By Don Kenton Henry
The scene unfolded as Argo, The Strong Man, went looking for Bertha, the Fat Lady. The Fells-Floto Circus was camped on the banks of the Colorado River, just east of Austin, as it was each September during its six-day run. Argo rounded the corner exiting the arcade strip and walked past the Deep Fried Oreo booth when he ran into Curley, The Bearded Lady. “Say, Curley, have you seen Bertha?”
“No, Argo, I haven’t.”
“Well, no one has seen her since last evening―which seems odd. As you know―she’s a little hard to miss! I need to talk to her about something.”
Just then they heard a commotion coming from the animal tent fifty yards ahead. A crowd of circus performers and roustabouts were gathered around the entrance. Argo and Curley jogged ahead to see the source of the morning gathering.
“What’s up?” Argo asked one of the carnies just inside the tent.
“One of the elephants died during the night inside the pen . . . and in a most peculiar position. He collapsed straight down with his legs splayed! One of the handlers told me they usually die on their side. It was Ernie. A young pachyderm in his prime. The circus vet is trying to determine why he died.”
Argo and Curley pushed their way through the onlookers to the edge of Ernie’s pen. The vet was performing a close inspection of Ernie’s eyes. They could overhear him saying to the ringmaster, “Based on the massive amount of ruptured capillaries, I suspect a stroke or possibly a severe heart attack. But it will take an autopsy to be certain. If we want that, we should have him transferred to the nearest veterinarian college. Where would that be?”
“Texas A&M in College Station,” said one of the handlers.
“Well, let’s get headquarters on the phone and see if they want to authorize that. And someone advise the head animal trainer he’ll be one elephant short for tonight’s performance.”
The call was placed, authorization was granted and a big rig with flatbed, small crane and lift was brought in to extricate Ernie from the tent. He would be hoisted on the flatbed and transferred to the veterinary college. The carnies were sent looking for the animal trainer as they were certain he would want to accompany Ernie on his one hundred mile “last ride”.
Argo, and most of the performers involved with the animals stood in a quiet state of mourning as chains were fastened around Ernie’s head so he could be elevated to a point a harness could be inserted around his midsection. Once the harness was attached by a chain to the crane, he could be hoisted onto the flatbed. Argo rested his massive forearms on the top rail of elephant corral and watched the process. He was greatly saddened to see such a magnificent and massive creature (which reminded him of himself) reduced to cargo for transporting. Then again, he supposed there was no delicate way to move seven tons of motionless meat, no matter how emotionally attached to it one might be.
Ernie seemingly came to life as his huge, magnificent head was raised. His trunk swung side to side and Argo anticipated he would emit a mighty trumpet at any moment. Instead, the attending audience let out a collective gasp followed by shrieks of horror. As Ernie floated higher his splayed legs came together and his chest rose off the ground. The spectator’s eyes widened and their mouths dropped in unison. There, beneath Ernie, was Bertha the Fat Lady. Face down. All knew it was Bertha because six hundred pounds of gelatinous white lady could only be the second biggest thing in the circus next to Ernie. And that was Bertha. To make the scene all the more bizarre and beyond belief was the equally undeniable and uncomfortable observation that she was naked as a jay bird! Now how does a six hundred pound naked lady get under a fourteen thousand pound elephant was the question all inquiring minds present at the scene were asking themselves. They looked about in each other’s eyes and asked that same question without saying a word. Crickets.
After what seemed an eternity, the veterinarian spoke and said what was also on everyone’s mind. “We’re gonna need a second crane. . . . Oh yeah, and another phone call. This one to 911 and a coroner. Elephants are part of my job description but naked fat ladies flattened by them are not!”
Word spread quickly and the crowd grew ever larger. All came to gawk and, with their cell phones, take selfies―seemingly photo bombed by Ernie suspended over Bertha―as they awaited the arrival of Austin homicide. A twitter went out, “Brave new Fells-Floto circus act falls flat on Fat Lady. – #CircusSmore
Someone obviously tipped a news crew as a van from KVUE TV arrived just behind a series of patrol cars from Austin HPD. The crews immediately went to work filming as much of the scene as they could for a live feed before the police cordoned off the scene with yellow tape. Argo wondered if it was premature to deem it a crime scene or was it simply a tryst between two consenting large circus performers gone terribly wrong?
With the scene secured, the police stayed on the perimeter while the cameramen uploaded images of the breaking news coverage that had as many of the people in central Texas riveted to their television sets as during the Kennedy assassination a couple hundred miles up the road half a century earlier. And this mystery might be as difficult to solve as the former. Surely Director Oliver Stone would want a piece of this action!
Eventually, an unmarked, black SUV arrived and slowly maneuvered its way through the crowd to the yellow tape. Out stepped a statuesque man in a gray Silver-Belly Stetson and black, spit-shined Lucchese boots. He was unmistakable to the news crew. It was Detective Bonham Cartwright, Austin’s preeminent homicide detective, whose image had graced the cover of Texas Monthly magazine more times than Governor George Bush and Lady Bird Johnson combined. In typical fashion he slowly strode, dipped just under the yellow tape and drew himself up, processing what he saw. “What do you see here, Detective Cartwright? Is this a murder scene?” asked a pretty young female member of the news crew while thrusting a microphone over the tape in the direction of Cartwright’s set and rigid jaw. After a long moment of silence, he drawled in his thick East Texas accent, “Not unless you know someone strong enough to throw an elephant on top of a Fat Lady . . . young lady.”
“I’m quoting you on that, Detective!” she squirmed with delight, beaming as though she had caught a big scoop.
“You do that, Missy,” said Cartwright without so much as turning to face her. “Let’s get some photos,” he said to the rest of his team. “Then let’s get these two love birds outta here and give them what little bit of dignity an absurd situation like this will allow.” The Travis County Coroner arrived and agreed this was the appropriate course of action as there was not much he could determine until he got Bertha back to the morgue and on a slab except that―he stated―”It doesn’t take someone with a medical license to determine it is difficult for anyone to breathe under a seven-ton elephant!”
“I’m quoting you on that!” shouted the news anchor.
The photos were taken and police video recorded. All this none too early as the two decedents were getting a little gamey in the hot Texas sun as noon approached. Already in an apparent state of decomposition, our two performers began emitting the most noxious odors accompanied by equally offensive sound effects.
“Ppppfffftttt . . .!” went Bertha.
“Brrrruuuupppptttt . . .!” went Ernie.
“Gaawwwddd, almighty!” went Detective Bonham Cartwright.
At this point, all but the most professional of the homicide squad withdrew to a safe distance. Once Ernie was safely squared away on the flatbed it was decided a crane would only be used as a backup, if necessary, to get Bertha on a stretcher. Or perhaps two stretchers. Instead, ambulance workers, with the assistance of a few police officers along with Argo (who was enlisted from the audience) gathered around her and reluctantly wrestled for a safe handhold. None to be found, they settled for what they could get and, on a count of three, lifted her as one. That’s when the other shoe dropped.
“Well . . . sheeeeiiiitttt! If that don’t beat all!” Standing back about ten feet from Bertha and the boys, the normally quiet and poker faced Detective Bonham Cartwright took off his Stetson and said, “It looks like Bertha was just the cream in the Oreo! Who is the naked, little twit with the riding crop and pith helmet under her?”
The rest of the crowd could be heard gasping, “Well . . . . sheeeeiiiitttt!”
“That would be Valentino, the head animal trainer,” said one of the roustabouts. “That’s why we couldn’t find him!”
“Looks like we got us a ‘Menagerie a trois’ here, boys!” said Cartwright with uncharacteristic enthusiasm.
“It looks as though Don Juan has cracked his whip for the last time!” reported the intrepid news anchor.
The KVUE broadcast was picked up by all the National Evening News channels and “Little Missy” eventually won an Emmy for her “fearless” coverage of the incident. The next of kin were notified of the unfortunate demise of their loved ones and Little Missy attempted to interview all. Ernie’s relatives in India could not be reached for comment. Bertha’s parents asked that in lieu of flowers donations be made directly to Nutrisystem to the attention of Marie Osmond. As for Valentino, his only living next of kin was his widow, Sheena, the former Fells-Floto “Sword Swallower”. Her interview was conducted by telephone at her location on the set in Las Angeles where she was pursuing her new career in porn at the behest of her Ear Nose and Throat specialist. When confronted with the circumstances she exclaimed, “Wow! An elephant! That gives me a great idea for a script!”
“I’m going to quote you on that, Sheena!” squealed Little Missy.
One year later . . . news leaked that Sheena’s screenplay, “Dumbo Does Dallas” was in the process of coming to the silver screen. That’s when boycotts by PEOPLE FOR THE ETHICAL TREATMENT OF ANIMALS brought filming to a screeching halt.