Most times, the Mea Culpa Mailbag is devoted to a few brief snippets from reader letters and e-mails. But this week, we stray from the norm to present a delightful and bizarre saga.
Remember the column about skunks and the tale of Action Line being sprayed by a skunk just before for a dinner date with the as-yet-to-become Mrs. Action Line?
Loyal readers Don and Barb Bruning communicated a story that tops it by a mile.
How many of us can say we showed up for a meet-the-family Thanksgiving dinner horribly late and reeking of dead elephant?
It happened about 40 years ago, when Don and Barb were just starting to date.
"We both worked at the Bronx Zoo, where I was a graphic designer and Don was a young staff ornithologist," Barb recalled from their home in the Animas Valley.
Their romance was going along just swell, so Barb invited Don to a traditional family Thanksgiving at her sister's house.
But on that fateful Thanksgiving, one of the zoo's large elephants unexpectedly kicked the bucket.
"When any animal dies, we have to do an immediate (necropsy) to find out the cause of death in case there's a disease or risks to the other animals," Don said.
"The problem is, an elephant autopsy is very difficult," he added. "You can't move something that big to the hospital. We had to do the work in the enclosure, at the spot where the elephant died."
An elephant autopsy is a big deal in the zoology world. In fact, for the next several decades of his career at the zoo, Don never again had the opportunity to assist in dissecting a pachyderm.
Don recalled it was all-hands-on-deck.
"There were two or three veterinarians, mammal curators, the elephant keepers - anyone who could help that holiday was needed," he said.
The elephant's legs had to be winched upward, and Don helped prop open the abdomen "so the vets could go inside to examine every organ and get samples for testing."
Anyway, without getting into too much detail, an elephant necropsy is a lengthy and messy business. Despite having gloves and scrubs, some of the - ahem - juices soaked into his clothes, along with a few choice fleshy bits.
Additional olfactory surprises came from a few light splashes of formaldehyde and alcohol used to preserve samples.
Already running late, Don washed up and hopped in his Corvette to make the 20-minute drive to Barb's sister's house.
"We had put dinner on hold," Barb recalled. "When he showed up, he said, 'I'm so sorry, but I had to participate in an elephant autopsy.' That impressed my sister," she said.
"Not many people have an excuse like that," Barb added. "It certainly became the conversation around the Thanksgiving dinner table."
Barbara couldn't smell anything awry on Don, "but my family did make some comments afterward," she said. "Apparently it was terrible."
Despite being tardy and malodorous, Don had the honor of carving the turkey.
Slicing up a turkey is child's play after one slices up an elephant - and Don didn't recall the status of the bird's giblets.
But all's well that ends well.
The dinner was a success, and Barb's sister and the rest of the family took an immediate liking to Don.
The zoo ran tests that confirmed the 30-year-old elephant died of tuberculosis, but the TB was not infectious and all the other animals were OK.
Barb and Don's love continued to grow, and they later wed.
They say an elephant never forgets. The same can be said of never forgetting an elephant, especially when it's an unexpected Thanksgiving guest.
E-mail questions to email@example.com or mail them to Action Line, The Durango Herald, 1275 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81301. You can request anonymity if you have an even better excuse for being late to dinner.