Cleaning out our cellar for the purpose of some remodeling, the opportunity, the necessity to scrounge through all those old, sealed boxes arose; an imperative that if we could do with less, the better when it came time to putting the detritus of a lifetime back down in that space where our, David’s and my, history quietly rests, mostly in the dark, important only in the rediscovery of forgotten moments, once prized treasures, utilitarian gadgets that have long since lost their usefulness.
And, a treasure I found.
As a child, we often visited the Denver Zoo. It was a special place. And, the singular most fascinating “exhibit” within the zoo was Velox, a blind polar bear who, each time we visited, paced back and forth, left to right, stepping no more than two or three feet either way. If Velox was sitting, her head was in constant motion, nose held high, back and forth, hearing, sniffing what it was she couldn’t see. She had been raised in a circus and, as a consequence, had known only the restriction of freedom within the small circus cage that had been her dismal home. The zoo provided, as I recall, a relatively spacious environment for her. But, she could never let loose of the confinement of her prior inhumane treatment. Back and forth. Back and forth.
I watched Velox with sorrow. Too sorrowful for my age…seven, eight, nine. But, she captivated me. And, if my parents would have let me, I would have ignored the other exhibits and simply sat with Velox for a while, wishing her life were somehow better, somehow more fulfilling.
The site, “Find a Grave,” provides information that Velox lived from 1934 to 1961, and was the mascot of 31st Reg. 7th Inf. Div U.S. Army. The picture I’ve provided here is from that site (provided by Eric Crow). The site also provides a picture of her grave marker.
I remember when Velox was near death, 1961, Jack Foster, the editor and CEO of the Rocky Mountain News wrote a column. I remember cutting out that column and placing it in an envelope…somewhere. I’ve never forgotten that column and have, for years, been reminded of Velox every time I’ve gone to the zoo, every time I’ve seen polar bears traipse across the teevee. And, before yesterday, I’ve often wondered if I would ever find that treasure I hoarded away so long ago. And, at the bottom of a deteriorating cardboard box, the tape enclosing it long since disintegrated, there was an envelope with the one word “Save” written on it. And, within was the browned, flaky tribute to Velox from February 14, 1961, written by Jack Foster.
Jack Foster was, as I said, the editor and CEO of the Rocky from 1940 to 1970. Foster is credited with saving the Rocky from imminent extinction by arguing with the Scripps-Howard owners for a move to a tabloid format. The move saved the paper. Foster’s wife, Frances Magnum, became “Molly Mayfield,” an advice columnist–long before “Dear Abby”–which became an enormously successful addition to the paper.
I can only observe that, in my lifetime, the Rocky was well-served by Foster; creating, if you will, the glory days of that newspaper.
So, please take some time, if you can, to read Foster’s remembrance of Velox. After viewing the grave marker on the above noted site, I am saddened that Foster’s suggestion for Velox’s headstone was not accepted.
Tuesday, February 14, 1961 – Rocky Mountain News “…End for Velox,” By Jack Foster, Editor of the RMN
(A monologue with Velox, blind polar bear which is slowly dying of old age at the Denver Zoo.)
I know how it is, old gal. Back’s weary, joints ache, too tired to eat any more. Just want to lie down and sleep. Doze softly in the sun…a long, long time.
I’ve seen that look around the eyes before…of old animals and old men. Though lost to sight, they look a far, far way. Far from the crippling aches of age. Far from the bars of the cage of life. Deep into the gray distance where old men and old animals meet in common quietude.
I saw the look one winter’s morning in the eyes of an old Airedale. As the film closed in, they saw for the last time the precious corners of the neighborhood where he stopped on his morning rounds. They saw the sun-flaked mountains which once his strong, young legs had conquered. And he stretched out in the inevitable meeting place which you today are sensing.
It broke my heart. It breaks my heart this morning to see you bent under the burden of life which once was fresh and sweet.
But I should feel much better if I only knew. If I only knew, old gal, that you realize the joy you have given for 20 years to Denver’s children. And to men with the hearts of children who are growing old themselves.
Sam had his streets and mountains. But you have had a fairer picture. An endless panoply of children’s faces which you have made to shine. And I pray that in these latter hours you know that this is true. For, if you do, I shall feel much less the sense of guilt I’ve always had because of the cage’s bars.
I know that bars are never sweet. I know the misery of only walking back and forth, back and forth. Never able to turn around because as a cub you were forced to live in a narrow circus cage. More desirable by far would be the freedom of ice floes, of the arctic storms, of the winter’s midnight sun. I know all this in sorrow.
But, after all, old gal, none of us can fully shape the pattern of his life. And none of us, as years restrain our efforts, is completely free. What we come to prize most, as wiser we become, is the inner satisfaction that we have been useful to someone. That someone needed us. That someone was happier because he passed our presence.
And so, old gal, bear gallantly these aches and ills, for there are thousands of children who are bearing them with you.
Bend quietly under the burden of years, for there are other old animals and old men whose backs are likewise bent.
Gaze peacefully toward the final meeting place, for you will not be forgotten.
And, when the burden is ended, I hope they will bury you on the hill where other mirth-giving animals are covered. And on a headstone I hope will be written this paraphrase of the inscription above a grave in an early Colorado mining camp.
She did what she could…
Can anything better be said of any old animal or any old man?