There are two inherent design flaws in a Smokey the Bear costume. First, the eyes are in the snout, severely limiting one’s vision. Second, there is a giant hoop in the middle of the costume to create Smokey’s jolly, rotund belly. The awkwardness of the hoop, combined with the wearer’s lack of vision, creates several potentially dangerous complications. When a small child attempts to hug Smokey the Bear, for example, the unlucky teenager in the suit might not be able to feel or see him. This is unfortunate, because it is surprisingly common for Smokey (read: me) to trip over said affectionate munchkin, unleashing tears from the victim and torrents of verbal abuse from parents.

I know this because of a long chain of events that began with an internship I signed up for last summer. In a fit of idealism, I decided to work for an Atlanta-based environmental lobbying group, Georgia Conservation Voters. I expected the standard treatment: running errands, filing, using the copier. For the first few weeks, this was mostly true (with the exception of the copier, which I did not use so much as battle).

But one fateful day, my employer handed me a piece of paper with an address I did not recognize. I was to attend a convention — way out in Rabun County — to assist the World Wildlife Federation. Thrilled to finally have a job more complicated than copying, I left the next morning for the convention center wearing heels and a nice, professional skirt.

I parked my car (Toyota Corolla) in a massive sea of monster trucks and SUVs. A bright, neon-orange banner caught my eye. It read simply:


I stared through a window of the convention center and looked around. Standard fare: concession stands, children’s games and a 40-foot-long rack of shiny black and brown guns. As I turned my head I saw a similar rack of bows and arrows. And to the other side was beef jerky. Lots of beef jerky.

An old man, wearing a thick khaki vest and a button that read “Buckarama Exhibitor,” tapped my shoulder.

“You lost, sweetheart?” he asked. I bristled — I am not used to strange old men calling me sweetheart. When I explained that I was searching for the Wildlife Federation booth at an environmental convention, he laughed.

“Honey, this ain’t an environmental convention; this is for hunters.”

He led me through a maze of exhibitors selling everything from hunting knives to deer musk to sugar-coated pecans. When I arrived at the Wildlife Federation booth, several elderly gentlemen in camouflage-patterned ties put me to work. My job was fairly simple: convince passerby to fill out our forms so that we could compile a database of hunters to contact when hunting or fishing grounds were being threatened.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t terribly effective; my sharp metropolitan accent worked as a perfect hunter repellent. The only thing I could think to do was imitate Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter’s character on “Designing Women” and my only model of what a “true” Southerner should look like) and hope for the best. Julia Sugarbaker, think Julia Sugarbaker. But just as I was getting comfortable with my newfound persona and finally developing a pitch that worked, a ranger stopped by our table. “Who wants to be Smokey?” he asked. In the second or two it took me to register his odd request, everyone else had already declared, “not it.”

And this is how a city girl in heels doing a Dixie Carter impression ends up in a Smokey the Bear suit. My Julia Sugarbaker mantra was clearly no longer enough. Smokey the Bear, think Smokey the Bear, I thought to myself. Only you can prevent forest fires.

BUCKARAMA! quickly went from strange to bizarre. Through the mesh in the nose, the world was a sea of camouflage. Occasionally I could discern the bleached-blond hair of a mother herding her children towards me, but children have a surprising talent for finding my blind spots. Smokey, as it turns out, is surprisingly defenseless. Assailants pulled on my tail and attempted to steal my hat. All I could do was fend them off with my mitt-like paws and flash a welcoming Smokey-loves-you smile while masking my inner scorn.

Bored teenage girls descended in droves. My only guess for these girls’ otherwise inexplicable presence was that their boyfriends dragged them along, only to abandon them at the sight of various weapons of moose destruction. Despite the Smokey suit’s protruding gut and copious body hair, these girls flirted with him as if he was some sort of teen idol. Since Smokey was forbidden to speak, I was forced to parry their romantic overtures with jolly little dances — a tactic that also managed to hold them back at a reasonable distance.

So there I was: blind, in heels, in the middle of BUCKARAMA! trampling innocent children and dancing in a bear suit.

There was probably some strange assortment of cosmic forces that somehow converged to teach me an instructive lesson about the interrelationship of hunting, conservation, love, relationships, dancing and personal grooming. Whatever that lesson was, I missed it. All I can say is that if you ever feel like complaining about something strange or difficult that your boss asked you to do, picture Dixie Carter in a bear suit.

And perhaps you’d like to invest some time in UCS in order to avoid my fate. n