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© 1998 Robert M. (Bob) Leahy                           

2110 E. Crosby Road

Carrollton, TX  75006

(972) 416 - 6098

 

Approximate Word Count: 4,335

 

 

 

Dinosaur Bones

 

 

Billy Batsen was Matt’s best friend.  Both boys were eight, but Billy knew a lot more about being eight than Matt because he had been eight longer.  Besides, he had an older sister.

            Both boys carried backpacks but on opposite shoulders, so the packs bracketed them as they walked down the street side by side.  Billy’s blond hair was longer than Matt’s brown hair; it curled out from under his St. Louis Cardinal’s baseball cap.  Matt’s hair, on the other hand, was clipped to it ended at the frames of his glasses.

            From down the street, Billy’s sister, Valerie, called.  “Billy, Mom wants you home.  Now.”

            “I gotta go,” Billy told Matt.  “When are we gonna go digging at the creek?”

            “I don’t know,” Matt answered.  “If my grandpa comes over tomorrow, he’ll come with.  He usually comes for lunch.

            “When will you know if he’s coming?” Billy asked.

            “Tomorrow,” Matt replied.  “In the morning.”

            “Then call me in the morning.  Okay?”

            “Billy,” Valerie yelled again.  “Get home right now.”

            “Being eight stinks,” Billy grumbled.

            “What do you mean?” Matt asked.

            “I mean it stinks.”  The authoritative way Billy repeated his evaluation made Matt stop walking.  Then, Billy stopped, too.  “Look at the way your parents treat you,” Billy said as he turned to face Matt who had fallen several paces behind.  “My sister, Valerie, is only ten.  But she gets to stay up a whole hour later than me.  When I ask why I can’t stay up longer, Mom and Dad always say, ‘You’re too young.’”

            Matt nodded in agreement.  He too wanted to stay up longer but was still sent to bed like he was a little kid.

            “But then,” Billy went on, “when you forget to do something, like take out the trash, Mom will say, “A big boy doesn’t forget his responsibilities.’”

            Although Matt didn’t have to take out the trash, he knew what his friend was talking about.  Just yesterday, when he had been playing in the back yard, he had gotten hurt.  He got splinters in his hand climbing over the neighbor’s fence to get his baseball.  When he went into the house, he showed his mom the splinters.  He wasn’t really crying, not then.  But the splinters did hurt, and there were tears in his eyes.  His Dad was home, too.  And when he saw the tears, he said, “Big boys don’t cry over a few splinters.”  His Dad left him in the kitchen with Mom.  Matt knew Dad was disappointed in him.  And that made the splinters hurt more.  Mom said, “That’s okay, Baby,” as she used tweezers to pull the splinters out.  “Now be a big boy.  Go in and wash your hands and dry your tears.”

            The more Matt thought about it, the more he agreed with Billy.  Being eight certainly did stink.  But what could he do about it.  He wouldn’t be nine for almost a whole year.

            Billy’s sister, Valerie, called a third time.  “Hey, Billy.  You better get home right now.  Mom’s really mad at you because you didn’t make your bed this morning.”

            Billy sighed.  “See,” he said simply.  “It just plain ole’ stinks.”

            “Yeah,” Matt agreed.  “Well, see you later.”

            Matt watched as Billy ran for his house.  Then he shuffled through the leaves in the park on the way home.  I wish I weren’t eight, he thought to himself.  He looked back towards Billy’s house.  At least I wish they didn’t treat me like a baby.

            “What the matter, Honey,” Mom asked as he came through the back door into the kitchen.

            “Nothin’.”

            “Then what are you thinking about?” she asked.

            “Thinking about?”

            “Yes, his mother replied.  “I’ve been watching you since you started to walk through the park.  Something was on your mind.  I could tell by the way you walked.”

            Matt looked up at her; she smiled in return.

            “Do you want some milk and a sandwich,” she asked.  “You can tell me what you were thinking about while you eat it.”

            “Okay,” he said, setting his backpack by the door.

            “Peanut butter?  Cheese?”

            “Peanut butter,” Matt said.  “And jelly.”

            Matt watched as his mother spread a thick glob of peanut butter across the white bread.  She always started with the glob in the middle.  She pushed the knife through the glob toward the top of the bread, and then turned the slice around before she finished spreading the peanut butter.  Matt could already smell the peanut butter.  And he was hungry.

            “Strawberry or grape?” Mom asked him as she stepped to the refrigerator.

            “Grape,” Matt replied, as if there were any real choice.

            His mother smiled as she used the spoon to spread the jelly over the peanut butter.  After she finished the sandwich, Mom poured two glasses of milk, and brought them to the table.

            Matt bit into the sandwich.  “Mmm-mm,” he said around a mouthful of peanut butter and jelly.  He gulped some milk to unstick the peanut butter, then, imitating Dad, said, “That really hits the spot.”

            “I’m glad,” Mom replied, smiling as she sipped her milk.  She studied her son over the rim of her glass.

            In no time, Matt devoured the sandwich.  He could feel Mom watching him.  Pretending not to notice, he asked, “ Is Grampa coming over tomorrow?”

            “I think so,” she said.  “Why do you ask?”

            “Me and Billy wanted to go digging at Como Creek.  We want to find some bones.  And, if Grampa comes, he can help us keep track of what he find.”

            “Well, that certainly sounds like important work.”

            A moment of silence followed.  Matt’s mother continued to study her son.  He fiddled with his empty glass.  Finally, Mom asked, “So, are you going to tell me what you were thinking about?”

            “Aw, Mom,” Matt protested.

            “Wasn’t that our deal?” she asked.

            “Well...okay,” Matt said slowly.  “You won’t get mad, will you?”

            “I don’t plan to, Honey.” she said.  “But I won’t know until I hear what you have to say.”

            “Well, it’s just that Billy says being eight stinks.”  Matt looked closely at his mother before he continued.  “He says we’re not treated like we’re grown up.  And we are.  You tell me big boys should do stuff like set the table and make the bed.  And you get mad when I don’t do them.  So, we’re not babies.”

            “And what does Matt think?” she asked him.

            “I don’t know.  I mean, I think I should go to bed later.  But you say I’m too young.” 

            Matt stopped and looked at his mother, expecting her to say something.  But she didn’t.  She nodded for him to continue. 

            “But sometimes you call me Baby or you say I’m acting like a baby.  And I’m not.  It’s just like Billy says.”

            “Well, then, you’re right.”

            Matt looked at her skeptically.  “I am?” he asked.

            “Yes, Honey, you are,” she answered.   She searched her son’s face before asking, “Now, what can we do to fix it so that eight won’t stink?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “Let’s try and figure it out together.  You tell me what you don’t like, and I’ll try to figure out how to make it better. “

            Matt looked up at his mother and back down at the glass.

            “Didn’t you say you didn’t like being called Baby?” she asked.

            “Yes,” he answered quietly.

            “Why does that bother you?”

            “Because I’m not a baby.  Babies can’t do anything.  All they do is cry.”

            “I see,” his mother said.

            “I hardly ever cry--unless something really hurts.  And that’s not being a baby, is it?”

            “No,” she said.  “It isn’t.”

            The two were silent for a moment.

            “So what should we do about it?” Mom finally asked him.

            “Stop calling me a baby,” he said.

            “All right.  I’ll try,” she said.  “And I’ll tell your father, too.  But remember, we sometimes forget.  And, if you are grown up, you won’t get mad.  You’ll understand that we just don’t like something you are doing.”

            “If you call me a baby, what can I do,” Matt asked.

            “You can remind us that you are no longer a baby.  But you have to be nice about it.  You can’t just yell at us.  You should say something like, ‘Remember, Mom.  You promised you wouldn’t call me that anymore.’  If you do that, and I try to stop calling you a baby, maybe being eight won’t be so bad.

            “Anything else you don’t like?” she asked, while taking his plate and glass to the sink.

            “I think I should be able to stay up later.  Only little kids in kindergarten go to bed when I do.”

            “Okay, we’ll talk about that when your father comes home.  Think about how late you should stay up.  Then, ask your father if you can stay up until that time.  Just remember that you will still have to get up and get ready for school.  And your teacher can’t tell me you’re falling asleep in the afternoon.  If you don’t keep your end of the bargain, then your father and I will have to change your bed time back to where it is now.”

*      *      *

 

When Matt slid into the front seat of his grandfather’s car, he was asked, “Are you too tired?”

            “What,” Matt asked.

            “Your father tells me you stayed up later last night than usual,” his grandfather said.  “I was just wondering if you were tired.  We don’t have to dig today, you know.”

            Matt could tell by the twinkle in Grampa’s eyes and the smile on his face that he was just teasing.  “No, I ain’t tired.  Besides, if we don’t dig today, we may not get the chance.  Winter’s coming.

            “So it is,” his grandfather replied.  “So it is.”

            As his grandfather eased the old Ford station wagon out of the driveway and started toward Billy’s house, Matt asked, “Do you really think we’ll find something, Grampa?”

            “Oh, I don’t know,” his grandfather said.    “But since that big landslide that dammed up the creek, there’s a chance we’ll find something along the face of the bluff.”

            Billy was standing on the curb with his backpack when they pulled up.

            “I saw you coming,” Billy said, sliding into the middle seat of the car.

            “Great,” Matt’s grandfather said.  “Did you remember to bring some pencils and paper along with the picks and brushes?”

            “I put in my pack, Grampa.  I even brought my camera,” Matt said.

            The old man smiled.  “You really are pretty organized.  I sometimes wish my students at the university would plan as well as you do.”

            Matt smiled proudly.

            “Are any of your students going to be at the creek today?” Billy asked.

            “Not today.  I plan on having them out there next spring.  The embankment needs to settle a bit more before I let all those students out there on it.”

            “Will it be dangerous for us?” Billy asked, wide eyed.

            “I don’t think so,” Matt’s grandfather replied.  You two don’t weigh as much as any of my college students do.  We’ll stay in the center of the slide, and we’ll be safely tethered together.

            “I’ve been reading in those books you gave me,” Matt said.  “I think we should find something around here.”

            “Oh,” Grampa replied.  “What do you think we’ll find?”

            “Maybe a whale dinosaur,” Matt said.

            “A whale dinosaur?” Billy asked.

            “Yes,” Matt answered.  “Remember, I told you that this part of Wyoming used to be part of the ocean--a long time ago?”

            “Sure, I remember,” Billy replied.  “But I never heard of no what dinosaur.”

            “Oh, there are quite a few whale dinosaurs, Billy,” Matt’s grandfather said.  “They’re called cetiosaurs.  The ceti means whale.

            “Wow,” Billy said.

            “Any particular kind of whale dinosaur you think we’ll find, Matt?” Grampa asked.

            Matt thought for a moment, then said, “Maybe a haplo...a haplo--”

            “A haplocanthasaurus?” his grandfather asked.

            “Yes,” Matt answered.  “A haplo--canthasaurus.”

            “Why did you pick that one?” Grampa asked him.

            “You said you thought the landslide exposed layers of dirt from one hundred and fifty million years ago,” Matt said.

            “Wow,” Billy said again.

            “And that’s when whale dinosaurs were around.  And that’s when Wyoming was part of the ocean.”

            “You have been doing some pretty careful reading, I see,” Matt’s grandfather said.  “I have students who don’t do such clear thinking.  Before we come out here to dig, I am going to have my students tell me what we might expect to find.  After they tell me, I am going to tell them what you think.  That might teach them something.  He smiled at Matt who beamed back at him.  “Yes, sir.  That should teach them something, all right.”

            “So what does a hapocatasaurus look like?” Billy wondered.

            “It’s haplocanthosaurus,” Matt corrected.

            Billy repeated the word.

            “It’s got a really long neck and a really long tail,” Matt said, stretching his hands out in front of him as he explained.  “But just a tiny little head.  It had a big body, too.”

            “That doesn’t sound like a whale to me,” Billy said, disappointed.

            “You’re right,” Matt’s grandfather replied.  “That’s because whales are mammals.  We’re not sure what dinosaurs are closely related to--some say lizards, others birds--but we do know they weren’t mammals.”

            “Then why did they call it a whale dinosaur?” Billy asked.

            “Two reasons, I suppose,” Matt’s grandfather answered.  “One reason was that these animals were really big.  The other reason is that they lived in water.”  The old man studied his grandson’s companion in the rear view mirror.  “What do we call the biggest animals in the ocean, Billy?”

            “Whales,” Billy answered.

            “So,” Matt’s grandfather continued, “you see it’s not so strange to call this large animal that lived in the ocean a whale dinosaur, is it?”

            “No, I guess not.  But they could have called it something else.  Like a giant water dinosaur or water lizard dinosaur, couldn’t they.

            “I guess they could have,” Matt’s grandfather laughed.  “Maybe they should have.  But you have to remember that we really don’t know that much about dinosaurs.  Someday we may discover that they don’t have any modern day relatives.”

            “How could that be?” Matt asked.

            Well, Matt,” his grandfather said, “remember that all these creatures died a long time ago.  It’s hard to make comparisons between them and what’s alive today.  There are scientists arguing about the relationship between men and monkeys right now.  And they are both still alive.  It’s harder to make comparisons between what used to be here and what’s here now.  We don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle.  So we don’t know all the answers.  In fact, we don’t know most of them, even basic ones.  Like, how dinosaurs walked.

            “I remember reading that,” Matt said.  “This book showed two different ways a brontosaurus might stand.  I didn’t understand it all.  But one way would make it so the brontosaurus could run a lot faster than most people think it moved.”

            “Really?” Billy asked.  I always thought the brontosaurus was a super slow moving animal.”

            That’s what most people think--about all dinosaurs,” Matt’s grandfather said.

            “Not in Jurassic Park,” Matt said.

            “No,” Grampa agreed.  “But remember, not everyone agrees with how that movie shows the dinosaurs.  It’s just one possibility.  It might not be right.”

            “You remember the dinosaur exhibit we saw last year?” Billy asked Matt.

            “Sure,” Matt replied.

            “Were the brontosauruses we saw there made to stand like they could run fast or slow?”

            “I don’t know,” Matt said.  “The picture in the book only showed the skeletons of the dinosaurs.  I don’t know what they would look like with all their skin and stuff on them.”

            “And that’s part of the problem,” Matt’s grandfather said.  “We don’t know all that much about dinosaurs because no one has ever seen one.  We aren’t even sure what color their skins were.”

            “Wow,” Billy said.  “You mean I might be able to learn something about dinosaurs that even you don’t know?”

            “That’s exactly what I mean,” Matt’s grandfather replied.  “You two could make some kind of discovery that changes the way we think about dinosaurs altogether.”

            “Wow,” Billy said again.  “I could be famous.”

            “Me, too,” said Matt.  “Me and you could become famous together.”

            Matt’s grandfather edged the station wagon off the road at the top of Como Bluff.  Just beyond the side of the car, newly erected guardrails hid the embankment from view.  After checking the mirrors, he told the boys to get out on the driver’s side of the car.  They went to the back and unloaded equipment.

Billy pointed out a coal train moving through the broad, nearly treeless basin to the east.

            “What’s all these metal things for?” Matt asked.

            “I thought we should build a brace at the edge of the bluff,” his grandfather said.  “The ground isn’t very stable, and we don’t want to cause another slide.”

            The old man showed the two youngsters how to set the metal pieces together.  They made a six-foot square, anchored with diagonal crosses bolted across the top.  The boys watched as Matt’s grandfather slid the front edge of the brace over the lip of the bluff.  Then he took three-foot metal stakes and pounded them through holes on the opposite side.  “We’ll anchor our climbing equipment on the guardrails,” the old man told them.  “You boy’s need to get your packs.”

            “Okay, Grampa,” Matt said, as he jumped the guardrail and returned to the station wagon.  “I got it.”

            The three of them stood in the middle of the metal frame.  Matt’s grandfather was adjusting the climbing gear on Billy.  “As soon as I finish getting Billy hooked up, I take care of you.  I’ll lower you over the edge, but I want you to sit there until I get my gear on.  I’ll stay with Billy since you have more experience.”

            “Okay,” Matt said.

            The three of them were about fifty feet down the face of the bluff within a quarter of an hour.  Matt’s grandfather showed Billy how to work the ropes.  “Do you think you can move up and down on your own?” he asked the boy, studying him as the inched lower.

            “I guess so,” Billy said.

            “Good.  Holler if you need help.  I am going to climb down below you,” he told Billy.  “Matt,” he called to his grandson.  “I want you and Billy to stay about this high.”

            “Okay,” Matt answered.

            “But what am I supposed to do?”  Billy asked.

            “Look for things that look like rocks caught in the dirt,” Matt told him.  “If you see stuff like this,” he said, indicating a whitish protrusion spotted with light brown dirt about halfway between where the two dangled in front of the bluff, “you can take your small pick and gently hit the dirt along the top--”

            “Hey,” Billy said, suddenly excited.  “Look at this.  Look at this.”

            “What is it?” both Matt and his grandfather asked at the same time.

            “I don’t know,” Billy said.  “But look at where Matt was pointing.  There’s a whole row of those little white stones.

            “Hey, he’s right, Grampa,” Matt said.  “There’s a whole string of them--some of them are almost completely buried--but I can see some in front of me, and the go clear past Billy!”

            “Well, I’ll be,” Matt’s grandfather said, climbing back to the same height the boys were on.  “I think you have found something.”

            “Is it a haplocatasaur?” Billy asked.

            “We can’t tell yet,” Matt said.  “Can we Grampa.”

            “No, not yet,” the old man answered.  “But if those are bones, whatever it is has a pretty long neck or tail.”

            “Shouldn’t we start digging them out?” Billy asked as he started swinging his small pick toward the face of the bluff.

            “Hold on, Billy,” Matt’s grandfather said.  “We need to do some other things before we take out any bones.

            “Okay,” Billy said.  But he was disappointed.

            “Matt,” the old man asked, “do you have your notebook out.”

            “No,” he answered.  “But I can get it,” he said, reaching into his backpack.

            The old man watched, waited.  Once Matt was ready, he said, “The first thing I want you to do is to write down some numbers.  We’re fifty-two feet down.  So write down the letter d and fifty-two.  Now, Billy,” he continued.  “Reach out and touch one of those white objects with your pick.  Count that as number one.  Count all of the bones from the pick to the other side.  Then Matt can count the rest of them.”

            Billy reached the pick out and gently touched one of the objects.  “One,” he said.  As he moved the pick along the face of the bluff, he continued to count, “Two.  Three.  Four.”  He moved the pick to the other hand and continued counting.  “Thirteen,” he said.  “I can’t reach anymore with the pick, but I can see at least two more of them.”

            “Okay,” the old man replied.  “Matt, write down fifteen.  Then count from the stone next to the one Billy started with and go the other way.” 

            Matt used the eraser of the pencil to point to each one.   “Nine,” he said.  “And I can see at least three more.”

            “Fine.  Write down twelve more,” Matt’s grandfather said.  “That’s twenty- seven.  Okay, boys,” he continued.  “I want each of you to carefully use you pick to ship away the dirt above one of the bones in front of you.  Don’t make the hole too big.  And make sure it isn’t any bigger than one stone.”

            Both boys worked carefully, while their hearts beat excitedly.

            “This is really neat,” Billy said.

            After a while, Matt announced, “I’m done, Grandpa.”

            “Okay, Matt,” the old man answered.  “Now get one of your plastic bags out of the backpack.”  As he edged along the cliff face, Matt retrieved a plastic bag.   “Okay,” he said.  “Give me the bag.  I’ll hold it under the object.  You try to pull it out of the dirt and knock it in the bag.  It’s okay if some dirt gets in.  Someone will want to examine it, too.”

            Matt was very nervous and his hands were sweaty.  But he managed to work the small object out of the dirt and into the bag.

            “Good work, Matt,” his grandfather said as he sealed the bag.  “Now put this in your pack.”  The old man moved closer to Billy.  “Now, Billy,” he said.  “I want you to try and do the same thing.

            Billy was too nervous.  He pulled too hard, and the object and pick both fell to the top of the dam below.

            “Oh, no,” Billy cried.  : I’ve ruined it,”

            “No,” Matt’s grandfather said.  “It’s okay.  I’ll go down and get the pick.  I may even find your bone, too.  Do you think the two of you can get back to the top of the bluff?”

            “Sure,” Matt said, confidently.  “And I can help Billy to get back up there, too.”

            “I can do it,” Billy said.

            “Sure you can,” Matt’s grandfather replied.

            As Matt and Billy inched upward, Matt’s grandfather started down to the dam.  The pick was easy to spot.  Close by, he thought he saw a small whitish bone.  He put it into the plastic bag and stuck it into his shirt pocket.

            Once the three of them were safely up on the top of the bluff, Matt’s grandfather took some other measurements.  Matt wrote each down as it was called out.  They loaded up their gear and headed back into town.

            “When will we know what we found, Grampa?”

            “It will take a few weeks,” he said.  “We’ll have to date it, and then compare it to other animals from that time period.

            “A few weeks?” Billy asked.

            “Maybe more,” the old man replied. 

            “I don’t think I wait that long,” Billy said.

            “It’s never easy to wait,” Matt’s grandfather said.  “But if you boys have found something--something important--you’ll be the youngest paleontologists in the world.”

            “What if we found something no one else has ever seen?” Matt asked.

            “Then you could name it whatever you wanted, I suppose,” his grandfather replied.

            “Boy, that would be neat,” Matt said.

            “But what should we name it?” Billy asked.

            “Hold on, boys,” Matt’s grandfather laughed.  “Let’s wait and see what we have here before we worry about naming it.  There will be plenty of time to name it.

 

*      *      *

A month passed slowly.  But by the time all the lab work was done, Billy and Matt were credited with changing many of the ideas scientists had about dinosaurs.

            “This brontosaurus,” Matt told a school assembly being filmed by a local TV crew, “is less than one hundred and thirty-five millions years old.  That means it was alive at least two million years after scientists thought they were extinct.”

            The students “oohed” and “aahed,” distracting Matt.

            “This summer, Matt’s grandfather is going to try and recover the rest of the skeleton.  And me and Matt are going to help, too,” Billy said.

            That evening, Matt, his parents, his grandfather, and Billy’s family

--including Valerie--were camped in front of the TV at Matt’s house.  They were waiting for the evening news.  After the news started, the all listened intently.  But the telecast started with a story about a fire downtown.  Then there were some stories about the police department and some sort of health inspection. 

            “When are they going to talk about us?” Billy asked when the weather segment began.

            “Yeah.  When,” Matt demanded after the sports report.  It’s almost over.

            Finally, after a commercial, the anchor said, “Finally, tonight, a story of two eight-year-old dinosaur hunters....”

            “Hey, that’s us,” Billy said.

            Valerie shushed him.  His father patted him on the back. 

            “It’s you, all right,” Matt’s grandfather said.  “Congratulations.”

            After the newscast, Matt’s mother hugged her son.  “You still think being eight stinks?” she whispered.

            “Aw, Mom,” he said.  But he smiled.

 

 

--the end--