Looking for Lions

Growing up in Alaska left plenty to the imagination.  Snakes?  Lizards?  Cockroaches?  Rumors and more rumors.   We lived a considerable distance from town and would occasionally see moose in the yard, or rabbits in the garden.

Once there was a bear nearby and a neighbor called to warn my mother.  I'll never forget that something special in her voice when she called me from the front door, "Peter! come inside this instant!"

I remember my heart pounding as I scanned the woods surrounding our cabin from the safety of my second story window.  I was terrified of the bear, but also desperate to see a real one among the zebra striped birch trees.  The breeze caused the leaves to flutter, casting a myriad of shifting shadowy shapes.  My eyes darted nervously through the random dancing patterns searching for the deadly predator.  I pressed my forehead against the cool glass.

Boom!   A ear shattering crack, like lightning in the basement, rattled the glass and vibrated into my brain.  The echo rolled through the forest and up against the mountains behind.  A brief pause, then a second thunderous crash   I had never heard a gun discharge before, but there wasn't a lot left to the imagination now.  I ran downstairs,  "Did you hear that, Mom?"  

She was standing in the kitchen, her fingers working some cookie dough off the spatula and onto the pan.  "Yes, I heard."   A minute later the phone rang.  It was the neighbor calling to say all was safe.  The bear had been shot while trying to get into a pig pen.   I refused to go outside and play for several days, certain that other, unseen bears, lurked in the dim light of the surrounding woods.

One day when my dad mentioned that a circus had come to town and asked if I would like to go see a real live lion I was beyond enthusiastic.  Lions were real since I had seen them in pictures and in the form of a few stuffed animals.   A lion was much more powerful and dangerous than any bear, I was sure.  And just think, to see one up close.

It took an eternity for Saturday to arrive.  We clambered into my dad's Dodge Dart with the tan vinyl seats and drove the 45 minutes to town.  It was summer, but still cool and overcast.  We pulled into the parking lot.   It turned out there was a fee just to park and another to see the animals.  I could tell my dad wasn't happy, but I tugged on his huge fingers anxious to get in and see this terrible predatory cat, legend of a dark continent.

Money changed hands, and we had the backs of our hands stamped with red ink.   There was a lot more than lions to see, as it turned out.  Elephants, really fat people, clowns.  All clambering for attention.  I pulled and pulled, looking for lions.

At last we came around to the back of the lot.   There was a huge red cage painted with golden stars, gold painted wheels and proud lion figures.

"Where's the lion?" I demanded.

"I think he's sleeping." me dad replied.   If I stood on my tiptoes, I could see something that looked like a mangy, mustard colored carpet heaving slightly.  I dropped my dad's hand and ran around to the side for a better view.

The lion was not asleep.  He was cowered in the corner of the cage farthest from the crowd, lying on his side.  His mane was thin, matted and scraggly.  Flies buzzed around his mouth and eyes.  His muzzle was grayed and sunken.  His chest moved slightly up and down with each breath.   He was missing patches of coat entirely and the his long snake like tail lay limp and lifeless, fragments of straw clinging here and there. But it was the eyes that haunted me.   They were open, but glazed over and hollow.  Like the blue-green marbles in my bag at home.   They were unblinking and listless, focused on a distant shadowland of hopeless memory.

I stared for a while, then turned and shuffled back to my dad, hands shoved deep into my pockets.   He tried to cheer me up with some cotton candy or a balloon, but to no avail.

Back in the Dart motoring home he asked, "So what did you think of the lion?"

"Ah..."  I fumbled around in my small vocabulary for the missing word.  "He didn't look very dangerous."

I couldn't have articulated it then, but an important reality was taking root: risk adds value.

A caged lion was really no lion at all, but merely a shell.  Later, much later, I would see people in corporate offices with that same glazed-over look, trapped in a 'safe' life.