Digging for Polar Bears
glenn mcdonald

We were out in my back yard digging for polar bears. Todd was shoveling and I was just watching because we only had one shovel.

"So when Captain Iowa gets there, he sees all these dozens of farmers standing at the edge of the field looking out at all their wheat, which is getting sucked up. They can't do anything because they'll get sucked up, too."

"Why don't they drive their tractors out?" Tractors are too big. You can't suck them up.

"The farmers would get sucked off them."

"Don't tractors have seat belts?"

Todd shakes his head. "Nope, they'd get sucked up. So anyway, then Captain Iowa gets there, but because the call got cut off, he doesn't really know what's going on. So when he gets there he thinks that the farmers are just harvesting, and this is some sort of new gadget and he just stands with the other farmers to watch. And they don't know it's him because he had to come so quick that he's still in his normal clothes. They just think he's another farmer, and they don't say anything because they're just watching because they think there isn't anything they can do."

"He just watches all the wheat getting sucked up?"

Todd looks at me. "Here." He hands me the shovel. "You dig for a little while."

I start digging. Todd says the hole needs to be a little bit deeper and a whole lot wider if any polar bears are going to get through. We've been digging for a long time.

"So anyway, Captain Iowa stands there with all the farmers for about a minute, and then he taps some farmer on the shoulder and asks real nicely what this great new gadget is.

"The farmer just looks at him like he's crazy or something. He says 'Great gadget? That thing is sucking up all our wheat. What's so great about that mister?' And then of course Captain Iowa figures out what's going on, and he looks around and sees a tool shed nearby and starts to run toward it to change into his costume, but the farmers still don't know who he is, and they think he's running away from them, so they start chasing him. Only Captain Iowa doesn't hear them coming after him because he's thinking about something else.

"So he gets to the shed, only there's a padlock on the door, and he turns around and opens his mouth to call over to the farmers to get someone to come open the door for him and there he sees the whole group of them about five feet behind them and they stop and one of them says 'Hold on there, mister. What the blazes is going on here mister? Exactly what the blazes is going on?'"

I know the next part by heart.

"So then Captain Iowa realizes that he hasn't even introduced himself. 'Gentlemen,' he says, 'perhaps I should introduce myself. My name is Iowa. Captain Iowa.'"

I knew he was going to say that because he always does. It means that the episode is almost over.

"So then all the farmers realize who he is and why he's there, and one of them opens the tool shed for him and he goes in and comes out in his costume and just then the thing has finished its first lap and is just turning around to suck up the other half of the field and Captain Iowa yells 'Blood of Iowans everywhere, make me strong!' and goes running across the field straight toward it."

I stop digging and look at Todd. "The end?"

"The end. But--" and he points at me.

"'But the story goes on.'" He always makes me say that part.

Todd smiles and takes the shovel from me and starts digging around the edges of the hole, evening out the circle. He says if the hole isn't perfectly circular, the polar bears will sense that it's a trap.

Todd has this whole thing about the polar bears. He says that hundreds of years ago there were polar bears everywhere, not just where it's cold. Where America is now, there was an entire nation of polar bears, with cities and roads and a government and everything. And then one day these giant shapes came down from the sky and enslaved hundreds of polar bears and changed their brains so that they couldn't think. The only way the rest of the polar bears could escape was by burrowing underground, so all the ones that could still think dug into the ground and ever since they've been living deep underground gathering their strength to come back out and destroy the shapes, and all the ones that live in the north are the ones that were turned into slaves.

What Todd says they think is going to happen is that when the shape- creatures have their young, the parents die and the young are left in these eggs which the parents bury halfway in the ground as they are dying so that the young will have protection from the weather until they are strong enough to break the shells and come out. He tells it better than I do. He says the polar bears are waiting for this moment to come out and destroy the young shape-creatures and take over the earth again.

But what the polar bears don't realize is that it turned out that polar bear food was poisonous to the shape-creatures and all the shapes died out in about a month, so they aren't ever going to have young. The polar bears don't realize that there are any such thing as humans. The dumb polar bears in the north have had all their memory taken away from them, too, so they can't tell the other polar bears because they don't remember about them, and in fact the polar bears underground don't even know that there are any polar bears alive on the surface.

So Todd had this plan. First he had a plan of getting a dumb polar bear from Alaska and teaching it to be smart again and then sending it down to tell all the other polar bears what had happened, but that plan didn't work because he couldn't get anyone to get him a polar bear from Alaska. He called the zoo and he called the wildlife club, and he wrote a letter to the Governor of Alaska, but all he got back was a brochure about Alaska that only had one or two pictures of polar bears in it at all.

So his new plan was to dig a circular hole in the ground, which he hoped some polar bear would think was one of the shape-creatures digging a hole to put its young in, and the polar bear would come breaking through looking to eat the shape-creature and we would grab it in this net Todd got from the Army-Navy store and we would hold it until it calmed down enough so that we could explain to it what the situation was. Then we would let it go so it could go back down and tell all the other polar bears what had happened. Todd drew this picture of me riding on the back of the king polar bear down the road to Washington, D.C. as we go to introduce the polar bear leaders to the President of the United States. He was really excited about it.

When Todd finishes making the hole perfectly circular, we stretch the net over it and get on either side to hold onto it. My arms are sore from all the digging.

"We've got to pull it together straight." Todd shifts his grip. "If we don't pull it together even on both sides, the polar bear will be able to escape."

"Why won't it come out, feel the net, and just turn around and dig back in before we can grab it?" Since it is going to be down in the hole I don't see why the polar bear couldn't just duck down so that we wouldn't be able to get the net under it, and then it could just burrow back underground where it came from.

"That's the whole trick, see? Polar bears can't turn around very fast. It's going to come bursting out expecting to be tunneling into the egg of a shape-creature, so it's going to be going straight up, and we'll just sweep its feet out from under it. We'll do it so fast it won't have time to turn around."

"Couldn't it be dangerous?" It's getting close to dinner time.

Todd frowns. "I don't think so. At least not if we get the net around it. I don't think polar bears can get through nets. I asked the man at the Army-Navy store but he wasn't really sure. I've seen people use them before, though, and I've never seen any animal get through one." He picks at the strings of the net.

"I wish we had those tranquilizer guns that they use on TV. I was going to order one, but then I decided that polar bears might be allergenic to them, so I didn't. I think we'll be okay with the net. Polar bears don't really have any natural enemies other than the shape-creatures, so as soon as it sees that we aren't one, it should calm down." He looks at me. "I think we should be safe. You got your side?"

I've got my side. It's getting a little bit cold outside, though.

"Well, we can probably relax a little. We'll be able to see the dirt push up just before the polar bear breaks through."

I look over at the back door. It is just starting to get dark, but my parents said they were having an early dinner out so they could get home. I'm supposed to have the left over meatloaf, and they said Todd could eat with me. It's in a foil package on the second shelf down. Dad poured my milk before he left because it was at the end of the carton and Mom needed some space in the refrigerator for the casserole she made for tomorrow.

"How long before a polar bear comes?"

Todd shrugs. "You can't tell. I figure that it will take a little while at least. I mean, this is one little hole and they have to patrol all the underground of all of America, which is really huge. But there are a lot of them, and they're pretty smart, so they should find it pretty soon."

"Okay." In a little bit I do have to go inside and eat.

"You know all those stories about UFO's? You know what I think those are?"

"What?"

"Polar bear lights."

I thought UFO's were in the sky. "In the sky?"

Todd stretches his legs out. "What I think is that from time to time polar bear patrols break through the surface by accident. Like they're tunneling along and all of a sudden there's a ditch in the surface and they break through. And their searchlights shine out and reflect off the sky and that's what people see and think are UFO's."

"Things don't reflect off the sky. They disappear."

"Human lights don't, but polar bear lights do. Polar bear lights are much brighter." He stops for a second and then grins. "They have to be. They have to be able to shine through solid dirt."

"If polar bears have broken out, why haven't they seen then that the shapes are gone?"

"Well, they only break through for a second. As soon as they realize they're out, they burrow under again. They don't want to be seen until the shapes are burying their young. They don't want the shapes to know that they're down there at all. The whole thing is utmostly secret."

It's really getting dark. "I need to eat."

"What?"

"I've got to eat before my parents get back."

"They won't be back for a while."

"Well, they didn't know." They said they'd be back early. Mom said for me not to have desert and maybe they'd bring home ice cream.

"Hey come on. I can't do this by myself. You've got to be here. It's better if we have two people. If it's just me, how are they going to know it isn't a trick? They'll think I'm just making it up."

"I don't know. Look."

"You don't need to eat yet. There are hundreds and hundreds of polar bears that you and me are going to set free. They've been living underground in fear of discovery for centuries. You're going to be famous. You don't have to eat yet."

"I have to."

"Here, I'll tell you the next episode of Captain Iowa. Remember? He's about to meet the enemy. He's got to try to get back all the wheat that the farmers had sucked up."

Captain Iowa is dumb.

"Don't you want to hear about Captain Iowa?"

"Captain Iowa is dumb."

Todd jumps up and over the hole and pushes me down. He stands over me.

"All your stories are dumb. You just make up dumb stories." I crawl back a little, watching him.

He turns around and stands by the hole and doesn't say anything. I get up. "You just make them all up." I back away towards the house.

Todd turns around and looks at me and I think he's crying. "I do not."

"Yes you do."

"I do not." He jumps back to his place and squats down. "You'll see." He grabs his end of the net and stares down into the hole. It's getting pretty dark. I leave him there and go inside.

I get out a placemat and my napkin and put them on the table in the kitchen. Then I change my mind and bring them in to the dining room where I don't have to look out into the back yard. I get a coaster for my milk.

I take out the meatloaf. There's enough for three servings. I make a piece with a fork because Mom doesn't like me using the sharp knives when I'm by myself. I wrap the rest up and take my plate into the dining room. It doesn't take me very long to eat by myself. When I finish I sit and look at the shadows on the table from the streetlight in front of our house shining in through the trees. I remember the only time I ever tried to make up a Captain Iowa episode myself. It was about shadows. It wasn't very exciting. I could only do the first part. I got to the part where Captain Iowa introduces himself, even though I had to have him introduce himself to a shadow by mistake. Todd said that Captain Iowa was smarter than that, and that he knew all about shadows, so I let him do the second half of the episode.

It turned out that the shadows, which I had said were just different ordinary things that looked strange when car headlights went by or Captain Iowa shined his flashlight on them, it turned out that they were a band of miniature pirates with a little flying ship that they flew around in, raiding grain elevators. They were stealing some of every grain that the Iowans had, and they were going to take all the samples back to their secret headquarters in Italy and develop special magic insect swarms that would destroy the entire state of Iowa. Captain Iowa had to disguise himself as a sack of grain and hide outside a grain elevator when they went in and then go in after them.

The episode ended with a wild chase around the roof of the elevator. Captain Iowa had destroyed the pirates ship by stuffing grain into the engine, but he was just chasing them around and around the top of the elevator on foot until he got the idea of taking off his shoes and leaving them in one place so that the pirates came around the elevator and saw the tips of the shoes and turned around and ran back the other way and Captain Iowa caught them from behind. He had to climb all the ways back down the grain elevator without his shoes, though, because he couldn't put the pirates down to pick them up. He took the pirates to Iowa city hall and made them apologize to the mayor and then he put them in a box and mailed them back to Italy. The mayor was so grateful to Captain Iowa that he went back to the grain elevator personally to get Captain Iowa's shoes back for him. Todd's episodes always end with the mayor having to go do something for Captain Iowa. I don't think I'd like to be the mayor.

I am still sitting at the table when my parents got back. They come in from the garage and I pick up my dishes and go into the kitchen to help them put away the groceries. They got some vegetables and lettuce for salads, and they got ice cream. I put away the things that go in the pantry. Mom puts on an apron, and while she starts washing the vegetables to put them away, Dad goes over to the back door and looks outside.

He puts up his hand to shade his eyes so he could see through the reflection from inside and then he flips the back porch light on and looks again. He turns back to me. "Is that Todd?" He puts his hand on the door handle. "What's he doing?"

"I don't know."

Mom comes over and looks. "How long has he been here? Didn't you invite him to come in and eat?"

"He didn't want to."

Mom looks at me. "Is something wrong?"

I shrug.

Mom takes off her apron and starts toward the door. "Do I go talk to him, or do you?"

"I'll try."

She stops. She looks at Dad and he shrugs, so I go out.

Todd is sitting in exactly the same position I left him in. He's not crying any more, but I can see in the light from the porch that his face is red.

"Todd."

"What?" He doesn't look up.

"My parents want to know what you're doing."

"Tell them. You know what I'm doing. Tell them we're digging for polar bears."

"I can't tell them that."

"It's what we're doing."

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because it's silly."

Todd doesn't say anything.

"Come on, Todd. There're no polar bears down there. You're just going to get in trouble."

"I'm not leaving."

"That's what you think." I go back to the house. Todd yells after me. "I'm not." I go inside.

"Well?" Mom is waiting. Dad has gone to take off his tie.

"He says he won't leave."

"Why not?"

"He won't tell me."

"Did the two of you have a fight earlier?"

"No."

"Well, maybe something is wrong at home. Is he upset?"

"I don't know. Maybe."

"I'm going to go talk to him."

Mom goes out. I go to the sink and dry off the vegetables she's washed and put them in the drawer in the refrigerator. I put my dishes in the dishwasher. I get out three bowls for us to have our ice cream in.

Mom comes back in and closes the door. She opens the phone book and finds a number and picks up the phone and dials a number.

"I think something is really wrong with him. He wouldn't say a word to me. I'm calling his mother."

I go over to the back door and look at Todd and the hole. Mom talks with Todd's mother for a minute or two. Todd's parents are coming over. Mom goes to turn on the front lights and straighten up before they get here.

I watch out the back door. Soon I hear a car pull up out front. Mom and Dad go out the front door and they and Todd's parents come around the side into the back yard. Todd's parents go over to talk to Todd, and my parents come inside. I put the ice cream dishes away and tell them that I'm just going to go to bed. They say okay, but Mom follows me upstairs to make sure I don't have a temperature. All of a sudden I'm just tired.

I go in my room and close the door. My room is in the back of the house, and my bed is by the window. I open the window a crack and climb into bed with all my clothes still on. I watch Todd and his parents talk for a bit. I don't know how I got this tired. My eyes keep closing.

I'd like to stay awake until they leave, but I don't think I'm going to make it. Sleep is coming. Just as it hits, I see Todd's mother take off her high heels and sit down at the net across from him and I see Todd's father come toward the house and I hear the back door under my window open and close and downstairs I hear Todd's father ask my parents if there's somewhere where he can change clothes quickly.

My eyes are closed but I still see Todd raising his head to look straight up at my window, and he says it softly but I hear it like he was standing right next to me.

"The end. But--"

In my dreams that night I'm riding on a polar bear bigger than the world.


2 April 1987

Copyright 1987, glenn mcdonald


Return to the Birdhouse Writers

Return to The Birdhouse Home Page...