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Columnist will never forget this elephant

Surely, I thought, this elephant race thing was a scam.

I figured the people promoting the Clyde Beatty/Cole Bros. Circus at Gulf View Square Mall were going to have us roll giant dice while they moved big papier-mache elephants around a numbered track, like they do in those boring cruise ship horse races.

Wrong.

Or, at best, they would have us use a platform to climb into some kind of sedan chair thing and be carried by a tired elephant once around the tent so we could say we had been in a race.

Wrong.

There were no elephants in evidence when I arrived at the circus tent, and I told a bystander I suspected they were going to make me and a bunch of business and media people and politicians put on elephant suits and race each other.

Wrong.

Sue Campbell, sales director at WLVU-FM 106.3, who had organized the promotional elephant races, handed me a release form to sign acknowledging that I had "consented to ride on an elephant provided by Clyde Beatty/Cole Bros. Circus, recognizing that this involves the risk of possible injury."

"Nice touch," I told her.

I figured they were going to play it like the real thing right up to the last moment _ a moment that had come and gone, I discovered to my discomfiture, when I found myself sitting on top of a massive pachyderm named Conti and watching Pasco County Property Appraiser Mike Wells raise a starter's pistol.

Oops.

It was a real elephant race, with real elephants wearing only a harness and running with a gait like four pile drivers syncopated to the beat of a hummingbird's heart.

The anything-for-a-column philosophy, I feared, had finally brought me to a point where I would beg for a job as an editorial writer and ask to be tucked away in a windowless office to write knowledgeable tomes about water usage, diplomatic relations with Bangladesh and the interrelationships between the prime rate and grain future prices.

It dawned on me that, recuperating from a sprained wrist, I had only one hand to hang on with, that it was about a 10-foot fall to the asphalt pavement and that having a ton or so of elephant step on even my admittedly thick skull would make my beneficiaries, several county commissioners and a state representative or two very happy, but would leave a very large, messy spot for the mall folks to clean up.

I was so busy making sure that I didn't wind up as the greasy stuff between Conti's toes that I didn't even realize that I won my heat and would have to do it again.

There is, I discovered, something stupider than a banged-up, middle-aged fat guy getting on an elephant, and that is the same guy doing it again.

But Charlie Bowen, my counterpart over at Brand X, had taken my challenge to ride to the death (which I thought was a joke when I made it) and also won his heat.

Bowen earned my permanent respect by admitting, first, that he wasn't any more thrilled about another ride than I was, and we both watched with admiration as Pasco County Sheriff's Office Major Darlene Greene made it look easy as she rode her mount as smoothly as if she were in a Western saddle.

But in the end, it was Kristine Heller, marketing administrator at the mall, who won top honors. Columnist bragging rights go to Bowen, who placed second. I placed third.

Wells opted to fire the gun rather than ride. County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand decided to judge rather than ride. Sheriff Lee Cannon was still out sick, and let it be recorded that New Port Richey Mayor Pete Altman rode an elephant without trying to redesign it, make a public park out of it or talk it to death.

And make certain note of this: If you ever see me riding an elephant again, call a police officer, because somebody either has a gun on me or has found one of my old resumes from my conservative Republican days and is blackmailing me.

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