It's an old joke, popular with second-grade comedians. "What is Smokey the Bear's middle name?"
The answer, of course, (provided here for those of you who haven't had your coffee yet or who don't remember second grade) is "The."
Except, really, it isn't.
When I mentioned Smokey in a recent column, I lumped him in with other famous characters who were "the" something-or-other. Jack the Ripper. Attila the Hun. Alexander the Great. Technically, he doesn't belong in such company.
Because, technically, "the" is not part of his name. There is a serious difference of opinion on this issue. People who were children in the 50's and early 60's think of him as "Smokey the Bear." People who were children in the 70's know him as "Smokey Bear." People who were children in the 90's think of him as "Smokey who?"
The confusion over his middle name is all due to the song. You know what song—the one that just started up in your brain.
"Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear.
Prowlin' and a growlin' and a sniffin' the air.
He can find a fire before it starts to flame.
That's why they call him Smokey,
That was how he got his name."
And that's only the chorus. There are four long verses. If you care to read or hear them all, you can find the whole thing here.
You may not remember the words, but I bet you recognize the tune. And it was the tune that caused the whole "the" problem. When Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote the song in 1952, they had to put "the" in there to make the rhythm come out right. You'll notice they also needed to stick in a few extra syllables like "a growlin'" and "a sniffin.'" Apparently they came up with the melody first and needed to perform some linguistic gymnastics to make the lyrics fit.
As a result, every kid familiar with the song came to know America's most famous fire-fighter as Smokey the Bear. Dell Comics called him that during the 1950's and 1960's. Some of the official posters from that era even did the same.
His real name, however, has always been simply Smokey Bear. This is according to the official Smokey website at www.smokeybear.com. If you'd like to see some truly scary fire-prevention posters from the 1940's, go to the site and check out the "Smokey's Journey" section.
But whether we call him "Smokey Bear" or "Smokey the Bear," we can agree on one thing: Only we can prevent forest fires.