Dinosaurs a rite of childhood, parenting for many
Steam rises from the spongy floor of the primordial jungle. The air is a musky, thick stew of life and death. A tangled mesh of plants, a million shades of green, is an impossible barrier in every direction. Chatters and chirps and calls are a blanket cacophony.
But wait! What’s this? The slightest rustle of a leaf, a faint, rippling tremor in the air. And then… boom. It’s very faint, like a boulder rolling off a faraway cliff.
Time stops. All is stillness.
Finally… boom. Closer this time. Life holds its breath, waiting. Boom. It could be imagination, or the ground really could be shaking.
Boom. Yep, the ground is shaking. Boom. There’s something out there. Boom! Yikes! It’s crashing through the trees. Boom! Oh, no! Oh no oh no oh no! Boom! BOOM! It’s getting closer! It’s almost here!
BOOM! CRASH! ROAR!
TYRANNOSAURUS REX! Help!
Fresh from his bath, clad in Transformers underwear, the terror of the Cretaceous Period bellows into the family room. He’s on the hunt! He spies a triceratops sitting on the couch. Dinner! GRRROOOWWRRRRR!
“Hi, baby!” the hapless, helpless triceratops says, catching the terrifying tyrannosaurus in mid-attack. “Did you have a bath? Mmm, you smell good! Did you brush your teeth? OK, let’s put on your PJs.”
“Dinosaurs have to sleep, too.”
Oh, very well.
But beware the child in his (or her) dinosaur phase. Beware the child with bloodlust in the eyes and a fearsome imagination. Beware the child with a library card and parents who are thrilled by this budding interest in science. Beware the pint-size paleontologist off of whose tongue roll multi-syllabic names, who has eye-rolling impatience for anyone who doesn’t remember that stegosauruses were herbivores. Duh.
Beware the child who loves dinosaurs.
National Fossil Day was Oct. 13, and it brought to mind not only that western Colorado was once dinosaur central, but also this thing that happens to children all over the world.
One day, minding their own messy business, they see a picture of this ... thing. They’ve never seen anything like it — so much bigger than the dog, than the parents, than the house, even. So much bigger and So. Incredibly. Awesome.
“I think it’s probably for the same reason that kids like zoos, except that the animals are a lot weirder and they’re a lot bigger,” said John Foster, curator of paleontology at Dinosaur Journey in Fruita. “It’s basically everything you like about modern animals, except taken to an extreme.”
Derek Briggs, director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University and past president of The Paleontological Society, agreed: “(Dinosaurs are) very large, they’re extinct, they’re old in a way that’s almost beyond comprehension,” he said. “They have these remarkable names that kids seem to get their brains around with remarkable facility. And they’re mysterious. Kids are kind of awed by them.
“We have kids that come into Yale Peabody every day, where we have these iconic dinosaurs, and they walk into the Great Hall and their jaws drop, or whatever the equivalent of jaw dropping is for a 4-year-old.”
So, small jaws drop and love blooms in racing hearts. These dinosaurs! So cool! And so much to learn about them! Parents are tugged to the car and pointed to the library.
“Obviously,” a librarian is told, with a subtle gesture to the growling, slobbering veloceraptor skulking nearby, “we need some books about dinosaurs.”
“I think there’s almost no other subject like that where kids get obsessed about reading nonfiction,” Foster said. “When I was a kid, reading nonfiction meant scanning books for information. But now, kids go through this dinosaur phase where they are memorizing everything in a book.”
Let us go, then, to Dinosaur Journey and ask the experts.
Creed Lance, age 6, why do you love dinosaurs?
“They’re cool,” the Grand Junction boy said. “I love the Utahraptor. It’s vicious and it’s scary.”
His mom, Brandy, stood nearby in the shadow of an animatronic Utahraptor with another dinosaur’s bloody head in its mouth. She just smiled and shook her head. “I think it’s the whole predatory thing,” she said.
Creed and his 4-year-old brother, Trajan (a triceratops fan), list dinosaur facts and names and expect their parents to keep up.
“My husband is really good at knowing the dinosaurs,” Brandy said. “I forget sometimes.”
Meanwhile, in other areas of Dinosaur Journey, groups of children learned that the apatosaurus weighed as much as 150,069 Big Macs, but that the Fruitadens weighed just 1 pound. And check out the brachiosaurus bones.
“Whoa!” exclaimed Uriah Pfeffer, 10, of Fruita. “This is a shoulder blade!”
The bones in question were from the mammoth dinosaur’s front forelimb, 18 feet 2 inches high and hinting at sheer enormity.
“Dinosaurs are just big and cool,” explained Leland Pfeffer, 12. His two younger brothers, Uriah and Malachi, 8, nodded in agreement. Their two young sisters, not so much.
When asked to explain why he loves dinosaurs, Malachi just shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “Just ‘cuz.”
Which is about all the explanation needed. The dinosaur phase is, for many children in the throes of it, something beyond words.
They love dinosaurs just because they love them. Because dinosaurs are awesome. Because they’re the biggest things kids can think of, because dinosaurs could step on a car — or on a school! — and crush it, because dinosaurs don’t get bossed around by vegetables-and-bedtime-obsessed parents, because they lived in a time when everything wasn’t so obvious and spelled-out, when mystery still filled the Earth.
For most kids, the dinosaur phase doesn’t last. It’s a growly couple of years, then they move on to “Star Wars” or horses or monster trucks.
“What I’m trying to figure out is why kids get so obsessed with them, then outgrow it,” Foster said. “Kids go insane at a certain age, then go cold turkey a few years later. It’s kind of funny. But maybe it sets them up to be better prepared when they do find something that sticks with them, that willingness or interest in poring through books and getting every bit of information out of it that they can.”
The kids move on, and parents are left with memories of the time they lived with a dinosaur.
Linda Perzinski of Rangely vividly remembers the dinosaur phase her son, Mark, went through. He’s 18 now and a freshman at Colorado Northwestern Community College, but when he was 4, his world was dinosaurs.
“I remember one of the times we were taking a drive, and it was quite a long drive, and I think for about two and a half hours he didn’t stop talking about dinosaurs,” she said. “He’d see the countryside here and he’d say, ‘Do you think a dinosaur is underneath the ground there, Mom? Do you think they walked over there?’ “
He watched the movies and read the books and played with the toys, and corrected his mother if she didn’t get the names exactly right.
For Halloween, the closest Linda could get to a dinosaur was a dragon costume, but 5-year-old Mark was thrilled.
Nowadays, she said, Mark claims not to remember the extent of his dinosaur phase, how he used to growl and stomp around the house in full dinosaur mode, for example. But Linda remembers.
She remembers and smiles about that funny, sweet time when a little boy — in his own mind, at least — was the biggest, fiercest, most powerful thing in the jungle.