I Seen the Elephant

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So the break the hearts of kith and kin,
And the roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.
“The Men That Don’t Fit In”
Robert W. Service

August 17, 1896 at the mouth of Rabbit creek on the east bank of the Yukon River, Skookum Jim Mason, Tagish Charlie, George Carmack and Carmack’s Tagish wife Shaawa Tla’a “Kate”, discovered placer gold with nuggets the size and quantity of which were unimagined since James Marshall’s strike at Sutter’s mill half-a-century before!  July 14, 1897 the Steamer Portland docked at Seattle with its storied “Ton Of Gold!”  Like a tidal wave, news surged over the waterfront and into town.

Within weeks the shock-troops of what would grow to 100,000 dreamers scallywags and hucksters crowded the beach at Dyea, Alaska, for the 33 mile hike, lugging a ton of supplies each, over 3759 foot Chilkoot Pass, then cobble-together watercraft for the four hundred miles voyage across Lake Bennett and down the Yukon to Dawson and Eldorado!

By fall of 1898 the estimated 30,000 to 40,000  farmers, accountants, teachers, loggers, mechanics, gamblers and riffraff who actually made it to the gold field, men who heretofore didn’t know a gold pan from a bedpan, crowded cheek-by-jowl along the twenty-mile reach of Rabbit, now “Bonanza,” creek from the Yukon to King Solomon’s Dome.

It’s said less than a hundred, maybe less than fifty, of those who rushed to the Yukon came home with enough bullion for a 640 acre spread in Montana, to pay off a mortgage, see the kids through college, or retire early.  But in the end those not preserved in the arctic permafrost returned, empty pockets or with a rucksack of bullion, could boast or feel silent consolation just knowing, “I saw the elephant!”

One telling of a tale whose roots may be traced to Hannibal’s elephants, goes like this.  Somewhere like the pinewoods of Tennessee, an old man lived alone in the log house where he was born.  Apart from household necessities he owned a dozen hens, a contrary rooster, a sow, a boar, a milk cow, an aged gray mule, a small cart, and a plot where he tended potatoes, carrots, turnips, onion and cabbage.

The first days of September and April punctuated the old farmer’s year.  September first he butchered a hog, salt-cured hams, hocks, chops, and sow-belly, and hung them in the root cellar behind the house.  Then he harvested.  With a winter’s supply of potatoes, carrots, and onions in wooden crates beneath the pork, he piled the remainder into his cart.

The following morning after a semi-annual scrub in a washtub on the porch, the old man put on his clean flannel shirt and bib overalls.  Hitching up his mule, he climbed to the seat of the cart and urged the tired animal up rutted tracks to the county road, then five miles to town.  At Abner’s Mercantile he sold and traded carrots, potatoes, onions, corn and cabbage for flour, cornmeal, salt, sugar, coffee, and tobacco.  On the April first town visit his few remaining dollars went for carrot and corn seed, onion and cabbage sets and tobacco.

Summers passed planting, watering, weeding, tending animals, gathering eggs, beheading and frying the occasional ill-fated hen, and on the back porch in his grandfather’s rocking chair, smoking his pipe and appraising his world.

For decades this routine passed with the certainty of the seasons, until one fateful April first town visit.  As he crossed the street from Abner’s, the usual brown paper bag in his arms, a bright new poster on the livery stable door caught his eye.  Deviating from a straight line path to his cart, the farmer walked to the stable and stared at the advertisement.  A beast, trunk raised, triangular multicolored scarf with gold tassel down its forehead dominated the scene.  Astride its neck, legs tucked behind cart-wheels size ears, sat a near-naked brown-skinned boy, a white towel wound around his head, holding a staff with a hooked end.  Behind and above the elephant, on the high seat over a cage a hostler held the lines to a draft team.  Below a Bengal tiger paced behind steel bars.  Wagons, clowns leaping and turning cartwheels, juggled balls and white pins, followed.

After Gawking at the apparition for a full two minutes, the old man’s attention settled to “August 1-3 – Admission $2” at the bottom with the realization that minutes before, for a tin of Prince Albert tobacco he laid his last twenty-five piece on  Abner’s counter.

As summer passed, hoeing corn, feeding hogs, gathering eggs, chopping wood, on the porch smoking, the vision of that great gray beast, trunk raised, brown-skinned boy astride its neck, returned to the his mind’s eye as clearly as chickens scratching in the yard, green leaves in the old oak, Morning-glory curling about the corner posts of his porch.  The fact that he didn’t possess a single dime, much less two dollars, plagued him.

At last, sitting and smoking on a calm July evening, a thought which had lurked at the back of the farmer’s mind demanded attention.  August first, a month before harvest.  With four more weeks his corn, potatoes, carrots, onions, and cabbage would grow by a full one-third.  Harvesting on August first meant sacrificing a third of his annual income.  Still, in an instant the obsession to see that elephant took control of old man’s homely inclination.

On the thirtieth day of July, after eggs and bacon, the farmer went to his garden, picked up his shovel, and started to dig.  The following morning, after a scrub on porch, dressed in clean shirt and overalls he hitched up the mule and urged him up the rutted tracks.

At the county road decades of experience had impressed on the old man prudence of stop, look, and listen.  A hundred paces to his right hawthorn hedge blocked his view.  A vehicle emerging around a curve could cover the distance before the mule completed a step, scattering animal, cart and teamster like a cannonball striking a woodpile.

For a minute the teamster remained perched on his cart-seat listening, waiting and watching.  There was a sound, but not the rush of rubber tires on gravel.  More like the plodding of hooves but deeper and slower than a draft team.  Then motion behind the hawthorn became a great gray head, swaying slowly back and forth, a trunk swinging side-to-side, a brown-skinned boy astride its neck!

Mouth agape, eyes large as quarter-dollars, the farmer watched the beast approach.  On stopping, the mule’s muzzle had routinely dropped to within inches of the grass beside the roadway.  When a huge gray hoof crushed the gravel two paces from his face, as if jabbed under the chin with a sharp stick the animal’s head jerked up.  With spirit and dexterity not exhibited in a decade the mule reared, yanked the reins from the teamster’s hands, pivoted, snapped both cart shafts, completed a hundred-and-eighty degree turn on his rear legs, and raced like a yearling toward home.

Lying beside his overturned cart while the elephant passed, the old man’s gaze remained fixed, its spine was tall as a ridgepole, body a quarter the size of his house, legs like maple trunks, feet big as water buckets.  Behind the elephant came cages with the tiger, monkeys, and a great brown bear.  Clowns and performers rode the roofs of  painted vans.  Wagons with poles, ropes, and mounds of canvas followed.

The farmer sat up beside his overturned cart and surveyed his harvest.  Small ears of corn and heads of cabbage lay hidden in the brambles and primrose beside the road.  Seeing potatoes, turnips and carrots crushed by hooves and wheels an astonishing thought arose in the old man’s mind, “It’s no matter.”  His gaze lifted to the last wagon disappearing over a hill, “For I seen the elephant.”

Of millions who heard of the Klondike Bonanza, a scant handful kissed girlfriends, wives, and mamas goodbye, took the gamble, headed North.  The complexity of human experience makes distinguishing those who rush after the elephant from we who stay home impossible.  And the spectrum of those who go ranges from prosaic and exotic.

While the rest of us put in thirty years at the mill or on the farm, assemble the cars, grow the corn, raise the beef, slaughter the hogs, drive the semis, mind the store, teach the children, sit at a desk, and take our two-week Yellowstone vacation, those “who don’t fit in,” risk life and fortune rushing off to the Yukon, climbing Everest, diving the Mariana Trench, driving at Indy, breaking the sound barrier, and squeezing into a Volkswagon-size capsule to be kicked by a hundred ton rocket to the Moon.

Elephant chasers represent two sides of a coin: invention and creation.  To find the Indian elephant in the East Christopher Columbus sailed West.  Henry Ford’s elephant was a motorcar.  For brothers working in a Dayton bicycle shop, a flying machine.  The Wizard of Menlo Pork chased a herd of elephants: electric light, a talking machine, a hundred more.  Richard Goddard’s elephant was a rocket into space.  For folks at NASA seeing the elephant was seeing Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon, Rovers creeping across Mars’s the red dirt.  Chasing his elephant, Albert Einstein rode a beam of light.

On the creative side, Shakespeare envisioned and created elephants with words, van Gough with paint on canvas.  Michelangelo painted and sculpted elephants, da Vinci imagined and created a catalog of elephants.  Mozart’s elephants were harmony and rhythm, symphony and opera.

It takes us all, the Doers and Dreamers.  Right?  While we who assemble the cars, build the houses, grow the wheat, teach the kids, drive the trucks, coach Little League, cook, wash dishes, and scrub the toilets, elephant chasers lead or pull us, some would say arguably, “forward.”  While the mass of us make day-to-day life possible a handful feel compelled to  see the elephant.

“A vision without a task is but a dream.  A task without a vision is drudgery.  A vision and a task is the hope of the world.”
Inscription of a church wall in Sussex England, c. 1730