My Birthday Elephant
By James E. McEldowney

Do you like birthday parties? I'll guess you never did what Barbara did on her third birthday. I'll give you a hint. Have you ever fed an elephant? - no, not just an oversize person, but a flesh and blood elephant?

When Barbara was only two months old I had to go to far off India. I didn't get to hold her in my arms when she was a baby like most fathers do. Her mother, Ruth, would write and tell me how she was growing and how much I was missing. In one of her letters she said, "Barbara is still the most loving child. When I pick her up she will put her arms around me and pat my shoulder." Her sister Betty Ann and her brother, Philip, loved her very much. In the same letter Ruth wrote that she heard Philip say to Betty Ann, "When she is older we must tell her what a sweet baby she was." Her first birthday came and still I was far away.

Like all little girls she learned to walk and would sing to herself. I missed all that. Ruth wanted me to know how fast she was growing. She would write more about her than about the other children. That was because I had been with them as they grew up but couldn't be with Barbara.

Then Ruth got a telephone call one day from the Mission Board Office in New York. "The Gripsholm, a mercy ship, will take passengers to India. There may not be another chance for six months. Can you leave Shenandoah tomorrow?" At first she said "no." but when she told her sister, Margaret, Margaret said, "You should go. Forget the house. I'll take care of that. Phone Father. He'll come and help you pack and Virgil (her husband) and I will take you to the train in Red Oak." Ruth didn't see how she could possibly get the children ready for India in just one day. Then she thought, Jim (that's I) needs to see Barbara and Barbara needs to see her father. I think I'll go! So she phoned New York and said she would go. What a rush it was but at last she was on the way.

In Chicago she stopped overnight with her sister Miriam. The next morning when the family went to catch the train to New york, Ruth almost lost Philip. Mariam had gone with the family as far as the elevated railway. She and Ruth were talking lickety split and didn't see the train that was headed in the wrong direction stop. Philip thought it was their train. All at once Betty Ann ran up to Ruth and said, "Philip got on that train." Ruth ran over to it just as the doors closed and the train started. She saw Philip standing inside. She ran along side the train and called out. "Stop the train." A soldier saw Ruth point to Philip. He ran to where the engineer was running the train and called out, "Emergency." So the train stopped. The doors were opened and Ruth rescued Philip. Whatever would have happened if she had lost Philip on the way to India?

Well, most of the time Barbara held on to Ruth's skirts. She was shy and she wondered what was happening. That was nothing compared to all that happened when she got on the big ship to go to India. Have you ever been on a big ocean ship? It is so big the rooms are like hotel rooms and there are many of them. Outside the rooms there are walkways around the ship that are like walking a whole block. And there were many strange people. Barbara didn't leave Ruth's side often but sometimes she went with Betty Ann and Philip to the playground on the boat. Do you know how long she was on the ship? You get tired after riding five or six hours in a car. But India was far away. There is ever so much water in the ocean. Imagine riding a whole week! She wanted to get off the boat after the first week but the boat was out in the middle of the ocean. She wanted off the boat even more at the end of the second week. Well, it wasn't until the end of four weeks on the boat she reached India.

You would think I would be waiting in Bombay, India, for the boat. But no, it was wartime and I was not permitted to go to meet the boat. How terribly disappointed I was. But in a few days I had a letter from Ruth written after they arrived in Bombay. She told me they had tickets to Jabalpur and would be coming soon. You may be sure I was down at the railway station waiting when the train arrived. I had told others she was coming so there were many people waiting when the train stopped and they got off.

Betty Ann came running and threw her arms around me. Philip had been only three when I last saw him so he wasn't so sure who I was, but when Betty Ann ran to me, he knew, and came and what a hug he gave me. Ruth and Barbara were the last to see me. Of course Barbara didn't know me because she was only two months old when I saw her last. She held Ruth's hand and Ruth told her, "Here is your daddy." Barbara looked and looked at me and finally gave me her hand and I picked her up and kissed her. Once more our family were together in India. How good it was.

Well, India is much different than America. Our house was different. India is much warmer. Indian children dressed differently and their skin was not white but brown. But the children on the campus, where we lived, were happy to see her. Now and then I heard one or another of them say, "Is she a little girl or a small old woman?" Children in India have black hair and beautiful brown eyes. Barbara had blond hair, almost white, blue eyes, and her skin was very white. When I took Barbara on my bicycle, often people would stare at her. They had not seen a little girl with white hair before.

About the time of her second birthday I had to be away from Jabalpur for a few days. By that time Barbara and the other children romped and played out on the campus by day and were tired enough to sleep well at night. Then one night when they were getting ready for bed, Philip went into the bathroom and he quickly came out calling to Ruth, "Mother, there's a snake in the bathroom." Ruth didn't know whether he was trying to scare her, like he sometimes did, but she carefully looked into the bathroom. Right there on the floor was a cobra, a large Indian snake. All the children were right behind her because they were afraid to be alone. Ruth said, "What should I do? I will go get a student to come and kill the snake." And then she turned to the children and said, "Now you stay right here at the door and watch the snake. See that it doesn't come into the bedroom." Together the children said, "No, no, we won't stay here without you." So they all went and called a student. He came and saw that the snake was still there. Where was Ruth and the children? In another room where they would be safe. And that was the reason none of them could tell me how the student killed the snake. but he did. Soon he called to them, "Now I have killed the snake and put it outside," Betty Ann said, "Maybe another snake will come in." The student said, "No, I found the place it got in and I have fixed it so no other snake can come in." Yes, Barbara found out that India was quite different than Iowa.

One day right after our noon meal Barbara said, "I have a tummy ache." We took her out to an open porch where her bed was so she could lie down. Ruth left her a few minutes and then went back to see how she was. She called out to me, "Come quick. Barbara is terribly sick." I ran to her side and sure enough Barbara was unconscious. "We must get her to a hospital right away," I told Ruth. "But how?" Ruth asked. I couldn't take her on my bicycle and we didn't have a car. The only way was to go by tonga. A tonga is something like a small taxi, only it is pulled by a horse. I said to Betty Ann, "Go out to the road and see if there is a tonga in sight. Get it and bring it here right away." Betty Ann ran off and in a minute she came back. She had seen another missionary, Kenneth Potee, just leaving the campus in his car. She had stopped him and told him our trouble. He came right to the porch and in a minute I gathered Barbara up in my arms and he drove as fast as he could to the hospital. It was four miles away, at the other end of the city. Right away the nurses took Barbara to a doctor who gave her an injection and some medicine. Half an hour later she opened her eyes. She was still very sick. So many little children with that stomach trouble die before they can get to a doctor. I took Kenneth's hand and said, "How cn I ever thank you for bringing her so quickly to the hospital." And we thanked the nurses and doctor who had saved her life.

Ruth stayed with her in the hospital and I came on home. That night when Phil, Betty Ann and I sat down to dinner, we missed Barbara and Ruth. When I prayed I not only thanked God for our food but I thanked Him for Kenneth Potee and that Barbara had gotten to the doctors in time. Two days later Barbara was able to come home. All of us agreed that we would be very careful not to eat anything that would make us sick.

Soon it was Christmas time and a missionary invited our family to spend Christmas with them. They lived far out in the center of a big jungle. A jungle is a place where trees grow close together and where wild animals live. One day while we were there all of us decided to climb a hill to a Hindu temple. It was not terribly far. While we were walking, Bob Marble, the missionary, told us, "Last night a girl from the girl's school came to my door. She was all excited and begged me to go with her to the girl's dormitory. I went, and when I got there I found that a large python had crawled into the girl's hostel room." The python is rather a harmless Indian snake until it gets very big. This one was only about ten feet long. "When I got close to it it made a hissing sound," and Bob hissed just like the snake. Bob was able to catch the snake and took it outside and let it crawl off under a tree.

We had gone up the hill and seen the temple and were on the way down when Bob suddenly stopped. He held out his arms to stop the rest of us, then he said, "Listen!" Sure enough off to one side we heard that hissing sound. Barbara was really scared and wanted me to hold her. Bob looked around and found a big stick at the side of the path. Then he took a couple of steps toward the jungle. Just then out jumped Philip with an impish smile on his face, laughing and jumping up and down. He had pretended to be the snake and he laughed and laughed because he really had fooled us.

There were lots of other things that happened before Barbara's third birthday. When the birthday drew near Ruth asked Barbara, "What children do you want to come to your birthday party?" She named some of them: Lily and Mabelle Immanuel, Selma, Iniat, and Zora Yusufji, and several of the children of students. On the 23d of October, Ruth had Betty Ann take Barbara off to the playground while she baked the birthday cake and decorated it. Then it was time for the party.

All the children came and they played their games and had lots of fun blowing out the candles on the cake. It was yummy. Then they heard a little bell ringing and a great big elephant came right up to our front door. All the children ran outside to see it. A man sat on the back of the elephant. His legs hung down right behind the elephant's ears. He was the "mahout," the driver of the elephant. On the back of the elephant was a little platform and hanging from one corner of it was a small ladder. Then we told the children, "The elephant has come to give all of you rides around the campus." Then he got off the elephant and fixed the ladder so the children could climb up and sit on the little platform. Six or seven of them could go at one time. Then the mahout got back on the elephant, turned it around and across the campus they went. When they came back another group of children took their turn and what a ride it was. Some of the professors saw what was happening. They wanted a ride, too. Dr. Edmond Soper, one of them, was over eighty years old. He and his wife Monica also wanted a ride, and of course Ruth and I took our turn as well.

Then it came time for the elephant to go home. But before it went we had to feed it. What fun that was. Betty Ann said, "Here is the rice," and she carried a bucket full of rice. Philip said, "Here is the brown sugar," and he had four cups of brown sugar in a pan. Barbara asked, "Why would an elephant want half a cup of salt?" and she stood with the salt in her hand. The mahout took all the food, mixed it together and put it in a larger pan and then the elephant used its trunk to pick up the food and put it in its mouth, just like elephants do. After it had eaten the food Barbara gave the mahout some money. Then the mahout stepped on the end of the elephant's trunk and the elephant lifted him around to the side and put him right on its shoulders. Barbara said, "This is the best birthday party I've ever had," and all of us agreed. The elephant went out through our front gate and up the road toward its home, and the campus children went back to their homes. [by James E. McEldowney, Spring 1997]

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