The Case of the Dropped Embryo


(Photo by Charlie McGovern!)

Terry Manning blows bubbles on eggs. One egg, one year of blowing bubbles. No, Terry is not insane. Though with the most bugged-out eyes this side of Marty Feldman, he does look the part. And sounds it, with a thick working-class British accent.

In Leicestershire, where he lives and maintains a little laboratory, Terry has succeeded in locating and then preparing tiny embryonic bones of dinosaurs.

The eggs, and he has prepared several, are tennis-ball-sized eggs of Chinese segnosaurs, peculiar large plant-eaters descended from carnivorous dinosaurs more than 75 million years ago.

Even the biggest dinosaurs started small, but we know little of baby dinosaurs and next to nothing of embryonic ones. If you are able to find an unborn dinosaur, as very few researchers have been able to do, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

In Terry’s case, that means a year of dropping a soapy solution by medicine dropper into the crystalline-looking interior of one of these eggs, slowly dissolving the rock matrix that surrounds tiny jumbled bones. With those amazing pop-eyes, it was no surprise Manning had horrible eyesight. Long days over a magnifying glass examining tiny bones can’t have helped either.

How tiny is tiny? How about a dinosaur femur the width of a human hair?

Of course, after decades of fossil preparation, Manning had a steady hand. Still, he could work only at night, for passing trucks in the daytime produce vibrations that would shake his dropper-hand, with disastrous consequences. Melted bones, that is.

I see Terry only irregularly, and when he is far from his lab, at the fossil-selling rooms in Tucson’s Annual Gem and Mineral Show. Like commercial dealers and researchers from around the world, Manning comes to show what he’s got for sale. And occasionally, things too rare and scientifically valuable to sell at all – like the embryos he’d prepared in association with the Manchester Museum.

On the day, more than a decade ago when I last saw Terry in Tucson, he dragged me to a back room of a fellow British preparator’s motel suite, and pulled out an egg. My eyes opened nearly as widely as Terry’s always are. With a jeweler’s loupe he proffered, I looked in wonder upon the tiny claws, teeth, and bones of the tiniest dinosaur the world had ever known.

Idly fantasizing, I told him how much I’d love to include the egg in one of my touring exhibitions. In what was a very weak moment, Terry graciously agreed. No money. No contract. No insurance. No nuthin’.

“Here y’a go, just get it back to me.” He placed the egg in a small, foam-lined lockbox, clicked the latches and held it out to me, smiling broadly.

I love the guy. But is it my responsibility to tell him he’s being much too generous? I thought not.

I flew the egg home with me, holding it gingerly in my lap, but for a few required moments under the seat. The next week I drove it down to a small dinosaur exhibition I was opening at the Virginia Children’s Museum in Richmond. I’d alerted the exhibit director, Claire Mehalick, whose excitement was only narrowly second to my own.

“We’ll have the press and a lot of kids, and they can watch you put it in the case.”

“Sounds good to me.” My enthusiasm was a triumph of hope over experience. The last time I’d invited the press to watch placing eggs in a display case, it’d been a Good Morning America shoot at a Jurassic Park exhibit of mine at the Boston Museum of Science. We’d just brought in a beautiful nest of 20 duckbill dinosaur eggs from China, one of the largest assemblages then known. The GMA producer asked that we remove the plexiglass entirely, so they could shoot the nest from above without glare. The museum resisted, but I overruled them.

Within 30 seconds the large metal light stand crashed down, directly onto the nest.

The horror was universal and captured by other press in stories that carried much farther than the news of the egg unveiling might have otherwise. A mixed blessing of course.

As for the eggs, I knew what the rest there didn’t – that dinosaur eggs are hard as rock, and far harder than light stands. They are in fact, mostly rock. Fossils are most often made by minerals entering into the pores in and around bones, replacing much – though not all – of the organic matter. The eggs were unscathed.

The same could never be said of Terry Manning’s extraordinary embryos. He’d painstakingly removed so much of the surrounding matrix, that the little bones stood out as if on tiny pedestals of underlying crystal.

So, at the Children’s Museum, I slowly removed the egg from the case and held it gingerly in my palms for the 10-foot walk to the open and awaiting display case. Yeah, you know what’s coming. Ten excited small children, falling over themselves, and onto me, knocking me off balance.

The egg flew out of my hands. The egg crashed to the floor and rolled over, shedding tiny bits of precious bones as it went.

I saw my life pass before my eyes. Terry SEEMED the most genial and generous of people. But this was legitimate cause for murder. I gathered up all the loose bits of bone and pocketed them. The egg, missing many of its most beautiful features, went in the case. No one else was upset. No problem, I was upset enough for everyone.

In panic, I called a longtime mutual friend, Charlie McGovern, himself a preparatory of, and dealer in, dinosaur eggs. Charlie’s a scruffy-bearded Coloradan, a gentle, sardonic man-of-few words -- the laid back counterpart to his whirling dervish wife and partner Flo.

“Charlie, I broke Terry’s egg!”

“Holy shit! You are SO screwed.”

“This isn’t helping, Charlie.”

“OK, calm down. I’ll talk to Terry for you.”

A few hours later Charlie called back. “Talked to Terry.”

“Yeah, and…?”

“Told him you dropped the egg. Apparently, he passed out. They took him to the hospital. Heart attack they said. But I think he’ll be ok.”

“Think?”

“Gotcha.”

“You’re an asshole, Charlie!”

“Me, an asshole? YOU dropped the egg.”

Incredibly, Terry took it all in stride. I called and explained I had saved all the fossil chips knocked off the egg. “Just get it all to me when you’re done.”

At this point, one can only conclude, as I did, that Manning is pathologically kind. (Cosmic karma did repay him, by the way, for his spirit, when a robber hit him over the head with a lead pipe. No, not the clubbing itself. But as I learned blunt trauma can do, the whack immediately and permanently corrected his myopia).

I made the mistake of telling my older daughter, then 20 and at the peak of her still-formidable power to identify, and take umbrage at, her father’s stupidity. “I’m coming with you to England, and I’m carrying the egg in its case THE ENTIRE TIME!”

I think this was an invitation for a father-daughter 3-day travel adventure, though the wording wasn’t quite so hospitable.

We flew from Philadelphia to London where Terry met us at the airport. My daughter passed him the case and the envelope of shards and apologized profusely for having an idiot for a father – a speech she had given often and convincingly before.

I looked Terry over closely. He didn’t appear to be carrying any weapons, not even an umbrella with a radioactive pellet (a then-recent and still-inventive murder scenario whereby a Bulgarian spy had stabbed, and killed another agent).

He smiled broadly at us, as is his wont, and I gratefully returned his gaze (at least into one of his eyes – you can’t encompass both in one look). A few weeks later he sent me photos of the restored egg, looking good as old.

Before we headed back, we had a day and night to relax. Rebecca chose a pretentious British play for us to attend. Jet-lagged, and hardly entranced by the actors’ heated debate over the meaning of an all-white painting, I snored my way through the second act.*

In the cab, and again on the flight, Rebecca took the time to kindly informed me that I was a Philistine. I will take that over precious-fossil-dropping klutz anytime.

God bless you, Terry Manning, wherever you are.

*The theatre experience reminds me of another, equally incomplete but more bizarre. One of my exhibition installers invited me to a play on an off-night from our exhibit set-up in San Francisco. Like many exhibit workers, he was at heart and on most of his resume, a roadie who installed rock shows. This means, not necessarily, but always in my experience, that said installer is short a few teeth and more than a few brain cells, the former from falling equipment, the latter from drugs generously shared by addled rock-stars. This particular crew chief had largely retired from install work, to manage a pig-farm in Alabama. (Only in comparison to installing exhibits would this sound a promising alternative).

The play to which Hog-Father had gotten us tickets -courtesy of another roadie who helped on the show - was Copenhagen, a tense if esoteric drama about Nils Bohr’s wartime dispute with uncertain fellow physicist, Heisenberg.

This time, I was rested, and very much engaged by the drama. But my host had slept through much of the first act and at halftime motioned for us to leave.

“Too tired,” I inquired.

“Nah, I thought it was gonna be a musical.”


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