When dinosaurs -- and museums -- ruled the Earth

January 05, 2003|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder / Tribune

It was the day after Thanksgiving, and we were in Washington, D.C., and if we belonged to an intelligent species -- bears, for example -- we would have spent the day in the fetal position, moaning. Unfortunately, all the blood had left our brains to help digest the bowling balls of compressed food in our stomachs, and our IQs had dropped to plant level.

And so we made a mistake, a mistake that many other food-stupidified people in the Washington area make on the day after Thanksgiving: We decided to go to a museum. It would be fun! And educational!

We headed first for the International Spy Museum, a popular new Washington attraction with exhibits on spying techniques, including a "hands-on" torture chamber where children use real electrodes to find out how much voltage it takes to turn their siblings' flesh into jerky. Plus there's a gift shop where you can buy actual state secrets, including a map showing Vice President Cheney's Undisclosed Location (Graceland).

No, I'm kidding. I don't know what they have at the International Spy Museum. When we arrived, there was a line from the entrance, which is on F Street, stretching around the corner to approximately Ecuador. At that point, if we'd had one working brain cell among us, we'd have said: "This is insane! Let's go home!" Instead, being turkey-bloated morons, we said: "Let's go to the Smithsonian!"

The Smithsonian is a great museum that annually attracts more than 20 million visitors, every single one of whom was there when we arrived. Have you ever been caught in a department-store holiday-mob shopping frenzy, when normally decent middle-aged moms are yanking out clots of each other's hair? Well, that's what the Smithsonian was like, but instead of fighting over merchandise, people were elbowing each other savagely to get close to the exhibits, dragging their children behind them, because this was EDUCATIONAL and FUN, dammit.

"Look, Dylan!" a parent would say, pointing at what appeared to be a rock. "This is the fossil of a land plant from 400 million years ago!"

And young Dylan, with the eager curiosity of youth, would say, "Can we go home now?"

"Look!" the parent would say, pointing at another rock. "Here's the fossil of a very old seed! Dylan? DYLAN, YOU COME BACK HERE AND LOOK AT THIS SEED RIGHT NOW!"

I clung fiercely to my 2-year-old daughter, Sophie, afraid that if I set her down, she'd disappear into the mob, and I'd find her years later in the Pacific Cultures exhibit, wearing a grass skirt and demonstrating how ancient Pacific islanders would pound roots with rocks to make their favorite dish 2 / 3 pounded Root.

In the crush of people, Sophie and I became separated from our group, so I got on my cell phone to try to locate the others.

"I THINK I'M IN ANCIENT SEAS," I shouted into the phone. "I SEE A TRILOBITE. WHERE ARE YOU?"

"WE JUST [something] MAMMOTH," a garbled voice responded. "WE'LL TRY TO [something] MINERALS. BUT FOR GOD'S SAKE [something] INSECT ZOO."

The crowd swept me toward the dinosaur skeletons. "Look, Sophie!" I said. "Dinosaurs!"

Sophie looked at me as though I was a lunatic, because these things clearly were not dinosaurs. Sophie knows what dinosaurs look like. She watches Barney.

Totally lost, I staggered from exhibit to exhibit. At one point, I passed the skeleton of a squirrel from 30 million years ago, and I was disappointed to see that it was the same size as a modern squirrel. I wanted it to be huge, say 50 feet tall, Tyrannosquirrelus Rex, with cheek pouches like UPS trucks, a creature that made the forest shake with the dreaded Scamper of Thunder, striking terror in the hearts of prehistoric 75-pound acorns.

"Look Sophie!" I said. "A squirrel!"

But she had, wisely, fallen asleep. My arms aching, I found a place to sit, in a little theater showing an educational five-minute movie about tectonic plates, which I watched 14 times. I am now an expert on tectonic plates.

But I was grateful for the seat, and my suggestion for the Smithsonian is: If you really want to serve the public, you should put in an exhibit called: A Big Dark Room Filled With Mattresses. Try to do this by next Thanksgiving, OK? Because we'll be back.

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