After I wrote in a recent blog about a visit to see the dinosaurs at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, I got an email from the guy who took me to see my first dinosaur exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution: Dad. As I’ve said previously, dinosaurs and fossils had the same fascination that they do for many kids, although, admittedly, I was a bit obsessed. I’ve always been a reader, and although I read a wide variety of things, I consumed every possible page I could find on ancient beasts, like this example, still in my possession (click on images for larger view):
Yes, good ol’ RCA: Roy Chapman Andrews; whale hunter, explorer of Asia, leader of the first fossil-hunting expedition to the Gobi Desert. Man, that guy was my hero (well, second to Dad).
Since I had referred in that blog to my lifelong fascination with Strange Beasts of the Past, and since he and my mother were instrumental in supporting and enabling that fascination, Dad reminded me of the time our family was on the scene not longer after a spectacular fossil discovery.
In August of 1962, a surveying crew discovered a very large bone outside of Crawford, Nebraska. They reported this find to the local museum, and an investigation turned into an excavation. As the site was excavated, it yielded first a Columbian Mammoth, and then a second mammoth. In addition to that almost impossibly rare occurrence, the tusks of the two beasts were intertwined, and the almost inescapable conclusion is that 11,000 years ago or so they were fighting each other, and died, locked together.
Even in sophisticated, urbane Crawford, the discovery of two massive creatures fossilized together in a battle to the death was front-page news:
Now, WHEN was that editor EVER going to write another headline like that in the remainder of his or her lifetime?
A week or so later, the Nixon family (five of us: the twins were too young to make the trip and stayed home with the grandparents) came through Crawford on the homeward leg of a driving trip that had taken us across South Dakota, to Rapid City, the Badlands, the Black Hills. At least as far as budding paleontologist, Brad, was concerned, our timing couldn’t have been better!
By the time we arrived on the scene, the plaster-encased fossils had been moved to the Fort Robinson Trailside Museum. Our visit coincided with one by a photographer from the local newspaper. So, there we are, right next to the Mighty Mammoths:
These mammoth skeletons have had quite a history after their discovery. They were moved to Lincoln, where they have a university, a state capitol, an airport, a football team: all the comforts of a metropolis. Assumedly, mammoths got accustomed to the bright lights and nonstop celebrity attention. Now they are, reportedly, being returned to the Crawford area for display, retiring to their native home after decades of being studied there in Lincoln.
Mom and Dad went far out of their way to accommodate my interests, and those of my brothers and sister. I’m older and louder, and certainly got my share of that attention, and my gratitude for their forbearance never ceases.
To learn more about the Crawford mammoths, and see a video from the PBS Nova series, visit http://trailside.unl.edu/mammothmystery.html. They also have some of those new-fangled color photos of how the skeletons look unpacked from their plaster casts.
I opened the cover of that worn and weathered copy of All About Strange Beasts of the Past while I was scanning the image. Here’s a look at the inside cover:
In the upper left, that’s my mother’s unmistakable (excellent) handwriting (nurses have excellent handwriting, because they have to compensate for the illegible scrawls of the doctors they work with). It’s my name and our phone number, 2-1172, a number that is engraved on my memory, because, like children across the years, I was trained to KNOW THAT NUMBER in case of an emergency. Five digits. I’ve always remembered it. Yes, in that long-ago time, you could call us by dialing five digits (on your rotary phone). My mother knew I’d take that book to school and made certain that someone would be able to return it to me if I left it somewhere. I didn’t realize she’d done that until this day, fifty years later.
© 2012, 2016 Brad Nixon. Book cover is the property of Random House.