‘Bear Watch’ by Ann S. Epstein

In 1961, I went with a group of forty low-income teenagers on a six-week summer camping trip to Yellowstone National Park, an annual event sponsored by the Jewish Federation of New York City. To kids for whom going to Connecticut held the excitement of a trans-Atlantic voyage, and journeying to Pennsylvania was as exotic as visiting the Orient, this was quite an adventure.

In another sense, though, we’d been preparing for this trip for years. Since age eight, we’d attended the Federation’s summer camp, whose mission was to get us out of the city and into the country. The camp wasn’t fancy. There was no horseback riding or tennis lessons, but there was a big lake and the cabins had indoor plumbing. Most nights, however, we camped out at our pow-wow site in the woods. We learned how to pitch a tent, chop wood, lash logs to build a lean-to, and dig a fire pit and a latrine. The second year, we made a refrigerator. You take a wooden crate, wrap moss around it, tack the moss in place with a layer of burlap, and put the perishables inside. Then you fill a tin can with water, puncture a tiny hole in the bottom, and set it on the crate. As the night air cools, water leaking from the can moistens the moss, which keeps the food inside chilled. We also made an oven. You turn a tin drum horizontally, poke a line of holes on opposite sides, and string wire between them to make a rack. You build a row of stones on either side of the fire pit, and lay the oven on top of them, inches from the flames. Then you pick berries in the woods, mix them in a batter, scoop it into muffin tins, and put them in the oven. They come out burned on the bottom and half-baked inside, but they’re the best muffins you’ve ever tasted.

My fellow cross-country travelers and I were from working class neighborhoods whose immigrant residents were Jews and Catholics. On the Jewish High Holy Days, more than half the students in my school were absent, just as on Tuesday afternoons, the Catholic kids departed en masse for religious instruction at St. Anne’s. Our ancestors had fled discrimination, and worse, but except for the occasional story told in hushed tones, we were sheltered from those threats. English was our native tongue, we climbed monkey bars, wore dungarees, rode the subway, and watched westerns and Disney cartoons. Nothing about our appearance or behavior stood out. We knew we were Jewish — Federation programmed our summers, b’nai mitzvah guests ate chopped liver, and many of our names ended in “stein” or “berg” — but not consciously or self-consciously so. We thought of ourselves as ordinary American kids, not outsiders or “other.”

So we set off to see America, our country. Camping on the journey was in some ways easier than at the pow-wow site. The supplies we bought en route were carried on the bus, not on our backs. Also, most campgrounds had bathrooms with walls, not open-air latrines. What many didn’t have, however, was showers. We washed about every ten days when we stopped at one that did. Five minutes of hot water for a quarter. Sweaty teens, with raging hormones, we soon smelled pretty rank. We invented a pugnacious ritual whereby we’d face our opponent, raise one arm, use the opposite hand to fan our stinking armpit toward the enemy, and yell “I’ll fight ya!”

Prepared for the great outdoors by childhood experience and adolescent arrogance, we kids were accompanied by Karl, the nice but nervous trip director; Lenny, the laid-back bus driver, and four college-age counselors, two women and two men. Counselor Dick was prone to acting more like a teenager than an adult, which often got him in trouble with Karl. I recall one incident in particular. Although we usually cooked our own food, a few stops were scheduled at local eateries. The Chuck Wagon was a tourist attraction encircled by covered wagons, each serving an “authentic” cowboy dish, all equally greasy and gross. Dick staggered between the buffet stations, pretending to throw up, to our teenage amusement and the other patrons’ horror. The owners informed the trip director that next year’s group would not be welcomed back.

Fortunately, the program’s final visit to that destination was followed by its first visit to another. When the previous year’s group was in Laramie, Wyoming, they’d met a Kansas farm family on vacation. The farmer considered that he, his wife, and their two children had never met any Jews before, nor had anyone else in their community. He invited the next year’s busload — ours — to stay at their farm. There was plenty of room to pitch our tents, we city kids could see what farm life was like, and the farm kids would get to know us. I’m sorry I don’t remember the family members, but I remember their dog’s, Fido, which was straight out of a Disney cartoon.

Neither the Federation camp nor the cross-country adventure were very religious. Boys and girls mingled; no one wore a skull cap or Star of David under their flannel shirt. On the trip, there was no ban against driving on the Sabbath. Meals were “kosher style,” meaning no pork, shellfish, or mixing milk and meat, but the meat we bought and cooked at our campsites each night certainly didn’t come from a kosher butcher. There were few, if any, such establishments on our itinerary. The lone exception was the Friday night Oneg Shabbat when we sat around the campfire; sang Jewish, Israeli, and other folk songs (think The Weavers); danced the hora; and put on skits about freedom and social justice. Still, although we saw ourselves as typical teens from ordinary families, we were different enough from our farm hosts to arouse mutual curiosity.

At the farm, we rode on tractors and pitched hay, but the most memorable experience was watching chickens being killed. Decidedly not according to kosher laws. To this day, when I hear the expression, “running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” I remember exactly what that headless, blood-spurting gyration looked like. Afterwards, Dick puked for real.

On our last night there, the teenagers at the 4-H club held a dance in our honor, with fruit punch and homemade cookies. We were a bit shy and awkward at first, but it turned out Kansas and New York kids heard the same songs on the radio and watched the same dances on American Bandstand. Soon we were doing the Twist and Mashed Potato together. I didn’t get what the big deal was, Jewish or Christian, dark frizzy rat’s nest or straight blond hair. People were people.

In the morning we said our goodbyes and the farmer invited next year’s group to stay with them again. We loaded up the bus and continued westward. Later that day, we stopped at a gas station. While Lenny filled the tank, Karl called New York, and the counselors enjoyed some “alone time,” we kids sat at the picnic tables to eat the first candy we’d had in weeks. A bunch of local ranchers checked out the license plates on the bus and joined us. “You from New York?” “Yep,” we said. “What are you doing out here?” We said we were headed for Yellowstone and told stories about our trip so far. They roared at our armpit antics, then shared stories about their lives, mostly involving cow flops. We swapped jokes, first us, then the ranchers. By their third joke, we’d stopped laughing. I don’t remember the exact words, but one described a dirty Jew dog with horns, the other was about a smart guy who “Jews down a Jew.” We’d never heard the expression “Jew down” and weren’t sure what it meant, but could tell from the context that it had something to do with money — and it wasn’t nice.

It would be decades before the word “Jewdar” (the ability to detect another person’s Jewishness, analogous to “gaydar”) was coined. I didn’t possess it then, or do I now, and doubt my friends did either. The need to detect one of ours was nonexistent since we’d spent our lives surrounded by them. Rather, it was those who weren’t our kind — the majority elsewhere — who developed the skill to sniff us out. Using our noses, not theirs, and who knows what other cues. Call it animal instinct, or bigotry. The ranchers possessed a skill we lacked. Years of camping had taught us how to deal with the challenges of nature, not the ugliness of human nature.

Finally, at the trip’s turnaround, we pulled into Yellowstone. Sixty decades ago, national parks weren’t overcrowded. We had a huge campsite to ourselves, in a remote area. While two-legged visitors weren’t a problem, bears were. The ranger warned us that if bears found food at our campsite, they’d search inside our tents, at night, for more. If we were cooking or eating and saw bears coming, we should take the food, run to the bus, and lock the door behind us. To deal with this threat, we took turns on bear watch. Our campground was in a natural bowl, so at every meal, four people fanned out to the surrounding hills. If you saw a bear, you were supposed to run down the hill screaming “Bear!” and then everyone would grab the food and race to the bus.

The evening I was on patrol, I faced west. As the sun went down, I didn’t see any bears. Instead I gazed upon the most beautiful country I’d even seen and thought of the other sights on our trip: the Grand Tetons, Pike’s Peak, Mount Rushmore. Their awesomeness had given me a new perspective on my country. Only now, sixty years later, do I realize I’d also learned a new kind of watchfulness. Becoming aware of my Jewishness had made me wary. Unlike bears, two-legged threats didn’t lumber toward you from afar. They could sneak up, even under the guise of friendship. And when they did, you couldn’t grab your feelings, run to a safe place, and lock the door. But at fourteen, alone on that hilltop, I did realize that while I had ventured far from the Bronx, the Kansas farmer who’d invited us into his home had the most adventurous spirit of all.

About the contributor

Ann S. Epstein
Ann S Epstein's novels are On the Shore, Tazia and Gemma, A Brain. A Heart. The Nerve., and The Great Stork Derby (in press). Her stories, memoir, and essays appear in Sewanee Review, PRISM International, Ascent, The Long Story, and elsewhere. She also has a PhD in developmental psychology and MFA in textiles.

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