Elephant Escape

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I just can’t help it. Trouble seems to find me. And I don’t mean every once in a while. There I’ll be, minding my own business (and on a Tuesday, to boot) and trouble will come walking up, with a smile on Its face, sticking out Its hand like we’ve never met. And I’m stuck. No way out. We spend the rest of the day together (and sometimes It sits right next to me at the dinner table causing all sorts of problems).

Let me be clear: sometimes I really, really TRY to stay out of trouble. But when you’re twelve years old, your name is Nate, you live out in the sticks in Oklahoma, and there’s nothing to do all summer, well, trouble kind of “finds” you. Hunts for you is what it does. It’s like when my Dad decides it’s time to help mom by burning dinner on the grill instead of letting her burn it on the stove and he lights the fire with the box of matches. Not one match, mind you, the whole box. No matter where he stands, that smoke just follows him around and around. He smells like a chimney the rest of the night. Well, that’s how trouble is with me. No matter where I stand, there It is. Covering me with a stink so bad I just can’t seem to wash it off.

I actually talk to It now. “Good morning, Trouble, how are you?” That’s how I start most days. Well, except Tuesdays. Long story on the Tuesday thing. I’ll get to that later if I have a chance (I probably won’t get a chance to, this is just my way of getting you to forget about it for now).

Let’s be clear about that too: I’m not crazy. I told the counselor at school about talking to It. She said I only need to worry if It starts talking back. That sounded right to me. Though It DID eventually start talking to me. It was July 12, 1977 at about 2:00 on a pretty normal afternoon (it WAS a Tuesday!) when I heard It tell me to eat the last chocolate cupcake that Mark Gruenwald was reaching for at my birthday party. It said “Eat it” so I did. Mark pushed me down hard (he’s bigger than three of my other friends combined) but that cake sure did taste good. Does that make me crazy? I don’t feel crazy. I figured if I didn’t listen to It from then on then it was all good.

Then this happened:

Hugo student questioned after setting off fireworks at school

By Howard Brooks for the Hugo Advertiser – October 8, 1977

Hugo – A student at Hugo Middle School has been turned over to police after fireworks were set off in a school bathroom.

Students had to be evacuated from the school Monday and stayed outside of the building for about two hours until emergency responders issued an all-clear.

The fireworks damaged the bathroom, but no one was injured. Witnesses say the Principal suffered minor burns on his legs after at least one fire-cracker struck him as it flew down the central corridor of the school Several other fireworks, described as “bottle-rockets” by several student observers, were believed to have started a fire near the dumpsters located adjacent to the school cafeteria.

Hugo Police say the student filled a trash can in the boys’ restroom with fireworks, pulled the fire alarm and then set fire to the fireworks.

The suspect is 13 years old. He may face charges of criminal mischief with more charges possible. The student has been released under the custody of his parents.

About that. You see, it wasn’t really my fault. Oh, I was there. But it was that same Mark Gruenwald that threw those firecrackers in the trashcan and set them off. What was I supposed to do?! Leave them there? And I couldn’t lift that whole trash can by myself. Going to get help was out of the question.  I did what I could. I started throwing them out the windows, down the hallway, anywhere. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. Though it was pretty funny when that bottle rocket sailed between Principal Byrd’s legs! I’ve never seen him jump that high! I don’t think he’ll be able to again.

Anyway, I tried to do the right thing that time. And what did it get me? A whipping at home, detention at school, and everybody in my class wants me to help them get out early all the time. They just won’t leave me alone about that. Of course, Mark doesn’t push me down anymore since I didn’t rat him out to the police (I’m NOT a rat). Taking your lumps sometimes hurts now but helps later.

I was grounded for a month. In a place where there is nothing to do when you’re in school, there’s even less to do when you’re both out of school AND grounded. What was I supposed to do, sit and look at rocks all day? So when my brother said “Go jump off a cliff…”

Well, ok, it wasn’t exactly a CLIFF. It was the water tower behind our house. And I didn’t just jump off of it. It was a controlled flight with a gentle landing. Ok, fine, it wasn’t that far to fall and I landed on a very large bush (and on David Hughes, who was eating some donuts he just stole and who weighs, like, at least 150 pounds anyway). I didn’t know my dad was watching. Or my neighbor’s dad. Or the police….

Local Hugo student stupid, not suicidal

By Howard Brooks for the Hugo Advertiser – October 27, 1977

Several local residents, including several Hugo city law enforcement officers, were given quite a scare yesterday as they observed what was at first believed to be a suicide attempt by a local youth.

The young man, whose name is being withheld because of his age, has become well-known to locals as a bit of a trouble-maker, apparently suffers from delusions of grandeur and not suicidal tendencies.

In an apparent attempt to attain flight, the young man leaped from the top of the city water reservoir which stands approximately 150 feet tall. When officers arrived at the scene they discovered the young man entangled in a homemade flying apparatus comprised of an army tarp duct taped to an aluminum frame – possibly a former lawn chair. Another youth was also injured at the scene although it is unclear whether he was a part of the test flight crew. He was released from the regional hospital with minimal scrapes and bruises.

Let’s be clear about something, here. I could have made it with a stronger head wind. And, you know, actual wings that worked. It was a flaw in design, not in effort. And that’s really all I have to say about that.

So there I was, grounded AGAIN. This time I couldn’t even leave the house. For two weeks. Get up, go to school, come home, feed the cows, feed the chickens, gather the eggs, brush out the horses, clean the stalls, do my homework, eat dinner, go to bed. BOR-ing. I lasted four days before I started looking at those chicken eggs. We always had way too many to actually eat by ourselves. Sometimes mom takes them in to the church and donates them to the pantry. But the past couple of weeks we’ve had a least a two dozen just go bad when we didn’t use them. And the Galactic Bovine Empire was launching an unprovoked attack on the peaceful planet of Boorskin. How the heck were they supposed to defend themselves against such an abuse of power? The eggs were the last defense for that planet of peaceful Warrior Chicken farmers! They fought so bravely with the only weapons at their disposal. How was I supposed to know that egg was so hard to brush out of horse hair? Those horses were Agents of Interstellar Evil anyway.

I wasn’t supposed to leave my room for a whole other week except for school. I already broke one of the Atari’s joysticks. My G.I. Joes were sabotaged by COBRA agents and lost in the Cavern of the Arctic Abyss (I dropped them down the heating grate in the living room). I already personalized all of my brother’s old yearbooks. I was going to make a book safe out of one of my mother’s old books (something about Gone With the Wind), but my hand got tired of cutting after about fifty pages. There was just nothing interesting to do in the whole house.

Now, they didn’t say HOW I was supposed to come home. I am heading toward the house. Really. I just have to go around the other side of the lake is all. There could be Battle Cats, Thunder Pigs, or Demonic Devil Dogs on the road I usually take to the house! Do they want me home for dinner or do they want me ripped to shreds, gored and feasted on by hounds of hell, left in a bloody heap beside the road? Their call.

And no sooner have I thought this in my head then the waters of the lake break with the splashing of a great, amphibious beast! There, near the center of the lake, the creature makes his way toward me. And it’s moving at a good clip! The black ink-spot mass grows closer and closer and all I can do is stand there, dumb, on the road by the shore.

I had several options; I could run toward the house (maybe a mile away), I could run back toward the little country store that sits on the corner of the lake entrance road, I could run to the Smith farm between the entrance and where I stood, or I could stand perfectly still and take my fate. I just couldn’t run. I wish I could blame it on being paralyzed with fear but it was just my plain old stupid wish to see what was certain to be my bringer of bloody death. I couldn’t dream this up any better if I tried.

Finally the black, shapeless, splashing mass began to take form. To my dismay it became gradually less mythical and more familiar. It was an elephant. It did have tusks, and they DID look fearsome. But the danger of being gored was instantly replaced by confusion represented in the stomping, wet beast’s purple saddle emblazoned with fanciful lettering that spelled “Kalisa.” It was, and I hate myself for even uttering the word, cute. How could I be devoured or rent in two by something so cute as to be called Kalisa?

I stood my ground and the elephant slowly stepped forward onto the muddy lake shore, cautiously padding onto the road and testing its weight, as its trunk played in the air like a floppy periscope checking the perimeter.

“Stop!” I meant to shout and probably squeaked out load. I meant to sound commanding and authoritative and probably came off as some kind of big rat afraid of being smashed.  Nevertheless, the animal not only stopped he kneeled. I looked around in all directions. Where was my family at a time like this? It didn’t even need to be a close relation! A cousin! Any of my nephews – even the three-year old! Nobody was seeing this. I had a camera at home, just sitting there on my dresser. And I just made an elephant kneel! And elephant! In Hugo, Oklahoma! My thirty-five year old future self would one day take a photograph with his PHONE of a pink duck-adorned life-jacket to show his wife, remember this day, and sadly shake his head at the cruelty of the technology gods and their slowness.

I slowly approached the elephant. She was huge – at least I assumed she was a she, it was the eyes more than the purple saddle – I was smaller than her head. Her eyes were big and beautiful and just reminded me of a girl. Of course, she did have tusks and I think I remembered something about only males having tusks. Oh well, her eyes were just too pretty. She would just have to be a female with tusks while she was with me.

And there she was, submissive and even graceful in her stance on one knee before me. I only had one reference for what I was about to do next. Two summers before, my father had actually taken me somewhere that didn’t involve the farm, equipment for the farm, or places to sell what came from the farm. We went to the circus training area for a demonstration of a pile-driving something-or-other. Ok, I guess I half-lied; he didn’t really take me to the circus just to see the circus. But I at least got to go watch the circus while he watched them drive piles or whatever pile-driver something-or-others do. Anyway, he was over there and I was blissfully in the shade of a tent. And the animal trainers were working. It smelled of dried hay, manure, and sweat. There were jugglers in one corner. Clowns in the other. And then lions, elephants, bears, dogs, you name it. And they were all doing amazing stuff.

When the elephants all lined up and marched, trunk-to-tail, around the perimeter of the tent, I was impressed. I mean, training a poodle to do flips is one thing. Making gigantic elephants sit up, on their front legs and then their back legs, now THAT took some doing. But when the ladies would ride around on the elephant’s back, they always got up there by climbing up on the elephant’s knee, grabbing the top of one of the large ears, and hauling themselves (way too gracefully) into the saddle. Then they rode around with one hand raised in the air while the trainers made the elephant do whatever it was they wanted them to do.

So that’s what I tried to do. Except I couldn’t reach the top of the ear. But I wasn’t about to let go at this stage of my adventure, so I kept clambering up to the saddle. I think the elephant finally got tired or bored or just plain felt sorry for me and she pushed me the rest of the way up with her trunk. I sailed right over the top and landed hard on the ground on the other side. She made kind of a trumpeting/snorting sound that was a little too close to laughter for me. I circled to the knee again.

Successfully mounting the saddle, I did the only thing I knew to do and raised my hand. I smiled at my non-existent audience. I’m sure a bird or a squirrel or a snake somewhere in the surrounding woods admired my poise. I said “Get up!” and, what do you know, the elephant stood. And waited.

When I had seen them before, the trainers had whips that they had used to get the big elephants to move. I did have a whip at home – a bullwhip – but it was mainly for moving Dad’s cattle from one pen to another or for chasing back calves into the stockade. I doubt it would have worked on an elephant. But it would have been better than nothing. As it was, all I had were my feet. So I kicked hard on both sides – remembering what one of the clowns had told me that day about the elephant’s hide being so thick. That did the trick! We started walking down the road. Here I was, riding an elephant home!

I took a minute to really look at the creature’s back. There were tough, tiny hairs everywhere. And by tiny I don’t mean small, they just didn’t stick out really far. They were thick! More like bristles than hairs. They reminded me of the stiff bristle brush that my Dad used to clean some of the farm tools when they got rusty. There were also scars everywhere on her back. It made me sad to think that they had come from people dressed as clowns. I wondered if it had hurt. I couldn’t imagine that it hadn’t hurt at least a little bit. Sadness blossomed to anger at the thought of stupid clowns whipping a big, gentle animal like this! Why would they do that? Just so some stupid girl could ride on the back and wave to even more stupid people clapping at an animal doing stupid tricks? It made no sense. I was ashamed to be a person even though I had never whipped an elephant.

As we strolled along I began to think. How was an elephant any different from, say, a cow? Or a horse? We rode on them. And for what? Just to have fun? We didn’t need to get around anywhere on them. We had cars and trucks for that. And we ate the cows! We whipped them from one spot to another, for no other reason than to fatten them up on grass in a different place and then, when we thought they were big enough, we ate them. Some life!

I remembered coming home from playing at a friend’s house last year. I came home and the minute I got in the door, a wonderful smell hit me immediately. It filled my nose, made its way to my stomach and caused such a growling my mother heard it from across the room. She handed me a bowl and a spoon before I even had time to ask for whatever it was she was cooking. It tasted as delicious as it smelled and, for a few moments, I was filled with the most glorious warmth. Between shovel-fulls of the stew I managed to mumble “What is this?!” I’ll never forget what my mother said.

“That’s Norman!” she said.

It took a moment for that name to settle in. When it did, I dropped the spoon and stared from the bowl to her and back again. Norman. I was eating Norman.

Norman had been the name of a cute little calf that we had brought home years before. I had almost grown up alongside Norman. I even named him. As much as an animal could be a relation, Norman had been a brother to me. I mean, we weren’t close like brothers, or anything. But I had gotten used to feeding him, brushing him, chasing after him, cleaning up after him, watching him grow. Looking at the elephant’s eyes reminded me of those big eyes of Norman when he used to suck from a bottle when he was little. Those big eyes watching me as I fed him.

I could never get over my Dad doing that to Norman. I remember them explaining that that’s what we had bought Norman for, but it just didn’t seem right. You didn’t do something like that to someone you had been around for that long. At least I swore I never would. Now, riding along on the back of Kalisa, I had the same feeling. What were they going to do with her once they decided she wasn’t worth keeping anymore? There I was, riding a freaking elephant for goodness sake, and all I could feel was sadness at something that hadn’t even happened yet.

So I shut my mind off and started talking to the elephant.

“Where are we headed big girl?”

Nothing. What did I expect? A conversation? Well, maybe a grunt or some kind of acknowledgment. Anything.

“Can you do any tricks?”

Again, nothing. Her tail swished up and slapped at her haunch. Her trunk bounced back and forth. I decided to try something.

“Halt!” I commanded.

And, what do you know, she stopped.

“March!” I ordered.

And on we went. I did this several more times, just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke the first time. I think she got tired of it after a while as she started swishing her tail more.

“Sound off!” I yelled.

On command, Kalisa raised her trunk and bellowed a long, flat note that echoed down the road. I laughed out loud in response. This was too cool!

Then I saw something on the road before us. The skipping shadow on the brown dirt road looked like a shaky, invisible hand was drawing a curving line in the sand. Rattlesnake.

“March!” I ordered again. “Fast!”

As if sensing what I wanted, Kalisa quickened her step. As she drew closer to the serpent, the shaky line in the sand lengthened and its mass grew larger in its stopping. The head drew up a few inches off the ground and the distinctive rattle began slowly, quickened, slowed again.

“Step!” I was just fooling around here. Being a stupid kid that didn’t know the bounds of good sense and that the lack of it can sometimes be a danger to others.

Before the snake could even shake its rattles again Kalisa’s massive leg rose and fell, squashing the rattler’s head under its weight. It never stood a chance.

“Whoooo!” Now that was impressive. I could get used to this. For a moment I wondered how hard it would be to launch firecrackers off the back of an elephant before what little good sense I had developed bubbled up in my brain and nixed the idea.

Kalisa kept on walking. We got to a part of the road where the lake actually curved in and created a gentle bend. I guess she wanted another swim because she ignored the bend, gentle or not, and headed straight back into the water. I let out another whoop as she slowly sank into the muddy, cold lake.

It didn’t take long to see she really enjoyed this. I never thought about elephants swimming before – they just seem so big you’d think they’d sink like a stone. And they do mostly. I was waist deep in the water but I wasn’t heavy enough to keep her down. She would just raise her head every once in a while to see where we were going. She just kept her trunk in the air kind of like a big snorkel. Every so often she would shower me with a blast of icy water. Once we got toward the middle of the lake I could see that all four of her legs were paddling away down there.

I had been on the lake before, of course. Our neighbor used to take us out on his pontoon boat every Memorial Day. Then he had a stroke. They took him away in an ambulance and the next day the boat went away on a trailer. I do remember the engine was really loud and we made a lot of waves behind us as we sailed around the lake. This was completely different. It was completely quiet except for the splashing caused by the whipping wisp of a tail and the occasional drenching from her trunk. And there was no wake really. We just slipped through the water the same way my cat glided through the covers of a newly made bed.

I didn’t want to leave the water but I was getting cold. And she had to be tired. I had just watched her come out of the lake not ten minutes before. We were almost across by now and I knew where we would come out. There was a cow path on the other side of the lake, next to a small grassy hill. On the other side of the hill was the other side of the lake road, lined by a barbed wire fence, with a gate at the entrance to Skip Edwards’ farm. Skip would probably be out in the field by that fence right now. Wouldn’t he be surprised to see me come over that hill riding an elephant!

As we came out of the water and splashing up on to the bank, another trunk shower left me completely soaked but thoroughly happy. I shook my head, she shook hers. We started climbing the hill. As we coasted through the scrub oaks and juniper trees, I could see the whole countryside spread out. There were taller hills near the house, but this was the tallest on this side of the lake.  Seeing the water behind me and turning to take in the expanding vista, it wasn’t hard to get caught up in it. And then, when we crowned the hill, the sun hit me square in the eyes. Blinding, white-hot sun. This late in the year, the sun was starting to set already. It shone harsh across the pancake-flat landscape before us, except for a few hills in the distance. A fierce wind blew over the top of the hill. It was blowing so hard I swear it blew right through my soul, carrying away all of the bitterness and hard feelings I had been carrying since Mom and Dad grounded me. I have never felt such a wind.

Though it didn’t end up helping us much in the long run, I couldn’t help but let out another whoop and request that Kalisa do the same. She trumpeted from the top of that hill and, for a moment, we were in the wilds of Africa or India or wherever this mighty, beautiful beast came from. I was an adventurer on a great quest and Kalisa was my faithful friend taking me there, fearlessly and magically.

Then Mrs. Edwards screamed, Mr. Edwards howled, and his horse went leaping madly over the barbed wire fence in front of us. Kalisa and I were yanked back from our exciting jungle quest to a much quieter Oklahoma. And in Oklahoma farmer’s wives get kind of jumpy when elephants come sailing over the hill, trumpeting loudly, while a crazy boy lets out a whoop. Mr. Edwards didn’t take too kindly to having a whole thermos of hot coffee being dumped on him and his horse either.

I kind of forget what happened next. Probably best forgotten anyway. I said some bad things to Mr. Edwards when he tried to get me down. Then the police showed up. I just kept riding Kalisa. They couldn’t shoot either of us! The police couldn’t stop an ant parade at a picnic, much less an elephant on a mission. I may have had Kalisa nudge one of the police cars by mistake.

But, finally, the circus people showed up. It really wasn’t right what they did to her. Shooting with needles like that. She would have gone home eventually. What was there to harm way out here anyway? I stayed with her until she went to sleep, though they tried to drag me away. I just clung to her leg, even after she fell over. She was even bigger down on her side like that. I managed to crawl up to her head before I had to leave (and they kept calling her “the male”-this or “he”-that). Kalisa blinked her eyes and, I swear to all that’s Holy, she looked me right in the eyes. There was something there. Recognition. Two trouble-makers agreeing that a good time had been had. I saw a light in there. Then the light dimmed, a blink, the eye drifted up, blinked again, and went out. She gave a great heave and then just started snoring like a sleeping baby.

As long as I live I’ll never forget our journey through the country, the day I sailed an elephant on the lake.

I know I’ll probably get in trouble again. It’s just in my nature. But it’s usually just me that’s doing it. This was the first time that, by chance, I ran into somebody that was just as good at getting into trouble as I am.

Elephant tranquilized after escape from Circus camp

By Howard Brooks for the Hugo Advertiser – November 8, 1978

A male Asian elephant escaped from its sleeping den at the Parker Brothers Circus training ground this afternoon before employees managed to tranquilize the animal.

Circus officials said no one was injured in the incident.

Just before 7 a.m. yesterday, the 11,000-pound elephant named Kalisa, eluded his handlers during an emergency situation involving a fire in one of the facilities main training areas. Circus officials did not comment on how the large creature evaded notice in escaping the 10- acre training ground.

The animal was initially located by Trent Hallowell, 12, of Hugo, at around 4:30 p.m. near Hugo Lake. No details were provided on how the boy returned the animal from the opposite side of the lake. The circus’ emergency response team composed of firearms units and veterinary staff equipped with tranquilizer darts responded within two hours. The elephant was tranquilized and secured at 5:53 p.m. according to a circus official. There was some difficulty in separating the boy from the tranquilized pachyderm.

Parker Brothers Circus will conduct an investigation into the cause of the incident, according to the news release.

Hugo, Oklahoma, also known as Circus City, USA, hosts three of the country’s largest circuses during the winter months. The circuses feature jugglers, dancers, clowns, fire-eaters, elephants, tigers and camels to entertain attendees of all ages. Hugo is also home of the Tusk Foundation, home to one of the largest Asian elephant sanctuaries in the United States. For an undisclosed amount, the facility gives guests a chance to view the enormous animals up close and personal.

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One thought on “Elephant Escape

  1. Lisa McGlaun

    So much fun! My eleven year old and I were laughing out loud and so sad that Kalisa had to go back to those awful clowns!


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