While watching TV the other night I saw a commercial that repeated the old saying, “an elephant never forgets.” Never forgets what? Is it true pachyderms have unparalleled powers of recollection? Also, is it still possible to get a copy of your book on human knowledge? –Carlos D. McCullough, Chicago
Carlos, not only is my unforgettable book, The Straight Dope: A Compendium of Human Knowledge, still available for public sale, the Texas schoolbook commission is thinking of putting it on the curriculum. Just what we need to help get this country moving again. But on to elephants. You will be happy to know, this being the age of science and all, that the claims made for elephants and their memories have been subjected to rigorous analysis. In an experiment reported in 1957, Professor B. Rensch of Munster University in Germany attempted to teach a five-year-old Asiatic elephant to differentiate between two wooden boxes, one marked with a square, the other with a circle. The former contained food, the latter nothing. The elephant, obviously no Einstein, needed 330 tries before it grasped the concept. Different pairs of symbols were then used, with the elephant making (for an elephant) remarkable progress. By the time the fourth pair rolled around, the elephant needed only 10 tries, and by the 20th, he had it down solid. Professor Rensch then bided his time for a year, following which he subjected the hapless elephant to further tests with 13 of the original pairs. On all except one (the toughest), the elephant scored between 73 and 100 percent correct. From this the professor concluded that while elephants were not what you could call quick, once you got an idea pounded into them it was well nigh impossible to get it out again.
This finding generally accords with the experience of elephant trainers. With patience–a lot of patience–elephants can be taught an amazing array of tricks, ranging from the mundane balancing on a ball to such feats as driving a jeep, playing cricket, or getting a milk carton open without the aid of a chisel. Remarkable creatures, truly.
People are probably all worn out hearing about the Statue of Liberty, but isn’t it true you could once go up into the arm and come out by the torch? Wasn’t there a lookout there? After all the publicity during the centennial, I began to realize they’re hiding something from us about this. Thanks. And I’ve always loved your column. Keep it up. –Michael O. Sajbel, Hollywood, California
No problem, Mike, that’s why I eat oysters. As for the S. of L., you’re right–in the early days the torch was open to the public. However, only a minority thereof was able to take advantage of the opportunity. The platform around the torch could accommodate just 12 people, and was reachable only by a single 54-rung ladder. By 1917 crowding had gotten to be such a problem that the authorities decided to end public access, opening the torch only to journalists, photographers, and others with friends in high . . . well, you know what I mean.
The closing gave rise to a rumor that the statue had been damaged the previous year by a massive explosion in a nearby Jersey City ammo dump that had been touched off by German saboteurs. The rumor was apparently untrue, but another event in 1916 did result in a serious weakening of the arm. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the same guy who carved the Mount Rushmore memorial, rebuilt the existing copper flames of the torch by inserting 250 panes of amber glass, which were then illuminated from within. Whatever might be said for this from an artistic standpoint, it was a practical disaster. Water leaked in past the improperly sealed glass and severely corroded the iron armature within. The upraised arm had been installed about 18 inches out of true to start with, for reasons that have never been entirely clear, and by the time restoration began in the 1980s, Ms. Liberty was in serious danger of going the way of Venus de Milo. The rehabilitation rectified the problem, but the park service has not been tempted to open the arm again.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.