Somewhere around 1974 or 1975, I became fascinated with dinosaurs. I couldn't have been more than six or seven, and at that time, dinosaurs weren't marketed to kids like they are now. Most boys wanted to be baseball players or astronauts. I wanted to be a paleontologist.
My mom can recall this much better than I can, but somewhere around that time we took an AMTRAK trip to Chicago to see the city. I couldn't wait to see the Field Museum and the wondrous dinosaurs skeletons that I could see. Apparently, on the train trip a paleontologist was on the trip, and, as it's been related to me, I kept him entertain with a precocious amount of knowledge on dinosaurs for a lad in first grade. Latin terminology, correct pronounciations, knowing what "saurischia" and "ornithischia" meant, the extinction of the dinosaurs...I was a six-year-old who wanted to learn more and more and more...
Just as a side-note, so much has changed about the study of dinosaurs since the early 1970s. Back then, it was still widely accepted that an ice age was ushered in as a result of fairly natural causes. Today, the theory than a comet impacted the earth, thus leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs is far more widely accepted. Also, it was more widely accepted in the 1970s that dinosaurs were a branch of the lizard family, not birds, which is the general concensus today.
Anyway. the man gave me a book that he had with him, and my fascination only grew more. The Field Museum was wonderful.
Back in Michigan, my own museum was the University of Michigan's Exhibit Museum of Natural History. It's probably my favorite destination in all of my boyhood. Located on the campus, the museum is a testament to all that is great about the town of Ann Arbor.
The museum was old and austere, even when I was young. You knew you were stepping into a very special, revered building. Its rotunda with bronze busts of directors of the museum dated back more than a hundred years. Marble and granite everywhere. You would travel up two flights of stairs, step out and the majesty of skeletons, fossils and displays would greet you.
One of the first things to be discovered was the complete skeleton of a mastadon. Behind it, a sabre-toothed cat. An allosaurus with its blackened jaws gaping over its kill. A tyrannosaurus rex skull was a favorite. Hours and hours were spent here.
On the upper levels, a huge amount of Michigan's native flora and fauna snaked their way through the building. The level above that the crafts of Native Americans, the anatomy of the human body and a small space observatory.
One time, I brought a few bones I had discovered on our property to be identified. My mom and I were taken to the research room of the museum, rarely seen by the public. I remember huge drawers with skulls of giraffes and hippopotomi being opened and shown to me. The research assistant even gave me a complete skeleton of a mouse in a small plastic box stuffed with cotton, it bones long picked clean of the flesh by special beetles that the museum kept to do just that.
After visiting the museum, my mom and I would walk a few blocks to Drake's, an Ann Arbor tradition since the early 20th century. Drake's was a soda fountain/candy store with huge glass jars of jawbreakers, lemon drops and other sweet treats. Our snack was almost always a sliced, toasted bagel with butter and a fresh-squeezed limeade in a big glass soda glass, accompanied by an aluminum milkshake-style tumbler to pour the remainder in your glass. Drake's closed after I moved to El Paso. It's such a shame. The high-backed wooden booths tucked away to the back of Drake's, dated back more than 60 years.
Drake's Sandwich Shop in 1987 (after I had moved to El Paso, but this is the way I remember it). Photo found on the web, but cannot find the photographer's name to give credit to.
My memories of the Exhibit Museum and Drake's are as vivid today was they were for me more than 30 years ago. I've had the good fortune of visiting the museum a few times since then, including a trip with my daughter two years ago. I could see the wonder in her eyes, just as though they were mine. I'm glad to say that not much has changed about the museum, and I hope that it will stay that way.
I know my mom often thought that I would grow up to work at the museum. And in some ways, it's still a dream that lies tucked back in my mind.
The Exhibit Museum's home page
A cool Drake's tribute page