Funnier Than Running Over an Elephant with a Train

March 7, 2010

Most of the time, my wife is a very sober, serious, responsible and compassionate person.

I don’t know whether what I am about to describe is an “alter” like the facets of David’s personality, but within her psyche is an extremely wicked person with a very sadistic sense of humor.

When our daughter was in high school, which was 30 years ago or so, one day she came home and casually told us about a science experiment gone awry at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Some how some mice had been placed in a centrifuge and mistakenly whirled at ten times the speed intended, and were essentially liquified. (I don’t know what the original goal was — perhaps to make them dizzy.) My wife started laughing hysterically, completely overcome at the image of the mice whirling madly to their death. My daughter, a gentle, kindly child, was horrified at her mother’s fiendish delight.

This aspect of Mrs. Random’s personality rarely emerges, but last night it leaped to the fore. I am reading a book about the history of The American Museum of Natural History to her. In a chapter about one of the greatest taxidermists, animal collectors, and exhibit creators in the museum’s history, Carl Akeley, it mentions that he first rose to prominence, when at the age of 19, he helped stuff and mount the remains of Jumbo, one of the largest elephants ever kept in captivity.

Jumbo had been kept in a zoo in England, but he was so large and formidable that the keepers became frightened of him. They sold him to P. T. Barnum, the great American circus impresario. (Jumbo’s relocation to the United States caused great uproar and outrage in England.)

Barnum exhibited Jumbo (with great success) for three years, but then the huge elephant was hit by a train in Canada and killed.

For reasons I can’t fathom, my wife (who actually loves elephants) was amused beyond belief by the idea of an elephant being struck by a train. As I read the one sentence summary of Jumbo’s end in the book, my wife was completely overcome with paroxysms of hysterical laughter. Something about an elephant being run over by a train struck her as unspeakably funny, starting with, “How can you miss an elephant on the railroad tracks?”

From there, she was on a roll. “How could they mount an elephant after it was run over by a train?” she managed to gasp. “It was probably flatter than a pancake. What was there left to exhibit?”

The actual story of Jumbo’s spectacular life and death (which I looked up today) is moving, unclear, and complex.

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4 Responses to “Funnier Than Running Over an Elephant with a Train”

  1. Norwichrocks Says:

    oh dear, I feel dreadfully sorry for Jumbo. And for the poor train driver. He probably did see the elephant but couldn’t brake in time. Dreadful. I expect he was haunted by the spectres of crushed pachyderms for the rest of his life…

    • modestypress Says:

      I will have to caution the students in my driver safety classes not to run into elephants. A train might be able to survive the experience. A sports utility vehicle, no matter how big and formidable, does not stand a very good chance.

  2. Pete Says:

    You have always made your wife sound a bit stoic, and I’m delighted to hear about her alter-ego. And you have to admit there is something amusingly odd about an elephant being hit by a train. I hit a bear with a toyota once, but it wasn’t NEARLY as funny.


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