Saturday, November 1, 2008

Fatal Error

Fatal Error
Written by Ben George
The following is an account of an actual incident that took place at the Willey House Historic Area in Bartlett. The Author has placed it in a piece of historical fiction.

As they drove eight miles north to the Crawford Notch State Park in Johnny's '42 pickup, he said to his fiancée, "I'm filling in for Carl today. Feeding the animals should be easy compared to some of the other assignments Art has given me.”

"Have you been trained for that job?" Mary asked.

"No, but I've got the schedule and directions and I've watched Carl do some of it."

"Why don't we meet for lunch in the picnic area south of the pond?" Mary suggested. "Let me see your schedule.” Mary's pretty blue eyes scanned the schedule and she said, "Perfect. According to this, you should be finished feeding Benny and Josie by 1:30 and that's my lunch-break time.”

As Johnny pulled into the employee parking lot, Mary looked around and sighed, "What a lovely day it's going to be. The sun is reflecting off the rock faces on Mount Webster, the sky is sooo blue and the trees on Mount Willey are already showing autumn colors."
He leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek and said, "Okay, Love, I'll see you at 1:30. Hand me that schedule and I'll get started.” He watched her skip away to the Willey House gift shop where she worked, and smiled at her spirit and enthusiasm. She was the essence of happiness and optimism and always had been, even when they were little kids. As he headed for the feed lockers, memories of her childish concern as she nursed his make-believe wounds on the imaginary WWII battle fields of their neighborhood, forced him to smile. He was lucky that his childhood friend had evolved into the love of his life.

Upon reaching the lockers and sheds, he loaded the modified golf cart with various sacks of bird seed and animal feed. His handsome face and muscular arms were nicely tanned after a summer of outdoor work in jeans and a tee shirt, but today, the sun was taking its time rising above this narrow valley. He put on his windbreaker and drove the cart across US 302 and through the visitor's parking lot. Starting at the north end of the wildlife exhibit he worked his way south. First on the list were Ricky and Rachel, the raccoons; next was Robby, the red- shouldered hawk. Down the trail he went, stopping at each pen, filling the feeders and checking the water levels. He reached the pen of Benny the Bear and his mate Josephine right on time and parked his cart just off the path.

They were the premier attraction at this wildlife exhibit in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Since 1949, these black bear cubs had grown up in the park and delighted visitors, particularly children, with their playful antics. Now, in 1952, Benny was said to weigh about 400 pounds while his mate was closer to 250. He was an unusually large, well-fed bear compared to his cousins in the wild. Neither Benny nor Josephine seemed alarmed when school kids surrounded them, cameras flashed, girls talked to them as if they were Teddy and boys shot them with imaginary rifles.

Carrying two buckets, Johnny stopped to unlatch the door and then headed straight to the feed trough. As he began to pour the first bucket, he saw from the corner of his eye, Benny shuffling toward the door. A chill went through him as he realized he had forgotten to secure the door.

He quickly grabbed the other bucket and rushed toward Benny to lure him back with the offer of food. The choice of freedom won. Visitors around the pen were aghast to see Benny open the door with his right paw and amble through. Horrified at his terrible mistake, Johnny grabbed the long-handled shovel from his cart, got in front of Benny and tried to prod him backwards. Provoked by the shovel, Benny growled and charged. In a split second, Johnny was on the ground with the bear over him.

The Elders in a Young Grove
Mary saw Johnny's cart from the café deck, and while crossing the road she heard and felt his terrifying screams. She saw Benny outside his pen, but where was Johnny? Racing across the bridge, she froze when she saw him under the big bear, trying to shield himself from the claws. Visitors ran screaming and yelling from the area. The cold bottle of Moxie that she was bringing to Johnny, along with lunch, slipped out of her hand as she reached for the bridge railing to steady herself.

Art, the park manager, and Harold, an older employee, ran from the nearby deer pen and hurled themselves at Benny like football blockers. They knocked Benny off Johnny, but the bear merely rolled over and then turned on the newcomers. Art reached to pull Johnny up and away, while Harold tried to divert Benny's attention. But, he quickly knocked Harold down, and turned on Art. Johnny, bleeding from head and shoulders, was not responding. Benny rammed into Art and took him down with one swipe. As Benny was about to tear into Art, he was hit by a rock in the back of the head. Turning, another smacked him in his brown snout. Out of rocks, Mary turned to race back to the Willey House and almost ran into Alice, her supervisor. "Ask Sam to call the State highway boys and tell them we need a hunting rifle on the bridge immediately to save a life!” she said urgently.

Alice stopped about twelve feet from Benny and put shot .22 caliber bullets into the side of his head. With that irritating insult, he left Art and ambled back toward his pen, shaking his head as if stung by hornets. A nervous Alice stood guard, wishing she had a real rifle and not just her squirrel gun. Art was on the ground near Johnny; neither one moved. Harold had rolled over and appeared to be the only one conscious, though bleeding profusely.

Mary, heart pounding and out of breath, came to a running stop beside Alice and with quavering voice said, "There's a State truck near-by and the guy's been told to come to this bridge right away with a rifle. How's Johnny?"

"I don't know about Johnny, dear, he's probably hurt real bad. But, we have to deal with Benny first. Can you shoot this little rifle?" Before Mary could answer, Alice thrust it into her hands and said, "I'm going to try and get Harold on his feet and up to the bridge. You yell if Benny decides to come visit us again - and don't shoot me!" She managed to get the 67-year-old Harold up and supported him as he limped up to the bridge, where he fainted. He was a bloody mess, and now, so were her clothes.

"Alice!” Mary screamed. "He's coming back!” She heard boots pounding the bridge and looked back to see a tall young man running fast and carrying a big rifle. Crossing the bridge, he ran down the path and stepped off to one side. Kneeling, he took aim at Benny who was plodding toward them with a low rumbling growl from his shaking head. At about 30 feet, Bill, the rifleman, fired. Benny lumbered to his hind legs and let out a roar that made everyone's hair stand on end. Bill answered with four more shots in rapid succession. Benny staggered and fell. With the calm of an experienced hunter, Bill made sure he was dead.

Lone Birch in the Snow                               Cards                              Fine Art Prints

Alice thanked Bill profusely, while preventing Mary from running to see Johnny. She knew it would do her no good to see him ripped up, even if he was alive, so she asked Bill to help Mary back to the visitor parking lot. When they arrived at the parking lot, a crowd had gathered.

Deputy Sheriff Franklin George arrived to find three men laid out at the edge of the parking lot on stretchers surrounded by gawking visitors mesmerized by the violent events that had enveloped them in the past half hour. Responding to the deputy's loud question of "Who's in charge?" Alice raised her hand and quickly walked toward the man with the Stetson hat and badge.

When the designated 'first-aid' employees finished with tourniquets and bandages, Mary stepped forward from Bill's protective arm. She walked to where Johnny lay, and with tears streaming down her cheeks, pulled the truck keys from his pants pocket. She could hardly look at his face, where the deep bloody claw gouges were now covered with blood-soaked gauze and tape. His shallow breathing offered hope.

As soon as the ambulances left, Mary drove home and picked up Johnny's mother, Barbara, who couldn't believe the news. In shocked silence, she climbed into the old pickup, and Mary grimly drove to the hospital. When Dr. Johnson appeared at the emergency desk, he gently said, "Johnny died from his wounds before reaching the hospital, and Harold is in critical condition." They sat and sobbed until there were no more tears. It was a silent ride home, each deep in anguish.

After an emotional funeral and burial in the town cemetery, Mary and her parents Robert and Pauline were intercepted on their way to their car by a tall, handsome young man in a suit and tie. He said, "Hello, Mr. and Mrs. O'Dell. Mary, I heard how brave you and Alice were in saving Art and Harold before I arrived. If I can be of any help to you in the days ahead, just let me know. He handed her a small envelope, nodded goodbye and disappeared into the crowd.

"What was that all about?" Robert asked.

"I think that was Bill.” she replied, "the man who shot Benny and saved Harold and Art." As Mary rode home in the back seat of her parent's car, she opened the envelope and read, "Dear Mary, Whenever you need a shoulder to lean on, please call me, 689-3923 or write, PO Box 188, Twin Mountain, NH. God be with you, Bill Murphy."

Alice called Mary on Monday and said they were laying off all seasonal workers and that her last check would be in the mail. Sadly, she added, State Park management ordered that Josephine, who stayed in her pen all the time, was to be destroyed. She sincerely hoped that Mary would soon recover from the shock of Johnny's death.

After Thanksgiving, Mary received a letter from Alice. It read, "Dear Mary, Art has fully recovered and is back at work. After nine weeks in the hospital, Harold is reasonably healthy once again, although his face is badly scarred. The County Sheriff's office released a report that said “John W. Tasker's death was the result of human error in the care and feeding of a wild animal.” I hope to hear that you are healthy, and have put this tragedy behind you. Sincerely, Alice".

Heavy winter snow storms kept snowplow drivers like Bill and Robert working around-the-clock for many days and nights. Mary stayed home except to go to the library. She missed Johnny so much that life as she knew it had disappeared. For her, the dark winter days provided no clues as to how she might live without her lifelong sweetheart, and she sank deeper into depression. Old high school friends called, but she had little to say to them.

In April, with gentle rains replacing heavy snow storms, Mary received a letter from Bill. It was a concerned inquiry about her health. Seeing the return address on the letter, Pauline suggested they invite Bill to dinner so he and Robert could have a little shop talk. When she invited Bill, she told him that Mary's spirits were still very low and that she hoped his visit might cheer her up.

Two weeks later, after dinner, Bill and Mary went for a walk and she learned that he had graduated from high school four years ago. As she felt more at ease with him, they found that they both enjoyed reading novels and Robert Frost poetry, swimming, and surprisingly, fishing. When he quizzed her about hiking in the mountains, she admitted to have never hiked at all and had never been to the summit of Mount Washington, by either the auto road or the cog railway. Smiling, she agreed to drive the auto road with him on the next clear day.

A week later a bright blue sunny sky greeted them as Bill's '48 Plymouth climbed the long, steep winding road to the alpine summit of the highest mountain in the northeast. At the Summit House, Mary marveled at the distance she could see in every direction. The granite rock-strewn summit, way above timberline, sheltered small alpine flowers just now emerging from under their snowy cover. As they walked, Bill pointed out the tiny bells of moss plants, drifts of alpine bluets and the occasional white flowered sandworts. Down the slope to the west, reflecting the sun was the “Lake of the Clouds.” Between the summit and the lake a few very low-growing spruce and balsam trees could be seen among the rocks. "They endure some of the worst weather in the world, and survive," Bill said with amazement. As they sat down on a flat rock behind a boulder that blocked the Atlantic breeze, Mary gazed at Bill's thoughtful face. Basking in the warm sun, she smiled and leaned against his shoulder. Perhaps, she thought, I too can survive.

"The author wishes to thank Ruth Abbott of the Bartlett Historical Society and David Emerson, of the Conway Public Library, for supplying old news reports that are the basis of this 20th Century Legend."

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