Ever eat a peanut butter sandwich right before coming face-to-face with a black bear? And how about seeing a bear with Paul McCartney eyes? With this in mind, the following are readers’ creative endings to earlier posts (Part 1 and Part 2) about the black bear at Watoga State Park.
Peanut Butter Sammie, Anyone?
The black bear lifts his head, moving his snout inches from my face. Now, I feel his breath as he sniffs and snorts. Lastly, I did not consider the peanut butter sandwich I had recently eaten.
— David Bott
The Bear with Paul McCartney Eyes
There I stood with my feet frozen to the ground like I was standing in water and Lake Watoga froze right around them. Of course, I didn’t try to break free and run; instead, I relax to go with the flow.
The first thing I notice are this bear’s eyes. While he’s standing on his hind legs and looking right at me, I am so close to him that my nose is hardly a foot from his. I can smell his hot bear-breath. Up this close, his eyes seem larger than normal, and there is a distant light behind the brown color. Keep in mind that these aren’t the vacuous eyes of a wild animal. And this mammal’s eyes are windows to something I cannot put a word on. Simultaneous love and sadness? Something like that.
Meanwhile, there the four of us stood — for how long I don’t know. Be that as it may, you may think that the woods are a quiet place where you can hear a pin drop. News flash! What’s more, the Watoga woods are not as quiet as you’d expect if you’re from the city. In short, birds are tweeting, insects are chirping, flies are buzzing, woodpeckers are pecking, and there are a thousand other members of the forest’s orchestra.
A September afternoon in the woods is anything but quiet. And that’s something else I remember very clearly about this moment. Not only are we mesmerized by this bear with Paul McCartney eyes, but we also cannot hear any of the noises we have come to expect.
Nothing. In fact, if you’ve heard the expression “deafening silence,” this was it.
That is up until the bear says, “Follow me.”
— Ernie Zore
And the Moral of the Story is . . .
I notice the biggest black bear I have ever seen climb up and into the bed of Henry Burr’s maintenance truck.
Moreover, this huge animal is having himself a big ole feast, ripping into a number of trash bags that Henry had thrown into the park vehicle earlier from the campsites at Beaver Creek Campground.
After discovering this mess later that same day, Vernon says: “Ok, Johnny and Ronnie. The lesson in this is to never put off ’til tomorrow what you could’ve done today. Particularly, Mr. Burr is gonna have a mess to clean up in the mornin’.“
— Brenda Waugh
All You Need is a Little Love
Nestling with the sow bear and her cub is a fawn. Apparently, the fawn has lost its mother. This gentle giant has adopted the fawn as her own.
Many times, through the years, I would see a black bear playing in the woods with a deer. Surprisingly, they were not fighting; just playing, chasing and enjoying the special bond they developed as babies.
I will never forget their special friendship. Undoubtedly, it taught me to always be understanding of individuals no matter their background.
With this in mind, don’t we all need a little love?
— Donna Dilley
In conclusion, while researching the untold aspects of the black bear, I came across an interesting paragraph in The Pocahontas Times. Significantly, was this the animal killed at Watoga almost 50 years ago? Maybe it was.
Fifty Years Ago … The Pocahontas Times
Thursday, January 8, 1970
George Schoolcraft saw a large bear track on Pyles Mountain. He reported it to A. G. Dean. The bear traveled to Beaver Creek – from Beaver Creek into Burr Valley, bedded down on Briery Knob. The next day Eldridge McComb heard his dog barking and went to investigate. The dog had the bear in a large fallen tree. They returned to W. S. Smith’s for information about shooting bears. When they returned, the bear and dog were gone – heading for Anthonys Creek.
Back to 1969, when sometimes mom would refer to Ronnie and me as “wild!” Neither of us knew that “Wild and Wonderful” would become synonymous with our home state. At the same time, we were too occupied with “Wild and Wonderful” activities enveloping us at Watoga State Park and Calvin Price State Forest near Marlinton to pay much attention to such words. With this in mind, here’s one of my “Wild and Wonderful” rainbow trout fishing adventures.
Snakes, Arrowheads, Fortresses, and Freckles, our Pet Deer
On that overcast spring day, Ronnie and I create names for the various cumulus cloud formations. We see dandelions too, but mostly feel them squish between our toes, as we run “wild” discovering “wonderful” treasures like snakes, arrowheads and old fortresses hidden deep within the woods past the airstrip near the state forest.
“Johnny, look at that huge trout way up there!” Ronnie exclaims. “See it?”
Wherever Ronnie ventures this April day, I try to follow. Sometimes I am successful; other times not so much. After all, he’s my big brother, my hero, my teacher. Ronnie is 11. I am three years younger. So, one rainy evening near dusk, at the Beaver Creek Campground, we dig into the damp soil to collect about two dozen night crawlers, and then drop them in a blue, white and orange Maxwell House coffee can.
The “Wild and Wonderful” Fishin’ Pole
The next day, Ronnie asks “Hey Johnny! Wanna come with me?”
“Yeah, sure. But, what we gonna do?”
Naturally, I am excited to tag along no matter where it is or what we might do. As a matter of fact, it isn’t often that Ronnie invites me to go on one of his journeys throughout the park.
“We’re goin’ fishin’ then! C’mon, let’s go to Laurel Run.” Laurel Run is one of Ronnie’s favorite spots to journey off to by himself and leave me standing at the intersection to either Burr Valley or the park superintendent’s residence.
“Johnny, go git that ole coffee can we had last night. Those are our fishin’ worms. You’re gonna catch a big, ole trout today!” Of course, I ran full steam ahead to our secret hiding place behind the maintenance garage, close to the rustic campground.
To begin this “Wild and Wonderful” rainbow trout fishin’ story, Ronnie and I find two fallen branches from an oak to serve as that day’s fishing poles.
First, Ronnie finds some dirty tennis shoe strings to be our bait lines. Second, he coaxes me into snagging some safety pins from Mom’s sewing box, neatly tucked beside her Singer sewing machine. Third, some aging yellow twine becomes our fishing lines. Fourth, Ronnie ties a knot a few inches from the limb’s base and then winds the string along the four-foot branch to the end of my brand-new fishing apparatus. Finally, he secures a small pebble to the end of the string as a weight. Mom’s safety pins are our hooks.
Learning how to Reel in a “Wild and Wonderful” Rainbow Trout
To begin with, Ronnie shows me how to drop my improvised fishing line into Laurel Run. I hear a subtle splash as the stone and the night crawler enter the sparkling mountain waters. We wait for our lines to sink deeper. Not only does Ronnie help me to move the pole slowly back and forth, but also he teaches me how to bring the rod closer to my body, and then to lift it out of the water.
“Ok, do it again, Johnny. Throw the line back out there in the middle of that hole. You’ll git the hang of it. I know ya will.” And I repeat this several times. After a few minutes, Ronnie asks if there’s been a bite yet.
“No, I don’t think so. How would I know?”
“Oh, you’ll know all right. When a trout that’s bigger than you pulls, you’ll be learnin’ how to swim all the way to the pool and back again!”
So, we wait. And then wait some more. I notice Ronnie looking into the nearby cluster of oak and pine trees. I look too, noticing a few deer cautiously observing us standing in one of their water sources. Naturally, I wonder if Freckles is making new friends at the game farm.
Seeing my First “Wild and Wonderful” Rainbow Trout
Then it happens. I feel a tug at last. Without delay, Ronnie calmly wades over, tells me to firmly hold my pole and to guide it toward me, and finally to lift the catch up and out of the water.
“See it, Johnny? Would ya look at that? Look, it’s beautiful and check out those colors!”
“Oh my gosh, Ronnie. I can’t believe it. I caught a fish! Look, I caught him!”
“Yeah, Johnny, you got one all right. You just caught your very first wild rainbow trout! Way to go! Would you look at that? Talk about a beaut!”
At this point, I continue to admire the “Wild and Wonderful” rainbow trout’s subtle blues and greens. Those hues on its slender body mesmerize me.
“You wanna keep it? It’s up to you.”
To say the least, I am ecstatic to catch my first fish with Ronnie’s help. Even though it isn’t a trophy-sized catch, and most likely a baby, that “Wild and Wonderful” rainbow trout lives to swim another day in the crystal-clear waters of Laurel Run. I never became an expert angler like Ronnie, but whenever I see a rainbow, the array of colors reminds me that fishing for wild rainbow trout is just one of my many colorful “Wild and Wonderful” Watoga adventures.
Where Will Your “Wild and Wonderful” Adventure Take Place?
The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources stocks all four types of trout at Watoga Lake (rainbow, golden rainbow, brook, and brown trout) at some point throughout the year. Trout are not stocked at Laurel Run. Visit the DNR website for to decide where you will catch your next “Wild and Wonderful” trophy-sized fish.
Let’s go fishing for wild rainbow trout! It’s sure to be “Wild and Wonderful.”
Rising early that June morning, and breathing in the fresh mountain air, you realize it’s a great day for a nature hike or two at Watoga State Park. Thoughts of a park bench have not yet entered your mind as you begin the day’s adventures at West Virginia‘s largest state park. But, later that day, musings about park benches will take front and center stage.
Meanwhile, you complete the 2.5-mile trek known as Jesse’s Cove Trail, admiring the restored and historic Workman Cabin along the way. Oh, by the way — you see no ghosts. Moreover, feeling adventurous when you get to Ann Bailey Trail, you traverse a few more miles to the lookout tower everyone keeps telling you to visit. Finally, once there, and in need of a break, you imagine taking a respite on a park bench to admire the panoramic views of the Greenbrier Valley and Kennison Mountain framed before you like an Ansel Adams photo.
Having noticed park benches at Watoga Lake and T.M. Cheek Overlook, you ponder creating your very own park bench. Can I do a park bench too? How would that work?
After chatting with the friendly staff at Watoga’s park office, you discover that YES, you can have a park bench too! So, to that end, we’re here to help you every step of the way as we love park benches and we love projects. Undeniably, when you put the two together, you have the Watoga Park Bench Project.
What Will You See While Sitting On Your Park Bench?
The Park Bench Project is one of many worthwhile programs that we, here at the Watoga State Park Foundation, undertake each year at the state’s largest park. From building new hiking trails to restoring a pioneer-era cabin to helping you with your park bench, we make the time to answer your questions, and yes, to complete the installation of your park bench.
How does the Park Bench Project work? Where’s this bench made? How long does it take to get one installed? Where in the park can I place my bench? What’s it going to cost me? Is this bench environmentally friendly? Does my bench have to be a memorial one?
Soon, we will answer your bench questions.
Significantly, we have an expert team of knowledgeable volunteers, hard-working park employees, and dedicated Foundation members to assist you in completing your customized park bench within our 10,100 acres of lush natural beauty.
Aha, Your Park Bench — Pick A Reason, Pick A Moment, Pick A Spot.
Now, you’ve found the perfect spot for your park bench at Watoga, be it along a secluded hiking trail, near the solar-heated swimming pool, along the 11-acre lake, or at any number of other hidden gems in the park. Importantly, you know why you want to place your park bench at that exact location, and, of course, the “why” is up to you.
Maybe it’s “just because” you want others to enjoy the stunning sunrises you experience at Ann Bailey Lookout Tower or the encapsulating view at T.M. Cheek overlook your family enjoys during your annual summer picnics. Maybe it’s for your pet who enjoys your expeditions through the natural wonders of the Brooks Memorial Arboretum as much as you do. Maybe it’s to honor someone special you shared meaningful moments with during your stay at one of Watoga’s 34 cabins or two campgrounds.
Well, you get the drift. Oh no, we mean you get your park bench, your spot, your words, your memories, your way! Undeniably, this is your park bench project, after all.
We Heard You Have Some Questions About The Watoga Park Bench Project And We Have Some Answers Too.
Earlier, we promised answers to your questions. Specifically, here’s our Top Ten FAQs:
Q: Where’s this park bench made?
A: As the Bruce Springsteen song emphatically declares: “Born in the USA!”
Q: What is the material used to manufacture the park benches?
A: Here at Watoga, we’re environmentalists. All benches are eco-friendly, constructed with 100% recycled plastic, maintenance free, attractive, and durable enough to withstand brutal Watoga winters. Additionally, your bench will be here for decades to come so that future Watogaphiles can take a seat at your spot to admire “your view.”
Q: What are the dimensions of my bench?
A: With attention to the important details: Seat Length: 48″; Seat Height: 17-1/2″; Seat Width: 14-3/4″; Total Height: 32-1/2″; Overall Area: 48″ x 26-1/8″; Weight: 87 lbs.
Don’t worry. We have room for it here at Watoga, and it has room for you and a couple of friends also.
Ten Thousand Smackaroos? No Way! Not at Watoga.
Q: How much will my park bench cost?
A: $500. Yeah, we know that’s some serious dough. Maybe look at it this way: Your bench will last a minimum of 50 years, maybe longer. That works out to $10 a year for others to chill, relax, talk or maybe not talk. That’s 83 cents a month. Unlike a park bench in New York City’s Central Park that comes in at $10,000, a Watoga park bench at 5% of that cost is a bargain. Hmm, wonder what a cup of java will cost in the Big Apple in 2070?
Q: How long does it take for my bench to arrive?
A: Once ordered, your park bench is here in about three weeks, sometimes sooner. Depending on the weather, we dig the footers, pour the concrete (where appropriate), and set your awesome park bench. To put it another way, leave the hard work to us — because we enjoy it.
You Said You Have Some More Questions, Right?
Q: Who installs my park bench?
A: Your bench is professionally installed by our park staff.
Q: Where in the park may I place my bench?
A: You pick your spot. If it is logistically feasible, we place your park bench there. Call it a win-win for you and future park visitors. What’s more, feel free to share your spot’s significance with us. To that end, we would love to write about why you chose that location. Others are more than likely interested too.
Q: Can I be there when my park bench is installed and ready to sit on?
A: Absolutely! We recommend that you attend if at all possible. Nevertheless, it’s a special occasion, not only for us at Watoga, but also for you, your friends, your family, or even your pet(s).
Q: What can my park bench plaque say?
A: That’s up to you. Be creative. Try a little humor. Most people ask close friends and family members to help with the wit and wisdom aspects. Without a doubt, we know that your plaque’s inscription will be great!
Oh, Yes. We Have A Form For That.
Q: Is there a form to fill out to get started? How do I get one? What’s your contact information?
A: Great questions! Yeah, what’s more, we have forms here at the Foundation, just like the rest of the world. For instance, there are a few ways to get the necessary paperwork to you to get started.
To start, you can use our “Contact” link (just click here) to request information. We’ll promptly respond to your inquiry. Additionally, we can e-mail or snail mail you more information (including necessary forms). Furthermore, if you happen to be fishing at Watoga Lake, driving through the “Country Roads” at Watoga, staying at one of our two campgrounds or in one of our cabins, stop and chat with us at the park office (across from Watoga Lake).
In the event that none of those ways work for you, you may call Mac Gray, the Foundation’s Treasurer, at 304-653-4373 with any questions, comments or suggestions regarding your park bench.
What To Do Once Your Bench Is A Permanent Part Of The Watoga Landscape?
It’s your day and your park bench. Maybe make it a social event on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram? Or fly solo? In short, you decide how you want to mark this momentous occasion, and we’ll be there to take pics or videos if you so desire.
Other ideas: Read a good book on your bench. Maybe it’s a spy thriller. Maybe a double agent is sitting next to you. Sip a cappuccino on your bench. Take some selfies. Capture yourself, your friends or your pets on your bench. On this occasion, how about a picnic? After all, it’s your bench now.
Take solace that not only you, but also park visitors now have a place to rest their soles and reinvigorate their souls thanks to you. Puns intended.
Your Ideas; Your Bench; Our Mutual Project.
Last, but not least, we’re excited to be a part of and to help you create your bench. Just tell us your dreams and ideas and we will help you bring them to fruition. Yeah, we’ve done this before. It’s a lot of fun for us too. Let’s talk.
For 16 years, John lived at Watoga until his father, Vernon, retired after 43 years.
John is in the planning stage for park benches for his father and grandfather, Alfred G. Dean, to commemorate their dedication and service to Watoga and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Moreover, a bench honoring his uncle, Alfred G. Dean, Jr., is at T.M. Cheek overlook. “Junior” was a founding member of the Foundation. He would be thrilled to have you, your friends and your pets sit on his bench and enjoy the majestic view.
Editor’s Note: The Department of Natural Resources advises all state forest and park visitors to NEVER approach wildlife in an attempt to touch it. The Department of Natural Resources protects the state’s wildlife so that all can enjoy their beauty in West Virginia.
I noticed something bright red on my scuffed Converse tennis shoes. Equally important, the enormity of what loomed above quickly distracted me from the blood on those worn basketball shoes. This is the untold story of the black bear part two.
When I touched the black bear, its fur felt rough, like a worn dish rag. Looking up, I saw the hoist that held the animal aloft. As a matter of fact, the bear’s blood had emptied into the garage’s drain too.
Now, almost 50 years later, this is the never-before-published story of the black bear. First, who killed this bear? Second, why? Third, what happened? Fourth, how? Fifth, when did this occur? Sixth, where did this take place?
Recently, I rediscovered a photo of my brother, Ronnie, and I crouched next to this bear. Notice that neither of us is smiling in this photo. Likewise, this image stoked my need to know more – a journalistic skill fine-tuned as a reporter with The Register-Herald in the mid-1980s.
I could remember parts of that day, but I didn’t know the entire story.
“Humans can make mistakes; memories are notoriously faulty and humans are often biased,” Ken Springer wrote in an article detailing the origins of the name Watoga.
Besides not wanting to rely solely on my memory, I made calls, sent emails and spoke to friends and family members who may have remembered what had happened. As a result, I received some leads and helpful information, but not the “end” story. Also, was there even a story to tell here?
Digging deeper, I contacted Suzanne Stewart, staff writer at The Pocahontas Times, in Marlinton. Similarly, a search of the newspaper’s archives from 1970-79 for information about a bear being killed at the park came up empty. In fact, Bill McNeel, local historian and former editor at The Times, also did not recall a story being published about a Watoga bear death.
Undeterred, I kept searching for answers. Together with the memories of Richard and Jerry Dale, further details about the black bear emerge.
In the early fall of 1971, two men pitch a tent at the rustic campground. Apparently, they begin bragging to other campers about killing a black bear. But, at this time of year, it was not bear season.
During this time, a concerned bystander at the rustic campground hear the man’s account about killing the black bear. Because of concerns that the bear may have been illegally killed, that person promptly reports it to park personnel.
“When we interviewed this guy, he was saying that the bear had attacked him and that’s why he killed it,” Mr. Dale says.
Upon learning of where the bear had been killed, Mr. Dale and a group of four men began the laborious trek to remove the black bear from deep within the adjoining state forest, off a trail at the end of the airstrip. The most likely participants were Mr. Dale, Henry Burr, park employee, Bull Poling, local game warden, and my dad.
The Black Bear — “Quite the Endeavor.”
“It was a huge bear. I am not sure of the exact weight,” Mr. Dale states.
First, a small tree was cut, and the bear’s front and back legs were tied to the ends of the hardwood. Then, with two men on either end, they were able to lift the bear onto their shoulders.
“Well, the first sapling that we cut — it broke because of the weight of the bear. So, we cut another, sturdier one. Getting the bear back to the park was a chore. Quite the endeavor.”
Second, walking a considerable distance, the men carry the bear to the maintenance garage near the assistant superintendent’s residence.
Third, a hoist-type system is used to lift the bear. Jerry Dale remembers that hoist well: “It’s nothing mechanical. Muscle power. Slow moving – a few inches at a time and foot-by-foot going up. You could then lift it up or lower it down. It was strong enough, say, to even lift an engine out of a ’57 Chevy. The hoist was tied to a big wooden beam that went across the garage.”
The Consequences of Killing a Black Bear
Mr. Dale adds: “The man told me he’d always wanted to kill a bear and that he wanted to keep the hide.” Not only is the man fined, but also he pays a replacement fee, Mr. Dale says. Additionally, no one interviewed could recall whether the bear was a boar or a sow, but gambling enthusiasts are placing odds that it was a boar based on the size of the bear in available photographs, most likely weighing in excess of 400 pounds.
“Entrance and exit wounds indicated that the black bear was running away,” Jerry notes. “The entry wound was at the back end of the bear and the exit path was on the bear’s front side. You don’t give anyone an incentive to do anything like this ever again.”
The End of the Black Bear Story — For Now?
As a result of the unfortunate demise of this bear, I had a “hands-on” education about West Virginia’s state animal prior to the black bear’s official designation in 1973.
Finally, Part Three will be selected creative endings from readers to the untold story of this bear. Tune in.
For 16 years, John lived at Watoga State Park until his father, Vernon, retired after 43 years at Watoga State Park. Since 2001, John has been an editor at Puritas Springs Software, a legal software development company in Hinckley, Ohio. Previously, he was a legal editor for a Cleveland, Ohio international law firm. Additionally, John was a reporter for The Register-Herald in Beckley, West Virginia in the mid-1980s. In his spare time, John is writing two novels. You can email John at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seeing a black bear is not always a pleasant experience.
The untold story of the black bear. 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? The untold story of the black bear.
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.