I’m a paleontologist—a scientist who digs up dinosaurs for a living. One of the perks of the job is that people always seem to be interested in what I’m finding. Especially the press. Journalists sniff out new dinosaurs like those Italian pigs sniff out truffles. I’ve been blessed a few times now to wake up in the morning and see my beaming mug in The Guardian or The Times or some dastardly tabloid, next to some hyperbolic headline about some new dinosaur that I uncovered in some corner of the globe.
But here’s my dirty little secret: I don’t particularly like fieldwork, and I’m not particularly good at it.
Don’t get me wrong, I love travelling the world, working with all kinds of amazing scientists, venturing into the badlands and emerging with 100-million-year-old bones of spectacular creatures that no human has ever seen before.
It’s just not my favorite part of the job. I would much rather be sitting by my computer writing up a description of a new dinosaur, or working on a book, or giving a lecture, or even teaching. That’s a sacrilegious thing for a paleontologist to say, as we’re supposed to be a special breed of rugged explorers.
But rugged I am most certainly not. I can camp and cook over the campfire and hack dinosaur bones out of the ground and all of that stuff, but I’m pretty mediocre at it. And that all comes down to a twist of family history that left me in the sad position that I’m in today.
There are many things that boys usually learn from their fathers—what sports teams to love and hate, what vocabulary to use when you stub your toe, how to treat girls, and how to use your hands. To hunt, to fish, to build things. But my father can’t build anything, and thus neither can I.
It’s not his fault. He was never taught.
But his father could build things. His pops, my grandfather, Louis, was a strong, vivacious, fast-talking Italian American who raised his brood of four girls and my father in the Chicago suburbs in the 1950s. His garage was full of tools, his workbench a thing to behold. Extended family from far and wide would ask him to fix this or install that, and he would oblige, especially if you gave him a few beers or some slices of watermelon.
Making things was also his job. He forged steel at the US steelworks in Joliet, Illinois, once one of the biggest mills in the US. It was hot, nasty, muscle-shredding work. But Louis was a legend—the short little guy was one of the hardest workers around.
But then one day everything changed.
Louis was going about his work, just another day on the job, a few more hours to go and then his wife and kids would be waiting for him, dinner on the table. Far above him, something slipped, and then came crashing down, thud. It was a bale of wire, weighing more than 1,000 pounds. And it fell right on Louis’s hip.
It was a miracle that he didn’t die. He almost lost one of his legs to a blood clot, but he pulled through. But he was permanently deformed, a once proud man reduced to a cripple. He couldn’t cook steel anymore, so the mill put him to work in maintenance. For a while he was able to still build things, but after a few years that became too difficult. So they made him into a custodian. A janitor. He unclogged toilets and cleaned up spills.
That was around the time my father was born. When my dad was growing up, his father’s tools gathered dust, his workbench sat silent, like a museum exhibit to the man who once was. There was no father-son bonding over hammers and saws and chisels. And when Louis died when my father was a teenager, an uncle came over and swept the tools into his truck, drove off, and that was that.
My father became a lawyer, a lover of books, somebody whose idea of hell is mowing the grass on Sunday or trimming hedges or trying to sort the basement when the sump pump stops working. We had a toolbox at home when I was growing up, but it was more for decoration, and I never learned much beyond the basics of how to hammer a nail.
As a paleontologist I build family trees of ancient organisms. Genealogies that show how the dinosaurs were related to each other, which we need in order to study their evolution. But it’s my own family tree that explains how I got to where I am today: a paleontologist who isn’t so good at digging up dinosaurs.