September 29, 2020by Jon Kramer

The National Museum | Damned Invertebrates at the Smithsonian Institution

Copyright 9-29-20  /   4,362 words, by Jon Kramer
Nonfiction.  These events took place 1982 – 1983.

After graduating from St John’s,  a strict military high school in DC run by the Christian Brothers (that’s another story), I took off for the summer and went west to find myself – or maybe someone else – in preparation of making the transition to higher education.  It ended up being the someone else I discovered, at least insofar as appearances were concerned, with just a little emphasis on the “higher” part of the education aspect.  When I got back, I entered the University of Maryland, College Park, signing up to skateboard between classes while flaunting a Mexican serape, which, I boasted, I had acquired myself “South of the Border” in Tijuana, as if that’s really Mexico.  For a time, I also sported a strand of Indian Beggar Beads.  Although I was as poor as one, I never mastered the art of pan-handling for lunch money.  So I joined the Food Coop, working the sandwich line and unloading trucks, banking enough hours to eat my meals for free.

The University of Maryland Food Coop was a lesson in socialist aspiration gone, shall we say, not exactly as planned on count of capitalism and the personal greed which fuels it.  Everyone there – all Hippified and righteously dreadlocked – preached an equitable “Return to the Earth” philosophy, but few really practiced it.  The gals were consumed in their Soap Operas, spending inordinate amounts of time planning their schedules around One Life To Live and General Hospital.  The guys, by contrast, were all music fanatics – wholly absorbed in The Mothers of Invention and The Grateful Dead – planning their lives around the next rock concert.  I, meanwhile, wrote papers in Sociology class speculating what would happen if suddenly Frank Zappa appeared as a transvestite in the lead role of One Life to Live and Jerry Garcia was similarly cast as a buxom nurse on General Hospital.   Marijuana can do such things…

By my third year at Maryland, I followed my sister’s footsteps and finally declared a major – steering my ship toward a degree in Geology and Paleontology. When you become and upper class undergrad, you are assigned an advisor who (supposedly) takes special interest in your personal well-being as relates to your all-important senior year and it’s chief requirement: the Senior Thesis.  My advisor was Dr P. – as in penis, the primary instrument of his talents.  Professor P. –  Pee-Pee for short – was a fun-loving, gregarious, middle-age fellow who knew how to party and spent most of his time trying to prove it. He drove to school in a metallic purple dune buggy, despite the fact there wasn’t a patch of sand bigger than a napkin for over a 150 miles in any direction.  Outside of the lecture hall PP focused his primary efforts in luring attractive coeds into his office, his dune buggy, and his bed.  The fact he had to allot any time at all to me, George, and a few other guys assigned to him, was openly treated as a major inconvenience to his professional and personal life.

On one typical occasion, for example, I had just entered his office for a scheduled twenty-minute appointment when cute little Stephanie floats casually by and waves from the hall.  Dr. P. immediately called her in, ignoring me entirely.  All bubbly and giggly, Stephanie gushes “Oh, hi, Dr P…I was just wondering…blah, blah, blah”  Well, she didn’t have to wonder much, and nor did I – Old Penis was pouring on the charm.  I had effectively become nonexistent by this point, so I exited the scene.   This, sadly, was the way Pee-Pee ran his station in the Department.  I’d wager he spent not 30 advisory minutes “mentoring” me over the entire year.

Nevertheless, I have to thank old PP for inadvertently forcing me to find my own way, using my own resources.  It’s been a skill I have come to rely on again and again.   So when the time came to explore college internship options, and PP was nowhere to be found, I called my paleobotanist friend at the Smithsonian for advice.

At that point I had been excavating and studying fossils for several years during which time I learned the art and science of fossil preparation (that is, the cleaning, repairing, stabilizing, and mounting of fossil specimens).  I was well skilled in both paleoflora and paleofauna conservation, having prepared everything from trilobites to mammoths.  My specialty was the famous white fossil ferns from St Clair, Pennsylvania.  Our family had secured a long-term lease on the coal company property where they were found, and we excavated and shipped these unique specimens to museums and shops around the world.  I had developed a way to excavate the fossil layer and reconstruct giant slabs of the material for display on walls in museums and institutions, many of which are in the world’s greatest fossil collections today.

And that’s how I met Fran Hueber, the Curator of Paleobotany at the Smithsonian.  Part of our family business mission was to help educators, researchers, and educational institutions.  We regularly donated specimens to schools and museums.  After giving several specimens of the St Clair fossil fern material to the Smithsonian for use in both their exhibit hall (photo above circa 1980) and in their classes, Fran called to thank me personally and invited me down for a behind-the-scenes tour.  Thus began a wonderful friendship that lasted nearly four decades.

When I first met him, I quickly recognized in Fran a thoughtful, wise, and creative soul – a person that made you think on your own.  Without actually saying it, Fran challenged me to look beyond my Food Coop, pot-smoking, rock climbing, Hippie lifestyle (not necessarily in that order, depending on the availability of quality climbs…) and, eventually, to think well past the Smithsonian Institution after everything blew up for me there (another story).  Fran and I became fast friends and remained close until the day he died in 2018.

I’d love to have you as an intern, but really don’t have much for you to do, Fran said.  But if you want to work here, how about the Prep Lab?  Fran knew I had fossil preparation experience, so he arranged for me to meet Frank Whitmore, a fossil whale researcher that was so busy digging up bones he had no time for preparing specimens himself.

The Vertebrate Paleontology Preparation Laboratory at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution  (how’s that for a title on letterhead!) was borne out of necessity over a hundred years ago.  Back then, during the Golden Age of Dinosaur Discoveries, when field paleontologists found a promising site, they would dig like mad for the season and ship back to their home base as much as they possibly could.  Over the winter they would prepare only a fraction of what they had excavated, and then rush back out to dig more the very next summer.  This, of course, resulted in a huge backlog of unprepared specimens.  In one famous case, “Dinosaur Jim” Jensen at Brigham Young University collected enough dinosaur bones encased in plaster jackets to fill the BYU stadium – or rather, the basement of the stadium, which underlays the ball field.  By the time Jim and died, they had in storage over 100 tons of unprepared dinosaur bones.  (The university has since established a new museum to prepare and house the specimens.)

In response to this over supply, many institutions established year-round prep labs with full time staff. The Smithsonian wasn’t the first, but it quickly became the best.   So, when Fran made the suggestion and the introductions, I saw a great opportunity open up before me.  I met Frank Whitmore, we hit it off, and I went to work for him the very next week.

While the Prep Lab, as it was known, was full of interesting fossils and projects, it was the unique and colorful characters who prepared these specimens that made my day-to-day life there rich and story-filled.

My desk and station was adjacent to an affable, intellectual fellow, named Fred Grady.  Famous in the underground, he was a fanatical caver (spelunker) who took to me quickly because my senior thesis was on cave sedimentation.  For all the time I worked there, the only conversation I recall having with Fred that didn’t revolve around caves, was about mountains.  Even then, the talk eventually morphed into a discussion about mountain geology, which became a review of mountains that were made of limestones, which, as you may have guessed, have caves….

Across from me was Ziggy, a smiling, peaceful, quiet fellow with round face and short, stout, body.  He was single, late middle-aged, and did not have a car or driver’s license.  Nor did he care.  He lived mere blocks away, walked to work, and was first one on the job, entering the lab before 7:00am every morning.  Ziggy never took a day off, was never, ever sick, and lived in constant fear of retirement.  If I’m forced to retire, I’ll simply die… he said.  He meant it.   His life was the Prep Lab and absolutely nothing else.  He liked it that way.

Down the line was Tut.  Skinny, energetic, and always active, Tut was a whirlwind of ideas, inventions, and flying debris.  He was working on fossil seals from the Oregon coast.  Their bones were trapped in rock as hard as concrete.  It literally took jack-hammers – small ones that Tut had invented, but jack-hammers they were – to blast away the matrix encasing the fossils.  There were a lot of specimens and a lot of hard rock.  I figured Tut would be about 250 years old when he got done with that project.

LeRoy was the senior.  While he wasn’t the Prep Lab Manager, he nonetheless let it be known that he would work only on things that interested him.  He couldn’t give a damn about what the brass thought – if they asked him to work on some puny Pleistocene rodent, he’d just as soon tell them to pucker up and kiss his fossilizing ass.  LeRoy was plenty talented enough to get away with it too.

I learned of LeRoy’s incredible fossil preparation acumen when he unveiled a display of 12 gigantic fossil shark teeth, laid out on the table at his prep station. They were copies of the largest shark tooth known at the time – a monster nearly seven inches long.  It was speculated that the Miocene behemoth which dined with these tools was over 50 feet long – as big as a whale.  Much bigger, in fact, than the Hollywood star of Jaws.  The copies Leroy displayed were identical in every way, except slight differences in coloration. (The photo here shows and even larger tooth.  At 7.25” it’s the largest tooth ever found and was brought up by my friend Vito Bertucci, aka “Megalodon Man”, who lived – and, unfortunately, died in 2004 at the age of 47 – diving for such teeth in the intercoastal waterways).

If you can tell me which is the real one, he challenged,  I’ll buy you lunch at the Castle. (The “castle” held the Smithsonian administrative offices and had one of the finest lunch venues in town.) He allowed us to pick them up and closely examine each.  Although I had seen and handled many such teeth, I couldn’t tell which was fake and which was real.  The detail and the weight were identical, even the striations and gloss on the enamel was a perfect match.  As it turns out, no one got it correct.  It was a thoroughly amazing forgery, the implications of which were scary to contemplate.  What if someone made such a copy and took off with the real thing  – would it ever be discovered?  LeRoy knew too much…

The Prep Lab was run by a self-important, stuffed-shirt named Ronnie.  What’s that old saying?  It’s the “Peter Principle”,  which states: An employee rises to the level of their own incompetence…   You may find it interesting to learn that, contrary to popular belief, the now-cliched saying is actually a published manuscript that refers not to male anatomy.  It’s the work of one Dr. Laurence J. Peter, who first articulated the observation in his 1969 ground-breaking book cleverly titled The Peter Principle.  Amongst many other explorations in the dynamics of human behavior reviewed in his book, the good doctor questions whether it is possible for an employee who has reached their own level of incompetence to be happy and healthy once they get there. Ironically, if the person realizes the truth of the situation, the answer is No! and they are miserable.  If, however, they remain oblivious to it, then the answer is a definitive Yes! and they go about life assured of their own preeminence.  Ronnie was a towering example of the latter.

While everyone else was busy chiseling, scraping, and picking patiently away at specimens, I never once saw Ronnie actually do anything.  Instead, he roamed around the lab, coffee cup in hand, pontificating to whomever was in earshot about this, that, and everything else.  Since I was the new guy, he spent a lot of time hanging around my desk, telling me about all his globe-trotting goings-on and how he knew every head of state on a first-name basis.   Apparently Ronnie failed to recognize the fact that, a) I smoked pot, b) Wore a Sarape, c) Had long hair, d) Listened to Reggae music, and e) Couldn’t give a shit about what he was saying.  Ronnie was the Peter Principle in action.

Before he’d left for excavations in Pakistan, Frank gave me a list of specimens to prepare while he was away: ancient whale bones from deposits in Maryland, South Carolina, California, and South America. Although a substantial list, in only a couple months I had completed the tasks.  But Frank was gone and not due back for another month.  So, I was on the look-out for something to do.

One day the head Curator of Paleobiology Collections, Fred Collier, was showing me a specimen that had been donated from a collector in Ohio with the hope of it going on display in the new Hall of Paleontology.  Embedded in a slab of rock about 14” x 18” was a perfectly complete, Isotelus gigas, a huge trilobite from the Ordovician Period, about 450 million years ago.   It was an extraordinary specimen.  While the preservation was exquisite, Fred was lamenting the fact it was not visually appealing, being as it was half-buried in the shale.  I can fix that, I said, matter-of-factly.  I prepare trilobites all the time…  I then went on to explain how I could dig out the matrix and clean up the animal such that, in the final product, it’d appear to be swimming above the rock.  It was a technique I had perfected with trilobites in shale I’d excavated near Toledo.   Fred became instantly excited: Are you kidding – you can do that?  That would be fantastic!

Fred signed the specimen into my care and I took it downstairs to the Prep Lab, happy to be working again on some of my favorite fossils – trilobites!  I filled the micro sandblaster at my station with the appropriate abrasive powder, hooked up the suction on the enclosed chamber, dawned protective gear, flipped the switches and started blasting.  I began at the front of the bug.  Its “nose” was buried in the matrix, but the shale gave way easily and I was making good progress.  The preservation was incredible – as I ablated the sediment away, detail of delicate facets appeared in its compound eye, hinting at how beautiful this specimen would be when done.

As I worked, I got into a meditative state.  This specimen was coming along even nicer than I thought.  I imagined the praises and accolades I’d get from Fred and the senior staff once I presented the final product.  I envisioned a feature in the Smithsonian newsletter: Paleo Intern Saves the Day! the title would read, and there’d be photos of me with my work, surrounded by  the admiring staff.  A Citation Letter would follow, signed by S. Dillon Ripley himself– the head of the entire Smithsonian – complimenting me on a job well done.  Shortly after that I’d have multiple offers of lucrative employment from various department heads, as well as a scholarship for graduate school.  The future was mine!

But not the present, as it turned out.

My Zen musings were interrupted by Ronnie who was just then leaning over my shoulder watching the work.  He shouted something that I couldn’t quite make out above the roar of the machines and the ear protection I was wearing.  He was pointing very excitedly and yelling something about trilobites.  I gave him a thumbs-up – standard procedure in the Lab when you were deeply involved and wanted to just keep going – sort of sign language for “I’m busy right now – let’s talk later.”  But Ronnie was acting very agitated and eventually gave the signal to stop.  I flipped off the blaster and the suction.  As the machines wound down, I took off my headphones.

What the hell do you think you’re doing?! he demanded, jumping right down my throat.  What?….Had I accidentally done something wrong? Maybe stolen someone’s private stash of abrasive powder?  Or was there a rule of no microblasting on Tuesdays?  Ronnie was very excited, thrusting his finger at the fossil:  That’s a trilobite! A trilobite!  he howled as if I was playing with a pit-viper.  It then occurred to me that Ronnie obviously thought I had gone AWOL since I wasn’t working on Frank’s whale bones.  So I told him I had finished Frank’s stuff and had gotten this trilobite commission from upstairs.  I pulled out my receipt from Fred and handed it to him.

This doesn’t mean anything.  It’s no excuse! he cursed, once again shaking his finger at the offending pit-viper fossil, That’s an invertebrate!

I couldn’t argue with that observation.  Despite their world dominance for over 300 million years, trilobites never got past their exoskeletal ignorance and hadn’t even experimented with a backbone, much less adopted one.  Can you imagine?  Frankly, I had no defense against the present accusation. Ronnie was right – trilobites were invertebrates!  Stupid, wretched, invertebrates – every last one of them!    Damn their everlasting spinless souls!  No wonder they went extinct 200 million years ago!

Nonetheless I was not quite sure why Ronnie was going off his rocker about the invertebrate thing.  I just didn’t get it.  He kept yelling Invertebrate!  So I chimed in with him, pointing to the petrified scoundrel in the chamber and yelling Invertebrate!   But as I did so, Ronnie became even more incensed.  This baffled me.  Here I was agreeing with him, but the guy was flipping out.  Finally he ordered, Come with me!, and we marched into the corridor outside the lab.  He stopped abruptly and pointed to the sign next to the Lab door.  He looked at me and said:  You see that sign?  It says: Vertebrate Paleontology Preparation Laboratory.  Vertebrate!  Not Invertebrate, not Paleoflora, not Micropaleo – Vertebrate!

For the benefit of my illiterate, unenlightened mind, Ronnie got on his high horse and declared that trilobites were not vertebrates (well, duh..).  Moreover, as such they were not allowed in the vertebrate prep lab.  I tried to reason with him that there already were invertebrates in the lab: countless clams, snails, and other mollusks occurred in association with the bones I worked on and Frank instructed me to prepare them also, since it gives a fuller picture of the paleoenvironment.  And Tut’s concrete fossil project was full of snails and sponges which he was preparing for the collections as a matter of course.  And then there was the fact I was asked by the Collections Manager himself to prepare the trilobite for a new exhibit.  Last, but certainly not least, the museum had no other prep lab facility at all, so where and how could invertebrates be prepared at the National Museum?  Incredibly, none of this mattered to Ronnie.  No damned invertebrates in my lab! he yelled. That’s that!

(Keep this in your back pocket in case you ever want to poke the academic authority at the nation’s natural history museum:  One sure-fire way to piss off the manager of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History Vertebrate Paleontology Preparation Laboratory is to sneak an invertebrate into his lab.  But you didn’t hear it from me…).

After my castigation, I probably should have walked down the street to the DC police precinct and turned myself in, but instead I went slinking back to my station and removed the venomous invertebrate heathen from the lab.  I took the offending sedimentary scofflaw back upstairs.  Upon hearing the story Fred went off about the rampant partisan politics and outsized museum egos in the building.  When I showed him the work I had done, he was even more upset.  He asked if there was any way I could finish the work outside the museum.  Sure, I said, I have a lab in my house.  I can do this at home.  He was thrilled.

As you can imagine, taking a priceless fossil specimen out of the national museum is a huge bureaucratic process, replete with tons of paperwork, committee approvals, and weeks of time.  Fred had little patience for all that, especially in light of what just went down in the Paleo Lab.  So, he wrote a simple letter and handed it to me– Show this to security and call me if you have a problem.   I would necessarily have to pass through Security at least a few times to show Fred my progress and get his approval at each stage, so having the letter was an insurance policy designed to avoid an incident – we hoped.

Using some plaster and gauze I pilfered from the lab, I created a protective cover over the face to protect the specimen, locking the two pieces together with large rubber bands.  I wasn’t worried about my own wellbeing so much as that of the Isotelus.  I was, after all, traveling to and from work on the DC subway where physical commotion was commonplace.  After work, I packed it carefully in my bag and headed for the exit.  As expected, the security guard opened my pack, pointed to the slab, and asked, What’s that? 

There are times in life when you find yourself at a vital crossroads – a point where you dare not screw things up.  Your career depends on this very moment.  You know it, God knows it, and the Future is watching your every move.  Buuuut… then there’s that irresistible, completely childish, urge to totally mess with the system. This was one of those points.  I’m not sure why, but I impulsively veered off script and did not bring out Fred’s letter.

Instead I said very casually, Oh that’s an old slab of salt water taffy from Rehoboth Beach…tastes terrible. 

 The guard looked at me quizzically, Salt water what? she asked.

Taffy, I said disgustedly.  Invented for stupid tourists on the boardwalk – horrible stuff.  But if you’re really starving it might be edible.  Wanna try it?  She sighed heavily, nodded boringly, and waived me through.

 From then on it became a game of how outlandish I could get with describing the contents of my pack to the security guards, and still get through.  I deliberately chose a different entrance and exit each time.  Still, no matter what I said, they let me pass.  I did have an official Smithsonian ID and that probably accounted for much of the laisse faire in the Security staff.  Even so you’d think they would check up on things more thoroughly when a sizeable brick of stone was being carted in and out in a backpack.

IN:  Oh that thing?  It’s a petrified copy of the Burtonsville Bible, on loan to the museum from the Monks cloistered there since the 15th Century (complete fabrication).  It’s so old its’s turned to stone!

 OUT: It’s my rare-earth Thompson ionization nebulizer. (totally made up gibberish)  I use it to calm my nerves when watching the Redskins lose. 

 IN: This to be a fossilized piece of an old Viking ship, which proves Leif Erickson discovered America centuries before Columbus! They’ve asked me to bring it in to compare to other Viking relics they have here.

OUT: It’s our family’s heritage dehydrated sourdough starter.  I just got confirmation from the archeologists upstairs it was brought over on the Mayflower!  Isn’t that thrilling!

IN: Ever heard of the Bethesda Runestone? (there’s no such thing) This is the other piece of it!  I’m donating it in honor of my grandmother who found it on the Chesapeake Bay.

 I never once got more than a passing comment from the guards, even in light of the fact some “research associates” had recently absconded with several important fossils from the museum and sold them to a respected fossil dealer in Baltimore named Donald Malick.  The heist was discovered only after a staff member happened upon a copy of the Malick’s Fossils catalogue and noticed one of the missing specimens was featured on the front cover!  You’d think security would have tightened up its act.  But, then again, this was the National Museum we’re talking about.

After about a month, I had completed the prep work on the Isotelus and was rather proud of the result.  In defiance, I brought it in to the Prep Lab to show my coworkers (excepting Ronnie, of course) before taking it upstairs.  Everyone was impressed. Leroy paid the greatest compliment by saying it was a thoroughly professional job – Couldn’t have done better myself!

The final piece was stunning – the animal floated over their matrix, its shiny brown armor glistening above the dull gray shale.  Fred was thrilled,  It looks unreal… In a few weeks it was mounted prominently in the new exhibit hall and has been admired by millions every year.

That damned invertebrate is still there.