No, that isn’t me. And no, that isn’t my pet elephant.
On the other hand, it could have been me and it could have been my elephant, or so I imagined as a toddler when a serious infatuation with Dumbo led me to run off to join the circus. I’d forgotten that sudden childhood impulse until I came across the story of Lilly and Isa, a pair of elephants who traveled years ago with the Carson & Barnes Circus.
I first heard of Lilly and Isa when I visited the circus’s winter quarters in Hugo, Oklahoma. As young elephants, they became famous for running away from the circus, not toward it. Still, there were similarities in our experience. Neither of us had a clear destination in mind when we decided to make a break for it, and neither of us had a real plan. We simply saw our chance and took it, hot-footing it down the road for all we were worth, determined to outrun our pursuers and evade capture. Lilly and Isa were more successful when it came to long-term evasion, but by the time it was over I suspect all three of us had decided that one escapade was enough.
On the day I effected my own escape, I was very young – old enough to outrun some adults but too young to be in school – and my memory of the day is no more than a few disconnected images – turning to taunt my mother, giggling at her frustration when she finally caught up with me, heaving clods of dirt from atop a construction-site fortress. I’m told there were tears and a bit of a pout after Mother marched me home and applied a few whacks to my bottom, but I don’t believe it. If there had been tears I surely would remember them. Today, only the giggles remain.
What I remember best is going as a family to our little theater on the town square and watching the Sunday matinee showing of Dumbo. Somehow, I came to believe that he and his circus were camped in our town, and I was determined to find them.
On Monday, while my less-than-usually-attentive mother busied herself at the clothesline, I wandered away from my sandbox to stand on the sidewalk and gaze toward the end of the block. “Where are you going?” she asked. I don’t remember answering, but many years later she told me I said, “Go see Dumbo”. By the time she looked up, I was in front of the neighbor’s house, heading east, and the chase was on.
I ran around the block, my route constrained by my knowledge that I never, ever was to cross the street. It took some time for my mother to catch up with me, constrained as she was by her own belief that a flat-out run would be unladylike. By the time we confronted each other, I was on top of a pile of dirt left over from a basement dig in the lot next to us and I was flinging clods of dirt with the enthusiasm of a pitcher who sees a scout in the crowd.
“What in the world’s gotten into you?” she said. At that point, the sheer audacity of throwing dirt at my mother began to overshadow my enthusiasm. “Get down here. Now!” I climbed down off the hill and the event was over.
At the supper table that evening, Daddy asked how the day had been. When I didn’t answer, he cast a quizzical eye at my mother. “Oh, Linda ran away to join the circus and find Dumbo, and ended up next door throwing dirt at me. But I don’t think she’s going to do that any more.” They both turned to look at me. I said not a word, but shook my head, “No”. I wasn’t going to do that again.
Isa and Lilly received their own version of a smack on the behind at the end of their great adventure. Whether this is Lilly or Isa I can’t say, but she certainly isn’t dead. She’s only having a little well-deserved nap, compliments of the tranquilizer dart that interrupted her flight. At this point, she’d confounded Oklahoma authorities for nearly three weeks, and her friend still was roaming the countryside.
The saga of Lilly and Isa began in Hugo on the very day Wade Burck arrived back at winter quarters with the elephants in tow. Writing in his blog, The Circus No-Spin-Zone, Wade tells what happened next.
“When we arrived in Oklahoma to water and off load the equipment that had been put in the truck to be returned to winter quarters, Isa and Lilly had pulled so hard on their chains they were “locked” through the ring and I couldn’t get them out. I off-loaded the other three [elephants] and put them on the picket line that had been strung between two semi tractors and took the chains off of Isa and Lilly and brought them out.
As I was putting new leg chains on them there was a loud crashing and banging as [workers] threw some tent poles out of the truck. The three elephants on the picket line screamed and lunged forward, jerking the bumpers off the two tractors the chain was attached to. The picket chain hit me in the back of the legs and knocked me down and in an instant it was “off to the races,” two elephants loose and three on the back leg chain dragging the bumpers, with me in hot pursuit.
We ran for about a half a mile and as they were running down a hill, one of the elephants on the picket line (Margaret) fell, and I was able to grab a bumper and a bit of chain and wrap it around a tree, securing them. As I rolled over and got back to my knees I looked up just in time to see Isa and Lilly’s butts as they went down a ditch, through a barb wire fence and across the interstate. That was the last time I saw either one of them, until about 15 years later, when they were all grown up.”
A few other people saw Isa and Lilly sprint off. One was truck driver Dixie Loter, a woman who’d made a career of driving elephants around for the fellow she always referred to as “Mr. Miller”. D. R. Miller happened to be the owner of the circus and its elephants, each of which was valued at about $10,000. Needless to say, he wanted his elephants back.
No one outside Hugo thought finding a couple of young elephants in the brush around Hugo Lake was going to be much of a problem. The locals knew better. With over a hundred miles of shoreline and acres of bottomland hardwood, the old hickory forest was thick and dense. As a member of the Corps of Engineers said at the time, “You could miss someone, even an elephant, standing 25 feet away.” Beyond that, the area contained enough poison oak, bois d’arc, copperheads and water moccasins to make searching difficult.
After a few days, Isa and Lilly still were missing and the Hugo Daily News announced a reward of $150 for anyone spotting the runaways. At that point, the town was overrun by folks who imagined finding a pair of elephants in Oklahoma would be easy money.
Perhaps to get away from the crowds, the Sheriff and his posse changed tactics and began following a trail that turned north off Highway 70, then west. Crossing Dry Creek, they saw elephant droppings, a trampled barbed-wire fence, signs of wallowing and trees that had been rubbed clean of bark. Greatly cheered by their discoveries, the sheriff intensified the search, but the elephants seemed to have vanished without a trace.
Throughout the process, experts of every stripe weighed in, and opinions on what was happening varied widely. Veteran animal trainer Bob Jenni, interviewed by The Daily Oklahoman a week or so after the elephants took off, said, “Like children lost in the woods, they would undoubtedly wander around and play at first before they realized they were lost. And then they probably would trumpet from a profound loneliness and insecurity.” On the other hand, Jenni admitted, they might not. “If left to themselves, they might not make any noise at all.”
Just when it seemed the town of Hugo would have to make do with a surfeit of elephant jokes rather than an elephant homecoming, the long hunt came to an end. After eighteen days of freedom, the girls were found and escorted back to their tent. They appeared to be unscathed, but keepers who were watching noted they seemed happier than usual with their canteloupes and sweet hay.
After visiting Hugo, hearing the story of Lilly and Isa and following the progress of retired elephants Rosie and Opal as they traveled to Maine for rehabilitation and care, I’d been determined to go back to Hugo to see the circus’s end-of-season performance.
Much to my surprise, a sign appeared in the window of a local restaurant in early April, announcing that the Carson & Barnes Circus would be performing in San Leon, a little bayside town only fifteen miles away. There would be no need for me to travel to see the circus. In one of those remarkable mountain-to-Mahoumet moments that make life interesting, the circus was coming to me.
I bought tickets online, then spent some time exploring the Carson & Barnes website. I was intrigued by aerialist Franchesca Cavallini, a young woman intent on pursuing a singing career in addition to her work with the circus. Her signature song, I Am The Circus, is part of every performance. I was pleased to see profits from her CDs being used to help support elephants through the Endangered Ark Foundation, but I was astonished to discover her circus performances of the song are done in the company of her favorite elephant – an elephant who just happens to be named Isa.
For days, I piled up questions, my eagerness to see the performance suddenly eclipsed by my desire to meet Isa. Could she be my young runaway, all grown up? Was she a daughter of the younger Isa I read about in the paper? If not, why were there two Isas? And was Lilly with her?
On the day of the performance, it wasn’t hard to find Isa. She was with her keeper and trainer in her own fenced-off area, happily munching on hay. Threading my way through the small crowd, I came up to the fence and asked the fellow, “Is that Isa?” He allowed as it was. “Is she the same Isa who ran away with Lilly back in the 70’s?” That got his attention. “You know about that?”
I explained that I’d been to Hugo and had heard some old stories, including the one about the Great Escape. He laughed, then told me the younger Isa had retired, and the elephant currently named Isa is no relation. In fact, the majority of Asian elephants in the Carson & Barnes circus are named after circus family members. When D.R. Miller purchased a string of baby Asian elephants from India, the first was named after his wife, Isla Marie. The rest were named after her sisters: Isa, Margaret, Viola, Alta, Lilly and Opal. An exception was made for the latest baby, who was named, appropriately enough, Hugo.
Completely entranced, I stood looking at Isa, a bit of circus history on the hoof. She seemed perfectly placid, perfectly at ease. Her trunk swung gently over the pile of fresh hay in front of her as she shifted her weight just slightly from one foot to another.
“You’ve got awfully tiny eyes,” I said. She turned at the sound of my voice and gave me the once-over. “You know they twinkle, don’t you?” She raised her trunk in assent. “You know, Isa,” I said, “I think you and I could go places”.
I swear I saw her smile.