We were driving back to Michigan after a conference on Herbert Hoover that I had organized for the Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, in 1984.  After you get past Hammond and Gary, Indiana is flat but quite nice.  Our beautiful Buick 225 Ultra blew the head gasket on the Indiana Toll Road near LaPorte.  I walked about a mile to an exit we had just passed (pre-cellphone days, pre-OnStar) and called for assistance.  Just about the time I got back to our car, which my wife had guarded, the most beautiful tow truck I have ever seen pulled up.  It was lifted about two feet and had tires to kill for; it was flame red, with fire stripes in orange and blue and purple and yellow, all shined up and glowing in the late-afternoon sun.

One of the biggest men I have ever seen (at least 6’6″ and 350 pounds) jumped down from the cab and said, “Call me Bear.”  He wore huge steel-toed work boots, OshKosh B’gosh bib overalls, and a red and black flannel shirt (it was summer).  His beard covered most of his bib, and his black hair came down to where the suspenders crossed on his back.  His voice filled the roadside and flattened the high grass.  My wife’s eyes were bigger than I have ever seen them.

He said, “You cain’t drive that machine, so whar’ do you want me to take you?”  I told him we were about 200 miles from home, and he said, “Hell, that ain’t much.  I’ll hook you up.  Ma’am, would you sit by me in the cab?”  As we pulled out on the highway he asked me if we were in a hurry: “I got this here surgeon back to New Jersey in seven hours—he said he would pay for the tickets.  His wife and mother-in-law rode back there in the car, lookin’ up all the way.”  No hurry, I said, but don’t you have to call in to somebody, going this far and all?  Big smile.  “What the hell for?  It’s my truck.”

Bear wanted to know what we did for a living.  He’d never met a college perfes­ser with a stay-home wife before.  Actually, Helen told him, she was only a part-time-stay-home at that point, because she was the cheerleader for our community (chamber of commerce) a few hours per week.  He was quiet for a few minutes.  “Is that one a’ them helpin’ things?  Are you some kinda social worker or somethin’?”  She explained that she was trying to make our community friendlier to business enterprise, and to convince our businessmen that they should put their effort and money into our old Victorian downtown and cooperate with our college to keep connected to our worthy past.  He was quiet again for a few minutes.  “Shit.”

“Me and my woman don’t need no neighbors,” he said.

Helen asked him, “Then you’re married, Bear?”

“Hell no, that would be like, you know, commitment.  We just get along pretty good.  And we got Noah.”  So the big Bear had a woman and a son.

“Why did you name him Noah?” my wife asked.

“Well, you never know when the rain is gonna come.”

For 200 miles Bear talked about his philosophy of life.  He owned the truck and his house, and owed nobody nothin’.  He towed people around (“By the way, I want cash, nothin’ bigger than a ten”) and fished and hunted and did whatever little jobs came up.  (“I always do what I say I’m gonna do.”)  He loved his woman—never gave her a name—but said she was free to go whenever she wanted to.  If she left, Helen asked, what would he do?  “Ain’t thought about it,” he said, and the gravel in his voice seemed about to break the windshield.  He had never voted—“It only encourages them”—and had never paid taxes.  He had no Social Security number—“I like to stay annanominous”—and thought the government existed only “to make us pee down our legs” with their rules.  He talked about playing with Noah and keeping his truck shiny and in good running order.  He liked Bob Seger but thought Springsteen was a fake.  He drank Pabst Blue Ribbon, maybe the last guy I’ve known who did.  I asked him if he knew how the highway got built, or all the roads for that matter, and if he had any worries about his living being off the existence of cars and roads.  “I’ll make a livin’ someway,” he said.

We got into town at dusk, and the bank was closed.  Because we lived in a small town I could write a check for the $213 we owed him, a dollar per mile, and get it cashed, nothing bigger than a ten, at a downtown market.  Bear told us he liked us: “Never met no nice educated folks before,” was the last thing he said.

It was like meeting Natty Bumppo. James Fenimore Cooper put the American character in print when he wrote The Pioneers in 1823.  Vergil gave us the Roman character in the Aeneid, and Cooper did the same for the one real literary contribution our country will ever make.  Daniel Boone had died not long before Cooper created Natty Bumppo, and it’s pretty clear that as many Americans knew about Boone as knew about George Washington or Benjamin Franklin.  Natty was self-governing.  He moved his cabin when there was no longer a sufficient supply of firewood near his door.  He hunted when he needed meat and fished with a spear from a canoe.  He could shoot the eye out of a turkey at 75 paces.  “I never killed a man who didn’t need killing; I never shot an animal except for meat.”  That was what the great Texas historian J. Evetts Haley said about Jeff Milton (Jeff Milton: A Good Man With a Gun), but it applies exactly to Natty.

He’s unchurched, but noble, and un­lettered:

I’m a plain, unlarned man that has served both the king and his country, in his day, ag’in the French and savages, but never so much as looked into a book, or larnt a letter of scholarship, in my born days.  I’ve never seen the use of such indoor work.


Natty has no family, only a friend or two to whom he is unfailingly loyal.  His life is simple, but, like Bear’s, it stands on the precipice of civilization.

Natty runs up against the game laws imposed by Marmaduke Temple, the civilizer who represents Cooper’s own father, Judge William Cooper.  (“Templeton” in the book is Cooperstown, still one of the most beautiful villages on this earth.)  Judge Temple wants to bring order to the savage wilderness.  Natty wants to live free.  Behind their inevitable conflict lies the oldest dilemma of man: Is the beast in the forest, as Natty believes, or in the heart of us all?  Judge Temple says to his daughter, as she is trying to keep Natty out of jail for having violated the game laws, “Try to remember, Elizabeth, that the laws alone remove us from the condition of the savages; that he has been criminal, and that his judge was thy father.”

The complicating factor is that Natty had saved Elizabeth’s life.  She had wandered too far from the village, and a “painter” was about to rip her throat out when Natty killed it from 200 yards.  “Talk to me not of law, Marmaduke Temple,” Natty later tells him.  “Did the beast of the forest mind your laws when it was thirsty and hungering after the blood of your own daughter?”

The free man in the wilderness, the great myth of American history, or the civilizer, the one who tames the savage beast that resides in the human heart?  Judge Temple pays Natty’s fine and thus releases him from the confinement that would have destroyed him.  The Judge knows that Natty is noble and true but also says that he is unique among his kind.  Most of us are like Boone Caudill, A.B. Guthrie’s unforgettable hero/savage in The Big Sky.  Most of us are like Caroline Gordon’s pioneer in Green Centuries, or Madison Jones’ wannabe Rousseau in Forest of the Night.  Shane is a doomed hero in Jack Schaeffer’s classic; few turn out like the Virginian or Louis L’Amour’s Hondo.

The best western ever made, John Ford’s Stagecoach, a desert Moby-Dick, has all the epic characters: John Wayne as the Ringo Kid, a noble Natty Bumppo who has only justice in his heart; a bad banker; a whore with a heart of gold; a sheriff who holds the law just enough off to see the nobility in Ringo; a fragile lady who turns out to be tough; a Southern gambler who gives his life for the lady; and a drunken doctor who rallies not only to save the lady in childbirth but to help the sheriff get Ringo and the whore off to a new life.  “Well,” he says (and I’m paraphrasing), “we’ve saved them from the blessings of civilization.”

Twenty-five years and more later, I’ve wondered about Bear.  Helen and I think he was probably the freest man we have ever met, completely without guile, ideology, or restrictions.  He seemed really to believe that he made all the choices that needed to be made.  On the other hand, he seemed to be an Edward Abbey kind of character, maybe from The Brave Cowboy, who was fated to be hit by an even bigger truck than the one he rode.