12

THE  GREAT  WASHINGTON  ELEPHANT  HUNT

 

It began, as unusual stories sometimes do, among a handful of good friends gathered around a few convivial bottles of whisky.

The time was a few days before Christmas in 1963, and a hodgepodge group of merrymakers was partying at a home in an otherwise dignified neighborhood not far from Fort Worth’s sprawling Forest Park Zoo.  Among the guests was the zoo’s director, Lawrence Curtis.

This fact alone should have suggested mischief, because Lawrence Curtis was not your standard bookish, pipe-smoking zoological nerd.  He was a  big, strapping fellow who tooled around town in an ancient Cadillac for which he was said to buy gasoline a dollar’s worth at a time.

His best friend, Star-Telegram columnist George Dolan, described Curtis as an inveterate practical joker and, in zoo matters, an unsurpassed con man.  Dolan once related how a posh Fort Worth hotel, proud of its elegant 16th Century British design, asked Curtis to help stock its picturesque fish pond.  Curtis reacted, Dolan claimed, by selling the hotel a batch of ordinary Texas river carp, passing them off as incredibly rare and expensive fish which once swam in the garden pool of the Duke of Bedford.  

One of Curtis’s interesting guests that fateful day was Fort Worth’s free-spirited young State Senator, Don Kennard.  A devout populist, Kennard caused extreme nervousness among the overfed occupants of  the overstuffed armchairs in the rarefied atmosphere of the Fort Worth Club.  But with the people out in neighborhoods where dining room tables were covered with oilcloth rather than starched linen, Kennard was admired as the working man’s champion in Austin.  Most people even got vicarious enjoyment out of Kennard’s personal adventures.   

On one occasion he and a kindred soul, Fort Worth District Attorney Doug Crouch, decided their children knew far too little of the suffering endured by hoboes during the Depression.  To remedy this educational shortcoming, Kennard took his daughter and a grade-school classmate to the Fort Worth railroad yards.  Waiting there, with a fruit jar of martinis, were Crouch and a venturesome Fort Worth businessman he somehow had talked into joining the expedition.  All five climbed aboard a flatcar on a departing freight train.  Kennard, trying to change cars, tumbled off the train just outside Fort Worth.  When the four others arrived in Weatherford, 26 bone-jarring miles away, they were arrested and jailed by railroad dicks, thus providing them with a far deeper insight than they had expected into the perils of hobo life during the Depression.

Another guest at the Christmas party was Bill Newbold, a former television newsman.  Years before, while a reporter on The Fort Worth Press, I had worked with Bill in the squalid little basement press room of the Fort Worth Police Department.  In fact it was Bill, then a reporter and cameraman for WBAP-TV, who patiently explained to me that, even apart from the matter of personal hygiene, there were other serious drawbacks in having to work in the press room.  To claim our desks in the mornings, he said, it was occasionally necessary to chase away the drunks and ladies of the evening who slept on them.

But in the intervening 10 years, the fates had been kind to both Bill and me.  At the time of the Curtis party in 1963, I  was working for Jim Wright, and Bill, by then seasoned veteran of the State Department, was on Christmas leave, having just returned  from Cambodia. 

 In fact, only a few months before, Bill had acquired and shipped to the Fort Worth Zoo a couple of Siberian tiger cubs.  At the Christmas party, Curtis again thanked Bill for his generosity in sending the two cuddly little animals.

But Senator Kennard, also an old friend of Bill’s, feigned disappointment.          “You always did think small, Newbold,” he said scornfully.  “We don’t need any mangy tiger cubs.  What we need is an elephant.”

Curtis nodded agreement.  “Bill, don’t get the idea we’re not grateful for the lion cubs.  But Don is right.  We really do need an elephant, especially since Penny died.” 

Penny, a full-grown elephant named for the coins that Fort Worth school children contributed to purchase her many years before,  had been one of the zoo’s principal attractions.  She had died a couple of years back, and one of Curtis’s fondest hopes was that someday she could be replaced.        

As whisky enlivened the conversation, Kennard zeroed in once more on what he considered Newbold’s obligation to the Fort Worth zoo.  “Tbey’ve got a lot of elephants in Cambodia, don’t they, Bill?” he persisted.  “Can’t you get us at least a little one?”

Listening to all this spirited discussion, but saying very little, was my boss, Jim Wright.  Inside his head, however, the wheels of mischief were turning.

Back in Washington a few days later, he walked into my office and recounted the conversation between his two old friends--Newbold, who had since left for a new assignment with the State Department, and Kennard, a longtime poliitical ally.  Then, smiling devilishly, Jim Wright came to his point.    

“Kennard, you know, is always as broke as I am,” he said.  “Wouldn’t it be great if we tricked him into thinking that Bill Newbold had shipped an elephant from Cambodia--and sent it COD to him?”

“He’d croak,” I laughed. 

For the next few minutes we sat there in my office, giggling like schoolboys and engaging in hilarious fantasies of how Kennard would react if confronted with a gigantic bill for importing an elephant from Cambodia.

“He’d regret the day he razzed Newbold about sending an elephant,” I hooted.

Jim Wright nodded enthusiastically.  “Why don’t you try to get a message like that delivered to Kennard.  It’ll have to come from a credible source.  Otherwise he’ll smell a rat.”

“Rather than an elephant,” I snickered.

“Rather than an elephant,” Jim Wright agreed.

Armed with this devious commission from my boss, I started to work.  Through friends in the U.S. Customs Service who shall remain forever nameless,  the Great Elephant Joke was set into motion.

It was two days after Christmas, 1963.  State Senator Don Kennard was headed to a pre-New Year’s party staged every year in Athens, Texas, by his longtime friend in the Legislature, Bill Kugle.  As Kennard was walking out the door, the telephone rang.  It was an official of the U.S. Customs Service.

“I just got a message from our office in San Francisco,” he said.  “They’re holding an elephant out there.  Addressed to you.  I need to find out how you want to handle it.”

“An elephant?” Kennard asked, dumbfounded.  “Addressed to me?”

“Yessir,” said the customs man.  “Shipped over by air from someplace--let’s see, here it is...yeah, shipped over  from Cambodia.  Fourteen hundred dollars in air freight charges due on it.”

“Fourteen hundred dollars?” Kennard repeated weakly.

“Yeah, not counting the fifty-dollar-a-day custodial charge during the two weeks we’ve got to keep it in quarantine.”  

“Who sent the elephant?  Was it a guy named Newbold?”

“Message doesn’t say,” muttered the customs man.

Still stunned, Kennard said, “Look.  I’m going to have to get back to you on this.  I was just headed out the door for a trip to East Texas.  I’ll call you again in a day or so.”

Jim Wright and I were in the office in Washington when we learned that our prank message had been delivered.  We snickered like kids, conjuring up our own hilarious scenes of how Kennard must have reacted.   

“What did he say?  Did he almost faint?” I asked, pressing our secret ally in the Customs Service for lurid, juicy details.

“He sounded pretty surprised, all right,” Secret Agent X agreed.

“And what did he say about the fourteen hundred dollars in air freight charges?” Jim Wright wanted to know.

“And the fifty-dollar-a-day quarantine charge?” I persisted.

“He seemed pretty surprised about all that, too.”

I got the feeling that our friend in the Customs Office didn’t think our joke was quite as funny as we did, but was doing his best not to spoil our private hilarity.  Of course, we were certain in our own minds that the most uproarious laugh of all was yet to come.

“Just wait till Don telephones Bill Newbold in Cambodia,” Jim Wright chuckled. “He’ll say, ‘Hey, Bill, I was just kidding about your sending an elephant to the zoo, but he’s arrived and I sure want to thank you.’”

“And Bill will say, ‘What in the hell are you talking about, Kennard?  I didn’t send you any damned elephant!’” I whooped.

“And then we can come clean and tell Kennard it was only a joke,” Jim Wright said.  “He’ll get a big laugh out of it.”

But from the very beginning, events did not follow our comic scenario.  After getting the call from the Customs man, Kennard did not panic and call Bill Newbold, as we expected.  Instead,  to reassure himself this was not a gag, Kennard waited until the next day and then called back to check with the U.S. Customs Service.  He was  promptly connected to our friend who called him in the first place.  He reconfirmed the original notice.  Now bolstered by the solemn word of a United States Government official that the elephant message was indeed on the level, Kennard told the Customs man he needed a few more days.  Our private joke was still private, all right, but it began taking some other unexpected turns.  

For one thing, instead of being ridiculed for receiving a $1,400 COD elephant, Kennard had become sort of a hero.  From friends and family with whom he shared the news, he received nothing but upbeat reactions.  His 10-year-old daughter, Karen, was overjoyed at the prospect of having her own personal pachyderm--especially one just her size.  She kept the family telephone humming for hours,  telling  her friends about the cute little elephant her father soon was going to get.  She could visualize the cuddly little creature staked in their front yard on Potomac Street, waving his tiny trunk and enthralling the neighborhood kids.  “May I take him to school, too, Daddy?” she asked.            

Lawrence Curtis was as elated as Karen--but for another reason.  Even though Kennard had mentioned nothing about giving the elephant to the zoo, Curtis already was entertaining covetous thoughts.  

“I’ll be glad to help you with the details, Don,” Curtis said.  To Kennard he presented a book on the care and feeding of elephants, craftily hoping Don would see the futility of trying to maintain such an animal without proper facilities--such as, for example, the facilities at Forest Park Zoo.    

Gradually Kennard began to relish the role of expectant foster father to an elephant.  Moreover, he saw a promising political opportunity in the little beast.  After all, politicians are always trying to cook up schemes to get good press.  Here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for lots of newspaper ink and television time--warm and fuzzy coverage about a generous public servant and his charming little elephant.  Kennard wondered whether to take the story to the newspapers.     

“Absolutely!  That’s a great idea!” cried Julian Reed, a prominent young public relations consultant and longtime friend of Kennard’s. “Don’t worry about the money.  Just march down to the city desk at the Star-Telegram and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a problem I want to tell you about...’”

Which is precisely what Kennard did the following morning--and it worked.  In the absence of an ax murder, most city editors are perfectly willing to settle for a for an upbeat story about an adorable  little animal that somehow has been thrust into the public consciousness--even if the story marginally involves, ugh, a politician. 

“Who sent this to you?” asked the guy on the Star-Telegram city desk.

“I think it was Bill Newbold,” replied Kennard, recounting their joking  conversation at Curtis’s Christmas party.

The man on the city desk immediately began trying to telephone Newbold in Cambodia.  What neither he nor Kennard realized was that Cambodia’s King Sihanouk, charging the United States with fomenting the overthrow his government, had ousted Bill Newbold and other U.S. personnel from his country well before Christmas.  Nor did either the desk man or Kennard know that Bill and his wife Elwanda were on their way to a new State Department assignment in Hong Kong. 

Failing to reach Bill by telephone, the city desk man located Bill’s father, Charles R. Newbold,  who, as it happened, worked downstairs in the advertising department of the Star-Telegram.   Mr. Newbold mentioned the recent political upheaval in Cambodia and said he hadn’t been able to reach Bill, either. 

Bill’s mother was also interviewed.  To her, it was perfectly obvious that her son had sent the elephant.  “Bill always was something of a practical joker,” she laughed.  Splashed across Page One in the Sunday Star-Telegram was a story that began:

“State Senator Don Kennard of Fort Worth found himself the surprised and somewhat bewildered owner Saturday of 635-pound baby elephant.”

The story went on to recount the customs official’s call to Kennard,  the unpaid $1,400 shipping charge,  and reported without qualification that the elephant was a gift from Bill Newbold.  Then, two days later, the news coverage took a more ominous turn.

 “PACHYDERM  PROMPTS  ELEPHANTINE  MYSTERY,” said another Page One story, relating that nobody had been able to locate the elephant.  

“The whereabouts of the baby remains a mystery,” the article said.  “A San Francisco newspaper Monday made a check of customs department there and could find no trace of an elephant.  A telephone call from the Star-Telegram also proved futile.”

Kennard, of course, was still worried about the $1,400 shipping charge.  “How anyone could convince the people in Cambodia to send a thing like that COD is beyond me,” he moaned.

He mentioned the possibility of selling the animal to the Fort Worth Zoo to pay the charges, but Curtis was quoted as saying the zoo had nothing in the budget for purchasing elephants.  To Jim Wright, this raised the gravest possibility of all.

“What if Kennard gets the Star-Telegram to launch a campaign for public donations?” he wondered..

“And all the little school kids skimp on their lunch money so they can donate their nickels and dimes,” I muttered.

“And there’s no elephant,” Jim Wright groaned. 

It began to dawn on both of us that we may have foolishly lighted the fuse on a crate of political dynamite.  The next day Jim Wright came into my office and gloomily sat down.  In his hand was a newspaper story quoting zookeeper Lawrence Curtis as saying he had just talked to Jim Wright in Washington and received assurances that the animal had cleared customs and was en route to Fort Worth.

“I told him no such thing,” Jim Wright protested.  “Curtis may be a bigger practical joker than we are.”

As the confusion deepened, the Star-Telegram carried another story--this one quoting the dispatcher of Local 10 of the International Longshoremen’s Union in San Francisco.  “None of our crews has unloaded an elephant,” he said.

Neither had the Pacific Maritime Association.  “We always hear about such things, and we haven’t heard a thing about an elephant,” said a spokesman in San Francisco.

Jim Wright put down the clippings and looked at me.  “Marshall, do you think you can find an elephant?” he asked.

In the past, when the boss had asked me to do a chore, I always replied, “Sure.”  But never before had he asked for an elephant--small, for free, and now.

“I’ll try,” I said meekly.

In the next day or so, the pressure got worse.  Thanks to the Associated Press, a  large part of the world now knew about the Texas Senator who had abruptly inherited an elephant, once the little critter could be located.  Kennard was besieged with calls.

 From a saloon in St. Louis, a tender-hearted drunk called to say he would like to buy “thish little elephant” to take home to his kids.         

A more credible offer came from the superintendent of a big amusement park which featured a petting zoo.  

Kennard’s patience was wearing thin.  “I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with it,” he snorted. “I may decide to keep it myself.”

“Oh, no--you surely don’t want to keep an elephant,” the caller protested.

“No?  Why not?”

The park superintendent cleared his throat authoritatively.  “Man,” he said, “they get biggg.”

Another call came from a Republican county chairman.  He was excited over the prospect of getting a real, live mascot for his party.

“This is a Democratic elephant,” Kennard proclaimed.  “Do you think I’m going to turn it over to a bunch of Republicans?”

But the most worrisome calls came from newspaper and wire service reporters.  They still had been unable to find the elephant.  Could Kennard tell them precisely where it was located?  “Call Lawrence Curtis,” Kennard suggested brusquely.

As for Curtis, he gradually had come to suspect that no such creature existed.  He had shared this opinion with Kennard, but having already announced the elephant’s imminent arrival, neither Kennard nor Curtis had any idea what to do next. 

In an effort to buy time, Curtis enlisted fellow zookeepers across the western United States in an elaborate charade.  He persuaded colleagues to provide progress reports on the imaginary shipment of a non-existent elephant from San Francisco to Fort Worth. 

“Yessir, the little feller came through here,” a conspiratorial zookeeper in Utah might tell an inquiring reporter.  “But the truck left a day or so ago, and I’m not sure which route they were taking.”

In our Washington office, the pressure grew worse than that in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.  The mad doctor had inflamed the townspeople by creating a seven-foot monster.   Jim Wright and I were in grave danger of inflaming the community by failing to create an elephant--an elephant which already had been duly authenticated by an official of the U.S. Customs Service, publicly documented by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Associated Press, and was now expectantly awaited by thousands of eager school children in Fort Worth. 

And what was my responsibility in all this?  Oh, not much.  Just to find a baby elephant--like now.

Where on earth, I wondered, does one find an elephant?  Barnum & Bailey?  Not likely.  They probably need all they have.  Where, then?  Animal trappers?  No  such listing in the Washington Yellow Pages.  Well, I figured, I’ve got to start somewhere.  I dialed the Washington Zoo.

Feeling like Bob Newhart in one of his old telephone routines, I asked the zoo superintendent if he had any idea where Congressman Wright could find an elephant--preferably a smallish one.  (Already I was thinking about the potential shipping charges.)

“You’re looking for an elephant?” asked the zoo superintendent.  His tone suggested a degree of  curiosity as to how such a creature fitted into the legislative requirements of the House of Representatives.  But since he graciously refrained from voicing this question, I didn’t feel it necessary to explain that the elephant was needed to keep the school children of Fort Worth from forming a mob and riding Jim Wright, Lawrence Curtis, Don Kennard and me out of town on a rail. HillHi 

“Sorry--we don’t happen to have any spare elephants out here,” he said.  “Have you checked with the State Department?”

I pondered the question for a moment.  “No,” I said finally.  “Frankly, I thought I might have better luck with the zoo.”

“I understand,” he said.  “But the other day some fellow from the State Department called here.  He was talking about a maharajah in India trying to give an elephant to our ambassador, Chester Bowles.  You might check it out.”   

The possibility sounded pretty far-fetched, but the zoo man gave me the telephone number and I called the fellow at State.

It seemed that the Rajah of Kollengode, in India’s Kerala State, had been pestering Ambassador Bowles to accept a female baby elephant named “Shanti,” meaning “Peace,” as a gesture of friendship to the United States.

Bowles, a friend of Jim Wright’s and a former member of the House of Representatives, was now serving for the second time as our Ambassador to India.  As a busy diplomat, he was ill-suited to baby-sit an elephant, but obviously could not offend the maharajah.

Even though it was far from certain that we could get the little animal, my pulse quickened at the possibility.  I suspected the diplomats wanted to find a suitable recipient as quickly as possible, because even though its imposing Washington headquarters covers four city blocks, the State Department  lacks suitable accommodations for elephants.

In the next few days, a few details trickled in.  When Shanti was 10 weeks old, her mother was killed in an elephant trap.  The Rajah of Kollengode took the little orphan and put her under the care of his children.  Reportedly the animal had the run of the house (or the palace,  or whatever a Rajah lives in).  Since Shanti weighed 700 pounds, this arrangement probably did not add to the longevity of the family’s good china.

At this point, Bill Newbold, who had been traveling and was oblivious to the entire affair, arrived at his new post in Hong Kong, where the story had been in the newspapers.  “Hi, Bill,  I’ve heard a lot about you,” said the U.S. Consul General.  “How are the elephants in Cambodia?”

Bill thought that was sort of an unusual question, but didn’t pursue the matter because he and Elwanda were running late for a welcoming luncheon in their honor at the Hong Kong Press Club.  But no sooner had they walked into the club than Bill was confronted by an old friend he had known in Cambodia, veteran AP Correspondent Roy Essoyan. Having followed the story of the missing elephant on the international news wires, Essoyan wasted no time with pleasantries:  “All right, Bill--where’s the damn elephant?”

“You’re the second guy in an hour to ask me about an elephant,” Bill protested.  “What is everybody talking about?” 

Meanwhile, back in Washington, we nervously awaited official word that we could have Shanti.  Jim Wright was growing edgy.  He had been in touch with Ambassador Bowles, who was trying to work out the gift arrangement.  But the fuse was burning perilously close to the dynamite.  And then, just as we were bracing ourselves for an anticipated newspaper story exposing the elephant joke that would disappoint the children of Fort Worth, the State Department gave its final OK.  Vastly relieved, Jim Wright grabbed the telephone.  To Lawrence Curtis he outlined a plan.

The next day a car pulling an enclosed trailer pulled up in front of Kennard’s house.  Alerted by Curtis, newspaper and television reporters swarmed over the street.  The celebrated day had arrived.  Shanti was here.  She was, wasn’t she?

She was not.  When the ramp from the trailer was lowered, out sauntered not an elephant but a somewhat scroungy little donkey.  Affixed to his sides were signs bearing his name:  Meanwhile.”

 To the assembled news people, Jim Wright came clean.  He admitted that the whole thing started as a joke, and that the elephant at first had been strictly imaginary.  But now there was a real one, and she would be here soon.  Honest she would.  In the meanwhile, there was Meanwhile.  

Instead of the public relations disaster we had feared, we had a bonanza of warm humor and goodwill.  The papers were enthralled with the story.  Not often does a private joke between politicians backfire and result in a cuddly new little beastie for the city zoo. 

To handle the arrangements for bringing Shanti to the U.S., Lawrence Curtis selflessly volunteered to fly to India.  So grateful was Don Kennard that he agreed to pay the zoo director’s airline fare.

 “And then the scoundrel kept going and flew on around the world,” Kennard groused later.

When Shanti arrived in Fort Worth on April 4, 1964, she was treated like a celebrity.  The little animal was featured on the television news, her picture was in the papers, and Governor John Connally bestowed honorary Texas citizenship both on Shanti and Venugopal Varma, the Rajah’s 24-year-old son who came to make the formal presentation.            Even after her long trip from India, the hair on the back of Shanti’s head was braided--a reminder of the loving care she got from the Rajah’s daughters, who fed her at first with a baby bottle.                                        

Despite its harrowing moments, the tale of Shanti the Elephant deserves a special niche in the annals of politics.  Of the countless small dramas played out each day in Washington, there are losers as well as winners.  But in Shanti’s case, everybody was a winner.

The Rajah of  Kollengode got his wish--proudly presenting Shanti to Ambassador Chester Bowles as a gesture of friendship to the United States.

 Ambassador Bowles was delighted over being allowed promptly to surrender custody of the creature to the State Department in Washington.

The State Department, relieved that Shanti would not be shipped to its own stately offices in Washington’s Foggy Bottom, was more than pleased to give the little beast to a Texas Senator who seemed actually eager to get it. 

Senator Kennard earned the admiration of voters for his generosity in donating Shanti to the zoo for the enjoyment of their youngsters.

Bill Newbold, who finally learned the whole story in the Hong Kong Press Club, of all places,  nevertheless got credit for sending a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t elephant to the Fort Worth zoo. 

Zoo boss (and globe-circling traveler) Lawrence Curtis wound up with a charming new little boarder that enthralled thousands of grateful children.

Congressman Jim Wright got to retain the services of an incredibly able Administrative Assistant.  In other words, he didn’t fire me.

Regrettably, though, the story had a sad ending.  After several years in the Fort Worth zoo, little Shanti died.  But even today, her memory can generate a lot of warm smiles among the people who knew and loved her.  That’s not a bad heritage for a person, or even for a little orphan elephant.