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Publisher: Bluejack

May, 2005 : Essay:

Loving The Saurian

My parents—the soberest, most down-to-earth people you can imagine—must have had some misgivings when, seemingly out of the blue, I told them I wanted dinosaurs for Christmas. This was in the mid-1950s, when a Real American Boy was supposed to want toy guns, toy soldiers ("Army guys," in seven-year-old's parlance), and, at the wildest extreme in those pre-Sputnik times, toy robots. To my mother and father's credit, whatever passed through their minds, they saw to it that there were toy dinosaurs waiting under the tree for me on Christmas morning, and books, too: Roy Chapman Andrews' All About Dinosaurs and All About Strange Beasts of the Past, and Anne Terry White's Prehistoric America. For some reason, it never occurred to them to ask me whence this sudden fascination, and just as well. What parents in the 1950s could have coped with the knowledge that kindly, avuncular Walt Disney was responsible for their kid's going weird on them?

I saw my first dinosaurs on television's Disneyland (later Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color), in the “Rite of Spring” segment of Fantasia. I couldn't have cared less about Stravinsky at the time, but I was immediately taken with the Disney animators' lurching reptilian monsters.

"Taken with" is understatement. I was hooked; my imagination was inflamed; my daydreams, which until this time had been centered on the likes of Roy Rogers and Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion, began to swarm with uncouth lizard-like forms—so, too, the wide-ruled pages of my Big Chief tablets. And if there had been any hope left of my growing up to lead a normal existence after Disney, it was finished off by telecasts of King Kong and its sequel. All these years and so much else later, I still don't think movie-making gets any better than that moment in the original when Tyrannosaurus heaves suddenly into view—and pauses to scratch its ear: a neat bit of actor's business that almost upstages Fay Wray, who is in the foreground, lodged in the fork of a dead tree, screaming fetchingly. And when, at the conclusion of Son of Kong, an earthquake crumbled Skull Island like cornbread, my reaction was, No, stop, don't destroy it! I wanted to believe that the great animals persisted someplace in the world, if only on a remote island in the Indian Ocean, where I might one day visit them.

Fortunately, other dinosaurs were to be found no farther away than the neighborhood shopping center. The Marx Toy Company had loosed upon the nation's dime stores plastic models of two dozen different species of prehistoric reptile, each with its scientific name thoughtfully embossed on its tail: Sphenacodon, Brontosaurus, Cynognathus, Triceratops. There were two different versions of Tyrannosaurus: the one a toothy, rather stout Tyrant Lizard with outstretched muscular forearm and digits spread as if to shake hands; the other, lean, elegantly reptilian, not nearly as friendly-looking. I collected the models, learned how to say an-KILE-uh-sawr-us, TAIR-an-uh-don, try-SER-uh-tops, and amazed and confounded relatives with the lexicon of prehistory. What kid wouldn't delight at the way Paleozoic, Mesozoic, Cenozoic roll off the tongue—especially if doing so elicited from a great-grandmother some comment about "tormented beasts"?

Marx also provided anachronistic cavemen, palm trees and ferns, and a cave-pocked cliff setting. I liked the cavemen just fine (they were all cavemen, too; Marx knew its audience), thought the plastic flora was okay, but scorned the cliff setting as effete. A Real American Boy wanted dirt under his fingernails. Accordingly, I filled a wide, shallow box with sand and added some interesting rocks and twigs. I added anachronisms of my own, too, elephants to stand dwarfed beside Thunder Lizards, lions to flee before armored dinosaurs, even a gorilla to battle tyrannosaurs prior to its being captured and brought out of the jungle by intrepid adventurers—Army guys—and ultimately caused to plunge from the top of the bureau while World War I biplanes performed victory rolls.

I mined the comic-book racks for material for more scenarios. To judge from comics alone, the Mesozoic Era did not so much come to a conclusive end 65 million years ago as withdraw into scattered enclaves. In The Land Unknown, a one-shot "Dell Movie Classic," beautifully illustrated by Alex Toth and immensely better than the 1957 Universal-International flick that inspired it, dinosaurs thrived inside a smouldering Antarctic volcano. Tarzan found them in Pal-Ul-Don, Donald Duck found them in Forbidden Valley, Wonder Woman found them on Titan, moon of Saturn, and Batman and Robin found robot replicas of them running amok in a Gotham City museum. Best of all, because every issue abounded with prehistoric wildlife, was Turok, Son of Stone. Turok and his young pal Andar were pre-Columbian Amerindians who had got themselves trapped in the Lost Valley. Supposedly located in the Great Southwest, this valley—home to every sort of terrestrial fauna from fin-backed Dimetrodon to saber-toothed Smilodon (which occur 250 million years apart in the fossil record), with space left over for marine animals as diverse as plesiosaurs and proto-whales—must have equaled Australia for acreage.

I became a connoisseur of comic-book dinosaurs. The quality of the reconstructions in Turok varied considerably, as the book seemed to have no regular artist. Jesse Marsh's dinosaurs in Tarzan were more impressive than his Ape Man, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito's in Wonder Woman and (of all things) Star Spangled War Stories were always drawn a minimum of ten times too large, and Carl Barks' in Donald Duck were, like nearly everything else Barks did, surprisingly convincing.

The cover of the Classic Illustrated adaptation of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth depicted a plesiosaur and an ichthyosaur locked in mortal combat and inspired me, as the series' editor professed to hope that it would, to seek out the novel at the library. Verne is tough going for a ten-year-old, but I soon discovered more accessible works, including the Winston juvenile Danger: Dinosaurs, by "Richard Marsten" (another of Evan "Ed McBain" Hunter's pen names), and The Bridge of Light, by the archeologist A. Hyatt Verrill. My early ambition to become a paleontologist yielded to a new desire to write stories about dinosaurs, which, as Philip José Farmer wrote, "dwell in an affectionate part of every science-fiction and fantasy lover's heart; they are such blundering and lovable—albeit fearsome—beasts. Just so, I think, did the knights of old love their dragons, and they must have been very sorry when the last dragon died." Anyway, writing about dinosaurs looked less like grueling physical labor than digging up their bones in inhospitable badlands.

I read every book about dinosaurs I could find, exhausting two or three libraries' collections of factual and fictional material. I watched the movies, too, none of them nearly as good as King Kong or even its sequel—King Dinosaur, Teenage Caveman, The Lost Continent, Two Lost Worlds, The Giant Behemoth, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, Rodan, Valley of the Dragons, Reptilicus, every excruciating low-budget minute—and all for love, all because, however lethargically impersonated on the screen by lizards with stuck-on spines or by human actors groping about in rubber costumes, merely by turning up in some cheesy backlot jungle or of being freed after millions of years' entombment in the Arctic, the dinosaurs defied those weenie killjoys who kept insisting that they were gone, extinct, kaput, finito.

No dinosaur aficionado has ever truly believed it. Never mind that dinosaurs abruptly disappear from the fossil record at the end of the Mesozoic Era. Never mind that there is no longer an unexplored corner of the planet, as there was in 1912 when Conan Doyle published The Lost World, where one might half-hope to find an isolated, insulated Mesozoic ecosphere. Buried deep in every dinosaur-lover has always been the idea, hope, wish, that, somewhere, somehow, the critters live on ….

In the 1970s, paleontologists began to challenge long-held assumptions about dinosaurs. If, the argument went, the animals really were torpid, ectothermic ("cold-blooded"), and too stupid to live, how, then, did they and their sea-going and winged cousins manage to dominate Earth for 140 million years? Re-examined, the preponderance of evidence indicated not just that dinosaurs in general were more active than previously believed, but also that some types, at least, were hyperactive, necessarily endothermic ("warm-blooded"), and probably a lot smarter than many present-day public officials.

Fabulously adaptable, the dinosaurs moved themselves into virtually every ecological niche available to land animals bigger than chickens. They evolved long necks for treetop browsing, or fang-filled jaws for taking bites out of other dinosaurs, or bizarre arrangements of bony knobs, frills, plates, and spikes so as not to have bites taken out of themselves. Some largish species, to radiate excess body heat, sported fan-like spinal growths. Other, smallish species, concerned not with getting rid of heat but with retaining it, insulated themselves with feathers.

Feathers may or may not be the reason these last-mentioned creatures survived the great die-off 65 million years ago, but survive they did. We call them birds, of course, and taxonomy assigns them to the class Aves. Their dinosaurian affinities seem so obvious, however, that some paleontologists argue persuasively for demoting Aves to a division of Dinosauria. Layman though I am, I can see it, and I'm all for it. Bipedal dinosaurs as big as Tyrannosaurus affected the gait that grackles do: body carried more or less parallel to the ground, tail outstretched for balance, head bobbing with each step. I imagine grackles swollen to the size of vans, with jaws full of recurved serrate-edged teeth, sweeping in a pack across a savannah 100 million years ago, bearing down on a luckless herbivore. Okay, it isn't quite a sight-seeing tour of Doyle's Lost World or Kong's island, but it does give me the inexpressible pleasure of believing that the dinosaurs, my dinosaurs, live on.

Copyright © 2005, Steven Utley. All Rights Reserved.

About Steven Utley

Steven Utley is the author of the story collections Ghost Seas (1997), The Beasts of Love (2005), and Where or When (2006), and co-editor (with Michael Bishop) of the anthology Passing for Human, forthcoming from PS Publishing in 2008.


May 2, 21:58 by Bluejack
Discussion of dinosaurs, or the perennial childhood fascination therewith, belongs here!

For Steven Utley's essay click here.
May 3, 09:20 by Kelly Robson
Birds have always seem dinosaurian to me too -- especially Canada geese, those huge, terrible birds. Oh, I have nothing against geese personally but they are so reptilian. Cold, fearless and nasty, they defy Disney-fication.

I am sure Canada geese remember ruling the planet.
May 3, 21:45 by Pete Blackwell
Shucks! No mention of "Jurassic Park" or "Dinotopia"? I found these great reading as well as pretty damn good movies. I think I also remember a YA novel by Robert A. Heinlein, "The Star Beast", somewhere back in ancient history. Although this was about an alien species befriended by a young boy, I believe it was based on a dinosaur (brontasaurus?).
I, too, have had a long fascination with dinosaurs (longer than Mr. Utley, as a matter of fact).
Criticism aside, it was a good article, Steven! =:)
May 11, 13:22 by Adrian Simmons
Wow. I had that very same Marx Toy Company dinosaur/caveman set. I thought there was at least one woman in it... wasn't she skinning a rabbit or something? Naturally, I lost my favorite dinosaur, the T-rex. He terrorizes cavemen now, only in my memories.

Later in life, when I got old enough to read and thus read dinosaur books, the T-Rex was ousted from first in my heart and replaced with its ancestor the Allosaurus. Mostly 'cause one of the books I had showed the T-rex as huge and brown, and the Allosaur was red with black stripes, AND it showed an allosaur taking down a brontosaurus- and tearing into it with all four feet. Cool.

May 13, 18:16 by susie hawes

"Fortunately, other dinosaurs were to be found no farther away than the neighborhood shopping center."

lol I'm glad it's not that easy. My daughter would have a stable filled with them. Of course, it might scare away the Jahova's Witnesses....
May 14, 17:20 by Steven Utley
ProGoblinAgenda, I have re-examined my Marx Toy Company cavefolk; the one skinning the rabbit is as flat-chested as the rest, so I must stand by my statement that, as far as Louis Marx was concerned, our prehistoric progenitors were exclusively male.
Aug 12, 17:36 by Doug Potter
You know, my first exposure to dinosaurs may have been in the newspaper comic strips. I vividly remember the first time I saw King Kong one afternoon after school, but I think Alley Oop preceeded that life-shaping experience by many years, back to pre-school days.

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