THE ELEPHANT

In the Civil War they called it ‘seeing the elephant’. If you had seen the elephant, you had been engaged in battle and were most likely bloodied. Elephants were huge back then and meaner than snakes: the battle of Antietam, fought near Frederick, Maryland in 1862 was a slaughter that claimed 3654 lives and another 17,292 wounded. Many of the wounded also died within weeks because battlefield medicine in that era was primitive and filthy. A year after Antietam in the battle of Gettysburg 7863 souls were lost and 27,224 soldiers were wounded. War was like that in those days – an all out do-or-die affair where men held passionate beliefs and confronted the elephant like men. Today the public wouldn’t stand for such appalling statistics. The last time they did was in Vietnam, but it was touchy even then, and we citizens eventually lost heart. But even out of those chaotic conditions, there were plenty of brave men who stood up to the elephant. A large number of them died in combat.

Between the Civil War and Vietnam the elephant still stood tall and was quick to trample. The three-day battle of Tarawa in WWII cost almost a thousand Marine lives, subjected Marine General Holland (Howlin’ Mad) Smith to no small amount of flak from the politicos, and earned Colonel David Shoup, future Commandant of the Marine Corps, the Congressional Medal of Honor for his courageous stand against virtually impossible odds. Many years later my DI in boot camp told us that his father died at Tarawa – and he’d never let us forget it. He didn’t. Iwo Jima was worse: 6800 men died in that month-long campaign. Then there was Korea and the debacle at the Chosin reservoir, in which 1029 lives were lost, many from freezing. The statistics may not be so grim now, but soldiers still must face the elephant and many yet now come out of the experience as men of nobility and honor.

If there is anything positive that can be said for the elephant it is that his rampages brought out the best in many people – their inherent selfless courage, their valor – that may have remained untested and unnoticed without the big guy. The Civil War brought to the fore men of honor like Joshua Chamberlain and Leopold Karpeles, and the other wars did, too, men who evoke heartfelt salutes from fellow soldiers to chiefs of state.

In peacetime there is no grand cause to move the gallant patriot to do or die. The elephant goes into hiding for the most part, but he can be found if one looks. Oftentimes one is lurking in the bushes in the vicinity of activities that involve an element of danger. As I intimate in Family of God, the Bible indirectly but forcefully expresses the presence of the elephant during Jesus’ hours in the Garden of Gethsemane and later on the cross, particularly since Jesus knew ages beforehand what He would suffer there and nevertheless went through the experience voluntarily.

Flying activities also qualify for the presence of the beast, including those made under the often marginal conditions associated with hang flight, where many a pilot has had to face up to a moment of truth and conquer his fear.

One might be tempted to scoff at any suggestion that this activity involves the exercise of nobility. After all, one might say, a noble cause is not involved, and the situations, while often demanding survival attitudes, don’t require the selfless courage of one individual putting his own life on the line to save that of a fellow combatant.

But there is indeed a cause, it is eminently noble and it involves the entire human race. Man has desired to fly for millennia, and here, finally, we have the means to do so. Every pilot on earth represents mankind in flight – a wondrous objective that endows all people, participants or not, with new meaning. Beyond that, I would contend that the ability to conquer fear demands a kind of selflessness, for I have never encountered a truly selfish person who possessed that ability. To the contrary, the bully is invariably a coward to boot.

Every hang glider pilot in the Northwest setting for my novel Rotor has had to face down at least one truly fearful situation. This assertion arises from the fact that hang gliding in the Northwest pretty much always involves jumping off cliffs, most of which exceed a thousand feet in height. I’d be willing to bet that not one potential but untried pilot in a thousand can think, while looking over the edge, that jumping off a thousand-foot cliff is a natural act. Instead, every adrenalin-soaked nerve in one’s body screams: No! This isn’t right!

Instructors don’t tell their students about the elephant on the cliff. The training hills are usually no more than thirty to fifty feet in height. That is as it should be, for the student population, miniscule to begin with, would diminish yet further if the learners were to be subjected to greater heights without achieving at least some measure of control over the frail and touchy craft, thus furnishing a modicum of accomplishment to supply a tad of confidence for the trial looming ahead.

A measure of control is certainly required. As with any skill, control requires practice. For the hang gliding novice, practice inevitably produces scrapes, bruises and pain. For those who are not immediately involved in the effort and even for some who are it is a hilarious sight, re-creating with awesome precision those dawn-of-aviation clips where the flying machine comes to a disastrous end. Grown men run out-of-control down the training slope, achieve a few precious milliseconds of flight and then stumble, forcing the pointy nose toward the sky until it stalls out and falls off on a wing, twirling around and kicking up dust. It happens to everyone with great regularity until about the tenth try, when the novice finally gets it, keeping the wing level and the nose down until his feet reach the ground and he comes to a running stop with man and wing intact. The man has achieved flight – perhaps a foot or two, but real flight; it is a wonderful experience. What follows is another series of training flights that involve the additional complexity of turns and a bit more height; these are usually accomplished with far less damage to man and craft. When the fledgling pilot has mastered the turns and landings, he is pronounced fit to fly. This means that he is now qualified to jump off the Big Hill. He feels a sense of pride and accomplishment, like he’s made his first solo in an airplane.

But his pride is tempered by a nagging dread, for he’s heard rumors. The instructors try to keep it under wraps but they never succeed in maintaining secrecy and he’s heard things about the Big Hill – that it’s really, really, BIG: big as an elephant.

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