Bill and I drove down the freeway and passed a series of billboards depicting the wonders to be found at the famous San Diego Zoo. I recalled how visiting the Slater Park Zoo in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was one of my family’s regular activities when I was a child. It was free, and it was close. every few weeks we’d pile five kids and two parents into our metallic green Ford Grand Torino station wagon and off we’d go. The parents sat up front, the three sisters were stationed in the middle seat, and my little brother and I were assigned to the “jump seat” in the very back.
Since air conditioning was obviously only for rich people, we went with the less effective open-all-the-windows-to-be-cooled-by-hot-air method. It’s kind of like trying to cool off with a blow drier set on hot. The method included opening the car’s very back window, which allowed for maximum carbon monoxide inhalation by my brother and me.
Ford had obviously done extensive research on the precise shape and location of the car’s tail pipe. It must have delivered the perfect dosage of exhaust because I never heard of any children dying. Between the sedative effects of the fumes and trying to go unnoticed as we tossed items out the back window, the jump seat made for a very pleasant journey. My dad probably noticed how “calm” we were when he opened the rear window for us, so he always made sure it was rolled all the way down.
These were also the days when you would stick your head out the window as the gas station attendant (yes, like the buffalo, they were once seen all across America) was filling the gas tank. This way you could fully realize the joy of smelling gasoline fumes.
“I love the smell of gasoline,” I would tell my mom between inhalations.
“Whatever makes you happy, dear,” was her motto.
I’m pretty sure that today I’d be shoved into therapy for fear I’d become a huffer—you know, one of those people who inhales gasoline fumes for the high it gives them. Of course, therapy was unnecessary. I remained a mere social huffer, a casual huffer at best. I never bought the gasoline myself. Yet, to this day, with no gas station attendant in sight, I do find myself “not avoiding” the gasoline fumes as I fill up my tank. Ahhh, the sweet smell of gasoline, the memories of partial carbon monoxide poisoning while sitting seatbelt-free in the back of an open-windowed station wagon. Good times, good times.
The jump seat in the Grand Torino was beyond the reach of my parents and facing the opposite direction from all the other passengers. It’s as close to a chauffeur-driven limousine as I’ve gotten to this very day. I found the sensation of facing backwards in a moving car to be quite pleasing. It was much more exciting to notice where you had just been than to be bored by something you’d been looking at the entire time you approached it.
Maybe I found it so stimulating because it was a more realistic way of experiencing things. In life, we’re actually only experiencing what has just happened. We don’t really get to see what’s coming up, no matter how much we like to pretend that we can.
After twenty-five minutes in the jump seat, my brother and I would arrive at the zoo primed and ready to go. We would very calmly get out of the back seat of the car as all young boys do when they arrive at a destination they have been eagerly anticipating. The entire family would then head into the zoo. Sometimes we’d hook up with one of the free zoo tours. Other times my dad and mom would just set us free to roam unsupervised among all the other animals.
My brother and I had no money to purchase proper food to feed the animals, nor did we bring any stale Wonder Bread as did many other families. It was widely understood at the time that all animals love Wonder Bread. It must be the fortified, enriched, bleached, white flour. I guess animals really do have a natural instinct about what’s good for them.
My brother and I were left to scrounge from whatever others had left behind. As much as it horrifies me today, I’m still amazed at what a billy goat can eat. We would feed them plastic bags that carrots or apples came in. They would eat cigarette butts and candy wrappers. The same goats were there every time we would visit the zoo, apparently no worse off for the nonfood items they had ingested, but I still cringe a bit when I think about it today.
Our all-time favorite activity was feeding the giraffes. They were kept in an area with a cement walkway that was always covered in shallow puddles of muddy water. Somewhere along the way, my brother and I figured out an entertaining game. The goal was to find a piece of Wonder Bread that some little kid had dropped in one of the puddles, yet which was still white on one side. If you fed that piece of bread to the giraffe with the white side facing up, the giraffe would take it in its mouth until it realized that it was a disgusting, dirt-soaked, imitation of a piece of bread. The giraffe would then spit it out from his 12-foot-high position and spew it over the entire crowd.
Naturally, my brother and I would be out of range by the time the spitting began, but it was still very dramatic for everyone in the audience. They seemed genuinely excited about such an authentic interaction with nature. We felt it was the least we could do as regular visitors to the zoo. It was just our little way of giving back.
One day, my father witnessed my brother and me doing our giraffe trick. He was mortified when, by the third iteration, he realized we were doing it on purpose. For some reason feeding goats plastic bags was not a punishable offense, but the spewing-giraffe trick crossed some imaginary line in my father’s mind. Maybe it was the screaming spectators? We’ll probably never know. My father gave us a quick, paternity-denying, come-here-now wave of his right hand.
We hesitated, but then he clenched his teeth, so we knew we were busted.
“Get over here,” he snapped in a voice that was intense but that wouldn’t draw the attention of the other zoo visitors.
My brother and I walked over to him slowly, giving him a little time to cool.
“What are you two doing?” he demanded.
“We’re feeding the giraffes,” I answered innocently.
“You’re feeding them dirty bread that they’re going to spit on people,” he corrected.
He waited for a reply, but my brother and I employed the brilliant strategy of remaining silent. My father knew that the longer he stood with us, the more people would figure out he was the individual who had spawned us, so he caved pretty quickly.
“Let’s go find your mother,” he grumbled.
We met up with the rest of the family at the polar bear cages. To the untrained eye, the cages themselves seemed quite idiot-proof. A six-foot-wide, four-foot-deep moat separated the human beings from the actual cage. The moat was usually full of water, but on this day it was dry. even without the water, the distance and barriers preventing contact with the bear seemed an acceptable deterrent. However, for one woman the dry moat was a glaring gap in security that she was simply incapable of resisting.
We’ve all been in situations where we feel we’re the exception to the rules, so I can understand her frustration. She may have been an experienced National Geographic photographer or a guest host on one of the Wild Kingdom episodes I had missed. Maybe she had multiple degrees in zoology or done extensive work with polar bears in the Alaskan wilderness. Whatever the reason, what this lady was about to do must have made perfect sense in her own mind.
The pleasantly plump (almost like a little seal), thirty-ish woman, with the full support and encouragement of her husband, climbed over the three-foot-high fence, scooted on her butt down the inclined side of the moat, walked across the dry moat, and yes, leaned against the metal crossbar on top of the far cement wall that was just a few feet from the bars of the cage.
At first, the bear seemed not to notice her because someone on the opposite side of the cage was tossing him Wonder Bread, but she had a solution for that.
“Here, Mr. Bear. Here, Mr. Bear,” she yelled.
Her commitment to getting a good photo did not go unnoticed by Mr. Bear. With much enthusiasm, he dove into the pool and began swimming toward the woman who was waving a big piece of meat at him, better known as an “arm.”
When Mr. Bear arrived at the woman’s desired location, she turned her back to the bear so that her husband could get some realistic photographs. Mr. Bear was doing his very best to get a hold of his awareness-challenged prey, but his paws were wider than the spaces in the bar, so it was taking him some time to figure things out. The woman continued laughing and smiling while her husband clicked away with his camera. The action photos of his wife and the bear were certainly going to be a big hit at the next family gathering.
The laughing subsided when Mr. Bear got his arm through the bars in a way that he could pin the woman’s shoulder against the crossbar that ran along the top of the wall. It seemed to come as a surprise that the thousand-pound polar bear was much stronger than she was. Freeing herself was proving to be difficult. As she struggled, she seemed more annoyed that the bear was ruining her picture than she was afraid that she might be eaten. Fortunately, the bear was unable to do much more than hold her in place.
As you may have guessed, adults began screaming and running for the zoo staff. Moms and kids were immediately bursting with projectile tears. Oddly, the woman being attacked was relatively calm and seemed to be approaching her predicament like she was trying to change a flat tire on her car. She knew that the polar bear attached to her shoulder was a bit of a problem, but nothing that couldn’t be dealt with once she acquired the proper tools. She and the bear seemed to be at a stalemate.
At this point, her husband had the shocking realization that his wife’s situation might be less than perfectly safe. He decided to rescue his damsel in distress, and in one smooth move caught his left foot on the top of the barrier and fell head first onto the cement below. He saved the camera from being harmed, but looked like he would need a few stitches in his forehead.
As the husband collected himself, the zoo staff came on the scene like a fairly well organized SWAT team. They quickly persuaded the bear that a bucket of some really stinky food was better than the woman’s arm he had been dreaming of consuming. The fact that the woman had doubled-down on stupid didn’t seem to play into the bear’s decision.
The woman was basically unharmed, and I noticed no lobotomy scars on her temples as the zoo staff escorted her into an ambulance with her injured husband. My brother and I agreed that the husband would probably need a tetanus shot because we always got one when we went to the emergency room. We also couldn’t wait to go to school on Monday and tell everyone about the coolest thing we’d ever seen.
I was also slightly pleased that I had learned a valuable lesson about polar bears that might come in handy when I’m the co-host of Wild Kingdom: a stinky bucket of food can save a life. I also learned that when it comes to Mother Nature, love her, respect her, but never—and I do mean never—turn your back on her. This is especially true if you are being viewed as part of the food chain.
“I hope you kids know to never do that,” my dad said during the car ride home.
It was the standard, obligatory, 20/20 hindsight, parental statement. It was said in the same tone as when my dad unknowingly took us to the movie The Bad News Bears, where the foul-mouthed child, Tanner, used every curse word in the book.
“I hope you kids never use language like that,” was his comment after the movie.
It’s interesting that the same boilerplate warning from Dad after these two events yielded completely different outcomes. I was quite sure I would never climb across a barrier to get up close and personal with one of nature’s greatest predators (I still haven’t to this day). However, using foul language was quite in vogue at Newman elementary School. I was never a slave to the latest trend, but this one had a strange appeal. It seemed relatively harmless to quote some of Tanner’s prime lines from the movie, so I swore like everyone else when no adults were around.
As we drove home I once again inhaled enough carbon monoxide so that the world began to take on a certain mystical quality. The zoo tended to wear us kids out, so everyone in the car was rather calm. My brother and I sat backwards in the jump seat tossing pebbles out the back window, and my sisters sat sweating as they argued about who had touched who first.
“What was she thinking? Unbelievable,” my father blurted out.
We all knew he was referring to the polar bear woman. The others in the car demonstrated their agreement, as would any good serf in the feudal system that was our family, with silent nods of affirmation. However, I sensed that the word unbelievable had been purposely dropped as a clue.
Like any true master, my father was not straight-out asking a question, but rather testing my understanding of deeper principles. He never actually said this. I could just tell. The others in the car never caught on to the deeper game being played, but since the recent demonstration of the Pass the Jelly Principle, I had learned to pay much closer attention. I took a nice deep breath, and a quote I had copied down months earlier in my Dr. Seuss Notebook, Quotebook, Look-What-I-Wrote Book came crashing down upon me like a Zen master’s staff. Maybe it was more like a hockey stick, but you get the idea.
“Minds are like rivers—they eventually flow where they must,” I said without really thinking about it.
The quote momentarily stunned all passengers in the car, but they quickly shook it off and seemed no worse for the wear. My father then posed another life-changing question.
“Why would she think she could get away with that?”
The fact that I had awakened to the Pass the Jelly Principle earlier that year did make the entire polar bear incident less shocking for me than for the others. Frankly, “people doing what they do” had become more fascinating and less confusing with each passing day.
My father’s demonstration reaped continuing benefits. It was so obvious once you saw it. People everywhere have thoughts and feelings that rise up in their minds. Some thoughts and feelings are ignored and others are acted upon, but the thoughts and feelings (or lack thereof) are what steer us. The woman who had just tried to feed herself to a polar bear had some thought like, “I’d just love to get a close-up photo with that big white bear.” As far as thoughts go, I’m sure it was a common one for people standing at a polar bear cage.
The woman also had thoughts like, “That bear is cute, and white, and fluffy. He’s got a name. He’s around people all the time. I’m sure he’s one of those tame polar bears. It would be safe to stand right next to him and have my husband snap a few photos.” And while those thoughts are a bit more unusual, I’m sure they aren’t entirely uncommon.
What truly made the situation rare was that her husband had a similar perception of the situation and they were two people who were willing to blatantly disregard rules. Only when you mix all those elements together does it become attack time at the zoo. It’s also possible that Darwin was right and these people were just finding a situation where they could be weeded out of the population. As much as we might like it to be so, there really are no lifeguards at the gene pool. either way, they weren’t consciously controlling the way they perceived the situation. As wrong as their perception was, they weren’t consciously trying to harm themselves. They simply weren’t aware that their perception was only a perception and not reality.
As I sat on my knees, facing the backs of the rest of my family, I felt the warm breeze of my father’s faith in me. He knew I had to figure this out for myself or the lesson wouldn’t stick. I looked around at the other six people in the car and realized that each person was continuously having their own completely unique experience. We all have our own unique perceptions, our own unique thoughts, and our own unique feelings as we meet life, and we really don’t control what these are. It all just kind of pops into our heads. We may assume we’re experiencing the exact same reality as others when we move through the world, yet nothing could be further from the truth.
“She should have known not to do such a stupid thing,” the master behind the steering wheel added.
The thoroughness of my father’s teaching did not go unnoticed. He was now mixing in a little Socratic dialogue to drive the point home. His range was impressive.
“But she didn’t,” I said.
“But she should have,” my father replied, with a substantial increase in volume on the word should.
Feeling relatively safe in the jump seat of the car, I was comfortable with pushing the master a little further than usual.
“But she didn’t know.”
At this point, I caught my father’s eyes in the rearview mirror as he glared back at me. With a firmness that I could truly appreciate, even from the very back seat of the car, he reiterated his teaching.
“But she should have.”
For reasons still unknown, but probably stress-related, I thought my father might appreciate an operatic response. My prepubescent, castrato voice lacked the power I was looking for, so I skipped right over tenor and went straight for baritone. In the deepest voice I could muster, I rocked from side to side and pounded on the imaginary big, brass kettledrum in front of me.
“Buuut sheee diiid nnn’t,” I sang as I slapped the top of the seat with each syllable.
My father glared at me and then glanced over at my mother. I could see the thought rise up in his mind, “At best, paternity is questionable.” His mind went back to my mother’s whereabouts nine months before I was born, but then he realized I had his eyes, so he tried again.
“But she should have.”
“She either did or she didn’t,” I said, “If she knew better, she wouldn’t have done it. But she didn’t know better, so she did it. I don’t understand should. ”
“Because, she should have. Unbelievable,” my dad said, taking both hands off the steering wheel and hurling them skyward in frustration.
I knew this was another important moment in my dad’s teaching. He kept repeating the same words, which meant the rest of the lesson was up to me to figure out. Plus, there was a chance he would pull over and stop the car. Then the lesson would take an entirely different turn. I spun around and sat down in the jump seat, took a nice deep breath of carbon monoxide, and contemplated the teaching that had just taken place.
The conversation had caused a very loud silence amongst the other passengers. I, however, was in the zone. I was picking up all of my father’s subtle clues, somewhat effortlessly I might add. Though not perceptible to anyone else in the vehicle, the word unbelievable that he added to the end of his last statement seemed to be a deliberate message. I surmised he must be letting me know that my detailed understanding was wonderful, but I should not be distracted by it. It still all came back to the original Pass the Jelly Principle: people are always doing what they do. This was true regardless of what deeper insights might be realized.
At the very moment I was contemplating the life-altering implications of this spiritual lesson, my sisters were all poking at each other and pretty much oblivious to anything else. My mother was most likely praying for my physical well-being. My father had begun humming some old person’s tune, and my brother was busy throwing pebbles out the back window.
I relaxed back into my seat and took a nice deep breath, whether or not I should. As I came to a new point of equilibrium with the fumes, another profound understanding arose into my consciousness. I thought about the people in this hot, gas-guzzling, metallic green beast of an automobile and how they all were just doing what they do. Me, them, and everyone else on the planet, were just doing what they do. It’s a natural human tendency to “should” on people, but there is only the actuality of what happens in life. The rest is just a story, no matter who’s telling it.
It seems life’s most important lessons are often given free of charge. This lesson was no exception.