Anna Kaladish, Contributing Writer
Who could forget Smokey Bear, that beloved ranger so dear to our hearts? According to smokeybear.com, a fascinating web resource that I highly recommend, Smokey rode into the American consciousness on the heels of WWII fear-mongering. In 1942 it was estimated that human activity accounted for nine out of 10 forest fires in the United States. Although we couldn’t control the “Japs,” whose submarines did in fact attempt to set the West Coast ablaze, we could minimize the risk of accidentally starting fires. Our strapping young lads were fighting the war and couldn’t be called upon to fight fires at home, so such an effort was imperative. Therefore, a terrifying ad campaign featuring Hitler and Hirohito was born.
These ads employed phrases such as, “Careless matches aid the Axis,” an impressive slant rhyme that also instills fear and ties mundane activity directly to the war effort at large. The next year, in an attempt to try something cute, the forest fire prevention campaign adopted Bambi, the sweet little fawn. Bambi demonstrated that a cartoon animal could be effective in stamping out careless fires, but Walt Disney only lent the character for one year. Enter Smokey.
The year 1944 saw the beginning of the campaign with a chubby little bear in dungarees saying, “Care will prevent nine out of 10 forest fires!” Thus, Smokey was born, conceived through the marriage of terror and cartoon appeal. Maintaining the aggressiveness of the WWII posters, even adopting Uncle Sam’s stance pointing to “YOU” in later ads, Smokey is scary. He’s a bear! Of course he’s scary. Yet he’s also a chummy-looking, personified bear wearing jeans and a hat. This inspired combination could not fail.
What really solidified Smokey in the collective consciousness of the American people came in the 1950s, that age of post-war prosperity and the height of nostalgic Americana. In 1950, a forest fire in New Mexico trapped a wee black bear cub in a tree, where he clung for life, heroically singeing his paws. Like the legends surrounding the birth of Rome, the accounts of the particulars are varied. Some say the cub clung to the tree for days, some say hours; some say he was rescued by one captain, some say by a group of firefighters. As Plutarch might observe, the minutiae of the event matter not, for it is the virtue of the bear with which we must concern ourselves. This cub was the incarnation of Smokey: a bear imploring people to be more careful with fire.
Whereas the founding of Rome was immortalized in the epic verse of Vergil, Smokey was taken as the subject of a 1952 song by Steven Nelson and Jack Rollins. Although the song succeeded in effecting the apotheosis of Smokey, it also thoroughly confused the public; in order to maintain the rhythm of the song, the singers referred to Smokey the Bear, rather than his proper name, Smokey Bear. To this day, people are confused. Nonetheless, the idyllic campground scenes of Steve and Jack crooning to wholesome American Boy Scouts warm the heart and instruct the intellect:
“Prowlin’ and growlin’ and sniffin’ the air,
He can find a fire before it starts to flame.
That’s why they call him Smokey –
That was how he got his name.”
At the end of the tune, the singer reassuringly encourages the audience, “Only we, you and I, can prevent forest fires.”
The bear who loves the forest and fire safety has come a long way since then. You’re not likely to see a stamp such as the one featuring Smokey bowed in prayer, beseeching “… and please make people careful, amen.” Overt religiosity is offensive. You’re also not likely to see Smokey attending a funeral and menacingly inquiring, “One careless match… yours?” But don’t fret over the potential degradation of Smokey’s moral authority. He’s still growlin’ and prowlin’ and demandin’ that people regulate their passions and exercise their rational capacity in light of their free will in order to prevent forest fires and, since the amendment to his slogan in 2001, all types of wildfires.
For example, in a 1988 television ad, over hypnotic drums and new age spiritualist flute music, a husky narrator muses, “We’ve always wondered whether plant life can feel. We’re pretty sure about people who live near the forest.” Though this engages an audience of unbelievers, there is an undeniable appeal to objective hierarchy and moral good: People are more important than trees, and you must act in a manner that does not kill people.
The 2000s saw the introduction of reggae and mariachi to the ads, with an emphasis on the fun, creative side of putting out fires. But still Smokey looms large, letting out a growl every now and again.
The latest transformation finds Smokey hip and happening. He now wears a ghetto bling belt, and the catchphrase is “Get your Smokey on.” Yet even the latest Smokey still demands prudence, reminding us, “Only YOU can prevent wildfires.” Though the face may change, Smokey’s message remains the same, a message of classically understood self-government: regulation of the passions in service of right reason for the purpose of accomplishing a moral good.
Ironically, Smokey was born from the behemoth of wartime bureaucracy. God bless America!