Ballad of a Plastic Hero

We hit the highway to head back home, the kids
in their car seats, pointing out the window
and delighting at the sight of “Bear. Bear!”
We did a quick roadside check for wildlife
and chanced upon that park ranger’s hat
sweeping through the dried gold of the grass.
It was fire season again and that bare-chested
bear wanted us to take care in case
we threw a muffler off or instigated
an unauthorized experiment with a can of gas.
We had seen the charred remains
from the summer before and wondered
who stood guard. It would be Smokey
in his modesty panel jeans preventing
insult and trauma to our children.
It would be Smokey, the champion of
vigilance in the face of distraction who
would capture my kids’ attention and
bring them to exclaim “There he is. There he is”
like they were old lost soul brothers.
He would stand watching and watching
and watching out and watching over
and waiting in the great by-and-by
until one day when some dumb bored
suburban toughs decided to rough him up.
They broke him in parts and scattered
him on the hill, his shovel snapped in
two and his head rolled to the ditch.
They were caught and punished and fined
. . . but not for desecration. It was
deemed a matter of damaged property,
but we all wrestled with the vision of
an empty field and considered what
might have been. A childhood moment
had been stolen, and some of us
weren’t even children anymore.
Then, like an instamatic flash
gone off at an old grave, we caught
a visage of a vague shape shimmering
in the early evening haze:

Smokey Bear, Smokey Bear
He has arisen from right out of the air

Smokey Bear, Superstar
Were you assigned to this road from afar

Reborn was the defender of the valley
and the prairie. Reborn was the animal
symbol of prevention. Reborn was the dream
of a plastic hero that somehow got funding.
Reborn. Reborn. Reborn. Smokey
had risen like a contestant from
a game show in the seventies pitting him
against Baloo and Winnie-the-Pooh and Gentle Ben
all competing to be a pillar of strength
and steadiness. Together they jumped over
our collective miseries, battled to lead us
out of the wilderness, ran the obstacle course
of our fears. We were ready to testify and hope,
my kids six years older and more jaded
but still welcoming him as redeemer
of all drives out to the suburbs,
of the hardened stare, the wooden
stance, the difficult notion that standing
out in a field all alone is a life well spent.
Smokey stood intact and warned against
shenanigans. Despite the misbehavior of
a few, our faith in the state to
get it right for all of us had been restored.
Smokey, arm raised, beckoned to
the fast lane, the middle lane, the slow lane
for everyone to move with stricter caution
as the chorus of rushing engines
on the interstate passed by and cried:

Smokey Bear, Smokey Bear
You are a watchman extraordinaire

Smokey Bear, Superstar
Bless us savior driving in our cars