"Bear," he said, "the name's Bear."
"But the teachers call you Barry," I responded, innocently believing in the school bureaucracy.
"Bear!" he growled. I made a mental note to inform the Leadville High School secretary of her error, and accepted that a guy ought to know his own name.
"Anyway," I continued, "they didn't invite me either. No one gets invited to Skip Day. We all just ditch school and go to Twin Lakes and drink beer."
What I had told him was true - basically. I wasn't one of the in-crowd at LHS because my parents weren't on the list of significant donors to the Annunciation Church's Christmas fund; they weren't related to anybody in city politics, and my school clothes obviously came from Penny's, but I'd spent my young life convinced that I was as good as the high-brows, and considering my habit of discussing pretentiousness and big-city ostentation, I was pretty well expected to show up at most events. Some of the more liberal even invited me from time to time. But I was stretching things a bit.
Bear's mom worked in a bar. Not in Fadiga's, where the lady bartender was an ex-mayor's alcoholic daughter, or the historic family-owned Silver Dollar where Doc Holiday had been served, but in the Miner's Club where loose women were said to congregate and, it was rumored, she often out-drank her customers. Bear didn't have a father, and he had a surly disposition. Three strikes. And he posed as a hot-tempered school bully.
"Naw, I ain't goin'," he said. This was a week before Skip Day.
We spent a lot of time sitting together on various Leadville curbs over the next few days. We talked a lot about joining the service, but most of our time was spent rubbing pennies on the cement sidewalk next to our butts.
"You're not as tough as you act," I ventured. "The only reason nobody will fight you is 'cause you always brag about your knife collection. They think if they face up to you, you'll pull a knife. I know you wouldn't, but you've got them buffaloed."
We scraped the copper coins on the concrete.
"I could kick your ass right now," he stood up, temper flaring, "an' anybody else in school."
I rolled my eyes. I was almost five-feet-eight, and he was shorter than me. "Calm down bad ass; save it for the Marine Corps. I examined the penny he was holding. "Now you gotta roll it on its edge to reduce the diameter." You ain't no bear, you're a gahdam Teddy-bear."
Eventually, we both managed to wear down our pennies to the size of a dime, and went to the cigarette machine and bought a pack of Luckies with our counterfeit coins.
Bear and I made many more dime-sized pennies before Skip Day rolled around. On one occasion, we almost decided to start a gang. We would name it Le Morte. French for DEATH. He would be the leader, of course, and he decided I should be its legal counsel. We ticked off names of other recruits but postponed further action while we evaluated whether or not Leadville was a big enough town to support a gang. We made about thirty fake-dimes.
On the sandy shores of Twin Lakes, someone had figured out a way to supply the beer (we were all under-age), and Bear and I passed out cigarettes to all comers. We were more popular than the Coors distributors on the big day.
Bear had developed so much confidence in his new-found acceptance that he fell in love with the prettiest girl in school - who was beyond even my wildest dreams - and then he made the mistake of telling her so. We'd had about two beers, and three packs of cigarettes, so I was feeling silly and he was feeling reckless.
Apparently his rejection was unambiguous and abrupt, because all the pain and anger was back in his eyes as we drove home. There was no time for consolation; the half-hour trip to Twin Lakes took eight minutes with him behind the wheel. I just hung on.
Bear never spoke to me again, and a little while later, he left Leadville. The Miner's Club burned to the ground about the same time and his mom left, but I cannot remember if the events were related. I never heard from him again, but I feared that his rebellious tendencies, or his obsession with weapons might have landed him in jail. While I knew his temper was well-controlled, this fact was not obvious to strangers.
Years later, I heard a song coming from the radio of my diesel submarine patrolling in the Gulf of Tonkin: 'We are the men of the Green Beret...' by Barry Sadler - a Vietnam hero. I thought of the coincidental name as I looked through the periscope and watched the bright flashes of ordinance exploding on the mainland. I was sadly aware that each illumination was a visual manifestation of death possibly of Americans Id known. The same thoughts occurred on several past patrols in the same area but on this particular one, I stepped into the crews mess to the sounds of a new tune.
Good song, I said to no one in particular as I drained a cup of coffee from the urn.
Yeah, its by a guy named Barry Sadler. He really is a Green Baret. Someone answered.
Who? Hed caught my attention, Spell the name.
He did, and I decided that it was just too far-fetched. I managed to push it out of my head for several more watches, but I couldnt shake the feeling that Bear might really be out there somewhere. I finally rounded up the records album cover and there in bold color was a picture of the Bear! After that I tended to skim quickly almost guiltily past the balls of fire blooming on the beach. I was looking for downed pilots, surface vessels and enemy patrol craft, which required a different, less uncomfortable, use of the brain.
Bear died mysteriously years later in Mexico. They say he killed himself. He may have been justifiably bitter about some things in life, family, and love, but he didnt commit suicide. I saw his wide grin as he rubbed skin off his fingers to deprive the government of a few pennies of cigarette tax, and I saw his death defying grimace as he drove so fast that survival was secondary to his pride. I didnt know him long, but I knew him well enough to know he faced problems standing up.
My first thought on hearing of his death was to wish Id been able to keep him with me to serve the Country in a calmer way. Hed have made a hell of a submarine sailor. Still, his way of focusing internal agonies should be an example to all young men from whatever background; he was solidly American.
An excerpt from an interview with Bear from Guns Magazine (July, 1989) may be particularly timely:
GUNS: So you feelings are, then, that the U.S. should have learned from the Viet Cong?
SADLER: Absolutely. This massive guilt -- I don't know what it is, politicians get into social relevance garbage -- can't cross a border. Borders are made to be crossed. It's an imaginary line, and if the enemy has access to it, why shouldn't we? I couldn't understand that. It was ridiculous.