by Marcus McGee
Copyright © 2015 by Marcus McGee. All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
HOW TO EAT AN ELEPHANT
The Secret for How Ordinary People Can Accomplish Extraordinary Things
I had never met a real live billionaire before. It was almost surreal. Billionaires are the modern day kings and queens of the earth. Outwardly, they may look like the rest of us, but they are who they are because they, like true kings, know how to go about things, and they are never intimidated by the prospect of greatness.
Two weeks ago, I got a call from a woman who told me I had been selected to write a story for her employer, a man by the name of Pericles Agamemnon Smith. I had never heard of him, but I accepted the job because I really needed the money at the time. It wasn’t until I started researching that I found out about his incredible wealth. He wasn’t just a billionaire. The man had at least thirty billion dollars that the IRS knew about and probably an equal amount spread about the world in foreign enterprises.
Needless to say, I was a little intimidated at the prospect of interviewing him, but I was equally intrigued. I couldn’t help but wonder how a person could amass so much wealth in a single lifetime. According to what I turned up, Mr. Smith was born to a very ordinary family in the obscure town of Pine Bluff, Missouri. He wasn’t a standout in high school or college in any way. His grades were average, he rode a rickety Schwinn bicycle to and from classes and he was the fourth alternate on the chess team.
He was never popular with the girls and he went to the prom only because his uncle paid his cousin, Martha, to go with him. He went to three years of college at a two-year school and dropped out after one semester at Bowling Green. And yet he went on to become one of the richest men in the world, all on his own. I couldn’t fathom it. How? I thought.
I was able to find volumes of information about him on the Internet and elsewhere. There were articles and stories about his philanthropy, his holdings and his world adventures, but through it all, I was unable to glean a single explanation about how he had earned his wealth. And that was because he had never told anyone, as far as I could tell.
As the interview time with him approached, I determined I would ask him the one question it seemed no one else had thought to ask. It isn’t often that an ordinary writer gets to sit down with a billionaire, so I did my homework. I was briefed and ready. I was going to tell the world-at-large how the diminutive Pericles Agamemnon Smith had gone from the ordinary to the extraordinary in the span of a man’s short years. I wanted to discover the secret to his success. Little did I know it would be the story of my life!
I agreed to meet Mr. Smith at a warehouse in Emeryville, just outside San Francisco. I didn’t question why a billionaire was asking me to meet him in a warehouse in a town known more for its mudflats than for newcomer Pixar Studios, a town Earl Warren called “the rottenest city on the West Coast,” though I wasn’t sure why his assistant insisted that I bring along a heavy coat. I live in California—I didn’t own one.
A driver in a black limousine met me at the gate, let me in and conducted me to the luxurious coach of a stretch Rolls Royce, complete with a computer war room, a full wet bar and Mr. Smith’s beautiful assistant, Sasha. She smiled as I settled in, motioning toward a heavy overcoat in the seat across from me.
“You seemed a little hesitant when I asked if you had a coat.”
“It’s sixty-five degrees outside,” I ventured, shrugging. “Will I really need that?”
She leaned toward me, smelling of a warm, spicy perfume.
“A word of advice: opportunity is knocking. The world sees him as eccentric, but you’ll do well to listen carefully to every word he says today. He’s never shared this with anyone else.”
Suddenly, I could feel the weight of the moment pressing me against the seatback. I had heard he was eccentric, bordering on certifiable, but I had always been one to make up my own mind. I thought then, as I sat there, that maybe he would fly me to Antarctica or to some other godforsaken frozen clime to make some odd point. I’ll admit it; I was a little nervous.
However, the limousine did not go to the nearby International Airport. Instead, it rolled up to the door of a large shipyard warehouse, right on the water. There was a huge ocean liner moored in a dock adjacent to the building, next to a giant unloading rig.
The driver escorted me to the door, shook my hand and wished me luck. I had almost entered the building when I heard Sasha’s low voice behind me.
“You almost forgot this,” she whispered, holding the coat out to me. “Maybe you are not the right person for this job, after all.”
Her words still in my ears, I eased into the building, overcoat clumsily draped over my forearm. I felt stupid for forgetting the coat, but I was nervous. Bowing my head, I focused on my breathing to calm myself.
When I saw him, Mr. Smith that is, I was surprised at how small he seemed, and yet I sensed a fire burning inside him, radiating in his gut and behind his eyes.
“Hello, young man. As you no doubt have surmised, my name is Pericles Agamemnon Smith, but you can call me Mr. Perry. Sit down, please.”
His office was ordinary. There were bookshelves, a desk and an outdated computer. The space wasn’t particularly clean, but it seemed organized, from the way the books were placed on shelves to the forms and models on the desk. Looking over, I could see a dossier before him, with a recent picture of me on the cover. I smiled, bowing my head slightly in deference.
“Thank you so much for this incredible opportunity, Mr. Perry. But if you don’t mind me asking: of all the writers in the world you could have chosen for this, how is it that you chose me?”
He smiled, his face winkling from his eyes to his temples.
“That’s easy. I’ve done my homework on you, and you, my boy, show some promise.”
I was more than flattered: one, that he thought enough of me to check up on me; and two, that he thought I showed promise. My moment of elation, however, was short-lived.
“But mere promise don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world. I had you come out here because I wanted to know if you were capable of doing something extraordinary.”
I was confused.
“I’m sorry, Sir, but I thought you called me out here to interview you. I thought I was going to write a story about you. I had some questions I wanted to ask.”
“You can do whatever you wanna do, ask me whatever you wanna ask,” he said. “But there’s a good chance you won’t have to. I already know what you wanna ask, and I already have an answer for you.”
Even more confused, I stuttered, “You, you do?”
“I’m eighty-eight years old, my boy—so there ain’t much I don’t anticipate.”
He pointed with his cane.
“And I can tell you, no doubt about it—your answer is in that room right there.”
I looked at the non-descript heavy door, thinking there was no way the answer to my question could be on the other side of it. I wanted to ask him for the secret to his wealth, about how he made his fortune, and the answer for that was within his mind, within his life experiences, and not on the other side of some door. And yet before I could blurt out something rash or impulsive, I remembered Sasha’s admonition and held my tongue.
“I can see you brought an overcoat like I told ya. Smart man!”
I followed him to the door, figuring there was an adjoining office with a video presentation or a panel of board members, so I was completely surprised when I realized we went into a massive freezer. At the center of this freezer was a large dark mass that on first glimpse did not seem of this world, until I understood what it was. It was a massive elephant, lying on its side, frozen solid.
“There it is,” he said triumphantly. “The secret to my success, right there!”
“An elephant?” I asked. “A dead elephant? A frozen elephant?”
Teeth chattering, I quickly slipped on the overcoat and found a pair of warm, furry gloves in the pocket.
“I don’t get it,” I shivered out, a burst of vapor billowing from my mouth. “What does that me-me-mean?”
Mr. Perry crunched across the room on the crisp layer of frost, defying the cold, sans overcoat or gloves, and answered.
“I eat elephants, my boy. That’s the secret to my success!”
I looked at the frail old man before me, daunting behemoth looming in the background. He was even smaller than me. One of the beast’s legs was bigger than he was. There was no way he could eat an elephant!
“I’m sorry, Mr. Perry. I understand you’re trying to make a philosophical point here or something, but it would be physically impossible for you to eat that elephant. It must weigh a ton or two, and you can’t be a hundred and fifty pounds.”
“Don’t matter. I’ve eaten elephant after elephant, all my life. And when I’ve had to eat more than one, I’ve had to juggle them while I ate em.”
I had to ask a question before I gave up.
“Right. And how exactly do you eat an elephant, Mr. Perry?”
“One bite at a time, my boy. One bite at a time.”
He smiled as he patted the beast’s frozen double dome. “Come on over and take a look.”
It seemed the elephant grew larger with every step I took until I was at last beside the old man, looking down on the fallen creature. I could see where it had been shot. There was a hole in its head.
“You had it killed?” I asked.
“Naw, I don’t believe in that. Elephants are beautiful creatures, miracles of nature, and they’re endangered. No, this is one of the herd they had to cull off. It’s unfortunate, but they have to thin em out so they don’t exhaust the food supply and threaten the entire population. They usually burn em or use the meat in zoos, but I always manage to get a regular supply sent over here. After all this time, I think I’ve developed a taste for em. Yum, yum!”
He laughed, apparently at the bewildered expression on my face, and continued.
“You do wanna know how I went from ordinary to extraordinary, don’t cha?”
I nodded, “Yes, I do.”
“Well, it’s quite a story, if you’re up for it. Well?”
I nodded, shivering, hoping we would return to the warm office to continue, but the old man stayed where he was, beside his so-called meal.
“Well, it takes me back a few years, to the time right after I got kicked out of Bowling Green—that’s a college in Ohio. Everyone thinks I quit, but truth be told, they kicked me out.”
“Why?” I asked, shivering.
“Grades, hell!” he answered. “I never saw any real sense in em. Anybody can study for a test and pass it and get a good grade, but that doesn’t mean ya know anything. Some of the biggest idiots I know are college educated and graduated. There’re the ones who got this world so messed up in the first place.”
I shrugged, almost agreeing, but I let him go on.
“Grades don’t prove anything, except you’re an idiot who’s learned how to take a test. All the other folks who were called to Delaware with me—they were all A-students at one big, fancy college or another.”
I could not help myself.
“But who called you to Delaware, and why?”
“Now that’s where my story begins!” he chortled. “You think I’m nuts? You think I’m a little off? I’m nothin! I’m less than a starvin flea on the butt of Mr. J.P. Hollinger the third when it comes to crazy. You ever heard of him?”
“He was a very wealthy man, self-made—metal business. And he was crazy, like a fox! It happened right after I got kicked outa Bowling Green. See, I got this letter from him, inviting me up to Delaware, for an opportunity as he called it. Well, I couldn’t go back home after flunkin out, so I really had nothin to lose, especially since he was payin the train fare for the trip, and for the lodgin and food.”
Standing across from the old man, I was hooked, despite the biting cold. My feet, in thin kid leather designer shoes, felt completely frozen. It was painful to nod with a stiff neck, but I did, urging him to continue.
“When I got up there, I figured there had been some mistake. See, there were six other people he invited, but they were nothin like me. Nothin at all. One of em had gone to Harvard, but he was still in the MBA program up there, and I know one of the others had just finished at Princeton, with honors. They all had their pedigrees and letters and family connections, while all I had was a guaranteed ticket back home to nowhere, a guaranteed ticket to an ordinary life. There was someone from Stanford and someone from Yale. I felt out of place and was ready to go home, that is, until I met Mr. J.P. Hollinger the third.”
He closed his eyes, sighing wistfully.
“They all knew who he was, but I didn’t. They were fallin all over themselves, tellin him about their families and accomplishments and ambitions, while I just sat there, wondering what they were trying to get at. I was probably the dumbest one in the room that day, but I think I was the only one who knew Mr. Hollinger wasn’t impressed by what they were tellin him.”
“He was a watcher of people and things, and I understood that. Because like him, I’ve always been a watcher of people and the way things work. There are different ways of bein smart, and I had my way. So I just sat there, listening, watching and wondering why we were really there. I was sure Mr. Hollinger would come to it, eventually.
“As it turned out, Mr. Hollinger had to go away for business the day after we got there, leaving us on our own for five days. He had this big, ivy-covered estate in Wilmington, next to Brandywine Valley, so it was comfortable. It was January. Everything was frozen and there was snow on the ground. We had our own rooms and there were servants to get us anything we needed.
“Alone to our devices, we got to know each other a bit over those five days, as everyone was trying to guess about why Mr. Hollinger had bought us out there. They all thought it was odd that I was there, since I was honest about my failed attempt at Bowling Green. But I wasn’t as dumb as I looked. I understood early on they didn’t think much of me, since they generally talked over me. And they kind of treated me like I wasn’t there.
“They didn’t even bother to tell me their names, so I got to know them as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, William and Rutgers, which really worked for me, since they were all numbskulls. I spent five days listening to those guys, guessing about what job offers they would get and bragging about what their fathers and grandfathers had accomplished. I said nothing. My grandfather caught a thirty-pound catfish once, and my dad was in a posse on a hunt where they killed a rogue bear.
“Because he was a multi-millionaire, all those straight-A college boys saw Mr. Hollinger as someone who could help them along, a millionaire they could brag about meeting and impressing, but they didn’t respect him. They thought he was loony! Touched! They even made jokes about him.
“So he comes back, five days later, wearing this crazy safari getup, and he says he has something in the barn he wants us all to see. Naturally, we went out there, when to our surprise we get in the place and there’s this huge elephant laid out there, still bleeding a little, on a bed of straw.
“Well, everyone was a little taken aback, especially since few of us had ever seen an elephant close-up before, let alone a dead, still-bleeding one. It was larger and more horrid than any of us could have ever imagined. And the smell! Whoa, bejesus! The gas had begun to build in the beast’s abdomen, and at points it was escaping through its rotting anus. There was also a pervasive, musky, gamey smell that offended our very breathing. No one wanted to go anywhere near it.
“But we were all in for a surprise. Mr. Hollinger stood there, his foot popped on the elephant’s face, obviously amused at our discomfort. I thought he looked like Teddy Roosevelt as he posed there. Removing his circular glasses, he glanced around the assemblage at our faces, laughed to himself and began.”
I watched Mr. Perry’s face as he continued, as he relived the memory.
“Our host handed a proposed contract to each of us, explainin as he went.”
“I’m not a young man anymore,” Mr. Hollinger said. “And I don’t plan on dropping dead while I’m still on the job, still working. As you all know, I have no son—no daughter even, not a single heir. So I brought you out here because I want to share the secret of my business with someone, to pass it down to someone. I want to keep my legacy alive.”
He paused a moment, allowing everyone time to peruse the proposal.
“I will share that secret with just one of you, the most worthy among you.”
“How will you determine that?” Harvard asked.
“And what’s with the dead elephant? Whew!” Stanford demanded.
“I brought you here because you all show promise,” Mr. Hollinger explained. “But common sense and history demonstrate that mere potential most often leads to disappointment. Most of you will ultimately end up doing nothing special with your lives. No, I am looking for the one individual among you who is capable of doing something truly extraordinary.”
“So, what do you expect us to do?” Rutgers queried.
“All I need, dear gentlemen, is for one of you to prove himself extraordinary. Certainly, we all recall the seven labours of Heracles, but he was a demi-god. I have but one labour for the most outstanding among you, being a mere mortal.”
“And what labor would that be?” questioned William.
“I need one of you to eat this elephant,” the old man proclaimed. “And to that bold and daring individual will go my secret to success in all things!”
The suggestion was met with equal parts disgust, terror and incredulity. Yale heaved at the thought of it, while Harvard and Princeton turned away.
Stanford, on the other hand, was indignant. He walked around the beast’s body, approaching the old man.
“What is the meaning of this, Hollinger?” he demanded. “You dragged me all the way across the country and wasted my week for this? A hairy, stinking, decomposing elephant? That thing stinks to high hell! Is this your idea of a sick joke?”
“It’s repulsive!” Yale intoned.
“You’re as kooky as my father said you were!” Rutgers interjected. “I came here because I thought you were going to give me a job!”
“Yes!” William shot in. “We thought you were going to hire one of us, or all of us!”
“ Now me, I was just standing there, considering everything Mr. Hollinger had said. Suddenly, I thought of something.
“Is that an African elephant or an Indian elephant?” I asked.
Stanford whipped around toward me, indignant. “What difference does that make, dumbass?”
“I, I thought it might be important to know,” I answered, defending myself.
Mr. Hollinger’s faced beamed with excitement as he turned to me.
“That is a good question! It does make a difference. An Indian elephant is big—it can weigh as much as twelve thousand pounds, but the African species is larger, often more than twice as large. This is an African elephant, weighing in at a little under twenty-four thousand pounds.”
“Twenty-four thousand pounds! You’ve got to be kidding me! And you expect us to eat that thing?” Princeton voiced aloud.
“It’s hideous!” Harvard added. “Even if we were all doing it together in shifts, we couldn’t eat twenty-four thousand pounds of cotton candy! You’re asking for something that’s impossible!”
Mr. Hollinger raised a hand in a halting gesture.
“Not impossible—but certainly extraordinary. And all I need is for one of you to do it, the most extraordinary fellow among you. And to that person will go my legacy and a wealth beyond measure.”
The six beside me balked and just stood there, looking back and forth into each other’s faces, trying to figure out what the old man was getting at. I remember what I was thinking at that very moment. I was working on a plan.
“Is that a boy elephant or a girl elephant?” I asked.
“Oh please already!” sighed Harvard. “What difference does that make?”
“Well,” I answered. “Boys and girls have different body parts. I thought it might make a difference when you’re eating one of those.”
“No one’s eating that disgusting thing!” he sneered. “Wait—is this some kind of a test?”
Ignoring Harvard, I spoke calmly, quietly to our host.
“I’ll eat it, Sir. I will consume the entire elephant.”
My statement was met with immediate anger and disapproval. The other six saw my acceptance of the challenge as an act of betrayal, though it was hard for me to understand why.
And that was the first lesson I learned, right at that moment: whenever a person decides to do something that is extraordinary, something others think is impossible, there is an immediate conspiracy formed against him, or her nowadays. The way they figured it, if they didn’t believe they could do it, they sure as hell didn’t want someone else to come along and do it.
“It’s no wonder you flunked out of college, Green!” Rutgers scoffed. “You don’t have the intelligence and common sense to recognize what’s impossible when it’s staring you in the face!”
“I know I can do it,” I insisted.
“Just what makes you think you can eat an entire elephant?” William snorted. “I was a microbiology major, and I can tell you that thing will be rancid and completely inedible in the span of a few days. Hollinger’s a madman. You start eating that thing, and you’ll suffer from Clostridium perfringens poisoning and drop dead beside that thing in a week. You’d risk your life in taking even one bite, if you were stupid enough to do that.”
By that time, I was counting the cash in my wallet.
“Mr. Hollinger, I may need to borrow a little money to get started, but I can pay it back to you in seven weeks, with interest.”
Mr. Hollinger seemed intrigued as he nodded. “Certainly, my boy!”
Everyone else was bothered by the exchange, to the point of murmuring. After about a minute, Harvard emerged as the consensus leader, speaking up for the group.
“Two things here, Hollinger,” he said. “One, if this moron is suggesting he can eat that twenty-four thousand pound elephant in seven weeks, then he’s even dumber than he looks. And two, I studied Business Law. I know the six of us could sue you for false advertising. You lured us out here on a false pretense, under the expectation that one or more of us would get a job from you. And once you got us here, you just deserted us for five days, obviously to go to Africa to shoot that thing. And now you’ve put this preposterous proposal before us that someone must devour that monstrosity, when you know it’s impossible to eat an elephant!”
“I took a week off my job to come here. You wasted my time! If my dad doesn’t sue you, I sure will!” Yale barked. “He owns a law firm, which will be mine one day. This is absurd! The whole idea of it!”
“I demand to be paid for the time I’ve been here. Time is money, as they say. You’re going to pay me for my wasted time!” Stanford added.
Mr. Hollinger took it all in stride, as if he had already long anticipated their reactions.
“I arranged generous $500 stipends for the six of you even before you came. You can pick them up on your way out. The proposals in your hands can be traded for checks.”
Still complaining, they all left the barn, except Harvard. I didn’t know it then, but he was curious about what I would do.
“Like William said, uh Green—that thing will be rotten in two or three days. You’re going to fail, again,” he said. “Why would you even try?”
Ignoring the resentful soothsayer, I asked Mr. Hollinger if I could borrow his toolbox and a ladder. And then I went to work. The barn had doors on the front and back, four in all, twelve feet tall, each secured by three heavy steel hinges. It took two and a half hours for one set of hinges, so after about ten hours, I had loosed the doors and set them in a way to best trap airflow, and three hours later, the elephant had already begun to freeze in the cold, twenty-degree cross-breeze that coursed through the structure. Harvard just stood there, amazed.
“Okay, that was pretty clever,” he admitted. “You’ve tuned the barn into a big freezer. So, what are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to offer you a job. I’ll triple the stipend Mr. Hollinger gave you if you spend a few weeks working for me, and you’ll be in for a percentage of whatever profit I make on this.”
“Profit? What profit?” Harvard laughed. “And I happen to know you have no money. You can’t hire me. How would you pay me?”
“Let me worry about that,” I insisted. “If you don’t want to work for me, I’ll hire one of the others. You have until I come back to decide.”
“Why? Where are you going?” he asked.
“To the library.”
Laxodanta Africana… Of course I went to the library because I was certain I didn’t know enough about elephants to get started. I knew the elephant that I was going to eat was an African male at about twenty-four thousand pounds, but there was so much more that I didn’t know. In the course of research, I learned the skeleton alone had to be pretty heavy to support all that weight, accounting for seventeen point six percent of the total weight, or about forty-three hundred pounds.
The tusks, which were about average size, I estimated to weigh one hundred seventy pounds each, or three hundred forty pounds altogether. According to what I was able to look up, I started calculating: the skin – thirteen hundred fifty pounds; ears – one hundred pounds each; heart – forty-four pounds; brain – ten pounds; blood – twenty-four hundred pounds; liver – one hundred seventy pounds; tongue – twenty-six pounds; the muscular pizzle, which was a whopping six and a half feet long – sixty pounds, along with the hidden testicles, which were five pounds apiece; the tail – twenty-three pounds; and the trunk, which was two hundred fifty pounds.
Of course, that didn’t include the gut, meaning the stomach, the large and the small intestine, along with the bladder, lungs and other necessary organs, but I read that at any given time, a big elephant is full of two hundred twenty pounds of crap, or dung as they call it. In addition to that, since elephants have a very ineffective digestive system and have to eat sixteen hours a day to get the proper nutrition, my elephant was probably full of the six hundred pounds of food he ate on the day he got shot.
An elephant is one big, walking gut, with a stomach a foot and a half long that can hold twelve gallons, a seventy-foot long small intestine that holds thirty-five gallons and a forty-foot long, fat, large intestine that holds one hundred twenty-seven gallons. Oh, and the bladder holds about four and a half gallons. They digest only about twenty percent of what they eat. You’d expect to have a lot of fat, but elephants really don’t have that much, about as much as the average comfortable American woman, percentage-wise.
The rest of the soft tissue is muscle, tendons, ligaments and membranes. So, when you take an elephant and you really break it down to its individual or smaller parts, the idea of eating one becomes a little more feasible. That is, if you know how to go about doing things.
When you eat a chicken, or you tell someone your family ate a chicken last night, does that mean you ate the bones? And the same goes for beef or lamb – we eat the meat – we don’t eat the bones. The bones, feathers, hair, hide, eyes and offal—we don’t eat them.
The second lesson I learned: in order to accomplish something extraordinary, one must always keep an open mind. Solutions are the result of open minds willing to consider unconventional ideas and interpretation, when necessary. The third lesson: once you begin, quitting is not an option.
Now, when Mr. Hollinger said one of us had to eat the elephant, I just imagined that elephant was a big stuffed turkey sitting on the table on Thanksgiving Day—legs, trunk, loin, haunches, head and other parts. He didn’t give us any restrictions or conditions. The only limitations we had were the ones we would impose on ourselves.
Of course, I said I’d consume the entire elephant to keep myself honest, which was my third lesson—about integrity—because I needed to come up with a plan that would help me use up every single ounce of that elephant. And I had to do it in seven weeks, before the weather got warmer and the freeze broke.
On the way back to Mr. Hollinger’s estate, I stopped by a hardware store and got me some knives and saws, and then I stopped by a factory where they made plastic containers and picked up five dozen of them.
The driver helped me unload the tools, containers and the library books into the frosty barn, where to my surprise Harvard was waiting for me outside, shivering, ready to go to work.
“First of all, I don’t believe you can do this,” he said. “But I really need a job.”
“At least you’re honest,” I answered. “Now, let’s put some of your esteemed education to good use. I need you to come up with a rock solid marketing plan.”
“A marketing plan?” he scoffed. “Why? What are we selling?”
He caught up with me as I was removing the ears and the trunk.
“Even if I could come up with a way to sell elephant stew, you can’t do this! That would be cheating.”
“Says who?” I responded. “If you had been listening to the voice of innovation rather than the voice of limitation playing in your mind, you’d have realized that Mr. Hollinger never said the eater of the elephant had to dine alone. Who dines alone nowadays anyway? I’ll eat the elephant all right, but I’m going to share some of it with my friends, and make a profit. No harm in that.”
Harvard nodded, understanding. “And it’s my job to help you find friends?”
“And to eat a pound of flesh a day,” I said, “to show solidarity. That will account for ninety-eight pounds between the two of us. I understand the trunk and the feet are delicious.”
He hesitated as he watched me divide the trunk into pieces, so it would fit into one container.
“How much would I have to sell?”
I referred to my notes and calculations.
“The way I figure it, after I subtract out the gut and its contents, the bladder, the skin, skeleton, tusks, the fat, the blood, tendons, ligaments and the pizzle, what I have left is twelve thousand three hundred and ten pounds of edible meat. In order to consume that in seven weeks, I’m going to have to finish off no less than eighteen hundred pounds a week, or about two hundred fifty pounds a day on the average over seven weeks. I realize it will take a while for the idea to work, but I’ve got faith in you.
I paused before continuing.
“Look, Harvard, I need you to tell me if you can do this, or not. If you have any reservations about it, I’ll need to find someone else.”
“No you won’t. I studied marketing,” Harvard insisted, “and I’m at the top of my class. If anybody in the world can do this, I know I can.”
I sighed with relief, pleased to have him on-board.
“I borrowed enough money from Mr. Hollinger to provide you an adequate marketing budget. Get started right away, because I have other work for you as well.”
As the elephant slowly froze over the next forty-eight hours, I was able to use the knives and saws to separate out the individual organs and to cut the rest into manageable-sized pieces. I hired four immigrant workers to help me because I didn’t have much money to pay out. They were willing to work for lower wages with the hope of eventually earning permanent employment with me. I wasn’t a butcher, so relied on the elephant anatomy diagram I borrowed from the library as a reference for taking the beast apart.
I caught up with Stanford just as he was headed for the airport. It took some convincing, but I managed to get him to agree to handle the operations end of the “Elephant Stew project” and a couple of other things I needed. Of course, that meant he would have to quickly develop a delicious recipe, put together a kitchen and packaging plant, meet government compliance standards and handle distribution right to the store shelves. I gave him a container of the tastiest meat and urged him to proceed post haste.
In the meantime, Harvard had come up with a clever marketing plan. It seemed he came across an obscure scientific study, which suggested that regular consumption of the flesh of mature African elephant bulls, for the sheer amount of testosterone and other hormones and enzymes it contained, had a pronounced positive effect on the human male libido, desire and response. There were actual cases where effete lives and abilities had been restored, with great reviews from grateful women!
Proceeding from that, he had already designed a label. Harvard decided to call it Happy Peter’s Elephant Stew, named after his own father, Peter Hornstein. The ads would feature young, seductive women in tight sweaters or otherwise provocative clothing, with pleasantly-tortured expressions on their faces, the subtle shadow of a raised elephant trunk in the foreground, above the caption: Ooh! Ooh! Eew! Better Get Your Elephant Stew!
He would launch the national printed ad, radio and television campaign at once, but he indicated he would also begin an undercurrent-driven, get-out-the-information campaign, purposed to help the public make the connection between the obscure study and the personal, intimate benefits derived by the men who consume elephant stew, and the women who love them. This study would somehow find its way into the mainstream news, with a little help from Harvard’s friends.
Two days later, Stanford was ready for me to sample his stew recipe. He seated me next to a young chef-in-training he had brought out from San Francisco by the name of Georges De La Bête. This kid seemed a little meek and nervous, but when I took my first sip of his elephant stew, I knew providence had smiled on me. It was just the best somethin I had ever eaten in my whole life!
Every day after he arrived, this clever chef found delicious ways to prepare the one pound of elephant flesh that Harvard, Stanford, the chef and I ate as a show of solidarity and oneness of purpose. Over time, we all developed a taste for the tusker and looked forward to the unique flavor, some of which tasted like Spam, especially the feet.
I found out later that Georges had spent two years in Africa as a wild game cook, where he prepared just about anything the safari guides could round up at dinnertime. While he wouldn’t share his exact recipe, I knew he had added a little warthog, some guinea fowl, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, vinegar, salt, his secret spices and I think a little chutney. The combination was just amazing. Our next step was to see how it translated into the can, and quiet as it’s kept, it was even better after canning, with spices marrying the mixture. Stanford assured me we would have product coming off the line within a week.
With all that goin on, I had to determine what I would do with the skeleton, skin, lungs, gut, tusks, fat, eyes and sundry other parts. With the skeleton, I had two options. One, I could have had it ground into bone meal, where it could have been sold as a dietary supplement or organic fertilizer, but I decided against that. Instead, Harvard arranged for me to donate it to the San Diego Zoo. As part of a separate package, the lungs, gut, eyes and pizzle went to Fordham University of New York for research purposes.
The tusks were another matter altogether – three hundred forty pounds of raw ivory, which at five dollars a pound netted me one thousand two hundred and fifty-six dollars. Now, I could have called it profit or used it to repay my debts, but the whole idea of such a thing presented me with a moral dilemma.
I could see, even back then, that one day Africa’s magnificent elephants could be exploited and even decimated for the market value of their tusks, something I thought was deplorable, and still do. After doing some research, I donated the money to a group that in time became the African Elephant Conservation Fund. Of course, I asked Harvard to make the donation in Mr. Hollinger’s name, for tax advantages. It was Hollinger’s elephant, after all.
The skin, or hide, was an inch thick in most places and made a tough, rugged, nearly indestuctable leather. The panels that came back from the tanner were rich and textured, definitely exotic. The ones from the body of the animal were deeply-grained, unlike any other leather I had ever seen, while the panels from the ears and trunk were thinner and smoother. I asked Harvard to sell them to a wholesaler and retain a twenty percent commission for himself. I think he managed to get about twenty-five hundred dollars for the entire hide back then. I donated, again in Mr. Hollinger’s name, two thousand dollars to various zoos around the country for the benefit of their captive elephants and to the enhancement of elephant enclosures.
We began selling Happy Peter’s Elephant Stew at the beginning of week three, and sales started a little slow, until Harvard’s two-fold advertising campaign began to create a steady demand that grew by the day. The stew was packaged in sixteen ounce cans, with forty-eight cans to the case and sixty cases to the pallet. It caught on right away in the Boston and New York markets on the East Coast and spread west out from there.
We were surprised to find in our demographics that the biggest purchasers of the stew were women over thirty-two-years-old, with teen-aged boys comprising the second largest consumer segment. It didn’t hurt when a rumor went out that the very virile President of our United States was curious. Word was that he ordered his detail to secretly confiscate two cases of the concoction, but only because he liked the taste of it. After that, it caught on in Hollywood and Los Angeles and spread across the country, converging from both coasts.
Because we only had one elephant, our supply was finite, and so the growing demand for our stew pushed retail prices to unconscionable levels and pushed greedy retailers to our salivating distributors, who begged Stanford to somehow come up with more product. Stanford and Harvard sought a meeting with me, asking if I wanted to continue the fortuitous enterprise, but I decided to finish business at hand before making any such decision. I wanted to hold Mr. Hollinger to his word: once I finished consuming the elephant, he would reveal to me the secret to his storied wealth and to success in all things.
Naturally, a few copycats emerged, each seeking to capitalize on our sensation. There was a Big Richard’s Elephant Simmer that appeared on the scene, followed by a Hungry Betty’s Elephant Braised Broth and several others that came on the scene, though they lacked the staying power of our product. It seemed we had a secret recipe that could not quite be duplicated. They were obviously missing the secret ingredient. And then there were a few other companies and a yahoo from Alaska who tried to pawn off moose stew for the real thing.
It took three weeks to exhaust our entire inventory. So before anyone knew it, the smelly, intimidating, larger-than-life elephant we confronted in Mr. Hollinger’s barn six weeks earlier was completely consumed, with not so much as a hair or wrinkle left over. Even the dung had been sold off, either as fertilizer or to maintain vast dung beetle populations in North America.
My job at last complete, I took Harvard and Stanford to dinner to thank them for all their efforts and tireless dedication to the task at hand. After toasting our success during dessert and cigars, I paid them the balance of their salaries and included a healthy bonus for each. Both, of course, were eager to start another project with me. But me, I had one subject on my mind: Mr. Hollinger’s secret to success in all things.
I had dinner with Mr. Hollinger in his home two days later, just the two of us. First we finished our business, of course. I repaid the money I borrowed, with interest. The meat on the plate was dense and gamey. I wanted to ask, but I already knew what it was. We had a wine with it, a Bordeaux, I think. I was impatient the whole time, perched on the double edge of imagination and anticipation. Mr. Hollinger ate slowly, intentionally, perhaps amused by my ineffective attempts to disguise my excitement.
After dinner, he told me to follow him again out to the barn. I hesitated. I wanted to demand him to hold up his end of the bargain. After all, I had done what he asked. I ate that entire elephant—the whole damned pachyderm!—and so I wanted to know Mr. Hollinger’s secret to success in all things. I had earned it, according to the terms of our deal! I felt betrayed, but I followed him nonetheless.
When he opened that barn door, all I could do was sigh. You saw that coming, didn’t you? Yep, you’re absolutely right. When he opened the door, a tidal wave of intestinal gas hit me. I could smell it. And I could smell what was no doubt lying at the center of the barn, on a bed of straw. Then I saw it. It was another elephant, even bigger than the first one.
When I looked toward Mr. Hollinger, his eyes and mouth trembled, and then he burst out in this insane, raucous laughter, apparently amused by the shocked and disappointed expression on my face. And when he finally had his fill of sport with me, his aspect became serious. Placing a gentle hand on my shoulder, he began.
“Welcome to the sphere of illumination,” he said.
“All the things you seek to know…
Indeed, you already know.”
I was confused. They were enigmatic words for certain, but it didn’t sound like the secret to success in all things.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “You promised to share your secret with me. What was that?”
“That was the secret,” he said. “All the things you seek to know, indeed, you already know.”
I was disappointed at first, and then I began to think about the conundrum of his words. I wondered, What was it that I already knew? And what was I seeking to know? Thoroughly confused, I looked back toward Mr. Hollinger.
“Those words? And another elephant?”
He smiled to assure me that I was on the right track.
“An elephant? Is that what you see? There never was an elephant. What you had before you was a challenge, represented by an elephant. An elephant is any challenge, any set of circumstances that stands between you, and what you want.”
As he spoke, the elephant in the barn began to take on a different appearance to me. It ceased to be a physical thing.
“You wanted to discover the secret to success in all things, and the elephant you ate was the one incredible thing that stood between you and that revelation. The others, your colleagues, like the entire world throughout history, were overwhelmed by the very thought of doing something astonishing. For them, it was easier and more self-assuring to fashion an extraordinary thing into an impossible thing. Where they were intimidated at the prospect of doing something extraordinary, you simply went about it, and you ate that elephant, one bite at a time.
“As you go through life, you must be committed to eat every single elephant that dares to stand in your path. If you do that, you will have success in all things. The elephant is just that thing in the way. That is the secret you sought to know, but you already knew it.”
Well now, that was the day my life changed, the day when I finally knew I knew it. And since that time I’ve gone through life eating elephant after elephant, sometimes two, three, four at a time.
Over the years, I’ve come to develop a taste for them, so much so that I actively seek them out to eat. And my life, with all its achievements and accomplishments, are all the result of my addiction to regular helpings of elephant flesh. As I told you earlier, I eat elephants! That’s the secret to my success. And that, my boy, is my story.”
By that time, I had forgotten that I was in a freezer with a dead elephant and an eccentric old man, a billionaire. I was fascinated by the story, captivated by the idea of it all! If the old man truly had shared his secret with me, the secret to success in all things, and that was it, I knew I could do it! I could eat that elephant!
“Why did you pick me, Mr. Perry?” I asked. “From what I’ve learned about you, nothing you do is random. You could have called six other ‘promising’ people here today the same way Mr. Hollinger did with you. Why just me?”
The old man laughed.
“Oh, you mean Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Rutgers and William?”
“Yes,” I said.
“It would have been pointless,” he sighed. “They haven’t changed—call it the difference between education and innovation. Pity—they can just never get past their thinking. Besides, they all work for me now.”
He patted the elephant’s frozen dome and began walking in the direction of the back wall.
“You wanted to know why I chose you. More than mere promise, you have demonstrated a singular tenacity that is indispensible to any person who wishes to accomplish something extraordinary. Years ago, and all on your own, you set your mind to achieve what others believed was impossible, and then you went about it. And here you are now, dauntless, and still going about it. If your goal truly is unattainable, either you don’t know it or you don’t care. I find that damn admirable in a person. In fact, you remind me of myself in that way.
“But the difference between you and me is providence. Into my life came a certain deus ex machina, a god from the machine, in the form of Mr. J.P. Hollinger the third. And now providence has provided an intervening force in your life in the form of me. I brought you here to pass my legacy, the legacy Mr. Hollinger passed down to me—I brought you here to pass that legacy on to you. Does that answer your question, my boy?”
I could hardly believe my ears! I pinched myself. Perhaps I was misunderstanding something. It seemed to me that here Mr. Pericles Agamemnon Smith, the billionaire, stood ready to become an intervening force in my life. It was too good to be true!
His voice interrupted my reveling.
“I said, does that answer your question, my boy?”
“It does!” I blurted. “And thank you, Sir. Thank you!”
I continued to follow as he walked toward the back wall.
“So what happens next?” I asked. “You want me to eat the elephant? I know I can do it.”
He stopped as he reached the wall and turned, laughing.
“Elephant? I eat elephants. No, son, you won’t be eating that old boy there. He’s mine. The world is a much different place now. Why, with globalization, the Internet, automation and the like, it’s a much different place. All these things have changed the very fabric of time, making it possible to do twice as much in half as long.
“Competition is much more fierce, and the pace of enterprise is such that, if you pause but for a moment, you’ll be left in the dust. Markets are emerging in unimaginable places and giants once thought invulnerable are crumbling to earth. No, elephants are my thing, son. You’re going to have to do better than me.”
That’s when I realized the wall before us was not a wall at all. It was an automated roll-up door. When Mr. Perry pressed a button in the panel, the door slowly began to rise. He continued.
“Even when you know that you know, you have to be prepared to face overwhelming challenges and you must never become intimidated by greatness. Physeter macrocephalus…”
Only then did I begin to get the sense of it. Looking through the new opening, I thought it was a wall before me, a dark, stony wall that went on and on. Mr. Perry grinned at me, amused.
“Come on in, boy!”
When I stepped though the open door into the vast enclosure, I realized the wall before me was not a wall at all. At one end of it, there was a very large eye and the semblance of a face. The other end tapered to a huge horizontal tail fluke on the floor that spread from the front wall to the back wall. The creature must have been sixty or seventy feet long!
“How do you eat an elephant?” Mr. Pericles Agamemnon Smith posed, his face suddenly animated. “The same way you eat a whale – one bite at a time.”