When Ted Turner's pet bear, Booby, got loose on the back roads of South Carolina, the old-timers in their rocking chairs on the front porches of general stores for miles around picked up their beat to, oh say, 15 rockings per minute out of pure excitement. At least, that's what we're guessing, because this has to be one of the best bear stories since William Faulkner wrote ''The Bear'' half a century ago.
If we have our facts straight, Booby, a 20-month-old female, strolled out of her pen on the Turner plantation, 30 miles south of Charleston, and before a hound dog could let out its second yelp, a small posse of backwoodsmen had mobilized.
Days passed without an encounter. Then the escapee was spotted by L.P. Eckert of the Charleston County Police on a dirt road off US Highway 17. When Booby meandered toward L.P.'s patrol car, the Sergeant turned on his siren and called in for backup. The bear clambered up a nearby hickory tree, perched herself at about 40 feet, and waited. Two more patrolmen, an animal control officer, a veterinarian, and seven volunteers arrived on the scene, armed with a gallon of canned peaches.
Who knows? If the peaches had been home-preserved, maybe they would have lured Booby down. But the canned brand failed to do the trick, even though the hungry task force ate half the peaches and pronounced them excellent.
After a period of digesting and ruminating, the besiegers appointed the vet to shoot the bear with a tranquilizer dart. Six of the troops stationed themselves under the tree, holding taut a large sheet of canvas to catch the 250 -pound Booby. The vet fired a dart guaranteed to fell a cow. Then the bravest man present climbed the tree with a long, long pole, aiming to prod a drugged Booby loose.
Alas, Booby did not grow noticeably less alert. After 20 minutes a second dart was fired. Booby wedged herself between two limbs and appeared to nod off. Then the bravest man present replaced his prod with a power saw and began to cut the limb supporting Booby while the lads with the canvas stood firm.
There was a sudden doomsday crack. Down came the limb, Booby and all.
The men with the canvas net managed to catch the limb, but Booby landed on the ground with an earthshaking thud and came up running. Two police cars and a pickup truck gave chase, along with several younger men on foot. Lost for a second time: one black bear.
A couple of days later Booby was sighted from a scouting airplane by Turner's plantation manager when the animal approached a roadside area baited with molasses, sweet rolls, and doughnuts. But three volunteers on the ground spotted her too. ''As we circled to get a better look,'' the manager complained, ''down the road come those other boys, trying to catch her on foot. I can do without all that help. We never gonna catch that bear that way.''
We certainly offer no help to the pet-bear hunters of this world. Faulkner didn't want his bear caught either. Not by General Compson. Not by Major de Spain. Not even by the noble Sam Fathers. To Faulkner, Old Ben was not just a ''beast but an anachronism, indomitable and invincible, out of an old dead time, a phantom, epitome and apotheosis of the old wild life.''
We wouldn't dare go so far with our symbolism. Booby, as we see her, is more Charlie Chaplin than the last of the Mohicans. What we have here, amid the canned peaches and the sweet rolls, is comedy, not tragedy.
Still, something blatantly romantic in us cheers for the bear rather than the Keystone Kops. For bears, and for people too, there's just not enough frontier out there - leafy and spacious and free as the Garden of Eden. Frontier has become a metaphor, rather glibly applied to things like cable TV.
If Ted Turner wants his animal back in the pen, he should come off his yacht or out of his Atlanta Braves office and capture her himself, eyeball to eyeball, without help of helicopter. That, we think, would be Faulkner's notion of justice.
But we don't want to know - even years from now - how the story came out, not even if it's filmed in color on Ted Turner's cable TV. We just want to think of Booby, her mouth smeared with molasses and the remains of a coconut doughnut, hot-footing it back into the South Carolina woods, forever.