Regular readers know that I’ve been looking for a copy of Roland T. Bird’s 1944 essay, “Did Brontosaurus ever walk on land?” since 2011, when I had to rely on J.A. Wilson’s second-hand account of it while researching the answer to the pressing question: “Could sauropods swim?”
A few weeks ago, I discovered that I could have a copy of Roland T. Bird’s memoir, Bones for Barnum Brown: Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter, delivered to my local public library through the Northern California Interlibrary Loan Service. So of course I did, hoping that it would include a reprint of his 1944 article, or at least a first hand account of how he found those Paluxy River trackways.
Sadly, Bird’s account of his time on Barnum Brown’s dinosaur hunting crew, doesn’t explicitly include his 1944 essay. Still, Chapter 29 reads very much like Bird’s 1939 Natural History Magazine article, “Thunder in His Steps.” It’s almost word for word in places. So it’s possible that Bird may have recycled some of his 1944 article to write Chapters 32 through 35, which discuss–among other things–how the front-foot only trackways might have been made.
After searching for so long for source material that included Bird’s own account of finding and excavating the Paluxy River sauropod prints, I was a little surprised to find myself more interested in Bird’s rapidly deteriorating eleven-year-old Buick than in his excavation.
What did Bird drive while hunting for dinosaur fossils?
In Bones for Barnum Brown, Bird drives two main vehicles. The first was a Harley motorcycle equipped with a side camper. And when I say side camper, I mean camper. Bird had constructed a specially designed side car that folded out into a lovely little campsite for one or two people. Bird used the Harley to tour all 50 states before joining Brown’s crew, and for some of the early projects he did for Brown.
Bones for Barnum Brown includes a picture of the motorcycle camper. Probably because it was an unusual vehicle, even for the extremely practical and determinedly resourceful 1930s.
Sadly, the book doesn’t include any images of the aging Buick that Bird drives for his later expeditions for Barnum Brown, curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York’s dinosaur collection. Most likely this was because at the time, the Buick was a fairly run-of-the-mill touring car, with no special features, aside from rust, to mark it as anything special. Even its age was unremarkable. Halfway through the book, Bird describes one of his crew members reporting for duty in a much older Model T.
Still, as far as I can tell from context clues, the car Bird used was most likely a 1927 or 1928 Buick touring car, with a canvas top, much like the one below, except in dark green and with more rust. The side curtains on Bird’s car were also apparently full of holes.
I’d like to have seen it.
Over the course of the book, the Buick almost becomes a character in its own right. Here’s how Bird describes the car after it was hit by lightning on its final expedition.
“I stood looking at the Buick in the falling rain, thankful that she had not sheltered us from this particular downpour. Lightning was only a passing event in a life of many trials. Eleven years old, she had been driven so many miles and fleetingly dammed so many rivers it seemed foolish to throw away stuff as rare as money on her. If it had been practical, even at the start of this expedition, to replace the canvas of her touring top, to touch up or to repaint the light green body with its dark green trim and replace some of her more intimate parts, I should have done so. Now her very dilapidation set her apart and gave her color, even the rust spots. She symbolized all that went with fossil-gathering the hard way. If she continued to run and managed to last out the season, I should be satisfied and felt Barnum himself could ask no more of her. A gaping hole in the right rear corner of a long-ago jaunty touring top, where the canvas was blackened and charred by the bolt, marked the spot where it found metal.”Roland T. Bird, Bones for Barnum Brown, p. 186.
One of my favorite things about reading this book is that it’s sprinkled with reminders that Bird lived in a very different time.
One of those reminders happened immediately after this paragraph. Fresh off feeling grateful that he hadn’t been sheltering in the Buick when it had been hit by lightning, Bird’s next action is to… wait for it… get into the Buick to wait out the rest of the storm.
“I got inside, out of the downpour. There was little shelter left under the remains of the top. A smaller hole than the new one poured water onto the leather back of the front seat. This lesser rent was memento of a sizable hailstone in Michigan, coming home from last year’s jaunt. I moved behind the steering wheel, the driest place I could find, and watched the rising storm lash the surface of the Paluxy like whips; in just a little while the restless stream would be booming with a fresh rise.”Roland T. Bird, Bones for Barnum Brown, p 186.
Believe it or not, this is not the moment that made me start mentally counting OSHA violations. That event happened next.
Let’s count the OSHA violations, shall we?
Once the rain lets up a bit, Bird sensibly decides that he and his aging Buick had better get back to civilization before the Paluxy River floods out the roads. He calls to some nearby crew members to offer them a lift back to town.
Only problem? The car won’t start.
“Selecting, properly maintaining and routinely inspecting company vehicles is an important part of preventing crashes and related losses.”Source: “Guidelines for Employers to Reduce Motor Vehicle Crashes,” US Department of Labor OSHA website
In retrospect, this was probably the first OSHA violation that led to all of the rest, but it wasn’t the one that initially caught my attention. After all, the Buick’s suboptimal condition had been a running theme since its first appearance in the book. I barely noticed it at this point.
No, the moment when I started counting OSHA violations was this one. After inspecting the car in the rain, Bird decides that the lightning strike has created a clot in the gas line. He removes the carburetor cap, siphons off a bottle’s worth of gas, and hands the gas and the siphon hose to one of his passengers.
“‘Elmer, if you ride the fender and dribble the gas to her, we’ll get you to Glen Rose just like I said. A little wetter than sitting under that hailstone hole, but …’Roland T. Bird, Bones for Barnum Brown, p. 186
… And away we went. Elmer, wedged in behind the spare tire, did a great job. So did the old Buick. We rolled into Glen Rose as proud and happy as we were wet.”
That, my friends, is why I found myself counting OSHA violations in earnest in the middle of reading this book.
As far as I can tell (and I’m no OSHA expert), this episode violates modern OSHA Guidelines for Employers to Reduce Motor Vehicle Crashes in at least three ways.
The first one I’ve already mentioned. That old Buick was in dire need of some routine preventative maintenance. (1)
Of course, it turns out that OSHA has guidelines for seat belt use too. “Seat belts are the single most effective means of reducing deaths and serious injuries in traffic crashes.” Pretty sure Elmer wasn’t wearing one of those out there on that fender. (2)
And there are several paragraphs talking about distracted driving. According to the OSHA guidelines, “distracted driving is a factor in 25 to 30 percent of all traffic crashes.” Would having someone sit on your front fender siphoning gas into a lightning-convulsed engine while you drive count as a distraction? (3)
Two other OSHA regulations might apply in this scenario as well.
The first is a “secure loose materials for transport” regulation. Technically, it applies to objects being transported in the passenger area of the car. But since its intent is to keep those materials from sliding around or becoming airborne during a crash or when the driver makes a sudden maneuver, I feel as though you could make a reasonable case that this regulation would have applied to Elmer as well, if OSHA had existed back then. (4)
The other is definitely a product of our time, and not Bird’s. Before employees take company vehicles out on the road, OSHA requires them to sign a driver agreement that commits them to follow specific safety policies while on the road. I know in my bones that Bird didn’t sign one of these. From everything I’ve read, it seems much more likely that Brown simply tossed Bird the keys to the Buick and told him to go deal with the Paluxy River excavation for him. (5)
Fortunately for Bird, but perhaps less fortunately for Elmer, OSHA didn’t exist until Richard M. Nixon signed the Occupational Health and Safety Act into law on December 29, 1970.
What I thought of the book, when I wasn’t distracted by OSHA
In general, Bird is a far better writer and his book much more fun to read than I had expected. Scientists have learned a lot about dinosaurs since Bird wrote this book, and it was pretty entertaining trying to figure out which tidbits were still correct and which had been amended as new discoveries had come in. For example, Bird very strongly believes that T. Rexes and other theropods couldn’t swim. New evidence suggests that yes, in fact, they probably could.
Never having been on a dig myself, I had also thought that it might be interesting to see what it would have been like to go on a dig in the 1930s, and I was not disappointed. The glimpses into what life was like back then were fascinating. Money was tight in those days, what with the Great Depression and all. The solutions Bird came up with to various obstacles on the dig seemed both ingeniously resourceful to me and second nature to him. His world was clearly not as disposable as ours has become.
It was also a bit jarring to find that Sinclair Oil had funded most of Bird’s expeditions. It made sense, though. After all, Sinclair Oil still uses the sauropod in its logo. I guess back in the day, Sinclair Oil considered finding dinosaur bones to be great marketing for their fossil fuel company. (A quick glance at Sinclair Oil’s website shows that the company is still pretty invested in their entire dinosaur marketing scheme. Which makes me wonder if they still fund paleontology expeditions. A question for another time, I suppose.)
A final note: Bird’s book is definitely a product of his time. On the technology and dinosaur knowledge front, reading a paleontologist’s memoir about his work during the Great Depression can be a lot of fun. But when it comes to talking about people, well, let’s just say that a few times Bird describes the people around in him in terms that can most kindly be called dated. Those episodes were jarring for me. Thankfully they were also relatively infrequent.
- “Could sauropods swim?” (Caterpickles)
- Update to a past Caterpickle: “Why did they draw that dinosaur underwater?” (Caterpickles)
- “Why does a book from 1999 still show a sauropod living in a swamp?” (Caterpickles)
- “Thunder in His Steps” by Roland T. Bird (Natural History Magazine archives)
- “A Dinosaur Walks Into the Museum” by Roland T. Bird (Natural History Magazine archives)