Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sundays with Steve - Holy Elephants!

These Sunday's segments are written by my husband, Mr. Jenny. Here's what he has to say about his posts:

I’ve been writing these weekly stories about life in Northern Idaho, as a youngster and as growing into a young man, primarily for our family. And I'm delighted to share them with you. Just between us, I’m anticipating being cranky when some whipper-snapper who may not even be born yet harasses me in 30 years or so with 'Grandpa, tell me about when you were a boy.' That will probably be after the mad cow disease has set in and erased whatever memory is left. So these are the not-so-dramatic adventures of a Baby Boomer in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Holy Elephants!

Lillian McSorely’s eyes were the size of dishes, her scream should have been broken the glass window of the lunch counter she just walked out of, her friend and companion Miss McMillan was near fainting in fright, and neither could believe their eyes. The two young school teachers were frozen in the face of the certain death rampaging toward them. Nothing like this had ever happened in our small town.

The circus has pulled into town that day, a 100 mile train ride up the river from Walla Walla, Washington. The cars were pushed onto a spur on the shore of the Snake River, a grassy area the Sells-Floto circus had set up on for the past several years. It was 1928, the country’s prosperity was going strong, and the circus business was quite good that year.

The wagon master began unloading the animals that fateful afternoon, as he had done many times before: the lions, the tigers, the two giraffes, a camel, cars of horses, and of course monkeys, tons of monkeys. A rail car of six elephants was last, and the last out was that cranky elephant named Mary who decided she wasn’t going to play circus that day, but would rather take a walking tour of our town. It was a hot day, and the later speculation was that the elephant was thirsty, that she was simply looking for a drink of water.

The circus grounds were just a short walk from Main Street, maybe 100 yards at the most, and Main Street is where the elephant headed, circus men running after the big grey beast, trying to corral it back in. The elephant named Mary would have none of it, and ran at full speed up Main Street, knocking cars aside, blowing her trunk at full blast, and breaking glass windows of businesses as it rampaged up the street.

Our small town was a busy place in those years, a commercial center that drew lots of people for a late Saturday afternoon at the circus. Miss McSorely and Miss McMillan both worked for the Lewiston School District. I knew both, McSorely as the stern and somewhat frightening principal of the elementary school I attended 25 years later, McMillan the art teacher who rotated among the town’s four elementary schools. The two ladies shared an apartment at the Lewis-Clark Hotel, which was the gateway to Main Street for the town.

As Miss McSorely told me years later, they were across the street from the hotel, finishing an early afternoon meal at their favorite lunch counter, when they saw people running down the sidewalks, yelling. They quickly paid their tab, and made their way to the front door and out onto the sidewalk.

What they found was like nothing they had ever experienced: Mary the elephant running full steam, bellowing, heading straight at them. She was running up the side-walk, breaking windows of businesses she passed, and with circus men were following and yelling for everyone to get out of the way. Both school teachers screamed, froze in place for a moment, but then quickly regained their wits and dashed into an automobile garage next door.

What happen next is taken from a circus magazine of the time:

It was in this midst that the Sells-Floto circus pulled into the town of Lewiston, Idaho back in August 8, 1928. The temperature was over 100 degrees. Elephant trainers were having difficulty getting the elephants out of their cages. There was no water anywhere.

A huge Asian elephant named Mary got thirsty. She broke away from her trainers and dashed down a crowded Main Street, looking for a drink. According to reporters, as she ran, she mistook store front windows for shimmering pools of water, and repeatedly smashed them, spreading glass, noise and panic throughout the business district.

Elephant trainers managed to get in front of Mary in an effort to disperse the crowds, but missed two schoolteachers, who were chatting near a garage on the 300 block. Inside the garage, someone had been washing cars. Mary caught the scent of water and trampled towards it.

Meanwhile, someone alerted the mayor, Dr. Braddock, who was not only the mayor and a doctor, but also an accomplished big game hunter. He immediately went home for his gun.

The teachers ran screaming into the garage and up the stairs to a mezzanine and safety. Mary reached water. Handlers arrived to calm her down. Then Dr. Braddock entered with his gun, and with several well-placed shots, sent another Sells Floto elephant packing their trunk to the great circus in the sky.

Today, Mary's trunk is displayed in a private collection. And there is a small plaque at the site of the old garage, telling people that a elephant was shot here, when "She was only trying to find a drink of water!" We say the plaque ignores the climate of the times, one in which traveling elephants routinely broke free and rampaged. The mayor was re-elected.

(c) 2010 Stephen J. MatlockThis publication is the exclusive property of Stephen J. Matlock and is protectedunder the US Copyright Act of 1976 and all other applicable international, federal, state and local laws. The contents of this post/story may not be reproduced as a whole or in part, by any means whatsoever, without consent of the author, Stephen J. Matlock. All rights reserved.


Jenny said...

Oh man. I'm so sad to know that an elephant was actually harmed in the making of this story.

Poor Mary.

Now I'm depressed, Mr. Jenny. I hope you're happy.

Ms. A said...

Ditto... poor Mary.

Pondside said...

The excitement, the terror - the horror - no wonder the circus was such a huge attraction back in those days.

Judie said...

Steve, I was happily reading along, then sadly reading along when Mary was shot to death, but the sight of the mounted elelphant trunk has totally and completely grossed me out! How can anyone live with something like that mounted on the wall?