The summer of 1977 was coming to an end. It was Sunday, August 28, and I was a mere four years old. My sister Kris, who had turned eight that month, would be headed back to school soon. But things were going to be different this year, because I was officially a big kid now and would be going to nursery school some mornings. No longer would I have to sit on the sidelines. Big things were in store for me. Real big. You could even call them “elephant-sized”. I just didn’t know it yet.
The summer held one last hurrah for us. The circus was in town and would be putting on a show that night. My dad was working at the golf course that day, as usual, and my mom was out in the backyard, weeding her vegetable garden. If Kris and I were well-behaved, we would get to go to the circus that evening. So we spent the morning out of my mother’s hair, making forts out of the cushions and blankets in our living room.
Our house was the same size and shape as every other house on our street. It was tract housing from the early 1970s: a squat ranch consisting of a two-car garage, living room, kitchen with “dinette”, three bedrooms and a bathroom. It looked not unlike a bomb shelter painted white with black shutters. In the backyard my mother had cordoned off a large section of the yard for growing vegetables. She had rows upon rows of carrots, tomatoes, peas, beans, cucumbers, squash, okra, and other vegetables that completely disgusted me. I would eat the carrots and carve the cucumbers into boats that my sister and I would float down the rain-filled gutters after a storm, but that is where my interest in the garden ended. Plus it was generally understood that many of these vegetables were for my dad, so he could concoct his strange southern dishes that the rest of us were forced to smell but not eat.
Kris and I were busy shining the flashlights under our newly constructed hut when we heard my mother’s screams through the screen door.
“Girls! Girls! Get out here!”
We jumped up and ran toward the backyard and met my mother just as she reached the patio.
“He’s in the front now!” she hollered. “Go to the front door and look out the window!” We rushed to the other side of the house in time to see an elephant emerge on our street. Unfortunately, our neighbor didn’t see him. He had just backed out of his driveway and was now facing down the street away from us and slowly accelerating. The elephant, in an obvious state of agitation, followed the little red pickup truck and placed its enormous front feet onto the truck bed. From where we were, we could see our neighbor shift slightly in his pickup, which was suddenly lower to the ground in the back, and peer through his rearview mirror. And then we heard a horrified, high-pitched scream that would have broken the windows had they not already been open.
If this weren’t enough of a peculiar scene for a small Wisconsin farming community, it was about to get weirder. A gang of shirtless black men in dreadlocks wielding long sticks and whips materialized on the street behind the elephant. The men were running behind the petrified pachyderm, brandishing their assortment of tools and chains, shouting to each other and the elephant in a language not familiar to this continent, much less this county.
The elephant stepped off the back of his ride, which was not accelerating fast enough to assure him a safe escape, and veered to his right. Across the street from our house is a large open field owned by the school system. It may not have been an African savannah, but it was spacious enough for the elephant to gain some speed as he barreled away from the hordes now chasing him.
As we watched the elephant tear away from us, my mother had time to relay the scene she had witnessed in the backyard. She had been bent over her plants, plucking the little weeds by the roots when she heard a crashing noise coming a couple houses back. She stood up in time to see a black man running through the side yard. She said to herself, “There’s no basketball game in town today,” before witnessing a great gray form emerge from beyond a neighbor’s garage. It was an elephant, and definitely not pink, so therefore unrelated to last night’s half a beer she had with our taco dinner.
We would later learn that the elephant was a female named Barbara who had been spooked while helping erect a circus tent. The pole she was righting dropped with a clatter, causing the skittish elephant to flee, with her front legs still in chains.
We had a clear view across the field to watch the scene, although at a distance. Here and there a face would peep out the door lining the street by the field or a car on a side road would suddenly hit the brakes. My sister and a neighbor used binoculars to get a better look as the elephant crossed the equivalent of a couple football fields before finding what lay at the opposite end from us: Maplewood Nursing Home.
Maplewood is a brick one-story structure consisting of four patient wings. As the elephant continued across the road and into the front lawn of the nursing home, she had to make a decision. Continue forward where the two wings of the building were now funneling her, or turn around into the arms of her captors. She chose to go forward, and then suddenly she was gone.
From where we stood, the elephant seemed to have just disappeared. But through the binoculars my sister could relay that the elephant had pushed her way through a window into one of the resident’s rooms. The trainers didn’t even pause before jumping through the hole in the wall after the elephant.
For a while there was calm on the streets, if you don’t count the growing number of people and cars that were swarming the area now that word was out an elephant was on the loose.
At the time we had no idea what was going on inside but imagined mayhem of all sorts. Somehow the elephant miraculously steered clear of injuring anyone, not even a heart attack or understandably scaring someone to death. After going into a room that was unoccupied because the residents were at lunch, Barbara turned and went down one hallway and then another. She was about to go into another resident’s room, that of Harley Hanick, 63, who was watching football on TV. According to the local newspaper, Hanick reported the event as only a colorful local could: “It sounded pretty near like a tornado, all that goddamn racket and all. I went to see just what the hell was going on and walked over to the door and then this elephant sticks its head in. I slammed that door pretty quick and changed her direction fast enough, you bet.”
From our point of view on the other end of the field, a couple of frightening minutes passed in which we imagined senior citizens being rudely awakened from their late morning naps and interrupted during the customary main event of the day, The Price is Right, before another shattering of glass signaled the elephant’s exit out a door at the end of one of the wings. Barbara continued her rampage down the street to the north, behind some trees and then out of sight.
The beleaguered trainers, certainly exhausted from their plight and risking their lives every step, followed the elephant down the street, pointing to people to stay away. So we did what any other reasonable person would do: We jumped in the car and took off after the circus parade.
Meanwhile, other circus workers were following with a second elephant, and in an empty lot a couple miles down the road, the elephants met up, allowing Barbara’s handlers to coax her into a truck to join her pachyderm pal.
I have to believe that nowadays this story would have had a much different ending. Like the dozens of exotic animals gunned down in Ohio after they were set free by their keeper, I imagine that in order to save the lives of innocent bystanders, the police (who were quickly on the scene but let the trainers round up the elephant their way) would have shot the elephant multiple times in front of all the elderly nursing home residents and locals who’d come out to witness the free show. But in fact, no one was hurt or killed by Barbara, and Barbara was allowed to leave the city without any charges being pressed.
To this day, a yellow-and-black Elephant Crossing sign can be found hanging on the wall of Maplewood Nursing Home. A statue of a little elephant marks the center of the building, from which the wings all radiate. And interspersed with large sepia toned photos of people from the area from the early 1900s are two framed newspaper articles of the one day in 1977 when Barbara came for a visit.
The incident left an elephant-sized impression on my four-year-old mind. Over the years I have thought of Barbara often enough that it’s not really the incident itself I remember but previously recalled memories of it, with additions and subtractions made from other witness’s memories and newspaper accounts. Yet the feeling I had that day has never left me. Even now, on warm summer mornings when the wind blows just right, I swear it smells like “elephant weather” to me.
Sign on the nursing home wall
An elephant statue reminds residents of Barbara's visit.