It was 3 AM when I heard it. The sound of screeching metal.
Screeching metal is not what you want to hear while camping. Especially when you’re borrowing your father’s pristine car.
I was nervous about using it at all. Martin and I were visiting California from North Carolina, and had intended to rent a car for our camping trip to the Eastern Sierra. But my dad, being wonderful, insisted we use his.
“Save your money!” he had urged us. “Take mine!”
Martin was in graduate school; I was a secretary. Save money? That sounded good.
And yet… my dad’s car was always immaculate. He hand-washed and vacuumed it every Saturday morning. He waxed it twice a year, lovingly rubbing in the wax, polishing it to a high shine, and buffing every inch until it gleamed. The windows sparkled. The upholstery was spotless. Even the wheel wells were unsullied with oil or grit.
One did not eat or drink in the car. One did not leave trash in the car. One did not smudge its windows or bump the curb.
He understood we were going camping, right?
I was anxious. There would undoubtedly be dirt and pine needles inside by the end of the trip; of course we would wash and vacuum the car, but what if sap got onto the floor mats? What if the fuel bottle leaked in the trunk?
What if – God forbid! – the paint got scratched? Or the windshield chipped?
I would absolutely die, if my dad didn’t kill me first.
No, nothing even remotely approaching “screeching metal” had ever – in my wildest imagination, in my wildest fears – been considered. It was unthinkable.
I elbowed Martin in alarm.
“Huh? Wha–?” he asked groggily.
Again: the sickening sound of wrenching metal.
He was wide awake now, too, and groping for the flashlight. Unzipping the tent door, he swept the light back and forth, then suddenly froze, the beam aimed directly at the parking pad.
“Uh-oh,” he said, and hastily switched off the light.
My heart pounded.
“Bear,” he said in the darkness.
I stopped breathing for a moment, not because the only thing between me and a wild bear were thirty feet of air and a delicate layer of tent fabric, but because a bear was evidently doing something unimaginable to my dad’s car. Something that resulted in the sound of crumpling metal.
The car let out another tortured scream.
Fear of bear versus fear of Dad? Yeah, I’ll take my chances with the bear.
In a flash, despite entirely inadequately clothing, I was out of the tent. The cinnamon-colored black bear was hanging on the side of the car, his paws gripping the driver’s side rear window, his feet braced firmly against the door. He had opened a gap between the top of the door and the car. The bear gave another little tug and the metal groaned; the gap widened. The door was being peeled away from the car, as easily as if he were opening a can of sardines.
I padded towards him, softly clapping my hands. “Shoo, Bear!” I whispered, not wanting to wake the other campers but hoping I sounded really scary.
“Go on, now, git!”
The bear turned his head and regarded me thoughtfully, then stuck his nose back into the opening, snuffling at the car’s interior. Disappointed, he dropped down and shuffled away.
From the safety of our tent, Martin and I listened as the bear circled the campground: a dog barked wildly; several minutes later, we heard loud banging noises from the area of the overflowing dumpsters; soon after, the unmistakable groaning as another car was pried open, accompanied by the sound of shattered glass. He was making his rounds, checking his trap line for food.
The bear broke into seven cars that night.
No, we had not left food in the back seat. Signs were posted everywhere, instructing us to store all food in either the vehicle’s trunk (which we did) or in bear lockers. We had left our hats in the back seat. Apparently the bear thought he’d open up the car (since it was so easy!) and check them out, in case they were actually yummy morsels masquerading as hats.
No, Bear. They were just hats.
With morning came the need to inform my father about the modified condition of his car. I utterly refused to call him. I was convinced that his reaction (certainly swift and dreadful) would zip through the phone line and strike me down, right there in the phone booth. Martin wasn’t happy about informing his father-in-law that we (well, a bear) had wrecked his car, but he didn’t have much choice.
The call went like this:
Martin: “Hi Jim! Yes, we’re having a great time. Except – I have to ask – does your car have bear insurance?”
Dad: “Oh God.”
Martin: “There’s good news and bad news! The good news is that the bear didn’t make it all the way into the car.”
Dad: “Oh God!”
Martin: “The bad news is that he nearly pried the door off, trying. We’ll need to come back to have it fixed.”
There was a long pause. Then: “Are you and Carol okay?”
Martin: “Yes, but the car –”
Dad: “Can you still drive it, with the door like that?”
Martin: “Yes, but the window –”
Dad: “Finish your vacation! It’s just a car.”
And that was it. Didn’t I say he was wonderful? That was the last time I ever worried about telling him anything.
We drove to an area with less bear activity, taped a garbage bag over the gaping hole, and went backpacking. It was a magnificent trip, made possible by my dad’s generosity. Upon our return, the car was quickly repaired, restored to its standard immaculate condition. But forevermore, there was a tiny leak at that rear window, a little reminder that the pristine car had once tangled with a bear.
Although (now that I think about it!), he never again offered to loan us his car.