On April 20th, George O’Connor, Simon Fraser, Becky Cloonan, Robin Ha and I went to the Museum of Natural History to draw dinosaur bones.
I did these sketches and then wrote this short story about the time I was six years old.
My love of dinosaurs is not as deep as George and Simon’s seem to be, but I think there’s a reason for that.
I have a distinct memory of when I was first mesmerized by those frightening prehistoric reptiles. I lived in upstate New York as a child. WAY upstate. I never visited any museums with real dinosaur fossils. For me, seeing those giant assemblages of bones in their attack poses was something that only happened in movies. No, I had no museum I only had a woman we’ll call, “Betty.”
My mother was the head nurse at a nursing home and worked with a large group of women who were also her circle of friends. Betty, a chubby woman with a beehive hairdo, had teenage children who now spent their nights at ball games or driving the borrowed car to places where girls hung out. Her kids had no need for their childish possessions anymore.
Thus, one day as my Mother’s friends gathered in our kitchen for cheese and gossip, Betty handed me a large book with a big claw like footprint on the cover. It was a book about dinosaurs. She told me her children didn’t read it anymore and I could have it.
It was already on the verge of falling apart when she gave it to me, but I remember slowly reading about how cowboys followed a lightening strike in the desert that revealed a pterodactyl fossil in the side of a hill. I didn’t understand exactly what the lighting bolt had to do with a dinosaur fossil at that young age, but I assumed that was the story of how the first dinosaur was discovered.
Many times after that when Betty visited, she seemed to have another dinosaur book she brought with her.
“I found another old book my kids don’t need anymore.” She would say as she handed it to me. I soon gave her the best nick name a six year old could come up with; “The Dinosaur Lady.” One time she even walked into our house and asked me why I wasn’t watching the monster movie. “It’s got dinosaurs in it!” she said and showed me what channel it was on. I was shocked that an adult actually knew when Monster movies were on. I thought I was the only one who secretly scanned the newspaper TV schedule for these rare screenings. Secretly, because my parent frowned upon such moves.
While at our house, Betty and the other nurses sipped from bottles of Budweiser or Old Milwaukee. They smoked cigarettes, complained and laughed loudly at jokes they told quietly when I was nearby. They let me taste beer so they could watch me make a sour face, and Betty would either have another book for me or be patient enough to let me show her one of the books she already gave me. Books she must have known by heart bone by bone, but she listened to me as she blew the smoke out the side of her mouth and away from me.
One day I sat on the floor occupied with a toy I can no longer remember. I sat not far from the telephone and didn’t really notice it ringing. My Mother answered, let out a shout and sat hard in the desk chair. Rattled out of my pretend world by her pained voice, I watched her hold one hand over her eyes while the other held the phone receiver tight to her ear. She cursed to herself and made painful sounds to who ever was on the other end of the line. She hung up and held her head in both hands with elbows on the desk.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her.
“You know the woman you call the Dinosaur lady?” she said rather quickly as if she didn’t have time to tell me. “Well, she died.”
“How did that happen?” I asked.
My Mom answered with a touch of anger in her voice I mistakenly though was aimed at me. “She ate a whole bunch of pills. A lot of pills.”
I didn’t know what that really meant at that age and my Mom wasn’t of a generation that believed in explaining these things.
That First dinosaur book she gave me eventually fell apart and as I got older I forgot the “Dinosaur Lady’s” real name.
It is now generally believed that the mysterious mass extinction of most of the dinosaurs 61 million years ago occurred due to a massive asteroid impacting the planet.
I wish we were certain that we knew this was the reason.