What do Robert E. Lee and an elephant have in common?
When I do research for my books I never know what tidbit of information I'll uncover and then feel compelled to use in some way. When I was a young boy, my father would ask my siblings and me each year in mid-January, "Whose birthday is on January 19th?" We'd always reply, "Yours!" He'd say, "It's Robert E. Lee's birthday." He enjoyed history and I suppose he also enjoyed sharing a birthday with a famous figure like General Lee. In The Crossings, based on his true story, I felt it appropriate to have a tie-in of his and General Lee's birthday.
In Chapter 5 of The Crossings, the 12 year-old Georgie is excited about his birthday and was surprised when his teacher asks the class whose birthday it was that day. He was excited when he thought she was announcing his birthday and equally disappointed when she declared, “It’s Robert E. Lee’s birthday.”
When I was writing those passages, I decided to do some additional research on what else was going on in the world on January 19, 1932, the day in reference. I went to the internet and was searching through old newspaper headlines. In the Times Star, a daily Cincinnati newspaper, there was an article about Tillie, a famous elephant with the Robinson Circus which was wintering in Terrace Park, who had died and was going to be buried on the 19th in an old abandoned cistern. Oh no! That information was too unique to let go by without some reference in the book, I thought. So I had Schmitty, Georgie’s buddy whom earlier I had made a Times Star delivery boy, mention it to Georgie at the time when he was expecting a happy birthday greeting from him. I got it in!
Ironically, in today’s conversation on 700 WLW of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus announcing they were closing, some say caused in large part by their agreement not to use elephants in their shows, it was mentioned that there was an elephant buried in a cistern nearby. Who would have thought?
Also, in Chapter 13, Georgie discovers Lee Circle in New Orleans which contains a 60 foot pedestal topped with a life-size statue of, who else, Robert E. Lee! I also didn’t know of it until I was doing research of New Orleans for the book. Again I felt compelled to work it in somewhere, given my father’s fascination with General Lee, so I had Georgie join a Mardi Gras parade that ended at the Circle.
Perhaps the moral of this story is, “Be careful what you look for.”
(Answer to the riddle, "What do you get when you cross Robert E. Lee with an elephant?"
– "An el-lee-phant!")