The Secret of Cats: Elephants

The Secret of Cats: You Can’t Drive Your House But You Can Live In Your Car

The wild animal show was a chapter of my life that I don’t return to often. I am now living quietly in near suburban quietude in a large mid Twenties house but once I was living in a rest area, in the back of a white Rambler station wagon. They have a saying in my home town: you can’t drive your house, but you can live in your car. Rambler, American Motors, a noble mid-century American automobile corporation led by George Romney who then became governor of my home state, father of a presidential hopeful nowadays making up stories in his own way as I write. The currency of these stories, when details you cannot imagine will be significant, coalesce into what might be called a fearful symmetry.

The back of the Rambler was comfortable enough for the necessity of sleep in the rest area of a city on the western deserts of the United States of America during a period referred to as recession. The Rambler was more suitable at that time for sleeping than driving; driving required planning and patience, to wait in lines often miles long for a limit of gas which was close to becoming rationed. It was that kind of time in the United States of America. Jobs were not easy to come by.

I had found a job in a way of finding work that was so abstruse there would not be a glut of applicants. I had come from the unemployment office where I qualified as an unemployed puppeteer. Even the bureaucrats who worked the office got a kick out of me: It says on your application that your occupation is Puppeteer? That’s correct. Did you seek work this month? Yes, I did. And they issued me a check.

From unemployed puppeteer I had found a position working in a wild animal show. My job was to tend the animals, which mostly meant sweeping up their poo poo. I could discourse for a while about big cat poo, but I won’t. And I was privileged to bathe the elephant.

There was one elephant in the show. The elephant was not actually a performer in the show, just a presence, as the training of elephants is an entirely different matter and required skills that no one in this show had. But our elephant was a she baby, a cow, in the show as a kind of decorative feature, and once maybe twice a week, I bathed the elephant. She took to me and I was rewarded with alone time. This was an era before there was much attention given to the animal show concept, which could be brutal on the animals and I doubt could exist today.

Bathing the elephant was a mesmerizing activity for me. I bathed her with a long hose and loaves of white bread which I carefully fed her during the water ceremony of the bath. She curled a loaf at a time with her trunk into her taciturn mouth. Hunky tongue within her giant jaws. No crumbs.

The undulating roll of the elephant hypnotized me. It was her bulk and that movement that drew me into a moving mantra of stability within instability. Something that large moving that inexorably that close to your physical being with absolute certainty of safety, I often felt melted into the desert floor in the heat of the sun bathing that beloved elephant. Each watering took between one and two hours.

There was a well-known animal trainer in circus circles who came by now and again to consult on the welfare of the elephant. He was a curious man who twitched and punctuated his speech with a medley of movements with his hands, spastic motor gestures toward his mouth as he punctuated every sentence with profanity that he clearIy had not intended. I suppose it was some sort of motor impairment and one didn’t communicate much with him verbally anyway. But he tried to teach me a few things about our girl.

She was African, not Asian, I hadn’t known that. I was able to discern fragments of elephant stories if I listened to him carefully. There was something about an elephant that died from drinking too much wine, another about an elephant one of the Popes owned, and oh – the greatest lesson – the secret to working with elephants was to become elephant. He knew right away that I was the right guy to bathe our cow and he convinced the head trainer I could be trusted to do it alone. But what about the elephant? I thought.

He knew all about elephants and instructed me in feeding, in washing, what the elephant preferred and what she did not prefer, in his own fashion of gesture and repetition, his hand shooting up toward his mouth in a rat-a-tat-tat of words profane and sacred and swipes at the air.

I came to love my time with the elephant; it was a privilege given to me and after having to sit and listen to war stories, murderous tales of soldiers (which side was always unclear) and civilians, my mind over-taxed with trying to discern clues of exactly where in the story of the War he figured. I had never heard war stories from a German soldier before. The elephant was a respite from the sinister atmosphere backstage of our little show.

Thankfully, she was not a part of the show. The principle of dominance in training also held for elephants and I was grateful we did not have to witness that.