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From The Vault Of Art Shay: The Giraffes Of Des Plaines, Illinois

By Art Shay in News on Sep 12, 2013 6:00PM

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. This week, Art shares a prank he pulled in a newspaper 53 years ago.)

We all have done things in our life that bring bright red blushes of shame to our pallid cheeks when we think of them .With me it's a toss-up between describing a fictional invasion of Des Plaines, Ill. by a swarm of imaginary giraffes and shopping for (and actually buying) designer wallpaper for a pet skunk. The skunk is long gone but his bathroom on the lower level of this menagerie is still there, covering the spare bathroom with a wild savannah of green jungle life, chimpanzees and all. The giraffes—that is to say their descendants—are back in Africa where they belong, plodding the plains of what used to be Tanganyika. (In 1944 England, Hemingway and I would agree that “Tanganyika" was one of the loveliest words we had ever read as kids. And in Papa's case, went on to write about.)

So why am I blushing?

Well, it was my birthday the last day of March 1960. I was the proprietor of a vastly popular humor column for the Des Plaines Journal called "Midwest Merry Go Round." One of my numerous kids shouted while falling up the stairs- "Hey, Dad: tomorrow's April Fool."

Well, Life magazine sent me out once to cover the sighting of a cougar had escaped from a small circus—so I began my column:

"For three weeks now the Everett Petersons, who farm 80 acres off Wolf Road, have been plagued by giraffes, and have been unable to get anyone of authority in town—or out for that matter—to help them solve their problem.

"’Two years ago, when citizens of Des Plaines were besieged by a single cougar, local police, state police and various other agencies all took an active interest in hunting down the marauder,’ Mr. Peterson pointed out in an exclusive interview yesterday." (In those pre-TV days it was much easier to score exclusive interviews with imaginary farmers. You didn't even have to be a busty blonde.) “Said Peterson ,’But when you tell anyone about these giraffes , they just laugh at you and say, 'Sober up.!'”

"When Peterson called the JOURNAL yesterday morning , alleging that he and his farm hands had caught two more outside his storage bin at dawn, and that his total bag of the long-necked beasts was now seven, Publisher Dick Wessell , reporter Toni Dewey and I (with camera at the ready) raced out to the farm to see for ourselves. Peterson, a short leathery man who wears a broad-brimmed hat that, like himself, has shaded better days, welcomed our team with the same kind of skepticism he expected from us. ‘I suppose you think I'm crazy,’ was his greeting.

"No," said Dick, "but before printing a story like this I—

“Just then we heard a shout from behind the barn. One of the hands yelled out, ‘Hey Everett, we need some more hay: they ate all that you put out already’

“’It's the new one!’ Everett shouted back. ‘They're always the hungriest right after you catch ‘em. Must be a female!’ We laughed at his little sexist joke and watched him help his man fork out four bales of hay out the barn window.

"’Do you really have giraffes back there, Mr. Peterson? ’Toni asked, suppressing a chuckle.

“Peterson's ice gray eyes froze colder. "You're just like the rest of them,’ he said testily, and walked away. I followed him with my camera.

“Warily the three of us edged around the barn and sure enough there were eight of the creatures, each only eight feet high but unmistakably giraffes. I began taking pictures .’Pretty small for giraffes,’ I said to Peterson. ‘Brookfield Zoo has ‘em up to 17 feet.

“Peterson snorted. ‘We ain't running no zoo,’ he said, spitting in pointed exclamation. ‘Besides, if these Des Plaines giraffes keep eating my hay they'll by 17 feet by summer.
"’But where do they come from?’ Toni asked, rubbing the nose of the smallest, who'd come up to inspect us interlopers. (How strange we must look to the lordly giraffe, I thought. No neck to speak of, two truncated legs, no tail, bland skin without a trace of design—and such tiny, tiny ears.)

"’They're after the corn!’ the hired man yelled.

"’Let ‘em eat about a foot's worth off'n the top,’ Peterson ordered. ‘We'd lose that much to the rats anyway.’ A frugal farmer. I asked him where he thought they came from. He kicked dirt with the point of his left shoe. ’I figger they're from the Cole Carnival that came through and parked in a siding just west of town. At least two of the mature ones escaped and they're out there somewhere spawning as fast as they can!’ Dick Wessell said, ‘Could be the same carny that lost the cougar. Or some migrant workers kept them as pets till they got too big.’

“There was a sound of stuttering giraffe hooves in the distance. ‘Get the lasso!’ Peterson yelled. ‘Wanna come along?’ We followed him down to a cutback- where he waved his Stetson and curled his lariat overhead. As a giraffe came past us, he yelled, ‘Now!’ and let fly. The loop hit just above the long graceful neck and snapped him up short. Peterson had hitched one end of his lariat to a nearby barkless elm—gnawed bare by giraffes, I learned later. Peterson whistled for his giraffe truck. When it drew up we watched him and his men load the animal.

"’I still don't believe it,” my publisher said, ‘but if Art Shay's pictures come out we’ll run the story.

"’But what do I do with all the giraffes?’ Peterson asked plaintively.’Who needs giraffes?’

“Wessell grabbed him by a lapel. ‘I'll bet a lot of people around Des Plaines would like them as pets,’ he said. ‘Why don't you advertise in the JOURNAL?’

The paper, with my affirming pictures, came out in 24 hours on All-Fools' Day. By noon the Principal of the school decided to let school out for the day and led three or four busloads of kids down Wolf Road until he either saw Peterson's farm or heard the giraffes' hoof beats. Within a couple of hours, TV, Life, Look and The Associated Press all made me tempting offers.

The lady who edited the JOURNAL said, "I know why you're keeping it secret, Art. You have a deal with Life magazine. "She never spoke to me again and didn't even respond to my sympathy card when her husband died.

I don't blush as much anymore, except when one of the kids, now Peterson's age, seeks me out to tell me of his disappointed hunt for giraffes along Wolf Road that day. I suspected the Principal would take it out on my kids, but fortunately we went to the end of Wolf Road and found a new home and new schools in Deerfield.

Published with permission.

If you can't wait until this time every week to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Chicago's Nelson Algren, is also available at Amazon.