Journal of Prevarication
By Jim Cook
Official State Liar of Arizona
They tore down the old Mortise house in Peoria last week, erasing another rich nugget of Arizona history. Real estate agents who had tried to sell the old relic called it a “white elephant,” coming closer to the truth than they knew.
They say that in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, a circus came to a small town in western New York. A farmer named Ben drove his horse and wagon to town because Ben had always wanted to see an elephant.
The circus parade spooked the horses. They bolted, spilling the wagon, Ben, and his vegetables all over the road. No matter, Ben said. He had seen the elephant.
“Seeing the elephant” became a metaphor for adventurers. Cowboys who trailed the big herds out of Texas said it didn’t matter that they lost all their wages in the fleshpots of Dodge; they had seen the elephant.
From the California gold rush of ’49 until the Nome rush in 1901, prospectors came home broke, but they had seen the elephant.
The elephant looms large in our dreams. About 1949, a one-elephant circus came to Flagstaff by train. I had read that it was the custom for boys to help unload and set up the circus so that they could get in free.
My brother Dean, a friend and I showed up in the freight yards at dawn. We worked our butts off helping a sleazy crew set up the little show in city park, in exchange for tickets in the cheap seats.
We had seen the elephant, and one flea-bitten tiger to boot.
I have made my living with words and phrases, and recently I heard two on-air personalities mix useful metaphors, an egregious offense, and a waste of a metaphor.
They talked of the “white elephant in the room.”
The elephant in the room is the problem that no one talks about– a parent’s alcoholism, for instance.
A white elephant is a horse of a different color. White elephants are considered sacred in parts of southeast Asia. They cannot be used for useful work, and they must be pampered. They are high-maintenance.
If the king of Siam wanted to bankrupt a rival, he gave him a gift of a white elephant, and the rival was stuck with it.
Today, a white elephant usually means something you can’t even sell at a yard sale, or an old relic like the Mortise house in Peoria.
Harold “Rigger” Mortise was a circus worker. But when the show he worked for came to Phoenix in 1937, he decided he was tired of traveling. He bought a small farm near Peoria. He had been raised on near Peoria, Illinois, and he decided this gave a cosmic symmetry to his new life.
However, the circus owner refused to pay Rigger all of his back wages. So the next time the circus passed through Phoenix, Harold kidnapped a baby elephant.
He hid the elephant in the spare bedroom of his tidy brick farmhouse.
Now, the point of the metaphor about an elephant in the room is that no one talks about it. But Riggers’ wife, Marge, talked incessantly about the elephant in the room and how dare he, etc., etc.
Marge was an ardent mountain climber, and she soon left Rigger in a fit of peak.
Indeed, it was quite a chore for Rigger to feed the elephant, and cleaning up after it was a never-ending task. However, Rigger’s garden benefited from copious doses of fertilizer. Rigger grew very fond of the animal, which he named Pinky.
Pinky soon turned grey, however, which reminds me of an elephant joke from my adolescence:
Q: What’s red and white on the outside and grey on the inside?
A: A can of Campbell’s Cream of Elephant soup.
Pinky began to grow. Rigger drank a lot after Marge left him, and at times, Pinky really looked pink in the late afternoon light.
It finally penetrated Rigger’s soaked mind that Pinky had grown too large to go through the door by which he had entered the house.
About that time, some friends of mine in Camp Verde were facing a similar problem: They had captured a bear cub and put him in a chicken house, failing to anticipate the problems of dealing with a full-grown bear.
Rigger tried to keep his elephant secret, but that is not an easy thing to do. His neighbors shunned him, and when he walked down Peoria’s two-block-long main street, no one would talk to him. Rigger started doing his shopping in far-off Glendale.
Pinky grew so tall that he could scratch his back on the ceiling. Rigger had to leave the door open so there’d be room for Pinky’s trunk in the hall.
Rigger was in despair. But as we so often learn, if you ignore an elephant in the room long enough, it will leave, one way or another.
One day a large lizard crawled down the hallway and tried to climb into Pinky’s left nostril.
Pinky left the room, taking two walls with him. He was last seen heading in the general direction of Buckeye.
Rigger sobered up and joined the Nazarene Church. He rebuilt his house, but he didn’t get it quite right. A man might be happy in that old house, but a woman would always notice that the curtains didn’t hang straight on trapezoidal walls.
Real estate agents could talk among themselves about “the white elephant” without having to explain which property they meant.
The old Mortise house was razed last week to make room for a new Thai restaurant.