Steve Fiffer

Steve Fiffer

A weeklong electronic journal.
May 18 2000 9:00 PM

Steve Fiffer

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In Chicago, the early bird and only the early bird catches the Tyrannosaurus rex. I rose a little before 4 a.m. on Wednesday in order to arrive at the Field Museum's unveiling of Sue, the world's most famous dinosaur. The program began at 6 a.m., but the 20-foot-high curtain wasn't dropped to reveal the reconstructed T. rex until 6:45. In the interim, museum officials, Mayor Richard M. Daley, and representatives of corporate sponsors McDonald's and Disney spoke to the invitation-only crowd that included schoolchildren, the media, and people wearing tags that read "VIP." An ensemble played a portion of the Cretaceous Concerto, a piece of chamber music commissioned by the museum. Poems about dinosaurs were read.

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Sue Hendrickson, the field paleontologist who found the dinosaur, answered questions from the schoolchildren. "Who do you want to play you in the movie?" a young boy asked. Hendrickson, who had no trouble answering questions about the discovery, was momentarily stumped. "Laura Dern, or maybe Jodie Foster," she finally said. "It would have to be someone who looks strong enough to spend a lot of time outdoors."

Absent from the list of speakers was Peter Larson, who headed the team that found Sue. Larson was in the house, however, at the museum's invitation. His Field Museum outfit was his field outfit—blue jeans and a blue work shirt. Having found a seat directly in front of the curtain, he waited nervously to be reunited with Sue, who had been seized from him eight years ago to the day.

At the appointed time, museum President John McCarter Jr. took the podium and led the countdown. 10-9-8. Larson fidgeted with his camera. 7-6-5. He took the hand of his girlfriend. 4-3-2-1. The curtain dropped. Sue rose out of a machine-created mist. And Peter Larson wept real tears.

Before him—before us all—stood the greatest find of his lifetime. The dinosaur he had named. The dinosaur whose bones he had caressed for 18 months. The dinosaur who had shared the secrets of her life with him. "She's beautiful," he whispered. "The museum did a great job."

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Sue is not nearly as big as the brachiosaurus it has replaced on the museum's main floor. But that specimen, like many dinosaurs in museums around the world, was a composite of several different dinosaurs. Sue is special because she is so complete. All 270-plus bones are hers. And they are remarkably well preserved.

Larson moved to the railing that separates Sue from onlookers. (In another area of the museum, visitors can actually touch casts of some of her bones.) He spent several minutes taking pictures of her from various angles.

When the FBI seized Sue, Larson was in the midst of several scientific studies. In the coming months, the museum will allow scientists to examine Sue's skeleton. Until then he will study the photos he took at the unveiling. Larson was particularly interested in Sue's femur, which to the lay person seems to confirm the paleontologist's theory that she survived a badly broken leg.

Several hours after the unveiling, Larson and Terry Wentz, the preparator who had worked with Larson on Sue before the FBI took her, came to my house for dinner. When I signed the contract to write Tyrannosaurus Sue, my mother gave me a complicated three-dimensional T. rex puzzle. Every time she visits, she asks whether my kids and I have assembled it. We haven't. Wentz, who volunteers countless hours teaching schoolchildren about dinosaurs, invited my 12-year-old son, Rob, to join him in putting the dinosaur together.

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As they sat at a table, Larson reflected on being reunited with Sue. "She's beautiful," he repeated, "but the connection's not there. She's not talking to me like she did. Maybe if I can touch her like before …" His voice trailed off.

A few minutes later, Sue Hendrickson phoned. She was to have come to dinner as well but was so busy with media interviews that she had to cancel. She, too, had cried at the unveiling.

Larson told Hendrickson that he needed to bridge the physical and emotional gap that he was feeling. "I'm going back to the museum tomorrow," he said. "And somehow I'm going to get over the barricade and touch her."

In the other room, my son and Wentz were making good progress on the T. rex. As they assembled the skull, Wentz remembered that the FBI had waited until Sue's skull was prepared before conducting the surprise raid and seizing the bones.

A few moments later, there was a knock at our door. An eerie silence fell over Larson, Wentz, and the rest of our guests until we heard the man at the door say, "Pizza."