Thursday, July 26, 2012

It’s Not Really About The Bear


7/25/2012

It’s Not Really About The Bear

     I have fleetingly mentioned in other stories that my finger had been bitten off by a bear and I realize that it’s not fair to bring it up so nonchalantly and never tell the story about how it happened.  I’m not sure why I never wrote it down, but I will do so now and see if I can figure out if it took so long for any other reason besides my laziness.
     I think that before I tell it I will have to give some background on my friend Wayne who was the catalyst for the whole story taking place.  In fact, most of my stories that start with the sentence “My friend Wayne and I…” usually end up with me in the emergency room or waking up in some strange place hung-over.  There will be time for those other stories later.
     Wayne was one of those friends you have that are a little strange.  You and your other friends let them off the hook for things you would not tolerate from anyone else.  You find yourself explaining to other people “I know, I know, but that’s just ______.”  Fill in the blank with some friend of yours that fits the description because everyone has them.  I had Wayne.
      Wayne would do things like make plans with you to do something that cost money and after you’ve paid he would come up with some excuse why he didn’t have the money now, but he would pay you next time.  Of course he never did.  His most frequent excuse was that the Mac machine ruined his card while he was trying to get the money.  He is the only person I know who had his Mac card ruined every other week consistently for several years! 
      He would also make up stories that never happened or brag about things he never did or at least exaggerated greatly about what really happened.  He did it out of insecurity, and the sad thing was none of us ever thought less of Wayne and he didn’t have to lie or make stuff up for us to be his friend, but like a lot of  people his insecurities in himself outweighed his trust in his friends and I could never hold that against him.
     Besides, that’s not all Wayne was.  He was a very good and dependable friend where it really counted.  He always had my back and he would come help you anytime you asked.  He had been there for my friends and me when nobody else was and we appreciated him for that.
      I first met Wayne some 16 years ago and we first became friends when he stood up for me in a bar against a guy much bigger than me, much bigger than Wayne for that matter.  It was a misunderstanding over a woman and I hadn’t even done anything wrong, but this guy was mad and there was no explaining.  He was a body builder and taking steroids and I had seen him beat up other people in the past.  I would have gotten my ass kicked if not for Wayne.  He got in the bigger guys face and the bigger guy backed down.
     One thing about Wayne, he was a fighter.  He wasn’t a jerk about it and I never really saw him start a fight, but he was always ready to finish one.
     He was one of those people who liked to claim that he was part Indian, but when he was drinking, the tribe he descended from tended to change.  One time it was Cherokee, the next he was a Blackfoot Sioux.  On a side note:  I think it’s funny that there were hundreds of different Indian tribes in this country, but whenever I meet some drunk in a bar who claims to be part Indian it’s never one of the tribes no one has ever heard of but always Cherokee or Sioux or Apache.  Never one of the seemingly endless tribes that all the small towns are named after.  The federal government officially recognizes 565 tribes, but I never met some redneck that claimed to be from the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, or the Muckleshoot tribe, or some other tribe that doesn’t sound as cool as Comanche. 
     One incident regarding the Indian thing with Wayne was when my friend Phil went out riding motorcycle with him.  He warned Phil that he had better wear some sunscreen because it was hot out and he might burn.  Wayne further explained that because of his Indian heritage he would be fine.  Well, when they showed up at my place that night Phil was fine but Wayne was badly sun burned.  To make matters worse he had been wearing a shirt that was made of netting and he had the pattern burned into his skin.  I remember Phil asking him “so how’s that work out for you Cochise?” and we all laughed.  As he typically did, Wayne ignored it and acted as if nothing had happened and didn’t understand why we thought it was so funny.  Wayne would just grin what we came to call his “Joker” grin, named after the Batman villain.  Wayne knew when he was caught in a lie and there was nothing left for him to do but grin and bear it.
     Another thing about Wayne was that he always tried to get people to call him by his nickname “Hollywood.”  It was somewhat sad that no one had given him this nickname, he just thought it would be cool it people would call him that.  People should not have to give themselves a nickname.  No one was even sure where the nickname came from or what it was supposed to mean. 
     Oh well, back to the bear.
     It was Thursday, November 4, 2004Wayne told me about how his friend Eric had a brother who raised exotic animals and claimed he trained them for movies and such, but who really knew how much was true when you were dealing with Wayne.  At any rate, Wayne knew I liked animals and he went on to tell me that this person had a bear that was now grown and it needed to be moved to a bigger cage, and I could come with him and help if I wanted to.  There was also a lion, a tiger, and some other animals there I could see.  I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to pet a tiger.
     Wayne and I took my car and we drove up past Wind Gap and onto some twisty back roads until we came to the house.  There was a makeshift gate in a wooden fence that Wayne opened so I could drive the car through.  I made my way up a winding driveway to the house.  Across from the house were cages that held some of the animals.  Eric’s brother wasn’t there yet so I took some time to go see the animals.  The lion and tiger were in one cage, and not a very big one.  These days I am really against keeping animals captive unless they are really well housed in a very natural environment, and even then I’m not too thrilled about it.  At the time these events occurred I hadn’t given it a lot of thought, and although I was assured at the time that the animals were well taken care of and exercised, upon reflection I am not sure if that was the case. The lion was at the back of the cage lounging up on a shelf and the tiger came right over to the fence.  The lion was a male and he looked very regal sitting there with his big mane and solemn face. 
     The tiger was a female and as I said, she came right over so I put my hand through the bars and pet her.  She rolled on the ground and I started scratching her belly, which she seemed to love.  She licked my hand and I honestly didn’t think twice about what I was doing.  I haven’t changed since I was a small kid.  I was always running up to strange dogs or trying to touch wildlife that should be better left alone.  I could never understand why the animals couldn’t sense that I was no threat and simply wanted to pet them.  I’m not quite as naïve about animals as a grown up, but I will still try to hand feed a deer or a squirrel if I see one, usually to no avail.  That being said, I must admit I do get nervous hiking in the woods now where there may be bears anywhere nearby.
      I took a few pictures of the lion and tiger and then I made my way over to the bear cage.  The bears cage was made from chain link fencing.  That’s the reason we were here, to move him out of this cage and into a better one.
     It was a black bear, and while the bear was still a young adult, he was almost full-grown.  I’m six feet tall, and when it came over to the fence it stood up on its hind legs with its paws against the side of the cage and its face was level with mine.  I held my hand up to the cage and let him sniff it through the fencing.  I had taken one picture of the bear before I went over to the cage and I looked down at my camera to make sure it was still turned on, not thinking about my other hand that was still held up for the bear to smell a few inches from the cage.
     This next part is a little graphic, so be forewarned.
     I felt something touch my hand and I looked up just in time to see the bear’s tongue snaking through the fencing and wrapping around the pinky of my left hand and pull it into his mouth.  His front teeth grabbed hold of it and there I stood frozen in time with my finger in a bear’s mouth.  I looked at him and he returned my gaze with a quizzical stare that told me he wasn’t sure what this was all about.  It might be a game, I might be feeding him a treat, but whatever it was there was no anger or ferocity in the bears expression or demeanor.
     The only thing I could think to do was to scold the bear as you would a puppy that had hold of a sock. 
     I waved my finger in front of it and told it “No.  Bad bear.  Let go.”  The bear simply looked confused.  He was tugging my finger somewhat gently (as far as bears go) and my palm was against the fence with the wire forming one of the diamond shapes in the fence digging into where my pinky joined the rest of my hand. 
     Then I felt the bears teeth start to crunch down on my finger.  In a sudden flash of inspiration, I realized that if I banged my other hand on the fence right in front of the bears face I might startle it and he would let go.
     I want to go on record right now that I have since decided it is never a good idea to try to startle a large wild animal into doing anything.  The bear did seem startled for a second, then he proceeded to sever the bone in my finger and pull.  As is often the case with car accidents, the events seemed to unfold in slow motion.  With the bone disconnected the bear pulled back and the skin and tendons of my finger stretched like mozzarella cheese much farther than I could ever have imagined it could.  Mercifully the flesh reached its breaking point and ripped off.
     Wayne had been standing next to me and we were now both staring dumbly at my severed finger with what was left of the bone sticking out.  I was shocked at how white the bone looked and wondered why it wasn’t bleeding a lot more than it was.
     Wayne then looked at me and with wide eyes stated the obvious: “That bear just ate your fucking finger!”
     “It sure did.”  I replied, confirming his assessment.  I wish I could report that we had some philosophical epiphany that produced something more intellectual to mark the occasion, but that was it.
     I had been playing guitar since I was a kid so the first thing I did was move the rest of the fingers on my hand to see if I could still form chords or play leads.  It seemed possible.  I looked back in the cage to see if the bear had spit out my finger, but he had not.  It seemed he had eaten it.
     Eric was just coming out of the basement door and I yelled over to him that I needed to go to the emergency room.  I went into the basement with him and he gave me a rag to wrap around my hand.  He was clearly agitated and was more worried that his brother would be mad at him for bringing me there and letting this happen.  I impressed upon him the importance of getting me to the hospital and I assured him that I wouldn’t tell the doctors about the bear so he made up an elaborate lie to tell the hospital about an old conveyer belt we were supposedly working on that caught my finger in the drive chain.  I quickly agreed to the story if it got me to a hospital quicker.
     I made one more quick pass by the bear cage just to check to see if he had spit my finger out, but he had not, so off we went.  I insisted on driving my own car so I followed behind Eric’s truck as he led the way.  Wayne was sitting in the passenger seat of my car and I had him call my father on my cell phone and hold it to my ear so I could talk to him.
     “Hello dad?” I said when my fathers voice appeared on the other end of the line, “it’s me, Dave. Listen, I’m driving to the hospital, a bear ate my finger.”
     “Yeah, right, what’s going on?” Came his reply.
     “I’m telling you, I’m on the way to the hospital because the bear ate my finger.”
      The conversation went on like that until I finally convinced him that I was telling the truth.  I left off telling him I’d call with more information once I got there.
     After following Eric for some time, we pulled into a shopping center parking lot and Eric parked his truck.  I got out of my car to find out what the problem was, and he informed me that we were here.  Here turned out to be a Redi-Care facility in the strip mall, and I again impressed on him that I needed to go to an actual hospital.  He told me that they could handle it here and I should just go in. 
     I told them to follow me and I would prove that I needed a hospital.  We walked in and I asked the nurse/receptionist if I could see a doctor right away.  A doctor came out of a doorway behind the counter and asked what the problem was.
    “Can you do something for this?” I asked, unwrapping the towel and holding up my hand with it’s missing finger. 
     The doctors face went a little white and he stammered “what the hell are you doing here?  Get to a hospital immediately!” 
     “See?” I said to Eric angrily, “Now take me to the fucking hospital!”
     We finally got to Easton Hospital and they took me right in. They took my blood pressure and found it was normal and told me I must be in shock, but I explained to them that my blood pressure never seems to go up or down and I was fine.  The nurse got a little snippy with me and insisted I must be in shock and I didn’t know what I was saying.  I informed her that I had driven myself here with a stop off at the useless Redy-Care to which Wayne and Eric both confirmed and she seemed to be satisfied that indeed I was not in shock.
     They moved me out of the waiting room and onto a bed and there I sat and waited, my head now filled with morphine.  I continued to wait, while Wayne and Eric tried to chat up one of the nurses, even though I could tell right away that they didn’t have a chance. 
     Guys are funny that way.  We were all in our mid to late thirties, and she had to be no older than 22, but men never seem to notice when they become the old guy trying to impress young women that they used to make fun of when they were younger.  It must be an evolutionary thing, still trying to pass your genes on even though you now live outside the herd and the stallion has driven you off the females.  You just continue to rut from the edge of the tree line and hope some desperate female notices you.
     I actually hated her, because she kept talking about my missing finger and saying how she loved gore and that’s why she was a nurse.  In fact, I’m not even sure if she was a nurse.  She was pretty stupid, and very unprofessional, and frankly I don’t know why Wayne and Eric were interested in her in the first place. To be fair though, they were kind of bored and they did have all their fingers, so why should I cast stones?
     She actually asked to see my finger because she liked looking at gross stuff (I swear to God, her exact words!) but by now I was getting freaked out looking at it and I kept it wrapped up in a towel with an ice pack.
     I continued to wait.  I had been here for an hour or so, and they informed me that their hand surgeon was on his way, he was hung up in surgery now, but he will be here in no time. In a telling example both of Wayne’s ignorance and loyalty, he actually inquired if they could cut off one of his fingers and sew it on to my hand so I would still be able to play guitar.  He really thought it was possible, and couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t do it!
     About five hours later (!) the hand surgeon showed up.  He was Indian, not like the phony American Indian that Wayne was, but the South Asian Indian variety.  His bedside manner was not the best, but I don’t especially think it was because he was Indian, I think he was just a bit of a jerk.  He helpfully informed me that he probably could have saved more of my finger had he been there quicker, which was not really comforting and what I wanted to hear, but the morphine took the edge off of any anger or frustration I may have been feeling.  He told me he would need to take some more of the bone off, and I assumed that meant some kind of expensive surgical saw or some such apparatus, but he pulled out what looked like a pair of garden shears. 
     At this point the horrible young nurse asked if she could observe. He inquired if she was studying in whatever field it was that involved working on people’s hands that had been partially eaten by bears, but she explained that she just liked gory shit.  I told him to get her the hell away from me and told him I wanted to lodge a complaint against her. I never did lodge the complaint, but I feel sorry for anyone subjected to having that idiot for a nurse. I still can’t imagine how she had lasted in the hospital that long, I mean she wasn’t that good looking.
     So the surgeon snipped off more of my bone with the garden shear-looking thing and sewed me up.  He again reminded me that I might lose more of the skin because it had taken so long for someone (him) to get to it.  He suggested cutting it all the way back so it would look like I never had a pinky, but I wanted to try to save as much as I could. I told him I played guitar, and he chuckled and said “well, maybe not anymore”.  Like I said, he was kind of a jerk.
     After that, I went home to recuperate, but a few days later it was clear that the skin was dying and I would lose more of my finger.  I had harbored some secret hope that I might be super-human, or at the least part reptile, and the missing portion of my finger might miraculously regenerate, but it was not to be.  My lousy body was not even going to heal the ¾” of skin I was now going to lose.  I still haven’t lost my childlike innocence in the regard that I still think I might somehow be immortal, or have some other amazing and as yet undiscovered powers, but I am resigned to the fact that they do not reside in my fingers. 
     So it was off to some surgical center and the doctor got out the shears and clipped off some more bone and sewed me up once again.  That’s pretty much it. I healed eventually, and now I have a stub where my left pinky used to be.  I still play guitar, but my leads suffer and I usually have to learn songs in different tunings, but it wasn’t as if I was going to be a rock star anyway.
     Wayne died August 4, 2008, around 5:00 PM.  His truck left the roadway, went across a lawn and into the side of a church.  I hadn’t seen a lot of Wayne in the months leading up to his death.  About a year earlier he had gotten a payout from a botched hernia operation, which was the culmination of several years of legal wrangling over an injury that may or may not have happened at work and been eligible for workers comp.  It was finally just settled and they paid Wayne to go away. Part of the agreement was that Wayne could make no more claim to medical treatment, and although I questioned Wayne on the wisdom of signing that agreement with the hernia still bulging out of his stomach and nothing resolved medically, he just wanted the money. I had been hearing for years of all the things we were going to do when Wayne got this money, and all the payback I would receive for all the years of paying his way when he had no money, but that never materialized. Wayne started blowing through the money and you never knew when he was going to pop up drunk at your door with beer and coke and whomever he was towing along with him. 
     We had both been part of the heavy metal club scene drug culture, and Wayne never seemed to leave the bars or the drugs far behind. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t crazy with it and upon occasion my friends and I still partied a little when we got together for old times sake, but none of the all night binges anymore.  We had left those days behind, but when Wayne got that money he started going out every night and doing drugs several nights a week.  Wayne was a monster with the drinking and drugs.  He could handle a lot and keep right on going. I was pretty good at it myself back in the day, but I couldn’t keep up with him.
      A couple of months before he died he started acting strange.  He always seemed to be sick, throwing up a lot and saying it was the flu.  He showed up at my house one night and was crying, telling me he didn’t like himself because he got in fights too often, but he was drunk and he snapped out of it a few minutes later I didn’t really think a whole lot of it. I asked him if everything was all right and he reassured me it was and smiled that Joker grin and wouldn’t discuss it anymore.
     The last time I spoke to him was a week or two before he died.  He showed up unannounced at my place and wanted to come in. He was drunk and loud and I explained to him through the door that I was watching my girlfriends pet bird and it was out of the cage and I couldn’t open the door right now.  He started saying I was lying and I didn’t want to see him, and that was not like Wayne at all.  I told him to hang on a minute and I would put the bird away and come outside and talk to him.  He got angry and left muttering incoherently. 
     I felt bad that Wayne was upset, I called his cell phone but it was off and went right to voice mail, which wasn’t that uncommon the last few months. Wayne always had some excuse that the cell phone company had screwed something up, but I knew he must not be paying his bill. 
      I spoke to a friend the next day and he told me that Wayne came to his place after he left mine.  Once there awhile Wayne told my friend that he had been snorting heroin the last couple of months.  This was very surprising, if not for the obvious reasons.  Wayne had been very vocal for many years about how he had a family member who had gotten messed up with heroin, and he better not catch any of us doing it.  He was adamant about it, almost threatening us and we used to laugh because although some of us did a little coke now and then, we did not intend to ever do Heroin!  We wouldn’t even know where to get it, but in a weird way we felt touched that Wayne would care about us enough to always give us the impassioned lecture every other month or so. 
     Which made it all the more strange when he left my friend to go in the bathroom and snort some and came out and basically nodded off in a chair.  My friend let him sleep for an hour or so and when he got up and said he was leaving my friend tried to make him stay and sleep there. Wayne told him not to worry about it, that he had places to be.  And he left.  And that was the last time any of my close friends or I saw Wayne.
     My friend also told me that when Wayne got there he was bitching about me and how I was lying to him about the bird and I didn’t want to see him.  He explained to Wayne that I was, in fact, watching the bird and I wasn’t lying and I was still his friend.  Wayne calmed down then and felt better about it, and mentioned that he would call me tomorrow and apologize, but I never got that call. It’s okay, I had already forgiven him when he left my place the night before.  What was I gonna do? That was just Wayne.  I do feel better that he knew I wasn’t lying or trying to get rid of him. He really was one of my closest friends and I still miss him to this very day.  I’m sure some people reading this knew Wayne and can attest to the fact that even though he could be a loose cannon at times, he was a solid human being, if not a bit of a tragic figure.
     I don’t know if drugs played into his death, but I would assume they did in some way.  I never wanted to hear the details of how he died in his truck against that church.  It still almost doesn’t seem possible that he’s dead, he seemed so much larger than life at times. One of the things I miss most about Wayne is that he was the last friend I had that was wiling to go anywhere or do anything at a moments notice.  My close friends now are all like me, loners.  They say no man is like an island, but my friends and I are about as close as you can get.  I don’t have a social circle as much as I have an archipelago.  Sometimes I still think I hear him outside my door and whenever the phone rings after 11:00 my first thought is of him.  While I may be better off without those occasional wild nights and crazy tangents Wayne brought to my life, the world seems a little empty without them.   I miss you Hollywood.

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