Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Amazing and Apparently True Repenning Stories

OK I promised to record some of my childhood stories.  Here is the first one.  Remember the Repenning Family Motto: "Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story."  I think this is mostly true...

Whenever I am at one of those parties where they ask you to tell something about yourself that no one knows I say that, oddly enough, I was the ONLY girl in my high school who had an elephant buried in my back yard.  In all the years of saying this, I have only ever met one other person who had an elephant buried in their backyard.  They were from South Africa someplace.  I'm from a suburb of San Francisco.  Elephants buried in back yards was unusual in Mountain View.  Now that it's called "Silicon Valley" I assume it is even more unusual.

My dad was a paleontologist, zoologist and geologist.  When an animal died in the San Francisco Zoo they would give him first dibs.  He would often bring them home and display them on the front lawn for a day or two.  My husband remembers vividly our first date when he arrived to pick me up and there was a ram's head bleeding on the front walk.  He got the message and was VERY careful to get me home on time.  Another time Dad brought home two zebras and propped them up under the plum tree on the front lawn.  It looked very much like an African Savannah.  My mother says a police car drove by very slowly several times.  Mountain View had very strict pet codes, but nothing about dead zebras on the front lawn, I guess.

But back to the elephant.  This was back in the days when Stanford was building the Stanford Linear Accelerator.  This is a mile long underground tube.  Scientists stick an atom up on a dart board at one end of the tube and then aim an electron at it from the other end a mile away.  Obviously, it has to be pretty accurate.  The guy digging the hole, however, made a 100 meter error and cut off the head of some prehistoric beast.  Fortunately they discovered the error and went back to digging the tube and left the headless beast for my dad to identify and name.  He named it the Paleoparadoxia and I spent a lot of my junior high years crawling around in it's ribcage while he and Adele Panofsky excavated it.  

At the time they found this beast, my dad was engaged in the  study of shrews - a  VERY tiny rodent.  He kept some shrews in his bedroom in an aquarium.  They die of fright if you startle them, so we were forbidden to go into my parent's bedroom.  He wanted to develop a bio-chronology of these tiny rodents that would be similar to "Petersen's Field Guides."  Paleontologists could carry his field guide around in their back pockets and get a pretty accurate date for any fossil beds they might find.  It's the teeth that are important.  Remember that in case I write another chapter.

But back to the elephant.  With great reluctance, my father was convinced to put aside his microtene rodents and turn to this gargantuan thing-a-ma-bob and it's modern relatives.  This was how he became an expert in elephant seals and demostylians.  It was at this juncture an elephant died at the San Francisco Zoo.  He was really only interested in the feet, so he drove up there to collect them.  The zookeeper just pointed him to the pen and left him.

It was a dark and stormy night.  He pointed the headlights of his woody station wagon at the elephant and got out his tool kit.  As the storm raged around him, he managed to saw off the parts he needed and put them in great big garbage bags and stuffed them into the back of the woody.  Can't you just see the movie footage?  Lightning flashes and winds howl as our mad scientist waves his saw defiantly at the sky while the elephant's mate on the other side of a flimsy bamboo fence trumpets in a mad rage.  It doesn't actually thunder and lightning in San Francisco, but I always see lightning when I picture this.

Now in normal circumstances, after amusing himself and the neighbors, animals from the zoo were taken to the "bone yard".  This was a fenced off portion of our back yard presided over, appropriately enough, by our raven, Honker and decorated with fierce witch doctor masks.  In the bone yard were several barbeques and a large cauldron.  Really large.  I mean big enough to boil a missionary.  Here was where he would render the animal down to bare bones to study.  Unfortunately, he discovered that elephants are so big that even the feet will not fit in a large cauldron.

So my ever resourceful father went to the local hardware store, bought several shovels and gathered all the kids in the neighborhood.  "Find China" he said and we began.  We dug and dug and dug.  We made roads down into the hole.  We had a perfectly wonderful time until Barbara fell down and broke her arm.  That was the point where he figured we had dug far enough.  He unwrapped the elephant feet and dropped them in the hole.  And left them there for several years until they were clean.

And that, O Best Beloved, is how I came to have an elephant buried in my back yard.


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