As sometimes happens, several readers asked about last week’s column. In case you missed it, it was a story about leaving my backpack under the old oak tree in Half Acre Woods, and how when I went to retrieve it the next night a big black snake that had crawled into the backpack managed to crawl out and wrap himself around my neck, and would have no doubt squeezed the life out of me had it not been for a great gray owl swooping down at that very moment and pulling that snake right off my neck.
One reader observed, “George, you’ve had more strange adventures happen to you than any man I’ve ever known.” But it was somewhat troubling that the other readers I spoke with all questioned the veracity of the story. One even asked if it was true, as if to suggest I would make up such a story. I assured him it was true, as all of my stories are, but allowed that since I was only seven at the time maybe my recollection of the details was a bit fuzzy.
Reflecting on this story brings to mind another experience that happened in Half Acre Woods, and this experience happened two years later when I was nine, so my recollection of the details is much clearer.
You can understand, after that scary experience with the snake, I didn’t often venture into Half Acre Woods by myself, and it wasn’t my intention to do so on this particular day in August 1955. As was often the case, I awoke before anyone else in the family, and the first thought that popped into my head was to sneak off to the huckleberry patch to eat my fill, and maybe even get back home before anyone knew I was gone. So I slipped my backpack over my shoulder and headed for Huckleberry Hollow.
When I past Queenie’s doghouse she leaped to her feet and started wagging her tail but I opted to leave her home, not wanting her to go off barking after a rabbit and alert the rest of the family of my whereabouts. The 10-minute walk through the back field and around the edge of Half Acre Woods passed quickly, and my timing was perfect. The bushes were laden with ripe berries, so much so that you could pick them by the handful, which I proceeded to do.
Huckleberries are small, but it didn’t take long to get my fill. The warmth of the sun on my back felt so good, instead of heading home as planned I decided to lie down and rest awhile. And wouldn’t you know, with my backpack serving as a handy pillow, I quickly dozed off.
I have no idea how long I’d slept, but a sudden rustling noise a short distance away awakened me from the visions of huckleberries dancing in my head. I slowly rose to one elbow and looked around. I couldn’t see anything but could still hear the rustling noise and now it was accompanied by a sort of licking and chomping sound. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to know what was making that noise, but as I slowly sat up to look around, not more than six feet away was the fiercest looking black bear I’d ever seen.
Actually, until then I’d only seen a black bear one other time, and that was five years earlier when I was four. We were driving down Horse Heaven Hill on our way home near Newcastle when in the light of the headlights we spotted a black bear. Dad stopped the car and we watched as the bear slowly moseyed across the road. I had experienced that encounter from the safety of the backseat of our car, but now here I was all alone and facing a big old black bear that was as surprised to see me as I was him.
For a long moment we just stared at each other, and then he made a lunge for me. I know you’re not supposed to run from a bear, but a nine-year-old boy doesn’t have many other options, so just as he lunged I leaped to my feet and started to run.
As luck would have it my closest escape route was straight into Half Acre Woods. There was no time to think about being afraid to go there alone. I don’t know if it was because his belly was so full of berries he couldn’t run fast or if I was so afraid that I was able to run faster than ever before, but somehow I managed to stay a paws length out of reach, and without even thinking where I was going I found myself headed straight for the old oak tree.
Upon arriving I immediately dived under the roots of the tree into the little spot I described in last week’s column as being just large enough for a little boy to squeeze into and hide while playing tag or hide and seek. The bear arrived at the tree just seconds behind me, running so fast he couldn’t stop. He slammed into the tree full force but with only room enough for his head to slide into the little opening I had just slipped through. His eyes were bulging wildly and he was growling ferociously, but instead of trying to reach me he was struggling to free himself.
When I realized the bear couldn’t reach me my fear subsided, but I also realized I was as stuck as the bear because he was blocking the only way out. It was then that I noticed a dim light above my head. Looking up through the hollow of the tree I saw an opening where a large limb had fallen leaving a hole that looked like it might be just large enough to slip through.
Quick wit seemed to take over. I slowly slipped my backpack from my shoulder, unzipped it and slipped it over the bear’s head, then zipped it as tight as I could. The bear jerked his head around for a few seconds then, no doubt exhausted, stopped and snorted quietly. Using my hands and feet to press against the insides of the tree trunk I scooted up, stepped on the bear’s head, then jumped and grabbed the opening in the tree.
I scrambled up to the opening, pulled myself through, and then holding on to the hole from the outside of the tree I let go and cushioned my fall by landing squarely on the bear’s back. This made him let out a growl and jerk so hard that he almost dislodged his head. Without taking time to look back I took off for home where I found everyone wondering where I’d gone so early. “Oh, I just went for a walk in Half Acre Woods,” I said.
I waited until late afternoon and then slipped off to the woods to see what had happened to the bear. From a safe distance I could see he had freed himself so I approached the tree. All that remained as evidence of our encounter were a few tufts of fur and my backpack, which was now so shredded it no longer resembled a backpack.
As with my encounter with the black snake at the same oak tree two years earlier, I decided not to tell the family what had happened, knowing as likely as not they would just roll their eyes and say, “Oh good grief, not another one of your backpack adventure stories.”
George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.