The Fury of the Bear Excerpt – A Man and His Dog

Virgil Ryan is a good deal shorter than people think he should be, standing a modest five feet, nine inches. His weight fluctuates depending on the season, but he tries to maintain it around one hundred and sixty pounds. His hair is reddish brown with a small but even mix of gray, making it look lighter versus older. His hair is often close cropped in the summer and a little more unkempt during winter, but always off the ears and high on the neck. His eyebrows are trimmed, but full, and neatly shade his piercing eyes, a grey like that of storm clouds ready to burst with a black circle highlighting the iris. His eyes can project both a steely calm and incredible warmth, though at first glance they appear cold and menacing. His face is lean with a strong jaw line that ends in a squared chin. He often has the beginnings of a beard on his face, a testament to his disdain for shaving when not on duty, but has been clean shaven during the recent winter months. His physique is athletic and toned but not too defined. He loathes being in a gym, preferring his exercise come surrounded by mountains or water.

Virgil was born in Peoria, Illinois, the second son to Tom, a mechanical engineer and Polly, a homemaker. His older brother Jake was born a year before. Tom Ryan had moved his wife and first born son from Chicago, settling the family in Peoria to work on a project designing construction and mining equipment. When the project was over, Tom received a job offer from a government contractor in Long Beach, California and once again uprooted his family, this time out west. The Ryan family settled in the tiny coastal town of San Pedro, just north of Long Beach, when Virgil was six.

He was promptly introduced to the new neighborhood after he had crashed his bike into the curb of the house across the street, slamming his face down onto the handlebars and splitting his lip open. The little boy who lived in the house had gone inside, grabbed his mom by the hand and led her outside to where the new kid was bleeding. While the mom tended to Virgil’s wounds, the neighbor kid introduced himself as Eddie Peterson and segued straight into twenty questions about where Virgil was from, what kind of toys he liked, if he had any friends yet and more. He was the same age as Virgil. Eddie’s mom finally had to ask him to quiet down so she could ask a few questions of her own. The whole time, Virgil never made a sound. Even as a baby, Virgil was never one to cry. After the bleeding subsided and all necessary introductions between the Ryan family and the Peterson family had been made, Virgil and Eddie ran off down the street fast becoming best friends.

Virgil was an exceptional student in high school, and generally athletic but not motivated to compete on any of the organized teams. He spent most of his free time down at the beach either surfing or spear fishing. His friend Eddie was a gear head, and by the time he was sixteen was spending a lot of his free time under the hood of his 1965 Chevrolet Camaro, blue with white stripes down the middle.

During their junior year in high school, Virgil and Eddie had been cruising the Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach after leaving a beach bonfire. At a stop light another teenaged kid, in a green 1968 Mercury Cougar, had pulled up beside them and began to rev his engine. Immediately Eddie had taken it as a challenge to a race, and when the light turned green he stomped on the gas.

Virgil had demanded his friend slow the car down, but his friend was too intent on the race. The car was squirrely from the beginning, but Eddie had managed to gain some semblance of control after the first hundred feet. As both cars roared down the street, the Camaro in the left lane, the Cougar to the right, Eddie had glanced over at the other car to see what the other kid was doing. He should have been looking forward. Had he been, he would have noticed they were rapidly charging the next intersection and a red light for their lanes. Though no cars had stopped in front of them, there was cross traffic. What Eddie had seen was the Cougar drop back out of the race and out of his view. By the time he had turned his head to look forward they were topping 85 miles per hour about thirty feet from the crosswalk.

Eddie panicked, and in doing so he had applied too much pressure to the brakes, forcing them to lock up. The air had become thick with the sound of the car wailing and screaming, every bolt strained and expecting the inevitable. Smoke had billowed from the tires and warm rubber streaked the asphalt. When he realized they weren’t going to avoid the intersection, Eddie had made his second mistake and jerked the wheel to the left. The sudden movement and inertia caused the front passenger wheel to fail, and it had burst with a hollow blast. The car lurched over the bare rim, the momentum carrying the rest of the car over itself like a macabre ballet. By some miracle, the Camaro hadn’t hit another car, but rather rolled through the intersection before coming to rest on its roof next to the curb on the other side. But Eddie had been pitched from the car, and was motionless in the middle of the street.

In a wave of adrenaline, Virgil had unbuckled his seatbelt and crawled out of the severely wrecked muscle car. He looked around before entering the intersection, and clearly noted amongst the chaos the green Cougar was nowhere to be found. Cars and bystanders had begun to stop and approach him, but Virgil had begun looking for Eddie. When he found him, he rushed to his friend’s side and saw that he was semi-conscious. A laceration to his face had cut Eddie’s cheekbone across his nose and up to his forehead. Virgil didn’t move him or even touch him.

Eddie had been unable to speak, though Virgil kept asking him if he was ok or if he could hear him. He had sat there quietly looking over his friend’s mangled body. The force of the car inverting itself had flung Eddie out of the open driver’s side window and slammed him down onto the asphalt below. Alone it probably would not have caused irreparable damage, however the car was still in the air at the time and was following the same path to the street. The blue and white mass had rolled onto Eddie’s lower extremities, shattering the right side pelvic and femur bones. Immediately he had begun bleeding into his hip and thigh.

Virgil had removed his jacket and placed it over Eddie to keep him warm, but didn’t know what else he could do. He remembered feeling helpless. Once paramedics arrived and Eddie had been loaded into the ambulance, Virgil held his hand all the way to the hospital.

At the hospital, Virgil had refused treatment. He had sat patiently in the waiting room for any word on his friend, the first response from a nurse had indicated Eddie was in rough shape and going into emergency surgery. Before long Virgil had ventured into the ambulance staging area and had found the paramedic team that had treated him and his friend. With them was their captain, Jim Sarjeant. Virgil had approached the men to thank them. He had relayed to them his feelings of being helpless.

He hadn’t been emotional, but rather had a determination about him that suggested he needed to prevent from being helpless ever again. It was the determination to have the knowledge his rescuers had. Captain Sarjeant had noticed his determination, and sensed the young boy had the courage and intelligence to become a rescuer.

The Captain inquired about Virgil’s interests in school, his age and his hobbies. Convinced Virgil might do well with emergency training, he had encouraged the boy to contact him when he turned eighteen years old and they would discuss the steps necessary to move forward.

Virgil had done just that, contacting the Captain on his eighteenth birthday and missing the party his parents had planned for him so that he could visit the fire station that same day. He and Captain Sarjeant had spent hours talking about what it meant to work in emergency services, and how Virgil could be a part. After the conversation was over, the Captain had offered to pay for Virgil to go through basic emergency medical technician training during the summer, before Virgil was to start classes at the university in the fall. Once his training was complete, the Captain had told Virgil there was a part time job waiting for him with the ambulance division of the Long Beach Fire Department. Thrilled at the opportunity to learn the skills he desired and to work with such a great team, Virgil had immediately accepted.

Though he often could be mistaken for the outdoorsy, man’s man stereotype, Virgil pursued a lifelong passion by majoring in fine art in college. His classes had taught him that art and design were useful tools in challenging his problem solving skills as an EMT. It helped him to be creative and open minded, while at the same time providing a foundation based on sound theory and established rules. He enjoyed the stark contrast between his life on campus and his life in uniform. The fire department had proved to be a second home for him as he attended college in Westwood, a dose of real life situations to balance the academia of his studies. He had worked part time while school was in session and full time during the summer months. He graduated Magna Cum Laude, and though he had been recruited as a senior to work as a commercial artist upon graduation, he had his heart set on entering into the fire academy.

But tough economic times would have their say in Virgil’s future, and the city of Long Beach had established a hiring freeze. City officials were still at odds over a budget, with some arguing that services like fire and police should be cut. Regardless of the validity of the debate, the freeze had meant no new candidates could be processed, including current part time employees like Virgil.

He was discouraged, and the stalemate in the city council left little doubt that the freeze would last longer than he could hold out. Captain Sarjeant had been through this before with his own son Charlie, three years Virgil’s senior. When city politics put into question changes in the benefits for new hires, Charlie had opted to apply for a position as a deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department. They were heavily recruiting at the time, and had shown an interest in Charlie’s abilities as an EMT.

Los Angeles is home to the largest sheriff’s department in the world, and has multiple divisions outside of pure patrolling. One division is the Search and Rescue unit, comprised of deputy paramedics and volunteers. Once he finished academy and spent some time patrolling the street, Charlie had been put through paramedic training and transferred to the SAR unit. Since the sheriff’s department had still been actively recruiting, Jim Sarjeant had recommended the same path for Virgil. Virgil had always respected the advice of his captain, and after wading through the candidate process, was accepted into the academy at age twenty one.

He had spent two years as a deputy before beginning paramedic training at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Los Angeles, working in the jail system and then out on the street patrolling. His paramedic training was a rigorous six month program, but Virgil had been a standout student and instructor favorite. His years of experience on an ambulance and under the guidance of Captain Sarjeant had benefited him during his continuous training. Upon graduation he had gone to work at Air Rescue Seven, the search and rescue unit located at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains on L.A. County’s eastern border. There he was reunited with Charlie, who had become his closest friend over the past five years. Charlie had initiated Virgil into the team, but soon realized his junior friend either matched or outclassed him in skills and abilities. Regardless, Virgil had continued to maintain the humble and quiet demeanor he’d had since childhood, and worked hard to ensure his unit worked as a team even when he began to set himself apart as a leader. This approach toward his teammates only made them grow fonder and have more respect for him.

Air Rescue Seven was primarily a search and rescue unit, with skills in both urban and mountain rescue, but the team was still comprised of law enforcement deputies and occasionally that training had to be called upon. It was during one of those rare cases when the unit had to act as cops that Virgil was tagged with the nickname of Bear.

The team had been assigned the weekend shift and was relaxing at the station late on a Friday night when they were called by a neighboring city for mutual aid. The city police department had responded to a party call at a house on the hill overlooking five acres. A number of residents on the street had called to complain about the noise and more importantly about the amount of cars parked along the road. When the first police units arrived, the party appeared to be smaller than it actually was. However, when the first officer attempted to make contact with the owner of the house, word got around at the party that the cops were there to bust it up and a sudden flood of people had filled the streets. Unfortunately for the responding officers, the party goers had not been intent on leaving the premises but rather continued their festivities up and down the block. In an effort to quickly control the situation and ensure their officer’s safety, police dispatch had immediately contacted Air Rescue Seven for mutual aid, knowing about eight deputy sheriffs would be on duty at any one time. It took Virgil’s team six minutes to arrive on scene. Once on scene, the deputies had reached out to their fellow law enforcement members to assess the situation and coordinate efforts.

Though the details of Virgil’s encounter have always been a little fuzzy, there is at least one generally accepted version. Virgil had been asked by his sergeant to begin crowd control, asking people to leave the premises. As the story goes, his first point of contact had been a twenty two year old, ex-high school football standout named Manny Jimenez. Manny had never made it to either the college or the pro level in football because he had never given up the party lifestyle, and was regarded around town as the kid who had wasted some of the best potential anyone had seen. He was well over six feet tall and weighed close to three hundred pounds. He had thick, wavy black hair and an unkempt beard that sprouted in all directions. His eyes were dark brown, and his skin was a deep golden brown common to his Yucatan heritage. He had been a fairly amicable guy when sober, but pretty stupid when drunk and prone to making really bad decisions almost always. Virgil had yelled toward him from a distance of about fifteen feet, in an attempt at getting the larger crowd to disperse and go home. Manny had had his back turned toward him. What happened next is where the truth becomes a question mark.

The story is that Manny, having spent the better part of the night sliding beer down his throat, had become enraged at being yelled at and turned toward Virgil in a fit of rage. He had begun screaming, and had launched his heft into an all out charge in the direction of the smaller, uniformed man. Virgil, never one to back down from a fight regardless of his opponent’s size, had immediately charged toward Manny with is arms raised and screaming from the top of his lungs. He had been five feet in his own charge when Manny was struck with the most fearful expression anyone had ever seen and stopped cold in his tracks. Manny had then dropped to his knees, laid his forehead on the ground in front of him and put his hands on the back of his neck. Continuing the stranger than fiction story, Virgil then calmly walked up to the young man and without a beat had placed his handcuffs on him, leaving him prone on the street while he assertively began ordering other people from the party to head home.

Witnesses had said the scene was so surreal that within five minutes the street had cleared and become eerily quiet. They said Virgil had single handedly broken up the throng of partiers before any real serious trouble began. Even his fellow deputies and officers were speechless as to what had occurred, thus leading to the ultimate lack in detail. When his sergeant had asked him later why he didn’t pull his weapon, Virgil responded that he had never felt threatened and didn’t see the benefit with so many drunk and incoherent young adults around. He had added that he thought the sight of his gun might have escalated the situation. Days later the story had still been circulating throughout the station, with Virgil becoming a raging bear that swept through the mob. The details morphed into several iterations, but each time the characterization of Virgil as a bear with his arms raised and charging just stuck. Soon his teammates had quit calling him by his last name (he has never been comfortable with his first name) and started simply referring to him as Bear.

No one really knows if Virgil understands his true size, and he is never one to show it. His bear-like personality seems to present itself in many aspects of his life, whether it is his larger than life strength and will while affecting a rescue or his warm and approachable personality off the job (women call him a teddy bear), he is often the center of attention amongst his group of friends. Of those friends, Anna was his closest.

Virgil had begun moonlighting in Colorado with the AASAR team at the suggestion of Jim Sarjeant. Jim and Mark Patrick had met years prior at a firefighter’s conference in Las Vegas and struck up a friendship. They had maintained correspondence over the years, keeping in touch with each other and occasionally getting the families together during annual conferences. Since Mark had been a long time coordinator for the search and rescue team in Bern, Jim naturally had contacted him when Virgil expressed interest in visiting Colorado. The first visit had been mostly a vacation visit, with Virgil skiing and enjoying the hot tub at his hotel. Subsequent visits and more frequent conversations with Mark had led to him making arrangements with his department to spend a few weeks each year working in the high Rockies. The temptation of the scenery had been too much for him to pass up. The decision had been made easier when Mark offered him the one room apartment above his garage.

His first full working trip to Bern had been scheduled for six weeks. It was initially designed to be a training trip, lasting all of February and into March. His first week there they had received six callouts, the last three of which Virgil was the drop man. His personality took over and the Advanced Alpine Search and Rescue team knew they had something special on their hands. The team had taken him out for drinks one night after that first week, to celebrate his arrival, to celebrate his success on the missions and generally just to celebrate. The rowdy group of cops, firefighters and professional climbers filled up most of Sandy’s Pub, an old fashioned Irish bar in downtown Bern. By midnight the party was just hitting its peak, but Virgil had had enough. He had decided to walk the two and a half blocks back to his apartment, and exited the back door of the saloon. Sitting quietly just outside the back door was the Akita, Border Collie mix, then just a puppy of six months. When Virgil emerged from the doorway and saw her sitting there, he simply stopped and stared back. There they stood, both heads cocked to one side, staring at each other in the cold winter night. She was a little dirty that night, and seemed to be a bit cold as well. Virgil had quickly noticed she did not have a collar or tags. He had begun talking to the dog, asking her questions about who she was and where she came from. Naturally, the dog didn’t respond. She did start wagging her tail, however, and when Virgil had asked if she wanted to come home with him, she responded by following him all the way into his apartment.

Though still a little weary from the party and the alcohol, Virgil had filled his bathtub with warm water and shampoo and attempted to give the mutt a bath. She saw fit to jump out of the tub half a dozen times to shake herself, coating the bathroom walls in a frothy mix of shampoo, hair and water. He laughed every time she did. He had finally managed to corral her with a towel and get her dry before letting her loose again to sniff the entire apartment. He had gone to the kitchen, filled a mixing bowl with water and placed it on the floor before finally heading to bed. When he entered his room, the puppy was sound asleep on his bed. Virgil kicked off his shoes, nestled himself next to the stray and promptly fell asleep. In the morning, he woke to the energetic licking of his face from the dog. New town, new adventures, and the sweetest new friend he had ever encountered. California would always be where his heart was, but Colorado sure felt like home to him. He had taken the puppy for a short walk, using a daisy chain and carabiner for a leash, before settling her into the apartment and heading off to work. He had named her Saint Annapurna, Anna for short, in part after the mountain where he’d sworn he’d seen two miracles. The little surprise outside the back door of a pub was a third miracle.

 

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