CASPER BEAR

By John Thomas Tuft

In the 1991 film, What About Bob?, Bill Murray plays a neurotic OCD patient, Bob, of psychiatrist Richard Dreyfuss, Leo, who has taken his family on vacation to a lake house in New Hampshire. Leo has published a book on his style of therapy and is eagerly anticipating his upcoming appearance on a television show. Neurotic hypochondriac Bob shows up and hilariously torments Leo while endearing himself to Leo’s family. In desperation, Leo takes Bob to a psychiatric facility nearby to get him out of his life. All of this is to tell you that I live near where the movie was actually filmed, on Smith Mountain Lake in Moneta, Virginia. The house is still there (a three-quarter size model is used for the explosion and fire at the end of the story) as is the facility which is used in the film for the psychiatric hospital, the Elks Home of Bedford Virginia. It is a sprawling complex of different levels of care for the elderly and disabled with a working farm on the beautiful grounds. And includes a small theater for community use. Which is where our story begins…

We were there for a performance of “Annie Warbucks,” the sequel to the Broadway hit musical, “Annie” by the Bedford Little Town Players. Both plays include the character of the dog, Sandy. The playbill described the actor playing Sandy in this way: “Sandy is thrilled to be making his theatrical debut. This 7-year-old Pyrenees sadly led a life of abuse and neglect before being picked up along Route 460 this spring, weighing less than 70 pounds and having little to no fur. He has been through a few months of rehab and medical care and has made nearly a complete recovery. He’s looking for his forever home…” I waited to see how this fledging actor would perform. What I saw was the Eeyore of Pyrenees actors on the stage. A big white dog with his tail tucked between his legs, his head always lowered in submission, at times having to be tugged into position to hit his mark. At times, though surrounded by ten little girl “orphans” singing and dancing their hearts out, he was unperturbed.

The quite enjoyable performance ended to a standing ovation and while cast and audience mingled, I followed my heart. I had to meet the puppy. His handler brought him over to the edge of the stage. He didn’t meet my gaze and his eyes looked forlorn. The foster mom and I conversed, but I already knew. “When can I take him home?” The final performance was Sunday afternoon, and we spent the next two days talking ourselves into what we already knew and wondering how to transition from life with a toy poodle sized dog to life with a polar bear of a puppy. Lillie announced that no longer would he be known as Sandy but from now on he would be Casper, Keeper of the Crest of McAllister, Prince of all the Deer Lake Domain, Lord of Oak Point and All Lands South, Defender of All Puppy Faiths, Servant to the One True King, Johann of Thomas. Okay, I made that last part up, but you get the idea.

Sunday afternoon arrived and a very, very tired and reluctant puppy dog, now over 80 pounds, had to be coaxed, nay dragged and pushed, up the hill and into the car. Where he was carsick the entire ride home. Oddly, the experience reminded me of being examined by the august body of Pittsburgh Presbytery in my oral trials for ordination, yea verily, in the year of our lord 1981. Symbolically dragged and pushed in front of 400 souls who could ask anything and everything that they wanted of someone who didn’t want to be there but for the necessity of feeding the new baby at home in a shabby apartment. Yet comforted, nay challenged, by the presence of one Reverend Frederick McNeely Rogers, of some notoriety in the world of children’s television. “I like you just the way you are!”

By the time we got home to his new neighborhood, he was Casper Bear. Everything with him is big. Big head, big feet, big tail, big heart. He quickly established himself as the darling of the neighborhood. Big giver of affection. And like Mister Rogers, known for his tolerance and gentle nature. His new best friend is a 12-week-old Golden Retriever puppy down the block. Who greets Casper by jumping on his face. Repeatedly. The tail never stops wagging. He insists that it be his first stop on each of our walks. We got a large wire crate with a mattress inside to be his place of security and safety in the bedroom. At first, it took much coaxing and tugging to persuade him that he might actually like it. Now, after his last walk in the evening, he immediately proceeds to put himself to bed. Plops down on the mattress and gives me the look of “Hey, buddy, close the door already. I’m trying to sleep in here!” As far as we can tell, his only nemesis are the UPS brown trucks. Baby deer and their mamas, squirrels, other dogs—all may be in his presence without fear. But UPS? Drivers are safe, but woe to the trucks! And the person holding the leash when one goes past.

At the end of “What About Bob?” Leo, the psychiatrist is the one who ends up being admitted to the psychiatric facility, driven crazy by his own need to control everything around him to his own advantage.  Perhaps it would have helped if he met Casper Bear, Keeper of the Crest of McAllister, Prince of all the Deer Lake Domain, Lord of Oak Point and All Lands South, Defender of All Puppy Faiths, Servant to the One True King, Johann of Thomas. And his motto: “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.