The Elephant Stampede
[Author’s Note: I was reminded of a chapter from my novel NOT SO GONE (excerpted here) when I saw the brilliant photo below republished from the New York Times archives yesterday. It depicts the Barnum & Bailey Circus elephants crossing a bridge on their way to Madison Square Garden in New York. You’ll understand this flashback when you read the famous Elephant Stampede story recounted as the characters, Sam Sunborn and his wife, Monica, desperately follow clues their kidnapped eight-year-old son, Evan, gave them during his one proof-of-life phone call.]
SFO to LGA
The flight feels like the longest five hours of my life. I pleaded medical emergency to the airline ticket agent at the counter and we caught the first available Jetblue flight to LaGuardia. Unfortunately, the only seats available were in the last row of the plane. The antiseptic smell, from the lavatory directly behind us, wafts our way. Although Valiente’s body is shorter than mine, my new legs are still jammed up against the reclined seat in front of me. At the same time, I can already feel Valiente’s body fatigue setting in. My arms and legs feel like hundred-pound cinder blocks. Hoping to get a little rest, I begin to drift off.
Monica is having none of it, “You said you’d tell me about the clues Evan gave you on the phone call.”
“Monica, I’m so tired. I need to rest. I’ll tell you later.” I let my head flop to the side.
“That’s what you said on the way to the airport. I don’t care how tired you are. Tell me now or you’ll get no rest.”
One thing I learned early in our twelve years of marriage, if Monica wants something, don’t fight it. Once I learned that simple lesson, it was amazing how much our relationship improved. “He had to have really thought this out, hoping we’d call again because there were four clues in the couple of sentences he spoke. The first clue was the elephant.”
“Elephant? I don’t get it.”
“Look, give me a minute and I’ll explain what I think I’ve figured out. My physical brain is a bit slower than my digital brain was. OK, you know how I like to read to Evan before bed. Although he’s getting older, he still likes it and so do I. I recently read him a story about the Brooklyn Bridge Elephant Stampede of 1929.”
“What? Really? I never heard of that.”
The Most Horrible Land Mammal Disaster
“Apparently when the Barnum and Bailey Circus used to come to town, P. T, Barnum would parade the elephants over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. The story goes that this one time, the elephants got loose and stampeded over the bridge, running down pedestrians, crushing bones and charging down the streets of Manhattan led by the famous thirteen-foot high African Elephant, Jumbo. Many people remember October 29th, 1929 as Black Tuesday, the stock market crash. To others, it is known as the Great Elephant Stampede, the most horrible land mammal disaster in our country’s history. Great crowds had come to see the elephant parade when something must have spooked the elephants. They broke loose from their chains and ran over everything in their path – men, women, and children, stomping them to death. Jumbo and two of his buddies apparently headed downtown to Wall Street and Jumbo, it is rumored, escaped through the Holland Tunnel, never to be seen again.” I smile.
Monica laughs, “I gotta say that my bullshit meter just went into the red zone, particularly with that last part. But I still don’t see, what does this have to do with Evan?”
“You’re right. It is a made-up story, although there was a real human stampede around that time on the bridge that did result in fatalities. The important thing is that there is a monument of the three elephants in Brooklyn Bridge Park. ‘Dedicated to the triumph of the will of these elephants and the poor souls who stood in their way.’ That last part is actually inscribed on a plaque on the statue. After I told Evan the story, I showed him a picture of the elephant monument. I figure the elephant clue means he is somewhere near that monument in Brooklyn.”
“That’s my boy. OK, suppose that’s what he meant. What are the other clues? “
“He said he was eating gruel and candy. Doesn’t that sound strange to you? It did to me. Evan and I both like puzzles and have even talked about secret codes. So I did a Google Maps search of the streets near the elephant monument, looking for a ‘G’ street name, from Gruel and ‘C’ part of the street name from Candy. I found one that fits.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a street named Grace Court.”
“OK, You said there were four clues. You named three. What’s the fourth?
“He said he only slept for two hours. I’m betting the address he is giving us is 2 Grace Court. That’s where we’re headed first thing in the morning. We’ll be landing in less than an hour. Now can I rest?”
“No way,” Monica says.
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