Monday, March 18, 2013

Samson never knew his mother.

For nearly two years he grew inside of her, as is customary for African elephants. Shortly before he was to be born, however, his mother was culled by hunters.

As they stripped skin from her immobile but still breathing carcase, one of them noticed the baby kick within the muscles of her abdomen. He was reacting to the pain she was feeling. Pain of never seeing her child. Pain of having muscle cut from her body in its final moments on earth. Quickly the hunters sliced at her belly to free the unborn baby. Today's prize would be great. The product of the dead mother to sell, the token of a live baby to trade.

It took three of the hunters all the strength they could muster to drag the infant from the cavity of it's much larger mother. Two of the others kept watch as elephants with offspring are usually well protected by the heard. This one must have been left behind by the others, possibly abandoned at the sound of approaching danger. Either way, the same force used to drop his mother to the ground was now put to work lifting the baby to his feet. When she saw him stand on his own for the first time, his mother closed her eyes for the last.

Black smoke belched from the tailpipe of the military surplus Mack Bulldog as the hunters hoisted the slabs of elephant meat wrapped in oil cloth onto the truck's flatbed. The tiny elephant, now tethered by rope tied around his neck, stood trembling. One of the men used a tin plate to collect breast milk from his mother's body and tried to feed it to him. Not yet knowing how to drink, the milk trickled down the baby elephant's chin and fell to the ground. The smell of the milk baking in the afternoon sun attracted a surplus of flies who joined the ones already drawn by the smell of the afterbirth caked onto the the baby's skin.

Using two tree trunks as a makeshift stretcher, the elephant was lifted into the truck bed. For stability during the bumpy ride he was tied from each shoulder to the stake-body rails along each side of the truck. One of the hunters remarked, while carefully placing the blood stained ivory tusks into the truck cab, how the tiny baby looked like the Biblical Samson tied to the temple columns, too weak to free himself, yet inside possessing an unrealized holy strength.

Three hours later, as the sun set, Samson heard his first children's laughter. They had gathered to see him, confined in a horse stable, being tended to by a groom who used a hollow piece of bamboo to direct goat milk into his mouth. He looked at their teeth, brilliant white against dark skin, and wondered when he would learn to laugh as they did. Two days later, with a greater ability to walk, Samson was lead into a train car with straw on the floor. There he would rest, hungry and alone in darkness for a day as the train wound its way to the coast.

From there he was placed in a steel cage without bedding. A crane lifted the container high into the air, then set it down inside of a steamship cargo hold. There he would stay for a week, being fed only palm leaves and yellow water. The air around him was damp and cold. It grew stale during the trip. He developed an infection in his lungs. The lack of time with his mother's nutrition left him woefully incapable of fighting off disease. By the end of the journey he suffered from dysentery as well. The ship's crew stopped bringing water and food to his cage because of the waste that spilled onto the floor around him.

Upon docking at its destination, the steamship cargo hold doors were opened, casting sunshine and fresh air onto the face of the nearly dead Samson. Again his cage was lifted into the air, then set down on the worn wood of the docks. Noise was all around him, workers yelled while pulling on ropes. He lifted his tiny trunk to smell the salty warm air. Inhaling the fresh air deeply, he began to cough and gag, spewing phlegm from his infirm lungs. He coughed until the spasms caused him to vomit what little still remained inside of him. As he struggled to catch his breath, he felt a hand on his face. It felt cold against his fevered brow. Weakly he opened his eye. He saw a man who looked back at him with great concern, reaching through the bars of the small cage just to touch and comfort tiny Samson.

Samson closed his eye and lost consciousness.

When he awoke, sounds of birds filled the air. Beneath him was soft straw. He lifted his trunk and smelled something familiar. He opened his eyes and there before him stood another elephant. When he stirred and tried to stand, the other one, much larger than Samson, came over and placed her trunk on his shoulder, forcing him to stay down. Then she stroked his ear, soothing him back to rest. A cool breeze came through an opening in a wood paneled wall behind him, and he drifted off to sleep.

The next day, instead of forcing him to stay down, Samson was encouraged to stand by the other elephant. Once he did, she turned her side to him. Using her trunk, she nudged him closer, guiding his mouth to her teat. There she held him until he began to suckle. His aching belly filled with the sweet liquid. It made him sleepy. Then, as before, the larger elephant's truck guided him back to his spot in the straw. He lay down and fell fast asleep. The larger elephant remained watching at his side.

Over time, Samson grew under the cautious eye of his ersatz mother. She taught him how and when he should do everything. It seemed divine providence had put them together, the orphan child, the mother in mourning. Together through death, they found a reason to live. The Spimantrio family gave them a reason to perform.

Louis Spimantrio was a cobbler in Dolo, Italy, a small town near Venice. He was not happy as a shoe maker. He had little choice as it was his father's profession, as well as his father's father. Louis lamented how some men are born to be king, but he was born to make shoes. On Christmas eve, 1858, Louis closed his tool bag at the end of the work day in time to make the half mile walk to his parents house for dinner. On the way he stopped in a dram shop where he met a beautiful woman named Ieza, and her associates who were performers with a traveling circus.

They had stopped for one toast before starting their performance tour for the new year. Louis did not make it to his parents house that night. At 7:30, when he was a half hour late, his father looked out the window of his house to look for his son on the street below. He had no idea the train whistle he heard in the distance was the last he would ever know of him. Louis and Ieza fell madly in love. They consummated their feelings on the train that night as it headed north toward Austria. Joseph, the man who would found the Spimantrio Family Circus, was conceived on that first night. His son, Alphonso, would be the one who purchased Samson by telegram for the circus some sixty years later.

The Spimantrio Family Circus was a charmingly ethnic and bohemian extravaganza. There was no need for a freak show tent as the freaks seemed to be woven throughout the performances. Each member was a unique specimen, a show unto themselves. With the turning of the century, they relocated, leaving the old peeling paint of Europe behind. The gleaming and gilded streets of America was their new home. Fernandia Port, Florida, their new headquarters.

By 1931, Samson had joined the circus performances. He, along with the ten other African elephants made up the so called Pachyderm Parade, an elegant feather boa festooned march with the elephants stepping in time, bringing thunderous vibrations to the ground below their feet equal to that of an army of 10,000 men. At times the vibrations were so violent, spectators would be thrown from their benches to embarrassed laughter from the crowd.

During one such performance, it was a small child shaken loose from her seat. She tumbled headlong toward the dirt and sawdust of the performance area. Her mother's screams inaudible, made mute by the raucous band nearby. With each pound of elephant foot, she came closer to the path of the animals. Rolling slowly, a few people in the bleachers now saw the child, calculated her path in their minds, and started screaming when they realized in moments she would likely be trampled.

Samson saw it too. Calmly as he marched, ignoring the scrambling masses next to him, he released his truck from the tail of the elephant in front of him and kept moving in step with the others. When the moment was right, he swung his trunk down, gently wrapping it around the small child. Effortlessly he lifted her to safety and placed her on his shoulders, near his right ear where she quickly took hold. A smile careened across her face while the crowd cheered and the elephants continued to march.

Samson stopped moving only when the act was complete and each of the elephants stood in a circle facing outward toward the crowd. He tilted his head slightly to make sure the little girl had an easy time balancing. When the ringmaster approached, flanked by an elephant trainer and the young girl's mother, Samson reached around with his trunk. Eyes and faces gasped, hands stretched outward in fear. Then, just as before, he gently cupped the child and picked her up, placing her slowly into the mother's arms before him.

Flash bulbs began to pop as the ringmaster spoke with the trainer. He stepped in front of the side of the trainer where he wore a distinctly heavy .45 caliber Webley British revolver, hiding it from the cameras. What was a hushed conversation about how glad they were to have resolved the situation without having to shoot one or more of the elephants, became instructions for the trainer to step aside and disappear from sight.

The ringmaster's red tail coat with black velvet lapel and oiled beaver skin top hat appeared in stark, glorious contrast to the mottled gray skin of Samson under the bright arc lights of the circus big top.Reporters lined up to take their turn photographing the smiling child, her tearful mother, the boisterous ringmaster, and the hero Samson. Overnight, with the help of radio, newspapers, and word of mouth, he became the most famous pachyderm in captivity.