In the early 1980’s I was a nurse at Ramsey Medical Center. In college I had worked two jobs and went to school full time, so after I graduated and had only one job to go to, no studying and I was single, I thought I had too much time on my hands. You can only do so much drinking and chasing of guys. I always liked Dinosaurs (who doesn’t?), so I went to volunteer my time at the Science Museum of Minnesota, in St. Paul. I worked in the Paleontology laboratory with the Dinosaur bones. They had a dig site in North Dakota and the Paleontologists would spend part of their summer unearthing the large bones and then would ship them back to the Science Museum for further work and study.
In the field they would see a small part of the bone sticking out of the ground and would dig way around it so that rock and dirt were still surrounding the bone, and then they would lift out the large specimen containing the fossilized bone and would wrap it in casting material, like a doctor uses to cast a broken arm to protect it during transit to the museum. It was then put on a train to St. Paul and taken to the museum. Once at the museum, the people working in the lab would carefully remove the casting with a cast removal saw, just like at the doctor, and then use dental tools and picks to slowly and carefully remove the bone. This was my job. They had a lot of fun people working there who were students learning to be paleontologists, people who actually were paleontologists, and then a bunch of us interested volunteers.
I always liked learning new things and this was something I knew nothing about other than what I had read in National Geographic or learned in school. It seemed really exciting and something completely different than my nursing. It was also an opportunity to work quietly by myself after the hustle, bustle and intensity of a hospital shift that sometimes involved life and death. This was a quiet place to reflect and think of other things, while carefully working on the specimen. I could come whenever I wanted to and work as long as I wanted. The lab was set up so that I had a work area that was always the same and whatever specimen I was working on was mine and no one else worked on another’s specimen. I had some really cool bones over the couple of years that I worked there.
Once I was working on a large specimen, and was early on in uncovering what was inside, and as I worked carefully, an animal skull started to appear. It was very exciting. The next time I came back, it was gone. One of the Paleontologists had taken it for further study because he identified it as a type of prehistoric pig and was doing his PhD thesis on that particular species and whether they had a type of bone disease at that time. It was all the buzz around the museum and how exciting it was for the paleontologist, since he needed these pig skulls for his work.
It was a great experience. They took volunteers to North Dakota every summer to help at the dig site. I just could not make that work without quitting my regular job and career as a Labor and Delivery Nurse, but I would have loved to go along.
One of the benefits of volunteering at the Science Museum was that I had free admission any time I wanted, and free Omni theatre productions. That was amazing. I went to every exhibit and I went to every new Omni show when it came out. I actually went to many of the Omni presentations multiple times. I could also get passes for my family and took my parents to a number of shows at the Omni. After my kids were born, I took them to the Science Museum multiple times per year. It was a great winter activity in Minnesota and I liked it just as much as they did.
I would always point out the lab that I had worked in a few years earlier and they thought it was pretty cool that I had helped to dig dinosaur bones. I even made pretend dinosaur digs for them and even brought it to their schools a couple of times. I boiled and bleached some cow bones I got from the meat market and then placed them into metal pans and poured a mixture of sand and plaster over them, so that one had to use tools to get them out, but it was not too difficult so that the younger kids could help. I gave them safety glasses and some small tools and they were able to have a pretend Dinosaur dig. I think I had as much fun with that as the kids.
One of my most fun stories is when I brought a pretend dinosaur dig to school for my son’s kindergarten class. I had it all set out and the teacher and students were very excited. The teacher was so nice and patient. She was asking the kids about what they knew about dinosaurs and they were eager to tell her about all of the things they had read. Not to be outdone, one of the boys insisted that he had not only read about dinosaurs, but that his grandpa owned a live pterodactyl. It flew around his house, but he put it in a cage when they came over so that it did not try to pick them up with its talons. The teacher was speechless, but then said is that a real story or a pretend story. Of course he insisted it was real, so she politely just moved on to something else. Smart teacher.
When I was volunteering at the museum I would walk around on breaks and talk with other volunteers. It is one of those places where each time you go you see new things or notice things you did not notice before. They had other volunteers in various areas and I remember one particular incident where I was looking at a strange instrument called an Angklung, originally used in Indonesia, as I understood it. The other volunteer went to great lengths to explain its origins and at that time he was allowed to demonstrate how it worked. It was a beautiful instrument making the most interesting sounds of clicking and yet it had a musical quality to it from the ringing of the bamboo.
Years later, when I was dating my husband he took me to a concert done by Andreas Vollenweider. This was in the eighties and the New Age sound was all the rage. Andreas was from Switzerland and made the most romantic and beautiful music ever. His music is actually still quite popular because it has such a unique sound. It is mostly instrumental and he plays an electro acoustic harp and is backed up by talented musicians who play multiple instruments, including some interesting percussion instruments from all over the world. As I sat at the concert, letting his beautiful sounds wash over, he played a song that made me sit up in my chair. The sounds were so unique; I knew right away his percussion section had an Angklung. It was absolutely beautiful. It was so odd to make that connection so many years later. I still listen to Andreas and the song I heard at the concert with the Angklung is still one of my favorites. He uses the Angklung in many songs on that particular album, but no other song features that Indonesian instrument like that one. When I listen to it now, it reminds me of my past and of my good memories from the Science Museum.
I only volunteered at the science museum for a very short time. I think it was less then two years, but it is amazing how that short time had such an impact on me. I took my family on trips to see fossils and dinosaur digs on our family vacations, and I had my kids at the Science Museum and museums like it many times. It is funny how that very short time from my past had such a great impact on my experiences. Had I not volunteered, I would not have learned about the Angklung and I would not have known so much about fossils and dinosaur bones. It is interesting experiences like this that make life itself interesting. I have often said that I have never regretted the new things that I have tried in my life and the experiences that I have had. It is these experiences that have made my life interesting and full.