By David Williams
When I was a kid in 2nd grade, back in ‘61, I wanted to be a scientist and thought of scientific ideas all the time. If I had a good idea I’d write it down on a piece of paper, fold it, stuff it into an envelope, then seal it for future generations.
I looked at the globe one day at school and noticed that all the continents seemed weird, like a jigsaw puzzle, and if you could move them around they’d fit together. I didn’t think anyone had thought of that before, so I wrote my idea out on a paper and sealed it. Then I learned about atoms. I thought there was something special to things whirling about each other—big and little—outer space and inner space: a pattern that meant something to who we were. I wasn’t sure what it was exactly, but it seemed like a big deal—that everything was spinning.
But my biggest discovery came on Thanksgiving, and it was about something else entirely.
I was at Grandma Essie’s and Grandpa Joe Joe’s house way down in the Ozarks, and everyone was there—aunts, uncles, my other two grandparents, my parents, and my brothers, sisters, cousins, all sitting around a big table full of food. Someone told a story on me because at Show and Tell I’d gone up before my class (with not really much of an idea) when suddenly I remembered a remarkable thing. “My Aunt Birdie has been married 5 times, and she just got married again!” I said to my 2nd grade class. This strange fact seemed generally quite amazing to me, as Aunt Birdie was the only person I had ever heard of doing such a thing. The teacher apparently told my mom, and my mom told her brother, and so on, until, now, it was told at the Thanksgiving dinner table, and I was being laughed at. I thought getting married so many times was an achievement nearly worthy being written down and going into my envelope collection of strange and unusual facts. I certainly didn’t see it as a joke, or something to laugh about. But when someone told that story to the whole family sitting around the dead turkey in the middle of the dinner table, they thought it was hilarious, even if I didn’t. Everyone was howling, especially Aunt Birdie and her 6th husband.
I got up from the table and snuck out through the kitchen door. I stood near the side of the house, in shame. I was hardly much bigger than the cement blocks that kept the house on its foundation. I dug my shoe into the ground and kicked at rocks. I was almost ready to cry, but then there was something much more important to do. Watch the chickens.
Back in those days, people kept chicken coops in their backyards, where they got eggs—and quite frankly—where they got chickens. I loved chickens! But plenty of times I had watched my grandpa take one by the legs and—well—let’s just say—get it ready to be cooked. But I didn’t like that, not one bit. My mom told me that she had a pet pig once and that had happened to it, and she couldn’t eat anything made from the little pig she loved (no pork or bacon). That’s why I could never eat a chicken, but I’d watch my grandma pluck the feathers after you know what happened and put the chicken into the pot, and sometimes there were eggs inside the chicken if it wasn’t a rooster, because that’s where eggs come from: chickens.
I went out to the chicken pen and stood there. The chickens barely seemed to notice me, but I was on their side. There were seven hens and a rooster, who was very proud of himself. I’d spent a lot of time studying them. They were wonderfully plumed and puffed up. I never thought of chickens as dumb. They knew who was who in their world, who was on the top and who was on the bottom of the pecking order, and the rooster definitely believed that he was the boss. He jerked when he strutted, fancy, elite, keeping the flock in line, whether the hens really thought he was such a big deal or not I couldn’t tell. The chickens clucked and bobbed their feathered heads. They jostled their strange red crowns and wattles, scratching the ground with their lizard-like feet. I loved the way they moved, like hipsters—cool, with a tuck and bob, and they had the most important air about them like they were aristocratic—kings and queens of the backyard. They were kind of like musicians too, cooing their musical be-bop that ranged from lackadaisical to alarmed, for they were always on the alert for anything out of the ordinary. I was ordinary to them, and they recognized me as bing “all right.”
Staring at the chickens, it was right there, that very day, out of the blue, that the most spectacular notion hit me at once. The most profound thought I’d had to date. Chickens were not just chickens. Chickens were Dinosaurs! Dinosaurs didn’t all die out after all, and I saw quite clearly that everything about them was raptor-like, their legs and claws, their keen eyes on the lookout for a bug or a snake, which they could kill and eat faster than you can say cock-a-doodle-do. They roamed the pen like masters of the universe, and I saw that their wings were once arms, and their beaks once had teeth, and their feathered tails had been long and reptilian once upon a time.
When I went back into the dining room, Thanksgiving dinner was about over, and there on the big fat dish was what was left of the turkey. Not much.
“Are you ok, Honey?” my Mama said. “I was just going out to find you.”
“I’m ok,” I said. “I figured something out!”
“What?” she asked.
“That chickens are really dinosaurs,” I whispered to her, as I couldn’t wait to write it down and put in into an envelope for all time.
Unfortunately, my brother, Douglas James, heard me say it.
“David thinks chickens are dinosaurs,” he said out loud, and people started to laugh at me again, especially Aunt Birdie, who laughed louder than anyone (like she was a really big bird from out of the Amazon herself. (We called her Birdie because I couldn’t say Billie, her real name, when I was born, and it came out “Birdie,” which stuck).
I was made fun of again, but I just looked at the turkey. The women were picking up dishes and moving the leftovers into the kitchen by now.
“Can I help?” I asked.
“Sure, Honey,” Grandma Essie said, and I went right for the turkey on the big platter, which was heavy, but I handled it all right and balanced it between my hands as I walked to the kitchen. I didn’t put it on the counter. I went right to the back door and back outside.
I set the plate of turkey on the big stump Grandpa used to do things to the chickens to get them ready to eat (I’m not going to say what). Today, most people don’t even know that meat comes from animals, but it does. Turkey comes from turkey, chicken comes from chicken, beef comes from cows, and pork from pigs, in case you were unaware. But I knew exactly. I’d seen how it happens.
I examined the dead turkey on the plate, what was left of it, and then I ran back inside to get more evidence. Grandma had already scraped the dirty plates into a paper sack, and I grabbed that sack full of turkey bones and headed back out to the yard again.
Of course, anyone would know that a turkey and a chicken are not far apart. Birds of a feather, as they say. I looked at the bones of the turkey on the plate left after the white meat and dark meat had been cut away to be served with noodles and gravy. Then I pulled some yucky turkey bones out from the sack and put them on the sidewalk like a detective. It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle or the scene of a crime: wings and legs, the breastbone, thigh, and more. I could begin to see a dinosaur rising from the dead, for these turkey bones looked just like the bones of a T-Rex I had seen at the Natural History Museum in Chicago, which I remembered with spectacular clarity. This case was closed! Birds WERE dinosaurs!
But how! Back in those days, not too many people knew much about science. Nobody much talked about it, except for atom bombs, which we were scared of because they might fall from the sky. At school we had to duck and cover and hide under our desks if we had a drill for an atomic bomb being dropped on us. We did know of that. And we knew of going up into space, for a Russian cosmonaut and an American astronaut had just done so that very year, which we knew about from black and white television. But I’d never met a bird scientist or a dinosaur scientist, ever, and no one I knew every talked about such things.
How? Many years later, I learned about Darwin. I didn’t quite believe it all at first. But a man named Charles Darwin wrote a book showing the world how animals and plants change over time, and it fit my theory, so I had to believe it eventually. It was called Evolution, and what it meant is that animals have babies and plants have seeds. Some survive and some die. Where they grow up has a lot to do with it, as some babies and some seeds will be just right for a particular place (or environment) and do just fine. They are the ones that will grow up to have their own babies and seeds, and so on.
A mother and father pass on traits to their offspring, but it’s always a new mix, and the babies and seeds they’ll all come out different from either parent every time. And that new mix is change. Things change over time. An animal or plant can start out one way, but after millions of years it can change into something else. Some don’t change much at all, but most things do.
Of course nowadays, we know it’s all in the genes, in the DNA, where these changes take place, but Darwin didn’t even know that. He got it right though, just like I got it right, without a microscope or knowing about genes and DNA. I learned about Archaeopteryx too, a bird-like flying dinosaur. When scientists first discovered it, they thought it was just like any other dinosaur, until they saw that it had feathers, which were imprinted into the rock as fossils. A friend of Darwin’s, named Huxley, figured out that this was actually a dinosaur-bird.
So I wasn’t the first to discover that dinosaurs were birds, but no one told me about it, and I thought it up by myself. Most people didn’t pay any attention to Huxley’s idea until1970 when Professor John Ostrom found the 4th specimen of an Archaeopteryx, with feathers imprinted in the fossil rock, and realized all over that birds were actually dinosaurs. His student, Robert T. Bakker went on to make this idea famous to everybody. Now they’re called avian dinosaurs by scientists, not even birds.
There, in my grandparent’s backyard, back in 1961, I walked back over to the chickens, who did not seem to mind that I’d been studying a dead turkey not far from their cage. They strutted and clucked, while the rooster crowed, showing off his razor sharp dinosaur claws. Another meal would come, maybe tomorrow, maybe a week from today, and I knew one of these very chickens would fall (which I don’t want to go into in detail over), so I opened the door to let the dinosaurs out to rule the world once again.
I guess they’d never been out of the cage before. They were very cautious before stepping out, first one toe, then another, one hen, then two, until the whole bunch were free and out on the lawn and romping around looking for worms and grubs or any kind of thing they could grab with their beaks and gulp down. Was it a bad thing I had done, freeing the dinosaurs?
It didn’t last long. My little brother, Douglas James, came out back, saw the mayhem and called to Grandpa, who came running to shoo them back into the pen. “What in tarnation happened?” he asked, but he didn’t seem mad about it. I didn’t say anything that might incriminate myself. I didn’t say anything at all actually. I didn’t even feel too bad about it, I have to admit. After all, I had just seen something no grown-up had ever seen, even though it was right there in front of their eyes, something marvelous, something full of mystery. For I had discovered dinosaurs living amongst us. Me. A little kid. And who said kids don’t know anything? I knew something very big indeed, and I wrote it down and stuck it in an envelope, waiting a long, long time for my big idea to hatch.
Chicken hens, chicken chicks
Cocky rooster pecks and picks,
Out in the barnyard, strutting their stuff,
Eating the corn, they can’t get enough.
Chicken wings, chicken legs,
Chicken on the roost laying eggs.
Birds of a feather cluck and scratch,
PEEP go the chicks when they start to hatch.
They scratch around, the rooster crow
Saying Cock-a-diddle-do, I told you so.
You can’t snooze when the chickens rise,
So wipe that sleep out of your eyes.
They got tails, they got combs,
They got gizzards, they eat stones,
Lizard eyes, yellow feet,
Why did the chicken cross the street?
Some are red, some are white,
Some are black and some are striped.
Scratching round the great outdoors
Looking like small feathered dinosaurs.