Wednesday, June 10, 2020

How I Became A Dinosaur Hunter

Little Sonny Hickam (him being me as a boy), about the time
 he started sifting through Coalwood's fossils

           When I was a boy in the little mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia, I became aware of a huge dump of rejected coal that was also the repository of vast quantities of fossils. Fascinated and mystified, I often went there to peel away slabs of coal to reveal strange, tropical plants. Coalwood was a place where there were heavy snows in the winter so that didn't make a lot of sense. It was as if these remnants were from a different world and, in a way, they were.
            The era that produced the fossils inside the coal that my boyhood hands opened like pages of an ancient book was called the Carboniferous Period, a weird but extremely productive time for life on Earth. Because the world was warmer and wetter and its atmosphere contained much more carbon dioxide than today, our planet was essentially a greenhouse where plants grew without restraint. This went on for about six hundred thousand centuries until plants completely engulfed what was then a single continent we now refer to as Pangea. From space, had there been anyone up there to observe our world, it would have looked like a huge bright green lily pad floating on a dazzling blue sea, an ocean that was filled to the brim with creatures from single cells to complex organisms, most of them feeding on the detritus washed into it from the overgrown land.

Carboniferous Era - Hot, muggy, lots of oxygen and carbon dioxide
to help plants grow and ready, given 300 million years or so, to turn itself into coal

           So much carbon was ingested by the plants that flooded across the planet, the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere rose to almost twice what it is today. The fires caused by lightning must have been spectacular. Eventually, huge mats of dead plants and ashes clogged all the major waterways. This phenomenon created vast deserts which caused the extinction of many species of reptiles, amphibians, fish, and insects. It was a great incongruity. An overabundance of life made remorseless death spread across the Earth. It also eventually created the layers of coal that lay in thick seams beneath my home town.
            As my boyhood self pondered the impressions of these old plants, I often wondered if I would find a dinosaur. Later in my education, I would learn that the Carboniferous age occurred well before they existed but the old dump had still started something in my head, an interest in all that had come before and how life had changed over time. After I became a scuba diver, this curiosity led me to explore caverns in Florida where I'd been told bones from extinct cave bears existed and, in a deep dive down a funnel of rock, I found a complete skeleton. When I ventured off to Honduras to map the reefs on the "lost" island of Guanaja, I climbed into its mountainous terrain and found pottery shards and decorative items created by the Payan people (akin to the Maya). These discoveries, along with books about ages past, somewhat satisfied my itch to understand prehistory but I never forgot about those days when I sat on a coal dump and wished I could find a dinosaur.

This book changed the way millions looked at dinosaurs AND Paleontology

            When the novel Jurassic Park was published, like millions of other readers, I devoured Michael Crichton's story. Although it was an obviously fictional tale, it included information about the new science behind dinosaurs that theorized they were much more active and a lot different than we had been led to believe. After the movie came out and I saw the actor-paleontologists digging them up, I started thinking again how amazing it would be to find a dinosaur fossil although I had no real idea how to do it and, my writing career just taking off, was too busy to take the time to find out. It was just something I'd always kind of wanted to do but probably never would.

Me reading Jurassic Park. Oh, wait, that's Elon reading my
novel The Dinosaur Hunter. Never mind...
           Enter the force I think of as Kismet, the strange and curious destiny that seems to control my life. To my way of thinking, this ancient proposition is something greater than having a predetermined fate. It is a power outside of ourselves that somehow recognizes that which we need and opens a path that we may choose to follow or not. If chosen, it allows a life to not just be led but savored. The trick, however, is recognizing Kismet when it arrives and then having the will to follow it along passages that may not be easy and may, in fact, be very hard. Such was the path that opened for me to become a dinosaur hunter.
            My connection to the film Jurassic Park was that it happened to star Laura Dern who played the part of a paleontologist. A few years later, Ms. Dern also played my teacher Miss Riley in October Sky, the film based on my memoir Rocket Boys. When she and I attended the Venice Film Festival for the showing of October Sky, we talked mostly about Jurassic Park. She told me she loved working on the movie but confessed she hadn't actually visited a real dinosaur dig and didn't recall meeting any real dinosaur hunters or paleontologists. She couldn't help me find a dinosaur fossil but she said, "You know what, Homer, I bet you'll find one if that's what you want to do. Don't ask me how I know, I just do."

October Sky movie poster - That's
Laura Dern on the right. On the left is
that other guy as older Sonny (Homer) when he no longer played on a coal dump

to look for fossils but launched rockets, instead
            And so it was because of Laura Dern in association with that Kismet thing that found me and my wife Linda one bright California morning sitting in the kitchen of Joe Johnston, the director of October Sky who, in a lull in the conversation, said to me, "Homer, I was talking to Laura Dern the other day and she said she thought you might be interested in what I've been doing."
            Joe left the kitchen and soon returned with a cigar box filled with rough yellowish fragments, the biggest of which was perhaps only several inches wide. "Dinosaur bones," he said and went on to explain that he'd picked them up while scouting locations for his next movie which was to be the third in the Jurassic Park series titled, appropriately enough, Jurassic Park III.

Dinosaur bone chips called "Float" like Joe Johnston showed me
           At the sight of the dusty bone chunks within the cigar box, I found myself unaccountably thrilled. "Where did you find these?" I asked, taking the box from Joe.
            "Montana," Joe said and reached to take the bones back.
            I pulled the box away and my interrogation continued. "Where in Montana?"
            "Well, we start in Bozeman but you probably don't know where that is."
            "Oh, but I do!" It was even the truth. My wife Linda and I had friends in Bozeman, a fine couple named Frank and Naomi Stewart. We regularly visited them every winter to go skiing. All of a sudden, I was that boy sitting on a coal dump peeling open slabs of coal looking for dinosaurs. "Joe, the next time you go out there, can I go with you?"
            Joe smiled. "Sorry, Homer. We're done scouting."
            I couldn't let it go. "If you'll tell me where you were," I proposed, "maybe I could go there and look around?"
            "You can't just pick up dinosaur bones,” Joe explained. He was now frowning. “You have to go with somebody who knows what he's doing."
            "Who did you go with?" I asked.
            "Dr. Horner is his name," Joe answered, "but he doesn't let just anybody go out with him. I only got to go because we hired him to be an advisor on our movie."
            The bones in the box had cast a spell over me. "But if you asked him,” I pressed, “do you think he'd let me go with him?"
            This time, Joe managed to wrest the box out of my hands and carried it back from whence it came. While he was out of the room, Linda brought up some facts for my due consideration. "Homer, you can't go to Montana. You've got speeches scheduled nearly every week for the rest of the year and have you forgotten your book deadline?"
            I hadn't forgotten. After all, I was already on chapter two and I had months (well, ok, one) to get it done but I could already feel that I not only wanted to but needed to take that Coalwood boy I once was and find, as I always wanted to do whether I knew it or not, dinosaur bones in Montana.
            When Joe returned, I kept pressing him until he said that maybe he could find out if I could go with Dr. Horner at some unspecified time in the undetermined future. Recognizing that was as far as he was willing to go, I finally fell silent about the matter and our visit was done. On the way to the airport, I reflected that maybe I was just being silly. What was the big deal about finding dinosaurs, anyway? When we got home, I got back to working on the book manuscript but, when I looked up from my computer or was out running, I still couldn’t shake the idea of going out to Montana and looking for ancient bones. To that end, I kept sending Joe occasional emails, asking him to please ask Dr. Horner on my behalf. He never answered until, to my astonishment, he surprised me with a call. Dr. Horner had given me permission to visit his summer camp near Fort Peck Reservoir in northeast Montana.
            My response, after a thank you, was, "How about Frank?"
            "Frank Stewart, my buddy in Bozeman."
            "Just you, Homer," he said and, after claiming he was busy which might have even been true, Joe Johnston hung up.
            I sat back in my chair and gave it some thought.  After a few moments of mental gymnastics, I decided surely it would be OK to bring Frank along. If there was any objection, I could explain him away as my driver or something. A preacher back in Coalwood used to say, "When a door closes, the good Lord will open another one."  My mom used to add, "If that doesn't work, Sonny boy, knock out a window and crawl through it."

The Dino Boys Caricature by
the great Don Howard

Frank and Homer - Dino Hunters

        Since I was my mother's son, I subsequently dialed Frank's number.  "Would you like to go with me to hunt dinosaurs?" I asked as soon as he picked up.
            "Sure," Frank said, and then, after a pause, "What was the question again?"
            And that's pretty much how Frank Stewart and I became true dinosaur hunters and also when I began my somewhat obsessive quest to find for myself not only dinosaur bones but, at the behest of one of the greatest paleontologists of them all, the remains of a young version of that ancient and entirely glorious but ultimately tragic creature known formally and majestically as Tyrannosaurus rex.
The Day I found my little T