Do you remember when Clarabelle the Hippo escaped from the Franklin Park Zoo in the early 70s? I wasn't living in Boston then and, obviously, I was much younger, but I vaguely remember Walter Cronkite reporting it on the nightly news. Some people remember it much better than I do. They are keeping the memory alive.
I was reminded of this event while taking an after dinner stroll this evening through Pope John Paul II Park, on the banks of the placid Neponset estuary. At one of the turns in the river, a small group had gathered shining flashlights and laser pointers over the gently lapping waves. "She's over there!" someone whispered loudly.
It was hard to tell with just flashlight beams, with all the reflected lights of the Quincy Inn and the bridge catching the gentle ripples in the river, but the crowd had gathered to gawk at what appeared to be a bobbing oil drum in mid river. "Sure," someone else said, "That's her."
One of the onlookers brought me up to speed. "She usually comes out on frigid nights when there's no moon," she told me. "We're not sure why but we are sure this is why no one has seen her directly for thirty years. It's a survival strategy: don't go out when people are around. She has to come out sometime though so she comes out when it's hardest to see her." Pope John Paul II Park is officially closed to after dinner strollers at sundown.
Someone coughed. "Shhhh!" a girl scolded, "You'll scare Clarabelle!" That's when I realized what we were supposed to be looking at. It really did look like a floating, abandoned oil drum to me.
That was before a snort echoed over the river's breast and there was a splash where the flashlights were pointed. After repeated tracking back and forth, the object afloat in the river couldn't be found. The girl turned and chided the person who coughed, "You did it, Mister! You scared Clarabelle! Now I'll never see her again!" She started whimpering and her mother tried to comfort her.
A hippopotamus can live 40-50 years, so Clarabelle's survival is within the realm of the possible. As an animal native to Africa, her chances in New England winters seem somewhat slim, but sometimes life is stranger than art. Another example of Dorchester cryptozoology. It's the people like I encountered tonight who keep these legends alive and make Dorchester history so interesting.