WOSTER: Never too old for dinosaurs
It shouldn’t be an issue in anyone’s life, but a while back I realized I was jealous of a dinosaur.
It wasn’t just any dinosaur. It was a Tyrannosaurus rex, or T-rex, the so-called king of dinosaurs and the huge, vicious creature featured in the movie “Jurassic Park’’ and so many other fantasy films about people going to lost worlds or hidden islands and encountering prehistoric beasts and birds.
I became jealous late last spring with a spate of news stories told about a Smithsonian National Museum exhibit opening with the showing of a T-rex found 30 years ago near the Fort Peck Reservoir in western Montana. A well-known paleontologist called the Montana find one of the most complete T-rex fossils ever uncovered. Apparently more than 80 percent of the skeleton was eventually found. Some news stories I read even referred to the Montana fossil as “the nation’s T-rex.’’
Well, that’s fine for Montana, but I still remember being a news reporter during the discovery of a huge T-rex fossil out somewhere west of Faith right here in South Dakota. The fossil was named Sue. People fought over the legal ownership of the prehistoric bones, and eventually Sue went on display in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
I wrote several news stories about the find and the fights, and I followed the progress of old Sue right up to the placement in the Chicago museum. At one point in the process, the Sioux Falls newspaper sent me, photographer Lloyd Cunningham and reporter Jomay Steen out to the area to try to talk to the person who owned the land where Sue was discovered.
Jomay grew up in the Cheyenne River area, and she tried mightily, if unsuccessfully, to convince the rancher to talk with us. Undaunted, she contacted someone who owned land nearby, and we were able to cross a couple of pastures and fences and reach a place much like the one where Sue rested for centuries (something like 67 million years, according to one piece I saw on the subject.)
The place we visited looked a lot like most of the places a traveler sees when driving through South Dakota’s Badlands. Erosion cut deep cracks in the sides of the draws, scraggly native grasses clung to the tops of eroding mesas and chalky-white water pooled at the bottom of ravines. If I’d been alone, I think I might have started to hear large footsteps, but with Lloyd and Jomay around, I didn’t have time to let my imagination run wild. One valley held an abandoned shack and trailer, which looked to me as if maybe some researchers and diggers had just stepped away.
As an aside, I often mowed over old bones while cutting lakebeds back on the farm. Sometimes I turned them up as I broke a patch of ground with a three-bottom plow. I didn’t give them a second thought, unless one of the skulls or thigh bones plugged the sickle bar and I had to stop the tractor, climb down and clear the bar. Looking back, who knows how many invaluable sets of bones I was casually tossing away when I was a kid? I could be fabulously wealthy right now, maybe with some critter’s bones on display in a national museum.
I believe Sue was discovered in the summer of 1990. That same year, Michael Crichton published the novel “Jurassic Park’’ from which the movie was later taken. I read the book before the movie came out and well before I reported on Sue. Perhaps those experiences, along with the Faith-area visit had me feeling a bit territorial as I read about Montana’s discovery. I had some time and effort invested in Sue.
More likely I was simply remembering all of the times as a kid when the family visited the dinosaur sculptures on Skyline Drive above Rapid City. A visit to the Black Hills wasn’t complete without a trip up the hill. The sculptures were life-sized and we’d climb all over them. I knew about them before I learned of Sue, and long, long before anybody found the T-rex in Montana.