It was a cardboard box in my garage. It was marked, “Sean’s Stuff.” That was it. Two words. It’s been sitting in my garage since the construction of the pyramids.
My garage looks like the aftermath of an atomic explosion. There are boxes everywhere, along with wounded furniture, elderly lawn mowers, arthritic hand tools, dead tennis rackets, and an asthmatic GE refrigerator.
I don’t even remember what I was looking for when I found this box. There were spiders inside. I am a well-noted spider hater. I released the spiders outdoors instead of killing them because it just didn’t seem sportsmanlike.
Also inside the box was an old deck of cards, comic books, a baseball cap, and an empty Schweppes ginger ale bottle. Then I found it. My old teddy bear.
He was a good bear. Actually, he was my best friend once. It is a natural thing for boys to call stuffed animals close friends. I have even met grown men who admitted to almost making a teddy bear the best man at their wedding. Don’t force me to start naming names.
My bear was named Teddy just like every kid’s bear probably was. I should have named him something original like “Herman,” but there was a factory tag on his butt that read “Teddy.” So who was I to change it? A man is entitled to keep his name.
When I was a child, I remember one time I was sick with the flu, and I held onto this bear for dear life.
Late that night my father told me the story of how the American teddy bear got its name. At the time, I was borderline delirious. Hot. Sweaty. Out of it.
My father suggested that I drink ginger ale to calm my stomach. This was his answer for any ailment. To my father, if it couldn’t be fixed with castor oil, Mentholatum, or ginger ale, you were a goner.
Well, I hate ginger ale. I am a Coca-Cola man myself. I would rather drink used motor oil than Schweppes ginger ale. But he was insistent. So I choked it down.
And while I clutched Teddy, he told the tale:
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt went bear hunting in Onward, Mississippi, in 1902. He was in the woods trying to find a bear, but found nothing. So his assistants took matters into their own hands.
They trapped a bear, tied it to a tree, beat it half to death, then presented it to Roosevelt who was supposed to shoot it.
Old Theodore was furious. He wouldn’t shoot the bear like this. He said it wasn’t sportsmanlike. So he ordered his assistants to shoot it and put it out of its misery.
As you can imagine, this was a hot story in the newspapers back East. It wasn’t long before a shopkeeper in Brooklyn started selling plush stuffed bears that he called “Teddy bears.”
They sold like hotcakes. Even Roosevelt loved the stuffed animals. He eventually used the teddy bear as his mascot when running for reelection. Which is just the sort of sportsmanlike PR move you’d expect from a politician.
By the time my father finished the story I was crying. Not because I was particularly fond of the 26th president, but because I had this lurching feeling in my gut. That’s when I puked all over my teddy bear.
My father rushed me to the bathroom. I bounced in his arms, still carrying Teddy down the hall. I hugged the toilet and all that ginger ale went right back to where it belonged.
My father sat beside me stroking my hair. Parents do this when a child has an upset stomach. I don’t know why. It’s in the paternal DNA.
When I finally finished retching, my mother carried me to my bed and my father stayed up half the night cleaning Teddy.
I know it’s not exactly a golden memory, but after your father dies you have to hold on to whatever memories you’ve got.
Last year I was coming home from a speaking gig in Arkansas. I was riding Route 61 through the vacant, flat Mississippi landscape. When I reached Sharkey County, I was low on gas. There were no filling stations around for miles.
I was starting to get pretty nervous that I was going to be stranded in the middle of nowhere. Then I saw something in the distance. A gas station.
I hollered for joy and slapped my hands on the steering wheel. I pulled over at a faded pinewood building with two old-style gas pumps out front. A hand painted sign read: “Onward Store.”
“Onward,” I thought. “That sounds oddly familiar.”
A woman behind the counter told me this little community was famous. Somehow, I half remembered hearing about this town, but I couldn’t quite place it. Then she showed me a framed picture on the wall. It was a photograph of Roosevelt and a bear.
She said, “You ever hear the story of how the teddy bear got its name?”
And it all came back to me.
“Wait a second,” I said. “I have actually heard this story once.”
“Yeah, someone told it to me a long time ago.”
“Oh, wanna hear it again?”
“I’d love to, but first, do you have any ginger ale?”
“Nope. Sorry, sweetie, I don’t think we have any. We got Coke though.”
Oh well, I guess you can’t have everything.
Teddy, it’s good to have you back in the family.