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."