Monday, January 10, 2011

Grin and Bear it.

Jennifer Huffman
Napa Valley Register
January 10, 2011

Let’s take the snow train to Reno, my husband said.

He was talking about Amtrak’s California Zephyr that travels from Emeryville into the Sierra and Reno before heading all the way to Chicago.

Sounds good, I said. Any trip where I don’t have to drive, navigate or stay awake is my kind of travel. The snow train would allow us a comfortable, heated view of some winter wonderland scenery. And best of all, it would drop us off just a block from our hotel in Reno.

Arriving in Reno and checking in at our hotel after our five-hour ride, the first thing the kids spotted was a huge arcade game area. They headed straight for the classic ring toss. Now, we all know how hard it is to actually land a ring on the top of those Coke bottles. It’s like they design those rings specifically to bounce right off.

But dad and the girls were not intimidated. Buying a bucket of red rings for $5, they got to work.

Each girl had a different tossing technique. One leaned in. One tossed quickly and another aimed very carefully.

Boing, boing, boing — the rings bounced wildly off the glass bottles.

I was highly skeptical. No one ever wins this game, I scoffed.

I noticed the prize for the game — a giant stuffed bear. This was the king of stuffed animals. It was five feet tall. The head of the bear was bigger than two human heads. The arms of the bear were longer than human arms. It’s a good thing this game is hard to win, I thought. We have enough c-r-a-p in our house. We do not need to bring a giant bear home.

And then I heard a “clink” sound. I looked down and sure enough, a single red ring tossed by dad had landed around a Coke bottle neck.

Woah! he shouted, raising his arms over his head.

Woah! the other players shouted.

Dad had won the giant bear. Grabbing his prize, he put the bear on his shoulders. He danced around with the bear. Our girls jumped around him with excitement.

Take my picture, he said.

Let me carry him, the girls said.

I admit I was excited for them, but Practical Mom was already wondering — how the heck were we going to get the bear home? I didn’t have an extra train ticket for a giant bear. Where would he fit in our already overcrowded house? And who was going to carry him around for the next two days?

We quickly learned that walking around a casino with a giant stuffed bear is like walking with a celebrity. Everyone looks. Everyone comments.

“Nice bear,” a security guard said.

“That is one big bear,” a middle-aged man carrying a racing form said.

“They won the bear!” a mom said to her kids as we walked around the arcade.

Two ladies parked at the slot machines smiled and laughed at my middle daughter who carried the bear, which was bigger than she was.

“How you gonna get that bear home?” someone else asked.

Good question. I started toying with the idea of leaving the bear behind. Maybe the girls would get tired of babysitting the bear in a few hours, I thought optimistically.

Perhaps we could park him in a chair at a slot machine. Surely someone would find him a good home. Someone who collects giant bears.

At lunch, the bear sat in an extra chair while the five of us ate. A volunteer senior citizen security guard drove his motorized cart over to our table.

“What’s the bear’s name?” he asked.

Gumbo, the girls said.

As he was talking, I casually checked out his cart to see if it had room for two. Maybe he’d like a bear companion with which to do his security rounds.

Near the elevators, a little boy about 3 years old came over to give the bear a hug. Then he started crying. I think the bear scared him. I crossed him off the list of adoptive bear guardians.

Upstairs in our hotel room, the girls posed with the bear for more pictures. Negotiations began on which bed the bear would sleep on that night. I wondered if how the hotel housekeepers might feel about getting a giant bear as a tip.

The next morning, we had to take two taxis just to fit the five of us, our luggage and the bear to the train station for the ride home.

The conductor didn’t say anything when the girls carried the bear on board. Seen one giant bear in Reno, seen ’em all, I guess.

The train was full, but that didn’t matter. The girls put the bear on the floor and rested their feet on him all the way home.

I knew that bear would be good for something.

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