A few years ago at Balticon, a science fiction convention a guest author read a poem about some villagers who believed that if any one was to see a white stag, he could make a wish, and that wish would come true – like wishing on a fallen star. This image tinkled a bell somewhere in my memory – but where?
While attending a storytelling class at Elkins West Virginia, I visited an antique car show in the local town park. Model A Fords, flat-body farm trucks, a pick-up with the battery under the floorboards, all brought back memories, but it was the pre-World War II Buick that really caught my eye. My father had one like it. The one that Glen Miller soaped up one Halloween (the soap never did come off entirely). The one that we were travelling in, in Reading, when Daddy made a quick stop, causing my forehead to put a big spider in that funny little slanted windshield. What a headache! Below the window was an old fashioned steering wheel with the horn in the middle and the retro dashboard, with its little round chrome ringed gas gauge with the red needle.
The back seat window showed me the wide comfortable well-upholstered seat with a space big enough for me to hide in between it and the front seat.. Hide in? What could I possibly be hiding from? I could not remember ever being a scaredy-cat. A bear! Which bear? The white bear! I smiled to myself. I realized then why I identified with an author’s reading of her poem about sightings of a magical white stag making wishes come true.
I remembered the evening I went over the Mahoning Mountain with my father to the village of White Bear. The big old hotel at the corner had a picture of a white bear painted on one entire side. As we passed the intersection I asked Daddy to slow down so I could get a good look at him. I do not remember exactly what the bear looked like. I am sure he was very big, standing on his back legs with his open mouth showing lots of big teeth.
As he was parking the car, I asked Daddy if he thought there had really been any white bears in the valley, because I had only ever heard of brown ones in the wild.
Like all real storytellers my father could not pass up an opening like that to tell a story. He said that when he was a boy “old people” said that there was a white bear and that if you saw it and made a wish, that wish would come true.
“So, Caroline, while I go in to talk to Mr. Snyder, you better get your wish ready so that if we see the bear on the way home, you will be ready with your wish.”
As I sat in the car by myself, I took that challenge very seriously. I thought about it for a long time. This wish could not be wasted. Finding the right wish was very important. Hoping to think more like an adult, I moved over and sat at my father’s place under the steering wheel. The move did not bring any new ideas. The full moon was coming up. A perfect night to spot the bear!
What to wish? At this point in my life, boys were just other kids and their attentions were just hohum. We were not rich but I could not think of a single thing, that I needed or even wanted very badly. Getting a good report card or winning a race seemed too trivial. So I crawled over the seat and sat in the back seat. Still no brainstorms hit me, and my stomach was starting to hurt from thinking about this for so long.
Finally, Daddy came back to the car and we started back over the Mahoning Mountain towards home. Of course he had forgotten all about the bear and was singing Pentecostal Hymns in a loud voice. Meanwhile I was having a very large problem in the back seat. What would my wish be if I saw the white bear in the moonlight?
When we rounded the big curve at the bottom of the mountain, I almost slid down between the seats. From down there I would not be able to see the bear! If I couldn’t see him I wouldn’t be wasting my precious wish. I then crouched down between the seats and hid my face, thus saving my chance for another time when I would surely have “the” wish ready and also creating a memory that would reappear at a vintage car show in Elkins, West Virginia, many years later.
That is the true story of why a little girl hid in the backseat of a 1938 Buick.
When I told this story to some other storytellers in Virginia, one asked me if I would have my wish ready now if I were to see the Bear. I had to admit that I had not given it a thought. On my next trip to Mahoning I went to the top of Mahoning Mountain where there is a place to pull off the road and look down into the valley and even a trail to walk into the woods. I looked back. There stood my Jeep. It was not a 1938 Buick and my father was certainly not driving it.
I climbed out on a prominent rock and cupping my hands around my mouth, I called out as strongly as I could, “Mr. Bear, I know you are out there. You just have to be out there. I have a wish and I need it to come true.” I explained to him that I know a lot of the stories from these mountains and valleys, many of which have never been written down. “Please help me. I need to tell these stories and record them. If I can’t do this, they will be lost in the wind forever.”
Caroline Zimmerman Johns
June 11, 1996