When I was a boy, I treasured one book far more than others. It was an innocuous little thing, a staple-bound glossy rectangular softcover, its corners peeled, its cover creased. I don’t remember the title, and I don’t remember the author, but the book was an A-to-Z illustrated rhyming of the dinosaurs. I remember the cover was orange, and the poems were all sing-song, Seussian stanzas and couplets. I loved it—I read it every day. I’ve long since forgotten which dinosaurs were paired with which letters or how the stanzas differed from one another: D was for Diplodocus, I want to say, but it could very well have been Dilophosaurus. The one thing I do remember, however, is my favorite couplet:
Clankity clankity clankity clank,Ankylosaurus was built like a tank!
Sometimes I recite the first line—clankity clankity clankity clank—while walking to the light rail station outside St. Paul, stretching through the stiffness of the morning on my way to the platform, blinking myself awake, repeating that clunky mantra in time with the reverberant harmonics of the train upon the fretboard of the track as it clatters toward Minneapolis. I also recite it every time someone says Ankylosaurus, which is rare.
He’s an easy one to remember, Ankylosaurus. Extinction merely refers to his being or not-being on the planet, but he’s alive and well in the Cretacean foothills of my mind. He’s the armored lizard—from his triangular head to his scaly toes, Ankylosaurus is shielded by fused plates of bone, separated only by smaller plates of bone, pebbling his body in armadillic ridges of unyielding [End Page 133] strength. His armor tapers to a two-fisted club at the end of his tail, like a knobby organic dumbbell—a shin-splinter, a skull-crusher, that tail. Four squat horns frame the sides of his head—two jowly cones sweep down and back from behind his beak, two sweep up from the top of his skull—and parallel rows of small, raised nubs and spikes comb his flank and polka-dot the plates of his armor, jutting up and out like miniature mesas upon the hardpan of his back all the way down to the peninsular bludgeon of his tail. He walks on all fours, low to the ground, shuffling, snuffling, snarfing for plants.
Imagine the rooster tail dervishes of dust he chuffs into the protean, jungled troposphere of prehistoric North America. Imagine him roaming as the sunlight dapples his muddied body, camouflaging his progress in the brush. And imagine his fear as the cacophonous bellow of a blood-raged tyrannosaur breaks his peace—the snarl and chomp from the rex, the hiss and recoil from the ankylosaur, followed bythe whuff of his tail swinging free for the rex’s shins. Ankylosaurus had few natural predators and a rather efficient defensive mechanism. He was a tectonic wonder of evolution.
I loved Ankylosaurus and thought about him often. I thought about him because I, unlike he, did not have an impenetrable suit of armor upon my back, nor a built-in, thought-activated bone-crusher at my disposal. I grew up skinny—narrow-chested, short-of-shoulder, with arms like uncooked strands of my great-grandma Vi’s spaghetti.
From first grade until I graduated from high school, I walked about a mile to and from school every morning with my brother, Jared, and our friends, all year long. In elementary school and even (I’m a little embarrassed to admit) into middle school, I often repeated clankity clankity clankity clank, head down, eyes to the ground, hearing but not really listening to what anyone else was saying. I wasn’t concerned about physical harassment, but I possessed a vague, unspoken sense of the fleeting nature of our walk, these friends, this school, that time, those years. I didn’t know the word transient, but it might have described what I was feeling and what I saw. Sometimes I became melancholy, so I repeated the mantra because it made me happy. It was simple, and I reminded myself that Ankylosaurus probably didn’t worry...