When I was very young - just two years old - I fell in love with the elephants at the first circus I ever attended. We lived on a farm then, and I was fond of the horses and cows and other creatures, but there was something about those huge elephants that spoke to my two-year-old heart - so much so that I was struck speechless. They were big. I'd never even imagined that a living creature could be that big. They moved in this slow, relaxed way - so powerful, so gentle. They reminded me of my grandfather, one of the lights of my life.
I watched them in total silence, all through their act. When they finished and were led out of the ring, I stood up on my bench and began to applaud with everyone else. When the rest of the audience stopped applauding, I continued... and continued... and continued.
The ringmaster started to introduce the next act, but I was still standing on my bench, still applauding with great enthusiasm and seriousness. People were looking at me and laughing. We lived in a rural area and everyone knew everyone, so there were a lot of kidding remarks flying around. I was oblivious. I was still clapping my hands as loudly as I could. Everyone, including the ringmaster, was watching me earnestly applauding, standing on my tiptoes, and craning my neck, trying to see through or past the curtain over the exit the elephants has disappeared behind at the back of the tent.
Suddenly, the ringmaster raised his arm and blew loudly on his whistle, and pointed to the drummer. The drummer began a special roll on the drums, and there was a kerfluffle at the back of the tent and the elephants began marching back in. They knew their own stage call. Some of them had riders; some didn't. Some of the riders were barely on; one was trying to figure out what to do with a cigarette.
All of the elephants - I have no idea how many there were as I couldn't count yet, but there were enough - lined up in front of where I was standing. Together, at the signal of the leader, they stood on their hind legs and turnpeted over the fanfare of drums and music. Still together, they stood down, bent one knee, bowed in my direction. I was totally overwhelmed. I couldn't speak for a while, and I was a verbose child generally. In a life full of love and good things, this was the best, most special thing that ever had happened to me.
I learned something from this: if you nicely let people know what you really, truly want, they will sometimes give it to you, just out of love, even if they have to bring a whole circus to a halt to do it. People are kind
The rest of the circus was okay. I liked the acrobats and drove my family wild for days after rigging up trapezes and "high wires"and other things to practice on - -particularly perilous since I hadn't learned to tie knots properly yet. I also was intrigued by the clowns, and got into trouble with my mother's lipstick and the pail of whitewash I found in the barn, with which I painted my whole head. The whitewash experience put me off clowns for a while, although curiously enough, I am still fascinated by body paint, painted faces (not mere makeup), masks, and tattoos.
But my young heart longed for elephants, and even trying to dress the horses and cows up fancy with "borrowed" sheets did not satisfy my desire. Way back then I put riding a elephant on my list of things I must someday do, however long it took to do it.
About forty years later, my son, Jonathan, got a job with a well-known circus. He knew of my unsatisfied longing for elephants, and when his circus came to our town, he arranged for me to have a ride. This was bliss. If you have never ridden an elephant, I urge you to find an opportunity! It is like nothing else on this earth.
The elephant trainer held the ladder while I climbed - and climbed and climbed - up, and then he led the elephant for a long stroll around the circus grounds, while Jon pointed out things of interest as the circus set itself up for the performance that afternoon. I didn't see any of them.
Riding an elephant is not like riding anything else. You know that you have no control whatsoever. You are there by the grace of a beast who is so massive that nothing you can do could persuade her to do other than whatever she is willing to do. If you are sitting on the actual back of the elephant rather than up just behind her ears like a proper mahout, you probably have your legs spraddled out, more or less in front of you. There is no way that you can sit "astride" - you're just perched up on top of this wide expanse of elephant back. With no reins and nothing else to hold onto.
The elephant's pace is slow--a lazily graceful, rolling gait. Feeling those enormous muscles lift and move beneath you is more like being on a small boat in large seas than it is like riding a horse. I was acutely aware of my total lack of control up there - and of the calm, peaceful nature of the elephant herself. I can still feel that breathtaking sense of her amiable power and my complete vulnerability. And it is so high up on that back! It seemed miles in the air. My tall son was trotting along beside the elephant, glancing up and grinning at me every few steps. He said later he had never seen me look so astonished and so delighted. My heart was banging away at my ribs and I don't know if I even tried to breathe.
That was over twenty years ago, my hair has gone white and I've almost as many wrinkles as an elephant (though I feel a lot less wise). I still would like to do it again, longer and farther.
Anyone care to join me on an elephant expedition somewhere?
May you enjoy your travels!