd learned, play rough. I'd also learned that a Marine does what he's gotta do, so when Cherry elbowed me, I jumped him. I had him down under me and was pounding his head. My conscience spoke up, and just when I was thinkin' about lettin' him go, Cherry yelled, "Let me up, you son-of-a-bitch." He shudda kept his mouth shut. I glanced up at the circle of men watchin' us and saw the platoon drill instructor, who shook his head and commanded: "Not yet, Davis". So I pounded the tough-guy some more for insulting my Mom. That was in '51.
That same summer, back home in Texas, I almost killed an Eighty-Second Airborne guy who told me his hands were lethal weapons. "I'll kill you with these hands," the twenty-two-year-old army boy threatened. The fight lasted about eight seconds. I mean, I was running ten miles a day, beatin' the speed-bag an hour or more without missing a lick. He shudda kept his mouth shut. I jumped, and eight seconds later the parachutist was unconscious at my feet, bleedin' from the mouth, nose and ears. He tried to get back on his feet, so I snapped his head and squeezed it between my knees, prayin' out-loud: "Stay down, you stupid son-of-a-bitch. Yore whupped." I'm not exaggerating, he collapsed into a coma for maybe two weeks, and I prayed to my Maker that he wake-up okay. He did, too. The airborne Colonel and Judge Lewis, my hometown mentor, let me off. Things were just different in those days.
Now that I think of it, it was not that Judge Lewis "let me off." He just honored the law of the land. I did odd jobs for Judge Lewis, and I drank beer with Judge John Tom Higgins. The two of them alternated being judge. Then there was the Sheriff's Office, whose deputies tended to watch out for me. My ancestors were county sheriffs and Texas Rangers. I knew the law, too. If a man threatens another's life, and if the aggressor has the means to carry-out the threat, then the threatened party can respond by shooting the son-of-a-bitch on the spot. Self-defense was valid under Common Law and Statute Law in Texas, where the legal matrix is based on old Spanish precepts and English common law. At that time, 1953, it was still lawful for a man to shoot his wife if he caught her in the act of adultry. It was not lawful for a wife to shoot her husband if she caught him in a similar act.
Then there was the summer of '52. I spent it up around Potlatch, Idaho, working with some college wrestlers from Iowa State University. They were psychology majors, but they taught me more about wrestling than about the mysteries of the human mind. We were hands-on, one on one, wrestling every day. We did talk some psych in the evenings, and I learned a bit about that discipline, too.
Then, my senior year in high school, I won the Central Texas Golden Gloves Heavyweight Boxing Championship.
I was in this reverie when Paperlegs spoke up and volunteered me for the Bear Fight. One might say I was duly prepared.
A Blow-by-Blow Account.
There wasn't much to the fight. I had no inkling how fast a bear can be. She gnawed on my arm with toothless jaws. And she swatted me hard with clawless paws. Almost clawless, that is. A few of her claws weren't completely clipped, so she ripped a couple of three-inch lacerations above my left kidney. I stuck with her, however, and pretty soon I learned how to fake her out. When I had her off-balance, I'd put my heel behind one of her legs, and down she'd go with me right after, on top, grappling with all the man-strength I could muster. But every time I just about had her pinned, that bear keeper son-of-a-bitch would shock her with a "hot stick," and she'd get back on her feet, gnaw on my arm and neck, and slap the hell out of me with her forepaws.
I told that bear keeper, "Stop shocking that she-bear," but he wouldn't.
I had to develop a strategy. I'm not going to go into what I did to overcome the shocks that ole she-bear was getting from that hot stick, but I tried it, and it worked. I pinned her for two minutes, watching my wristwatch as I held her down. Then I got up. She stayed down. I said to the barker, "Give me my ten bucks."
"Lassies and gentlemuns of tha audience," he said. "I didn't know this man was a professional wrestler. I cain't pay no professional wrestler to pin ma baby black bear!"
"I pinned her, fair 'n square. Now pay me my ten bucks, you lyin' son-of-a-bitch!"
"Stay away from me mister. I think you killed ma bear!" The she-bear had begun to rouse.
"Gimme that goddammed hot stick!" He handed it to me. "What ya gonna do with that hot stick?" he began to complain, thinking I might find a place to fit it.
"I'm going to sell it for ten bucks somewhere!"
"Somebody call the poleese," he moaned.
Then from out in the crowd, Pete said, "Come on, Davis. I'll pay you yur ten bucks, I got you into this."
Paperlegs Forks over Ten Bucks.
I gave the man back his torture tool, patted the groggy bear on the head, got out of the cage, and put on my shirt. Paperlegs gave me my ten bucks. From the crowd, up walked a pretty 18-year-old daughter of a Forest Ranger I'd done some extra work for. Coyly she said, "My, DeWayne, I didn't know you were sooooo strong and sooooo muscular. And I had no idea you were a professional wrestler."
On the way home, Paperlegs gave his opinion. "Davis, you sure looked stupid in there, walerin around with that old she-bear," he barked. "If she hadn't a'had a stroke or heart attack, she'd'a cleaned yer plow!"
I was sweaty and wore-out from wrestlin' that bear, and the adrenalin from my argument with that bearbaiter was dyin' down, but Paperlegs kept up his brilliant commentary all the way back to the camp. I was glad to say good night.
Next morning, we jumped. Pete was my spotter on a smoking snag about five miles above Chamberlain Ranger Station. I wasn't thinkin' about no bear. It was time for action.
Maybe Paperlegs shouldn't have dropped us in that high wind without much of a jump-spot to land on, but Woody and I were determined to put out the blaze before it became a raging forest fire. Pete had waited almost all day for the wind to die down, but it hadn't, and we had a job to do, so we jumped. It was a judgment call. I don't fault Pete on his decision. He had one hell of a lot more experience than I had. Still, that wind was awful high. Finding a landing spot was pretty slim pickins.
If you're interested in these kinds of things, an Eagle parachute has slots for steering and travels about eight miles-per-hour horizontally across the earth, maybe fifteen miles-per-hour vertically — that is, if the guy attached to it doesn't weigh one hundred eighty pounds. A Pioneer parachute — with slots, a tail, and three looser panels at the rear of the canopy — had a faster forward speed, but slower descent. The Pioneer opened more reliably and with less opening shock than an Eagle, but for some reason I preferred the Eagle.
When Paperlegs slapped me on the back, the pilot cut the Tri-Motor's throttles back and raised her tail. I stepped out, but must have angled over onto my side. When that Eagle chute snapped open, a riser slapped me hard on the side of my helmet and knocked me plum out. The wind was way too high, and at first, as I came back toward consciousness, I thought I was still in the airplane. My tailless Eagle, drifting at about eight miles-per-hour, was crawlin' like a turtle. So in violation of all my safety training, I turned downwind and searched for a tree. I found one. Swoosh. Like landing on an air mattress.
Then I looked for Woody, second jumper out. He followed the rules. When he hit a downed log, I heard a loud crack. I thought he'd broke his back.
Signals Traced on the Ground.
Pete kept circling as he was supposed to. Woody, winded, couldn't talk. I told him I was going to signal for a radio, the standard safety procedure if one or more Jumpers are seriously hurt. The visual signal to the spotter in the plane above was an "R," laid-out on the ground with shiny-orange nylon ribbons about six or eight feet long and about eight to ten inches wide. (We displayed different letters for different requirements. We didn't have many portable two-way radios in those days; they were costly, and because they used vacuum tubes instead of solid-state electronics, they were very fragile.)
"No. I'm okay, Davis. No need for the 'R'. Signal two Ls," Woody told me. I did. I laid-out an orange-ribbon "LL," meaning, "Okay, Pete." The Ford Tri-Motor lumbered off to the west.
It was a small fire, easy enough to extinguish. I was fire boss. Woody didn't like it, but I made him stay in camp. He was hurt and spittin' blood. So he rested 'til time came for us to head downhill to the Ranger station.
It was getting dark. I could hardly see the trail. We were descending the mountain above Chamberlain Ranger Station fast as Woody could muster in his improving condition. Chamberlain Basin was high in the Saw Tooth Mountains. It was in an elevated meadow about fifteen miles uphill from the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. There were only two ways in: by air, or three days by mule.
At dusk I heard a snort, a crash, a bam and bang. I ran smack into an elk, which snorted, whistled, and clamored off the trail toward the west.
Can Anyone Give Me a Hoot?
Woody followed about a hundred yards behind me. The sun was down as we trekked in the darkening shadows of the hundred-foot pine and fir trees. I was carrying my regular load in my elephant bag, about a hundred and ten pounds, plus the extra stuff, and some of my partner's baggage — in spite of his objections — 'cause I knew he had not yet fully recovered from his crash landing.
Through the dark trees, I'd get a glimpse, now and then, of the Station in the valley meadow below, still visible in the darkening dusk. Off to the north, and to the west, I could see flashes of dry lightening. The sounds of distant thunder rolled over the peaks. Sparky is busy lighting old dry snags and trees somewhere tonight, making more work for us Jumpers, I thought as we approached the Station. The sky was nearly black, and my partner stumbled as we crossed a meandering stream.
"Hoot!" I yelled. It was the Smoke Jumper's identifying call because its low-range sound carried so well in the forest.
I heard an answer. "Hoot," said one voice. "Hoot," said a different voice, and "Hoot" in yet another. What a welcome sound! They knew we were coming. They'd been told to expect us. They just didn't know exactly when.
"Kitchen still open?" I asked.
"Leftovers," came the answer. Then, "A plane will pick you guys up at daylight. Dry lightening. Your new gear's all-packed at McCall."
That's the way it was in '53, up in Idaho, workin' as a Smoke Jumper and fightin' a bear.
DeWayne Davis in 1953 and today. The jumper is pictured on the McCall Smokejumpers Unofficial Website. He is jumping in an Eagle chute.
Who Is this Man
Who Fights Bears
and Jumps into Fires?
DeWayne Carroll Davis is an adventurer, raconteur, and world traveler, who settled in the lonely desert town of Rachel, Nevada, a few years ago — and intends to stay awhile. A native-born Texan and proud of it, Mr. Davis entered this world kickin' and screamin' in 1934. He's been drivin' full-steam ahead ever since.
He killed his first bottle of Cream of Kentucky bourbon on a bet in 1950. At age sixteen he snuck into the U.S. Marine Corps and lasted until his mom found out and politely asked the government to send her child back home to Lampasas, Texas. A U.S. Air Force navigator, inventor, and long-time resident of Brazil, Mr. Davis was a bottling company chemist, production manager of a banana plantation, journeyman lineman, mining company executive, microelectronics weapons project manager, and who knows what else during his productive, sometimes rocky, and always interesting career.
Mr. Davis moved to Rachel in 1997 "because I wanted clean air, clean water, and beautiful scenery." Rachel is a stone's throw from the northern boundary of Area-51 and Groom Lake, but Mr. Davis notes: "I know nothing about it. Thank God."
NOTE: DeWayne's e-mail address is email@example.com
*This is the next step toward THE One World Language.
Step Five: Your adjectives in the Ganges.