Seeing a black bear is not always a pleasant experience.
During that magical summer in 1971, there had been endless bicycle rides to the scenic overlook at T.M. Cheek Memorial and carefree plunges into the mountain-fed waters of the Watoga State Park swimming pool.
The deep red leaves on the oak trees were at their peak. My brother, Ronnie, and I learned about West Virginia’sfuture state animal – the secretive and shy, but intelligent black bear. It wasn’t until 1973 that the black bear became West Virginia’s designated mammal.
My dad, Vernon Dean, worked at the park. We lived near the Beaver Creek Campground. Our home was just a stone’s throw away. Dad, along with Richard Dale, park superintendent, and his teenage son, Jerry, taught Ronnie and me about this magnificent species.
As a camper, cabin guest or resident, you may have seen a black bear during a leisurely bike ride, a hike on one of the park’s many trails or even in the backyard of your favorite cabin at Watoga.
In 1971, bears were not as common as they are today. If you chat with residents of Marlinton, Hillsboro, Seebert or Huntersville, you may hear a vivid tale or two about their encounters with a black bear.
“Come here, I wanna show you boys sumthin’,” Dad said. “Maybe you’ll learn a thing or two.”
“What is it, Dad?” I asked.
“You’ll know soon enough. Just come with me. Hurry up, Ronnie and Johnny!”
Quickly leaving the babbling brook next to our home, Ronnie and I ran excitedly toward the park’s maintenance garage, just below the rustic campground.
“See it, Johnny?”
“No, Dad, what is it?”
“I see it, Dad,” Ronnie said, “and would you look at that? Wow! Oh my gosh!”
“Look at what, Ronnie? What is it?”
“You don’t see it, Johnny? Really?”
“No, not yet. What is it? Where?”
“Come closer, Johnny,” Dad instructed. “And you’ll see.”
I did move closer. Much closer. Amazed, shocked and stunned, I didn’t dare move an inch.
WHAT just happened?
Please email me at email@example.com with your creative finale. Any social media contacts may post on my Facebook page. I will share selected endings in a future blog. Part Two will be the never-before-published story of THE black bear at Watoga State Park.
John lived at Watoga State Park for 16 years until his father, Vernon, retired after 43 years of service.
Since 2001, John has been an editor at Puritas Springs Software, a legal software development company in Hinckley, Ohio. Previously, he was a senior legal editor for an international law firm in Cleveland, Ohio. In the mid-1980s, John was a reporter and bureau chief for The Register-Herald in Beckley, West Virginia. He is currently writing two novels, The Deans and The Jack and Max Story … How Two Black Labs Changed My Life Furever.
“Ronnie, Johnny, Vicki,” Dad yelled. “Come with me. I have somethin’ to show ya.”
Of course, we followed. Thus began the story of Mom’s Bandannas for Freckles while I grew up at Watoga State Park.
“Look what I have,” Dad said wryly, pointing to a weathered cardboard box, our eyes shining with excitement, not sure what we were looking at in the bed of the green Chevy park truck.
“Let me pet it,” I said, trying to squeeze between Ronnie and Vicki. We instinctively reached in, simultaneously touching the baby doe.
“What happened, Dad?” Ronnie wanted to know. “Tell us.”
“Well, I had just gone into the park office and a call came in that the deer’s Mom had been killed on a street in town.”
“Can we keep it?” Ronnie wanted to know. “Can we?”
“Yeah, Dad, can we? Pretty please?” I pleaded. Vicki kept petting the spotted fawn as if it were her dog, her blonde hair glistening in the late summer sunlight, her eyes a brilliant blue.
“Of course you kids can. But, we have to find a place to put him ’cause Vadie won’t let ya keep him in the house.”
Devada, or Vadie as she was known by most, did not even weigh 90 pounds soaking wet. Mom’s short jet black hair accented her expressive brown eyes. Her small facial features gave her a serious look most of the time, but when she smiled or laughed, she became the beauty that Vern had met from Lobelia, about 10 miles from the park. Mom and Dad were married March 7, 1937.
Most of the time, Mom’s biggest concerns were to make sure the gardens at Ma’s and Pap’s nearby farm produced enough food to make it through the sometimes brutal winters and that we had school clothes to wear come fall.
Dad’s salt and pepper hair complimented his black plastic-framed glasses that seemed to always slip down his suntanned nose. His friends called him Vern or Vernon.
When it was time to name the fawn, my sister, Della, chose to honor Robert F. Kennedy and his beloved English springer spaniel, Freckles. Bobby, the former U.S. Attorney General, U.S. senator from New York and President John F. Kennedy’s brother, was Della’s teenage heartthrob. It was late summer 1967, less than a year before RFK would be assassinated in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968 by Sirhan Sirhan.
Growing up at Watoga State Park, Freckles lived in the park’s barracks, a long, brown-sided fortress, about 50 yards or so from our home, nestled along a pine-tree laden lane bordered by a small mountain stream. Freckles’ new home was built in the early 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
My grandfather, Aldred G. (“Pap”) Dean, was a part of Watoga’s infancy, assisting in the construction of stone retaining walls along the Island Lick cabin area, and near the Fred E. Brooks Memorial Arboretum, as well as other construction projects throughout the park.
That building near then-Cabin 19 housed equipment, lumber and tools, but we made room for Freckles’ quarters.
Before Freckles could walk, Mom warmed baby bottles of milk, and we would take Freckles his daily nourishment. Freckles became accustomed to drinking from the glass bottle, nipple intact. Mom would sometimes walk with us to check on Freckles. She made sure to hold onto my youngest sister’s delicate hand.
Freckles became the Dean family’s center of attention in the weeks before he could walk. He was our “baby,” and we checked on him several times a day to make sure he had enough to eat and that his box was free of droppings. All hide-and-seek games ceased when we needed a “Freckles” break.
Even when Freckles was asleep, Ronnie, Vicki and I would go to see him. That deer fascinated us — his big brown eyes, the white spots strategically placed on his tan coat, and the black hooves on his feet, to mention a few.
Freckles’ new backyard encompassed 35,000 acres, but he was only safe on the 10,100 acres that encompassed Watoga State Park. A sprawling state forest, aptly named for a local newspaper publisher and national conservationist, Calvin Price, bordered the state’s largest park. It was accessible to deer hunters and not far from our park residence. So, Mom knew the time may come when her children may have to deal with the untold tragedy of Freckles becoming dinner for a hungry family.
The day when Freckles was able to walk, we led him to the back door of the house closest to Beaver Creek Campground. We knew Mom would hear our chatter outside the open kitchen window. Mom’s African violets adorned the weathered sill that picture-perfect fall day with yellow, blue, purple and pink blooms.
“Mom, Mom, Mom,” we chanted in excited unison, knowing she would come outside immediately to make sure we had not been hurt.
“Watch this, Mom,” Ronnie said. Ronnie started walking toward Mom to show her how Freckles would follow us anywhere we wanted. We had become the fawn’s best friends. Such was life growing up at Watoga State Park.
Mom watched for a couple of minutes.
“Wait here. I’ll be right back,” Mom said.
We waited impatiently, fidgeting in anticipation, not knowing what Mom was doing or when she would reappear. Freckles stood nearby, trying out his new legs a step here and a step there, but always staying within a few feet of us.
“Look what I have,” Mom said softly, immediately redirecting our attention away from Freckles.
Mom’s small left hand closed tightly around something blue. We were unable to see what remained inside. Her fingers bore signs of using a hoe in Pap’s many gardens on the 211-acre farm that bordered the state park. Years of scrubbing clothes on a Columbus-made Dubl Handi washboard didn’t help either. Mom’s tiny digits opened to reveal the blue material, white dots scattered throughout. I did not know what it was, but knew that it had a meaning and purpose.
As Mom exposed more of the square cloth, she reached toward Freckles’ neck and touched his pale tan coat ever so gently. Freckles didn’t move. Mom, dressed in a high-collared solid white dress, reached around the fawn’s neck. When Freckles turned back around, he proudly sported an almost-new navy blue and white bandanna, so perfectly tied around his newborn neck.
“Now,” Mom continued, “Freckles will be safe. Everyone will know Freckles is your deer because of this bandanna. I think I have a red one like this somewhere in the house and we’ll change it every week.”
Mom made sure that Freckles always wore his bandanna and that we retrieved the week’s worn one so that it could be washed. The bandanna stayed tied around Freckles’ neck so others would know he was tame while we were growing up at Watoga State Park.
Throughout that fall, winter and the next spring, we would call Freckles’ name and he would come running to us, just like a puppy dog, letting us pet or hug him warmly. I even gave Freckles a kiss a few times. We could whistle for him and he’d come striding out of the nearby strand of trees to shower us with attention. Campers and cabin guests would stop to see Freckles, often taking photos of him with their children. I think they were amazed by Freckles.
A year after entering the Dean home and our hearts forever, Freckles found a permanent and safe playground where he lived “happily ever after” at the French Creek Game Farm near Buchannon, West Virginia.
All these years later, Mom is now Freckles’ caretaker in Heaven. Here’s to Mom, Freckles and many multicolored bandannas!
John Dean is a graduate of The Perley Issac Reed School of Journalism (now known as the Reed College of Media) at West Virginia University.
John lived at Watoga State Park for 16 years until his father, Vernon C. Dean, retired after 43 years of service to Watoga State Park.
John previously was a senior legal editor for a Cleveland, Ohio law firm. His first writing stint was as a cub reporter and later a county bureau chief for The Register-Herald in Beckley, West Virginia.
John keeps busy writing and taking care of Jack and Max, his two rescued black labs, and is an avid Mountaineers fan. He can can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.