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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Of Bone Valley and Elephant Graveyards

Coming back from a speech in Palm Beach last month, we took State Road 60 through Yeehaw Junction and enjoyed the cattle ranches and citrus groves that end with Brandon. I like to stretch my imagination and try to picture the road back when it was two unmarked lanes of gravel. We seldom refer to Highway 60 by its number anymore, as it becomes Brandon Boulevard, then Adamo Drive and Kennedy Boulevard, and with a strange stretch around the airport, works its way onto Courtney Campbell Causeway and ends at Clearwater Beach, where it’s Gulf to Bay. It’s at least six lanes of heavy traffic these days, but the early highway would have been a pastoral drive.

Back in Polk County, the area that State Road 60 serves is known as “Bone Valley” because the phosphate that is mined there comes from the fossils of prehistoric creatures. As it happened, a few days after driving through Bone Valley, Hubby and I heard a reference on television to “Elephant’s Graveyard” -- and I decided to try to think this through. Probably like you, I’d heard that phrase many times without ever delving into its meaning.

It was hard to get past the internet’s references to a play by the same name (“the true story of a struggling circus”), so I went to older reference books. I don’t want to say that my answer is authoritative, but my Collier’s Encyclopedia, published in 1966, did provide this interesting aside: “The first living elephant in America was a relatively small, two-year-old female brought to New York from Calcutta by Jacob Crownsinshield in 1796… She may have been the Learned Elephant killed at Chepachet, R.I., in 1822 by some boys who wanted to test the statement elephant hide was bulletproof.” Boys! Guns!

This source also made me think that our usage of “white elephant” has become the exact opposite of the original intent. We use it for an item that no one wants, but that was far from the case in Asia. Both Hindus and Buddhists revere elephants, and the white elephant most of all. Instead of the shunning and mistreatment that some albino creatures endure, white elephants ate from golden platters and drank water scented with jasmine. In Siam (Thailand), not even the king himself was allowed to ride on a white elephant.

This article acknowledged African legends that elderly or terminally ill elephants go to a place where other elephants have died, but added, “No such graveyard ever has been found.” On the other hand, it and other sources say that “huge piles of elephant tusks” have been found in several African locales. Archeologists explain this as a probable place of worship, speculating that tusks had religious significance to prehistoric peoples. But archeologists use religion to explain away many things. I wonder if in fact elephants did congregate to die, and their ivory tusks simply lasted longer than their bones.

The most salient point to me is that elephants are kin to the prehistoric wooly mammoth – and we know that these creatures lived in prehistoric Florida. Except for a few creationists, no one doubts that Polk County’s phosphate rock originated with animal bones. I always thought they were dinosaurs, but dinosaurs were egg-laying reptiles -- and other reliable sources refer to the animal life of Bone Valley as “mammalian,” or mammals like us. And like elephants.

Phosphate occurs in portions of Polk, Hardee, Hillsborough, and Manatee counties – or just four of Florida’s 67 counties. Whether they were dinosaurs or wooly mammoths or a form of elephants or whatever, it seems clear that these animals did choose to concentrate themselves at death in this particular part of our large peninsula. I think the rational conclusion must be that Bone Valley is indeed a graveyard. Perhaps for elephants, perhaps for other creatures, but a deliberate choice made by animals with memory. Why not?

Mar-a-Lago and More

The Palm Beach trip also made me curious about Marjorie Merriweather Post and her Palm Beach home, Mar-a-Lago. The name means “sea to lake” -- but I wouldn’t be surprised if she chose it in part because of the obvious link to her own name. Heir to the Post Cereal fortune, she was akin to others of the immensely rich who spent winters in Beach Palm during its Roaring Twenties beginnings. Her lifestyle, however, was more outrageous than most of the beach’s political conservatives, as she married and divorced four times.

Conservative manners, though, still reign at the exclusive Palm Beach Bath & Tennis Club: On a plaque about bridge championships, I noticed that even now, in 2016, women still are listed as “Mrs. Whatever Man’s Name.” I don’t know if Post was a good enough bridge player to have won a championship, but I guess this policy of hiding a woman’s identity under the name of even a temporary husband kept the club from having to change nameplates. That’s who she was at that point -- and if she won another championship in a different year under another name, only insiders need to know.

Emily Post was also a well-known name during the first half of the twentieth century. She was not kin to Marjorie Merriweather Post, but also came from wealth, and both were part of New York’s old-family society. Emily Post, who never used her maiden name, married only once. She divorced her husband after he had well-publicized dalliances with other women, and she went on to develop a democratic persona as a specialist in good manners. Her first book, published in 1922, was Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home; with updates, it was a bestseller for decades. Both men and women who wanted to behave properly looked to Emily Post for guidance.

But back to Mar-a-Lago and its much-divorced owner. Marjorie Merriweather Post was married to her second husband, the well-known investment broker E.F. Hutton, when she built the110,000 square-foot mansion during the Roaring Twenties. Prior to her 1973 death, she willed it – and its 17 acres – to the US government, with the intention that it be used as a retreat for presidents and foreign dignitaries. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1980, the last year of Jimmy Carter’s administration – and was bought by the much-divorced Donald Trump in 1985. Guess who was president in 1985? A couple of clues: he was a Hollywood actor and a sycophant to the rich. Someone ought to look into that.

And speaking of The Donald…

Did you see the item floating around the internet about the bookstore sign re Trump and Hitler? An arrow points to Trump’s book that is subtitled How to Make America Great Again, and the sign says, “If you liked this, try” – and points on a book on Hitler’s last days. The historical analogy is valid, as Hitler also convinced Germans that they needed to become great again.

Hitler actually had a strong point, as Germany – whose provinces only recently had been united as a nation – gained and lost its greatness because of its aggression in World War I. Many Americans thought that Democratic President Woodrow Wilson had been too generous in his settlement of the war, and a Republican Senate refused to ratify the treaty. Germans, however, thought exactly the opposite, and Hitler played on their wounded pride to gear up for war again. We all know how that worked out.

But we have no genuine grievances here. No nation has invaded us since 1812, and we won that war. We don’t need to become great again: We are great now. Trump’s title begins with “Crippled America,” but we are not crippled. We are strong and powerful and rich in both resources and people -- and we would be serene if our neo-Nazis would just stop picking fights. If they don’t, these bullies and their arrogance of power can bring last days to democracy. Just as happened in Germany, Trump appeals to non-existent grievances; the analogy between hatred of Jews and Mexicans/Arabs is very clear; and the advocacy of violence, both personal and political, means the dismissal of any views besides their own. Who can miss the point?


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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