It’s the tiny bear trinket I remember, possibly more than the place itself. A delicate little figurine with a soft sprinkling of real fur fuzz on its body which I loved to carry around and stroke as if it were a real pocket pet. My dad bought this cherished gift for me and my three sisters one summer afternoon at Bear Mountain, a frequent day trip we took from our home in Queens, Long Island.
I recall as if yesterday kneeling in front of the glass enclosed case of the bustling gift store and seeing the wee bear which sat forlornly in the stark enclosure. It was positioned away from the other bears just begging to be taken home. “We’ll take four!” my father sang out in his lovely baritone voice, whose accent betrayed a touch of his childhood years raised in Glasgow, Scotland. “Gifties,” he called all souvenirs and presents. I believe he took more pleasure in buying them than in the souvenir itself, though I could tell he too admired the look and feel of the little bear. When my sister Anne dropped hers only moments after leaving the shop, she cried and pleaded for him to buy her a second but alas it was not to be. My dad did not budge and although I know it killed him, taught us a lesson that day in responsibility and the value of a dollar – though she did get a new one on our next trip. I often wonder, fifty years later, what became of my little bear but that is not important. I still have the memory of those day trips to Bear Mountain that magical destination situated in the rugged mountains rising from the west bank of the Hudson River.
Although Fall was a popular time to visit with the gorgeous colors that framed the mountains, we often went in the summer to escape the heat of the city. Its expansive pool held promise and delight for hundreds of children and parents alike who arrived in droves weather permitting. On one visit when I was around five-years old, I slipped through my inner tube and a woman sitting nearby jumped into the pool, fully clothed to save me. I remember my father insisting I go up to her and say thank you afterwards and how embarrassed I was in doing so. The photo above was taken by my father. I discovered it in a box of old Kodak slides last year and on a whim, posted the iconic shot to a Facebook group called “Historic New York City.” Within hours it received over 1,000 likes but it was the comments I read that made me realize the memory of Bear Mountain did not belong to me alone. Scores of New Yorkers and others from surrounding areas most now likely in the twilight of their years, recalled their own special memories…
“Beautiful Bear Mountain Memories..”
“I think Bob Dylan wrote a song about going to Bear Mountain…”
“We would take the ferry up the Hudson from NYC to Bear Mountain with our cousins. We still talk about those days…”
“We would sometimes sneak into the pool late at night as I lived close by..”
“Possibly one of my favorite childhood activities was leaving the city for Bear Mountain, picnics and swimming with family, hikes, sledding in winter. Such good times.”
“Did you see the guy on the high dive?? He is doing a handstand!!!”
“My brother Warren got his head stuck between the bars and had to be rescued!”
“My high school graduating class took a day trip to Bear Mountain. One signature in my yearbook reads “Bear Mountain till the bears turn bare…”
“That’s me in the red swim suit!”
Then, the one comment that made my heart stop..
“I still have my little bear ornament from the Bear Mountain gift store…” a stranger wrote. Accompanying the sentiment was a graying and faded but still recognizable photo of the bear souvenir. Not exactly the one in my memory but there it was nonetheless.” I wasn’t the only one…
I have not returned. For reasons I am uncertain. Too painful to visit without my beautiful dearly departed parents by my side? Too much of a heartache to see how the Bear Mountain of yesterday overshadows the reality of today? The reason does not matter. I have my phenomenal photograph of the pool with that forever unknown guy doing a handstand on the high dive. And always in memory, that tiny, bear ornament my father bought me so many years ago…