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Sun April 3, 2011
Author Interviews

Dinosaur 'Boneheads': One Man's Search For T. Rex

If you could do it all over again, what would you be when you grow up? Richard Polsky asked himself that question as he was nearing his 50th birthday. Sure, he was a successful art dealer and author, but Polsky decided it was time to chase an old childhood dream: He wanted to hunt for dinosaurs.

He set off for the Badlands of South Dakota to search for fossils. The people he met and the prehistoric discoveries he made are all part of his new book, Boneheads: My Search for T. Rex. The title, Polsky tells NPR's David Greene, was inspired by a pair of eccentric dinosaur bone hunting twins, Stan and Steve Sacrison. "There have been approximately 45 T. rexs found in the history of the world," Polsky explains, and the Sacrisons have found three of them. "They're known in the trade as 'The Bonehead Brothers' because they're goofballs."

It took some time for the veteran fossil hunters to warm up to Polsky. In the book, he recounts an early exchange he had with Steve Sacrison. "You think you've got what it takes to find a T. rex?" Sacrison asked. "Let me tell you: It's not that easy. You're not going to find anything. You people come out here from parts unknown and think you can take our dinosaurs."

Not exactly a warm welcome, but Polsky says he can understand their ambivalence about his tagging along on the digs. "We're talking about commercial dinosaur hunters," Polsky explains, "these are not professors with Ph.D.s at big universities. These are guys that survive by their wits and in order to find dinosaurs, you have to go out on land that belongs to private ranchers ... they're not keen about giving you their secrets — letting you know their locations where their dinosaurs are."

It doesn't help that most people are fairly ignorant about what it's actually like to be a fossil hunter — thanks, in large part, to Jurassic Park. In the movies, paleontologists stumble onto a bone, and after brushing off a little sand, reveal a beautiful, a perfectly in-tact dinosaur skeleton. "It's not like that," Polsky says.

Not only is it hot, dirty, tedious work, but paleontologists spend a lot of time finding and identifying fossils that they ultimately leave behind in the field. "It's just so rare that you see something that's worth taking back." Polsky says. "It's a real treasure hunt. It's like winning the lottery."

Polsky was there when one of his fossil hunting friends did win the lottery. He was out on a dig with Bob Detrich (aka "The Fossil King") when they uncovered a T. rex fragment. "In the T. rex world, when you find a dinosaur, you have the honor of naming it after anyone you want," Polsky says. Bob decided to name the fossil "Little Richard" — after his faithful assistant, Richard Polsky.

Now that he's immortalized in the fossil hunting world, Polsky looks back on his time with these paleontologists as a great adventure. "It was a real window into the life and lifestyle of what these people do ... I felt really sad when I left these guys," he says.

And despite any initial misgivings, the hunters eventually embraced Polsky as a member of the team — and are now quite excited about the book. "It was vindication that someone finally wrote about their side of things," Polsky says. "Most books on dinosaurs are scientific. They're written by Ph.D.s, and quiet frankly, they're boring. This really told a story — it told their story." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, host:

Now, let's meet a man named Richard Polsky. He was closing in on 50 when he decided it was time to chase his childhood dream. Sure, he was a successful art dealer and author, but what he really wanted to do was hunt for dinosaurs - and not just any dinosaur, the king, the beast, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. He set off for the Badlands of South Dakota, and in his new book, "Boneheads: My Search for T. Rex," he talks about his fellow dinosaur hunters, the Boneheads.

Mr. RICHARD POLSKY (Author, "Boneheads: My Search for T. Rex"): Right, right. Actually, the title comes from a pair of T. Rex-hunting twins, Stan and Steve Sacrison. There have been approximately 45 T. Rexes found in the history of the world. They're responsible for having found three of them.

But their characters - one sleeps in his car, the other's a gravedigger by day - and they're known in the trade by the Bonehead brothers 'cause they're goofballs. And, you know, I had such a crazy time with them because the leader of the group was this guy Bob Dietrich, who calls himself the Fossil King. And I didn't know who was crazier, these guys for coming up with this stuff or me for going along with it.

GREENE: There's a passage in your book when you're describing chatting with one them. I wonder if you could turn to page 148.

Mr. POLSKY: Sure.

GREENE: You're meeting Steve, I think. He's one of the twins, the crazy twins.

Mr. POLSKY: Yeah, one of the...

GREENE: ...you were talking...

Mr. POLSKY: ...one of the Bonehead brothers.

GREENE: OK. Yeah, read that paragraph for me if you can.

Mr. POLSKY: (Reading) Then Steve yawned and his tobacco-stained teeth made me cringe. So did the words he spoke next. You think you've got what it takes to find a T. Rex? Let me tell you; it's not that easy. You're not going to find anything. You people come out here from parts unknown and think you can take our dinosaurs.

GREENE: Is that what they call a warm welcome in the Badlands of South Dakota?

Mr. POLSKY: Well, you know, they had mixed feelings about seeing me. You got to understand, we're talking about commercial dinosaur hunters. These are not professors with Ph.D.s at big universities. These are guys that survive by their wits, and in order to find dinosaurs, you have to go on a land that belongs to private ranchers.

So, the few paleontologists - that is to say, the commercial diggers, who get permission - they sign contracts, they cut the ranchers in - they're not keen about giving you their secrets, letting you know their locations where the dinosaurs are.

GREENE: Tell me about a day in the field. What's it like out there actually doing the digging? I mean, are you guys standing over a hole with shovels and chatting? What exactly is going on?

Mr. POLSKY: Well, it's not what you think. A lot of people are confused about what these guys do because they all saw the movie "Jurassic Park." Do you remember at the beginning of the movie there's a scene where they're out in the field and Laura Dern and I forgot the other guy, her paleontologist boyfriend, they're digging. They come across a perfectly articulated skeleton. They take what looks like a paintbrush, swipe away a little sand. And, again, there's this beautiful dinosaur stretched out before him.

GREENE: I suppose days are not usually that perfect out in the field in real life?

Mr. POLSKY: It's not like that, no, no. This is hard work. It's usually 90 degrees out during the summer. It's hot, you're perspiring, you're dirty, and it's just so rare that you see something that's worth taking back. So, when they're out in the field, you waste a lot of time, where you come across bone. Then you have to identify it. And if you decide, oh, it's just a fossil turtle shell or something like that, you move on.

It's a real treasure hunt. It's like winning the lottery when you score a T. Rex.

GREENE: You wrote in the book about the ups and downs, thinking you discovered things. In the end, you, arguably, were part of a discovery of part of a T. Rex, and actually, Richard Polsky, they named this T. Rex after you.

Mr. POLSKY: Well, again, this is, you know, this is partly true. Bob Dietrich did uncover something. I was with him when he uncovered it. And in the T. Rex world, when you find a dinosaur, you have the honor of naming it after anyone you want, and he wants to name this piece that he found Little Richard.

GREENE: After you.

Mr. POLSKY: After me.

GREENE: Maybe you're going to be the more famous Little Richard someday.

Mr. POLSKY: One can only hope.

GREENE: Well, did you find your dream?

Mr. POLSKY: Well, it was certainly a great adventure. It was a real window into the life and lifestyle of what these people do. So, on that level it was thrilling and I felt really sad when I left these guys. And these guys were just so excited to be part of this. It was vindication that someone finally wrote about their side of things.

Most books on dinosaurs are scientific. They're written by Ph.D.s and quite frankly they're boring. This really told a story, told their story. And on that level, I was grateful I connected with them and ultimately did feel like I was part of it.

GREENE: Richard Polsky is the author of the new book, "Boneheads: My Search for T. Rex." Richard, enjoy your next hunt. Thank you for being here.

Mr. POLSKY: Thanks a lot.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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