Tag Archive for Roadside Attractions

Rest of the Fall Foliage Dinos

Two of Dinosaur Land's original dinos at the front entrance

Two of Dinosaur Land’s original dinos at the front entrance

Fall is over; winter began a week ago. 2013 is nearly gone, and I must say, “Good riddance” to the bulk of it. I pray 2014 will bring more blessings than curses.



A friendly Bronto Jr.

A friendly Bronto Jr.

These are all photos taken on Levi’s tenth birthday in early November, so they are all bittersweet for me to contemplate. Still, with the passing of fall, it is time to clear my palette (and my blog) of these now out-of-date images, colorful though they may be.

Tyranosaurus claims Gigantosaurus as a victim

Tyranosaurus claims Gigantosaurus as a victim



One of those nasty venom-spitting dinos from JURASSIC PARK

One of those nasty venom-spitting dinos from JURASSIC PARK

I enjoyed two visits with Levi at his hospital over the weekend. He read to me from his journal, which is his version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, complete with cartoons. He is almost painfully honest in all he writes, and many of his jokes have real bite for anyone who is familiar at all with his situation. He shared with me his character descriptions for a story or series of stories he wants to write about a group of future Boy and Girl Scouts from eight different planets, his version of the Legion of Superheroes. From hearing him read from his journal and listening to his story ideas, I think he is at least as talented a storyteller as I was at his age. His “Uncle” Barry N. Malzberg asked me to try to dissuade Levi from becoming a science fiction writer, but now that the kid seems to be bound and determined to follow in his dad’s footsteps, I promised Barry I would always enforce the dictate, “Don’t ignore the day job! Writing science fiction financially supports about two percent of the people who make the effort to write and publish it (and two percent may be overstating matters).” Of course, by the time Levi reaches his earning years, the publishing paradigm may have changed half a dozen more times.

Iguanadon and Triceratops

Iguanadon and Triceratops

I’ve found that I enjoy giving Levi “Grandpa Frank’s Magical Back Rubs and Back Scratches” as much as he enjoys receiving them. There is something simply marvelous about that sort of rhythmical body to body contact which is meditative and soothing, both the the giver and the recipient. Plus, it has been a pleasure to introduce my mother’s father into Levi’s life; after all, my Grandpa Frank was my best friend until I reached the age of five, when heart disease stole him from me.

Giant Ground Sloth munching on some autumn leaves

Giant Ground Sloth munching on some autumn leaves

Vicious Allosaurus

Vicious Allosaurus

My brother Ric gave me the gift of clarity and closure today regarding my relationship with my mother and stepdad. Essentially, I learned that there is no relationship anymore, nor any possibility of reconciliation, so I am finally free to grieve. They have chosen to believe their own self-absolving lies, and it sounds as though this transaction has transformed them from the decent and mostly kind people I once knew into hollow shells of their former selves. They are pitiable to me now, as sad as this is for me to admit. But even if they continue to delude themselves — especially since they have chosen to do so — this does not mean that I can allow myself delusions of my own. It is time for me to grieve the relationships I once had.

Another shot of the Tyranosaurus-Gigantosaurus battle

Another shot of the Tyranosaurus-Gigantosaurus battle

All kudos to my wife Dara, who has ensured that not a single visiting period has passed since Levi has been in the hospital during which he has not had either me or her as a visitor, often with Levi’s siblings along. And additional kudos go to my father, Levi’s grandfather, who has called Levi nearly every night he has spent in the hospital. I’ve told Dad that Levi will never forget this kindness, ever.

A fall gathering of thunder lizards, featuring Apatosaurus and Styracosaurus

A fall gathering of thunder lizards, featuring Apatosaurus and Styracosaurus

I’ll be returning to work and to at least a portion of my former writing schedule the day after New Year’s Day, this Thursday. I have been away from work for nearly two months now. I enjoyed my first extended writing session at Panera Bread on Sunday before visiting Levi. This was my first long writing session since two weeks prior to Thanksgiving. It’s hard for me to believe I’ve been away from my laptop for that long (with the exception of keeping this blog updated). Many thanks to all of you who have stuck with me throughout my “recovery blog” series. I’ve enjoyed every comment I’ve received. Your feedback has been extremely gratifying. May all of you enjoy a happy, safe, and prosperous New Year!

A Few More Fall Dinos; Tuesday’s Notes on Recovery and Resilience


Two of my wonderful and brave sons, Levi on the left and Judah on the right, confront the fearsome spectacle of an autumn dino massacre. I believe they would have been just as brave and just as winsome had they known the trials which would await our family a month later.


This giant prehistoric chicken, which of course post-dated the dinosaurs by several dozen million years, looks as though he could use a friend. In times like these, can’t we all?

Damn, this day started out good. It ended up bruising, but at the same time fortifying.

Today was my brightest, most hopeful day since the initial hours of my illness. My first day of group therapy had left me emotionally drained but hopeful of better days to come. I suffered a pair of related panic attacks, but by being proactive, I found myself able to work my way through both of them without major upset. A discussion with my brother Ric appeared to set me on a path to achieve a sense of closure, one way or another, regarding one of my three major stress issues. I felt, despite temporary setbacks, that I was truly moving in the right direction.

Today began with my assumption of the status of Zen Master of I-95 South. I mastered my phobia of driving alone by bringing along my “silent partner,” soul jazz saxophonist Lou Donaldson. Lou asked me no questions, and he demanded no quick answers. He allowed me to achieve a sense of peacefulness on the busy highway. By mastering my fear of the highway, I was able to meet one of my biggest goals regarding returning to my office on January 2: driving solo to the Manassas VRE train station.

My second day of group therapy began on a much lighter, brighter note than my first had. Rather than filling out reams of questionnaires and trying to tell my life story multiple times at triple speed, I received gifts of friendship from two members of the group: a recommendation for a good vegetarian Greek restaurant in Fredericksburg, and a notion for a perfect late Hanukkah present for my most special girl. For the record, my score of predicting assholes in the “Who’s an Asshole? Who’s a Sweetie?” game ended up 100% false negatives. A bad score I was happy to achieve.

I shared my ambivalent feelings about continuing to write journal notes for this blog. Two caring relatives had warned me yesterday that I was putting myself at risk by posting publicly details of my recovery process. One relative reminded me that the government, my employer, has the power to see and read any materials it wishes to. Another relative told me that the spread of some of my stories had resulted in some of our school-based friends no longer wishing to allow their children to associate with our children, due to me. According to an old Jewish teaching story, bits of gossip, true or false, are scattered on the wind like the feathers from torn, beaten pillows. Not all the fingers in the world can regather them. I consoled myself with the unalterable truth that my story is already out there. No efforts on my part can vacuum the rumors and tales back into their bottle. Regarding the parents who no longer wish to have their children associate with mine, all persons are entitled to their own fears and phobias, and all are free to set their own limits on their associations. I can feel disappointment, but not anger. Regarding my employers, I can honestly state that their conduct is in no way dishonored by my illness. The onset of my illness had nothing at all to do with my duties at work. My supervisors have praised my performance and are openly hoping for my swift return. I have let them know I have a strong desire to support my valued coworkers and a powerful wish to return to the office as swiftly as events and my stamina will allow. The stories I have chosen to share do not besmirch or damage the reputation of my employers in the slightest. They have been fully supportive of me, at least as supportive as I have had any reason to expect. Writing this blog for a presumed larger audience (larger than the audience of one which my personal journal would have) gives me the confidence and practice I need to produce writing for the audience awaiting my fiction, and writing my fiction on a regular basis has always been an essential part of my daily mental health regimen. So by working on this blog, I am setting the stage for a vital component of my ongoing recovery. This blog is a record of recovery. Any probing eyes with any discernment should be able to tell the difference between a tale of disability and a tale of ongoing recovery.

I shared my sense of this being a turning point of a day with one of my closest friends, a man who has recently seen me at my worst. It gave him a sense of accomplishment and hope, as I intended it to.

A portion of the day’s therapy was given over to a discussion of cognitive behavioral therapy. In laymen’s terms, this is known as either “Doing the Opposite” or “Embracing That Which One Fears.” If one suffers from depression which seems to force one to retire to one’s bed, the way to combat it is to force oneself to socialize as best one can. If one fears rejection, one should actively seek out opportunities for acceptance. I realized I had been intuitively putting “embracing that which I fear most” into practice, both by forcing myself to drive independently and to spend time in the company of my contentious children, whose fits and shrieks I had learned could drive me to the edge of a breakdown. Realizing that I had been putting cognitive behavior therapy into practice by instinct gave me an increased sense of confidence, both that I could still trust my own judgement and that by consciously practicing it, I could likely achieve even more positive results.

My day ended far differently than it had begun. If I chose to be cute, I would call it “A Tale That’s Too Sh_tty.” I was recently informed by a mutual friend that my dear friend Lucius S. had suffered a stroke. His primary disability involved processing language. The mutual friend asked me to call Lucius so that Lucius could practice speaking to a sympathetic listener. I was overjoyed to have such an opportunity. I was more overjoyed to discover the strength of character with which Lucius confronted his disability and strove to overcome it. I told him I considered him to be a Superman, which he shyly disavowed. Yet I also shared with him a prayer that, should I ever be struck down by a similar fate, I would request that God provide me with at least a portion of the same courage which Lucius was so obviously drawing upon. Less than a week later, I suffered the onset of my illness, which, in its early stages, due to the effects of medications, felt as though it had been a minor stroke.

The details of the end of my day are both painful and painfully funny. I arrived home, Zen Master of I-95, to find two police cruisers parked in my driveway. I immediately began repeating a simple mantra: “I will NOT freak out. I WILL not freak out.” I knew the only reason the two cruisers could be parked in my driveway. Levi had suffered another uncontrollable anxiety fit, and Dara had been forced to call 911 for assistance. Worried about me, Dara instructed one of the officers to meet me as soon as I exited my car. I reassured the officer by admitting that I had experienced the beginnings of a panic attack but had overcome it with my simple mantra. I told him how much I respected the hard work he and his partner are responsible for, particularly in such cases of domestic disturbances. I told him I was grateful that his partner would be escorting Dara when she drove Levi to the hospital.

Dara called our neighbor Larry to come be with me and with my other two children. I praised Larry as an example of a Christian gentleman and a Christian neighbor. He, like Lucius, disavowed my praise, but I told him that, as Jew, not a Christian, I am not bound by the dictates of avoiding praising acts of Christian kindness, so although he could not accept the praise, I was free to offer it.

I found my two younger sons watching episodes of Felix the Cat. They did not yet understand that their older brother was being brought to an emergency room. I passed the beginnings of my nightlong acid test of mastering a panic attack by joining them in front of the TV and comforting them with hugs and kisses, as we had been apart for many days. They were gentle and grateful for my affection, which made me only love and appreciate them all the more strongly. I attempted to contact Dara at the hospital to ascertain Levi’s current condition, but her cell phone had no reception from within the hospital’s thick walls. I knew I needed to take my children to get something to eat. A day earlier, I had sworn to Dara that it would be weeks before I could trust myself to drive my children in my car, due to their constant questioning me and quarreling with one another making me fear I would lose control of my automobile in a fit of frustration or anger. Yet tonight there was no one else to bring them somewhere where they could eat dinner. I determined to bring them to IHOP, the International House of Pancakes, which sets aside Tuesday night as Kids’ Night. Before we ventured out, I made them promise they would be mature young men and not distract me from my driving with unnecessary questions or fighting among themselves. They promised. I told them I would give a sterling report of them to their mommy if they followed through on their promise. To their enormous credit, they managed this difficult feat. We arrived at the IHOP without incident.

Rather than the typical Tuesday night face painting, our IHOP had an all-American non-Nordic Santa on hand, along with supportive elves of all races and genders. My Jewish boys, who do not celebrate Christmas other than by observing the American Jewish tradition of eating at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve or Day, were completely charmed by the dark-skinned Santa. They wrote him “Dear Santa” notes and made him Christmas pictures, as well as posed with him for photos (although Judah indulged his shyness and hid his face). Asher proudly announced to Santa that he had brought along his special Coles Elementary School Principal’s List cap, which he’d acquired as a reward for earning straight A’s. Santa insisted on a special Santa-Asher photo. Asher quickly decided that this Santa was the coolest Santa he’d ever met. The invisible hand of the brilliance of American cultural capitalism made its positive mark upon me: studies have proven that the human brain cannot discern any difference between genuine smiles and forced smiles, and I forced so many smiles that my brain began to believe I was cheering up. I called over both the Santa and Charlie the IHOP regional manager to explain, with tears in my eyes, that they had given my family so much more than they could realize. My oldest son had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital that afternoon. The end of the day should have felt like a tragedy, yet their innocent, ignorant warmth had turned the evening into a time of celebration for my children. I shook Santa’s hand, then I embraced him, holding in a sob.

Judah, unfortunately, allowed his eyes to be bigger than his stomach. Without my realizing he would be overdoing it with Christmas cookies and chocolate, I allowed him to order himself a bowl of ice cream as a third dessert. Dara called and requested that we stop by McDonald’s so that I could pick her up a large vanilla latte, fat free and sugar free, which she needed to stay awake in the Emergency Room with Levi. I told her we would visit her and Levi at the hospital as soon as possible. At the corner streetlight only a block away from the McDonald’s, I smelled, heard, and sensed my youngest son begin retching a very full meal of macaroni and cheese, french fries, cookies, chocolate, and ice cream into the back seat of my Kia Rondo. Asher, sitting next to Judah, began to immediately protest in the vehement way only a slightly bigger brother can. He threatened to begin retching himself if I did not immediately get Judah out of the car and away from Asher’s sensitive nose. I was stuck at a red light. I said to myself, “I will not panic. I will not panic. I will work my way through this.” I finally turned into the restaurant’s parking lot and had Judah strip off his jacket, pants, and shirt, which were thoroughly soaked in vomit. I also scooped up my umbrella and snow scraper/brush and the floor mat, all of which had been inundated, as well. I fruitlessly scooped chunks of semi-solid, semi-digested dinner from Judah’s lap and car seat. Then I pleaded with the partially frozen child to accompany me and my soiled possessions into the McDonald’s, where we made straight for the men’s room. Most unfortunately, I discovered that the faucet in sink was motion activated, which meant I needed to wave the filthy clothes in front of the sensor to get the water to begin flowing. This did not make my task easier. Judah assisted me by taking his sopping wet clothes, which I had wrung out, and placing them in front of the hot air blower in a mostly futile attempt to dry them. To the child’s enormous credit, he redonned his sopping clothes without protest. I scooped the semi-solid vomit and toilet paper out of the filthy sink and deposited them with my hand into a garbage can, ignoring the aghast looks of a fellow customer. I then went out to the counter to order Dara’s tall skinny vanilla latte, apologizing profusely for the disaster I had left behind in the bathroom. The young assistant manager, to his enormous credit, did not give me a fish eye but responded with placid understanding, the best possible response to a man on the verge of a panic attack. Part of my mind realized I had been subjected to a true acid test, and thus far, I had somehow passed with flying colors.

Asher insisted that we drive to the hospital with the windows open. I blasted the heat so Judah would not go into hypothermia. We found the “automatic” entrance to the Emergency Room mysteriously locked. A paramedic wheeling a trauma victim cursed like a drunken sailor, then immediately turned abashed as he realized he’s just hurled several “F-bombs” in full hearing of a seven year old and an eight year old. I told him not to sweat it, that they’d already heard it all in PG-13 superhero movies. The door finally opened. We delivered the coffee to Dara in Room Five. I saw my oldest son dressed in hospital scrubs, sleepy from a nerve-wracked nap, awaiting his transfer by ambulance to a separate psychiatric inpatient facility. I swore to him that God would stay with him anywhere he might end up, and my thoughts would be with him, and the spirit of his Great Grandpa Frank would look down upon him and mentally soothe him with special back rubs and back scratches, even without me to serve as Frank’s physical stand-in. I hugged Dara and reassured her that she didn’t need to worry about me so much; the entire evening had been a massive acid test for me to prove I could withstand a panic attack, and I had allowed the acid to wash over me without losing my skin.

At home, I had Judah take a hot shower. I then did something which I had not had an opportunity to do in more than week: kiss the boys goodnight in their bed.

I had passed my test.

If anyone from my office is reading this blog post, please know that I faced my challenges with the perseverance of a Marine, if I may be so immodest as to claim such men and women as my model. Being afraid, and yet still doing what one knows one must do, is the definition of courage. My prayer of a few weeks before had been answered: like Lucius, I had discovered a reservoir of courage with which to keep my illness at bay. To those parents who do not want to expose their children to me, I humbly suggest that exposing their impressionable child to a person who has managed to conjure even a small scrap of courage is not a thing to be dreaded. It might even be celebrated.

This is my recovery in progress. True to cognitive behavioral therapy, I have “embraced fully that which I fear.” And I have survived the embrace. I will return to my office, as planned, on January 2. Thanks in part to my work on this blog, I will have the confidence to once again listen for the voices of my characters in my head and type their fictions upon my keyboard. I am getting stronger. I am reattaining my old stamina. I will recapture my confidence.

If anyone who reads this blog post responds with aversion or disdain, the fault does not lie with me or my choice of events to share. I can be fully confident of this truth now.

Still More Fall Foliage Dinos; Monday Thoughts


Here’s an inquisitive, egg-eating fellow, out for a morning fall stroll. Perhaps he will find the perfect pheasant’s nest? And breakfast?


A friendly Styrachiosaurus, a horny brute, but one with a pleasant grin. I built an AMC “Snap Tite” plastic model of this guy back when I was Levi’s age. With moveable head, legs, and tail. I wish I still had it!

Some Monday, December 16 thoughts:

I am working very, VERY hard to reattain my prior stamina and skills.

I am very, VERY confident I will return to my office on January 2, 2014, as planned, and that I will also restart at least a portion of my former writing schedule, as well.

The first day with a new therapy group is, I think, always the hardest. You are coming in to the middle of their movies, and they are coming in to the middle of yours. Plenty of storytelling gets lost or foreshortened.

Some say it is easy to get bored with one’s own story. I agree (having told it so many times), but I think it is a bit more difficult to become bored with others’ stories (thankfully).

It does get tiresome to tell one’s story over and over again to a succession of listeners. I am very tempted to simply write the entire saga down on paper, and then hand it to the next interviewer and say, “Please — just read my dumb ramblings, okay?”

Trying to squeeze a story of fifteen years’ of gathering stresses in 45 minutes is taxing. Trying to squeeze the same story into 10 minutes is EXHAUSTING.

Men don’t like to cry in public. They don’t like to cry in front of women. They don’t like to cry in front of men. Not even in front of dogs.

Watching HBO documentaries on substance abuse is a harrowing, horrifying experience. But one of the biggest surprises is how POLITE all but the most addled victims are to the medical staff who surround them. Is this just an American thing? Even a man who had his arm half-sawed off politely described his situation and his state of consciousness to his attending doctor. Very, very odd to watch.

Waiting can drive one crazy. Especially when one is susceptible to panic attacks. It is like being a little boy who desperately needs to use the bathroom and jumps up and down on one foot, holding his privates.

Today, I was the MASTER of I-95 South! Hooray, ME!

Stage fright, ironically enough, can be even worse when one is on anti-anxiety medications (because they slow one’s reaction times).

I am meeting a surprising number of retired police officers and Marines. The rescuers, it seems, often require rescuing at the end of very long, stressful years.

It is surprisingly common to discover young women of exceptional attractiveness in these discussion groups.

On the other hand, a great many mental health professionals I have spoken with have exhibited signs of emotional stress or impairment.

When one plays the first-time-in-the-group game of “Who’s an asshole? Who’s a sweetie?” I have found that the percentages aren’t so good. About fifty percent of my guesses end up as either false positives or false negatives. Sometimes people “cheat” and change overnight from an asshole to a sweetie, making the game even more unpredictable.

The hardest questions one is asked don’t tend to come from the professionals. They come from fellow patients, who innocently, unexpectedly ask you a question about the one thing which is hurting you the worst.

More Autumn Dinos; More Thoughts


Big battle between a Titanosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus. I place my bet on the Tyrannosaurus.



For a bonehead, this fellow looks really lovable. I like him very, very much. I would like to keep him in my backyard with Romeo, my dog.



This giant mantis is a “ringer” among the dinos, but I like him anyway. He is a throwback to The Deadly Mantis, a favorite film from my childhood. I believe that is Judah, my seven year old, standing next to him to provide a sense of scale. Or maybe not; perhaps Judah appears in another one of my dino photos.


Here are some random thoughts of the morning, presented in no particular order:

My mouth (and I’m sure yours, too) tastes DISGUSTING after waking from a night following a late night dinner of cheese eggs and raisin toast at Waffle House and a mouthful of medications. Iced tea helps cut the bitterness (and half a banana).

Modern conveniences which have had a major impact upon my life: free bananas in hotel lobbies (indespensible for taking meds); flavorless Miralax powder which can be mixed with any beverage (indespensible for dealing with what the meds do to you); and, most importantly, free computers and wi-fi in hotel lobbies. This last has been a true life saver on two occassions. The first was back in 2005, when Dara, Levi, Asher, and I were stranded at a Doubletree Hotel in Albuquerque during both Hurricane Katrina and Bubonicon. I would have been completely out of touch without the hotel’s computer, because all of my personal computers were back at my house (under water, I believed). It enabled me to constantly check the NOLA.com website for news of the West Bank and to try to determine the fates of our eight stranded cats. The Doubletree staff were extremely accommodating, allowing me to sit at their computer for hours at a time, knowing I had come from New Orleans and could not go home anytime soon. The other time a hotel computer has been a lifesaver is right now. I am not without my personal computers, but again, they are at home, where I left them. I am staying this time at a Hampton Inn in Dumfries, Virginia, close to I-95, where I needed to go to stay with my mother-in-law so I could have a temporary respite from my children (as horrible as that sounds). I do not have my paper journal with me, either. So this blog, which I can log onto from almost anywhere, is my substitute journal.

People can be incredibly nice when you are able to ask them to do nice things for you. This was not always possible in the hospital. Oftentimes, I was too paralyzed with panic to get out of bed, and when I was able to get up and see an aide, oftentimes my messages of distress were not passed along to the nurse. Do not believe your preconceived notions of the speediness of care in hospitals which you have received from TV shows; hospital staff can be very blaise about patients’ distress, particularly when they are dealing with a lot of alcoholics with DTs, so they do not rush to your bedside and provide soothing cool cloths on your forehead and nice injections of morphine. I discovered the only way to get some immediate attention is to thrash about in bed while screaming at the top of my lungs, “I’M SCARED! I’M SCARED! I’M sCARED!” They come, but they may not do anything. Also, your mother-in-law will not turn down the volume on MSNBC unless you manage to ask her (found that out this morning).

When you are in a state of ready susceptibility to panic, it is like you are a science fiction telepath (like Professor X or Jean Grey) whose powers cannot be turned off. You turn into a helpless sponge which soaks up all the vibes and emotions of the people surrounding you. This is the biggest reason why I need a temporary respite from my children. They all want my immediate attention and panic or have a fit when they cannot immediately have me. Also, electronic waves from TVs or radios can be mind worms. Things I have learned to avoid: all TV and radio political talk (whether progressive or conservative); most “modern” comedies; big rooms with bad acoustics (like indoor swimming pools); live accordians; some food shows on TV; any form of internet, radio, or TV current events news. Things which are acceptable: Disney animated movies made before The Little Mermaid (ones without snark); episodes of The Munsters and I Love Lucy (the original series, only); cheesy horror movies from the 1970s (such as The Dunwich Horror or Madhouse with the brilliant Peter Cushing and Vincent Price). Thing which are sometimes okay: certain episodes of Star Trek: the Original Series (none of the “edgy” ones, like “Dagger of the Mind” or “Amok Time;” only the silly ones involving Tribbles or Harry Mudd); some episodes of Kolchak: the Night Stalker (ones without too many scenes set in the newsroom); and soft-core pornography with very little plot (lesbian characters preferred).

It is the hardest to stop laughing when you know that someone who shouldn’t hear is listening to you laugh.

Things I am sort of like right now: Dustin Hoffman (as Rain Man), but with a somewhat better haircut. The fellow from A Brilliant Mind, but who can’t do any maths harder than second level algebra. An eccentric with a circle of friends a lot like that of Johnny Depp in Ed Wood (and, friends, rest assurred, that is a TOTAL COMPLIMENT).

It is very difficult being an empath/emotional sponge. The last few times I was like this were all bad: when my then-disturbed stepdaughter Natalie was prone to violent fits of frustration; when I was in the final month or two of my failed first marriage; and when I was little boy who came home from Sundays with my father to face my mother who practiced cold rages upon my return, who would turn down the temperature of the house by forty degrees because of her anger at my having enjoyed time with my father; those nights, my only escape was to walk my dog outside for ninety minutes and then to disappear into the bathroom for another hour. My safe havens.

It is very hard having “diahrehea of the mouth” out in a crowd, knowing you cannot control it. I am working very hard on regaining my internal editor (although anyone reading this blog may doubt my sincerity). Still, I am making progress, just as I am with my driving skills.

I am looking forward to starting group therapy on Monday in Fredricksburg. I am told I should expect a more coherent set of co-patients than those I had at the hospital.

I will never, NEVER sneer at anyone who is struggling with alcoholism or substance addiction. I now know without a doubt that these folks are engaging in self-medication. The main difference between them and me is that my medicine comes in controlled, supposedly safe dosages, as opposed to malt liquor from a can or a rock of cocaine. I have met some of the loveliest alcoholics and substance abusers I could ever hope to meet. Some I would like to stay friends with forever. Some did far more for me than the professional staff at the hospital to survive my panic attacks (having experienced such attacks themselves). Alcoholics and drug abusers are most DEFINITELY among God’s children, and I MUST love them as I love all the other, “normal” people who have tried their best to help me.

Also, I apologize very much that I could NOT get Spellcheck to work properly in Word Press on this PC. Please ignore my errors, if you are kind!

Autumn Colors, Roadside Dinosaurs, Thoughts for the Day

Here are more memories of Levi’s tenth birthday on November 5. I took him, Asher, Judah, and one of their pals out west to Dinosaur Land. Dinosaur Land is a traditional roadside attraction, about fifty years old, that has both “old style” dinos from the 1960s and “new style” dinos, sculpted by Virginia artist extraordinaire, Professor Mark Cline.


I’d recently bought a “new, old-stock” memory card for my ten-year old Olympus digital camera (whose card had given up the ghost). I hadn’t taken any photos since the spring, when the card had died. Amazon had some 50 Meg cards in stock (which I later realized was even TINIER than the card I’d purchased ten years ago!). But it still held about 90 photos, so I was back in business. My goal for the morning (aside from celebrating Levi’s special day) was to capture shots of the dinos with fall foliage in the background. This first one is of an Apatosaurus (or, as they used to be known, Brontosaurus). Looking good for an old guy, I think! The fall colors set off his skin tones so nicely.


I believe this next picture is of an Allosaurus (I forgot to take notes while taking the pictures). I took a couple dozen of these over an hour and a half, and I’ll be sharing them over the coming weeks, as the mood strikes me.

Here’s an update on my mental/medical status. These past couple of days, I’ve been feeling/doing a bit better. I just started taking a mood stabilizer, in addition to my anti-depressant and panic attack-reducing medications. I believe the new medication is helping me to suffer fewer wide mood swings. This morning, rather than waking up with a “ball of furious cats of anxiety” jumping on my head, face, and neck, I woke up thinking what Peter Pan might call “lovely thoughts.” I spent my first waking hour reflecting on how many of my closest relationships I have had an opportunity to improve since being released from the hospital the Monday after Thanksgiving (December 2). My best moments in other times of crisis have been thoughts of what my recent experience could or had changed for the better. This, now, is no exception. In the last week, my relationships with my angel of a wife, Dara; my brother, Ric (who visited my family); my dear high school friends, Maury Feinsilber and Larry Leibowitz, who also came to visit; my mother-in-law, Phyllis Levinson, who has made her initial visit to Virginia just a day ago to be with me and with Levi; and with many family and friends I’ve spoken with over the phone (Paul Jerome, Charlie Pellegrino, my sister, Robyn, Adam Castro, and my father, Dick Fox)… all of these relationships have been deepened by these dear people sharing time with me (and my family) during our time of awful trouble.

Today I also reached an important milestone for my improvement: for the first time since being out of the hospital, I drove my Kia Rondo. Until now, I’ve been driven by friends or by my mother-in-law. But today I wanted SO much to try, to see if I could drive safely, that my therapist gave me permission (after I’d described my emotional and physical state) to do so, after I had practiced in the parking lot. I was so PROUD of myself — I drove several miles and navigated without any problem at all! Next week, when I begin doing half days of group therapy at an outpatient clinic in Fredericksburg, which is about forty minutes from my home, I plan to drive myself (my first day with either my mother in law or my wife in the passenger seat). I am excited and optimistic, for one goal I NEED to master before January 2, when I plan to return to work at US ICE in downtown Washington, is driving myself to the Manassas Train Station each morning and back home in the afternoon. I’ll be working a reduced schedule at first (I think), and driving will make it possible.

Thank you to all who have followed my blog recently and who have left such heartfelt, affecting comments for me. I’ve tried to answer them all. I love each and every one of you, and I SO look forward to making more of my books (both written and soon to be written) available for you in all the popular formats.

I’ll post more “Autumn Color Dinos” photos in the coming days. Please continue to come back and look!

Friday Fun Links: the Weird, Wonderful Worlds of Mark Cline

The ruins of the Enchanted Castle attraction (1986-2001)

Who says the mega theme parks, the Disneyworlds and Sea Worlds and Six Flags, have killed off America’s traditional roadside attractions? Those durable, lovable staples of summer road trips may be ailing, but they aren’t quite dead yet. And if “the poor man’s Walt Disney,” Mark Cline, has any say in the matter, the old-fashioned roadside attraction will never die.

Over this past Memorial Day Weekend, my family and I took a road trip to Natural Bridge, Virginia. Our goals were to see the Virginia Safari Park (very much worth seeing, by the way) and the famous Natural Bridge monument and park, one of the natural wonders of North America. While driving on U.S. Highway 11 toward the center of the town of Natural Bridge, we passed several signs advertising a free attraction called Foamhenge. This sounded like something very much up our alley (aside from being free, which sounded good after the $$ we’d dropped at the safari park). So we put Foamhenge on our agenda for the afternoon, following our visit to the Natural Bridge monument and park.

The ticket takers at the Natural Bridge Park told us Foamhenge was definitely worth seeing, and that the man who had created Foamhenge had also operated a family attraction next to the park called the Haunted Monster Museum, which had burned down the year before (this unfortunate news greatly disappointed the boys and me). Foamhenge, a short drive away, turned out to be fabulous, in a tacky sort of way, a full-sized, accurate reproduction in Styrofoam of the world-famous Stonehenge in England. Reading the signs that adorned the little site, I discovered that the creator of Foamhenge, Mark Cline, had a wonderfully wicked sense of humor. He also appeared to be a talented maker of fiberglass figurines, judging from the impressive Druid priest who “guarded” the installation.

Entrance to Mark Cline’s Enchanted Castle Studio

Also along U.S. Highway 11, we spotted a ramshackle compound called the Enchanted Castle Studio. A wooden wall surrounded most of the compound, but we could see the tops of numerous enticing dinosaur figures inside, as well as the tops of various mythological creatures and heroes rendered in fiberglass. Off to the side of the walled part of the compound lay an abandoned castle-type building and several very weird giant figures, including a massive blue and yellow insect that we took pictures next to.

On the drive home, I promised myself to learn more about this Mark Cline fellow. Little did I know then that I had already seen numerous examples of his work, at Dinosaur Land in White Post, Virginia, and in the parking lot of the Pink Cadillac Diner just outside the entrance to Virginia Safari Park. Nor could I suspect how fascinating the story of his career would be… the story of one of America’s great roadside attraction impresarios. Beset by adversities and setbacks which would have stopped most other entrepreneurs’ careers cold, Mark Cline has gone on and on and on, never ceasing his search for that pot of gold at the end of a fiberglass rainbow.

Mark Cline, born in 1961 (three years older me), and I lived almost parallel childhoods. We both spent our youths filming our own monster movies and building miniature monsters and dinosaurs. The major difference is that Cline ended up going a whole lot farther with his artistic pursuits than I ever did (I got sidetracked into acting, first, and later writing). During his teen years in Waynesboro, Virginia in the 1970s, Cline made his own Super-8 horror movies and helped build sets and props for a local monster movie show. His latex monster creations won awards in local art competitions. He learned the art of sculpting in fiberglass during a job at Red Mill Manufacturing in Lyndhurst, outside Waynesboro, a company which manufactured small resin figurines, including Minutemen and turtles, for souvenir and novelties stores. His mentor at the company showed Cline how to make a mold of his own hand, then sent him home one night with a five gallon bucket of resin to experiment with. In 1982, hoping to achieve his childhood ambition, he attempted to start up his own horror-themed roadside attraction in Virginia Beach, but, without any business expertise or experience, he failed miserably.

However, on his drive home, he ran out of gas in Natural Bridge, Virginia, a small town whose major claim to fame is the privately-owned Natural Bridge monument and park, then surrounded by several downscale roadside attractions. He decided to make a second attempt to start his own business. Later that year, he opened his first version of the Haunted Monster Museum in Natural Bridge, but his attraction was shunned by the operators of the nearby Natural Bridge park, and it closed after three years. He reopened it shortly thereafter, retooled as the Enchanted Castle, and began a more collaborative relationship with the owners of the Natural Bridge park, who began selling tickets to his new attraction at their own well-attended facility. The Enchanted Castle featured a bungee-jumping pig, leprechauns, fairies, a giant-sized Jack-in-the-Beanstalk, plus weirder creations, such as a tremendous tick, a “Holy Cow” (cow with wings), and a 15-foot-tall devil’s face guarding the park’s entrance. In retrospect, given what was to happen a few years later at his small park, perhaps he would have been prudent to skip the devil’s face, which apparently did not sit well with the more religiously minded among his neighbors.

On the grounds of the Enchanted Castle, Cline founded his Enchanted Castle Studio, where he created new fantastical fiberglass creations, not only for his own attraction, but for other businesses, as well. A fortuitous chance meeting with either William Hanna or Joseph Barbera (Kline can’t recall which of the men he talked with) at a trade show resulted in Kline winning a contract to supply ten-foot-tall fiberglass Yogi Bear statues to all 75 of the country’s Jellystone Park Campgrounds. In 1987, Joann Leight, the daughter of the original owner of Dinosaur Land (opened in 1963), hired Cline to create a new group of more up-to-date, dynamic dinosaurs for her roadside attraction near Winchester, Virginia. Mark had visited Dinosaur Land as a boy, and that visit had been one of the primary inspirations for the direction his life’s career would later take.

“‘My father and I were traveling, coming back from Baltimore, and Dinosaur Land [in White Post, Virginia] was closed, but I asked my dad to stop there—I’d been there before—and he said, “OK.” I was probably about 12 years old. We stood there together looking through the fence at these huge dinosaur figures, and I said, “I’m going to make these when I grow up, dad.” And he just said these 11 words to me: “If that’s what you want to do, nothing can stop you.”’”

Cline, in addition to being a businessman and artist, has always been a trickster. April Fools’ Day is one of his favorite holidays. However, one of his theatrical holiday pranks, intended to amuse his neighbors and drum up additional business for his Enchanted Castle attraction in 2001, resulted in a major setback, an apparent arson which nearly ended his career as a roadside impresario.

The boys and I posing with the giant, bloated tick on the grounds of the Enchanted Castle

“A couple of weeks before the blaze, Cline played a prank on the neighborhood by scattering a handful of ‘flying saucers’ and ‘aliens’ along Route 11, the main drag through Rockbridge County. In the spirit of the neighborhood, the saucers were crafted from discarded satellite dishes. In the spirit of a true entrepreneur, they were subtle lures to his ill-fated tourist attraction.

“On April 1, 2001, the stunt and its maestro were revealed (as if there were some doubt) in a story with color photos on the front page of the Roanoke Times. The blaze occurred eight days after the story was published. … Since the October before the fire, Cline says, he had been finding religious tracts tucked under the wiper blades of his pickup truck … On the night of the fire … he went out to his mailbox to find a more ominous tract.

“‘We have prayed for you,’ read the hand-written letter, which also accused Cline of ‘darkness’ and ‘beastly madness.’ The writer warned that ‘the wrath of God is very fierce.’ Included was a burnt-around-the-edges copy of Cline’s photo clipped from the Roanoke paper.

“‘Fire represents God’s judgment,’ the letter closed. ‘Behold, the judge is standing at the door.’

“‘I read this as I was watching the castle burn,’ says Cline. … Cline, who received an insurance settlement for his buildings but not for the contents, readily concedes that he was a suspect. He says that before the flames were fully extinguished, he and his wife were separated and interrogated.

“‘I know who left me the messages,’ says Cline. ‘But there’s no proof they actually set the fire. It could have been oily rags or lightning– I believe in coincidences too.’”

Not a man to be deterred by adversity, a year later, in 2002, when the owners of Natural Bridge park offered Cline a lease on a rundown Victorian mansion on their property, Cline decided to begin anew, and he turned the old mansion into his Haunted Monster Museum & Dark Maze.

The following year, seeking to expand his empire of southwestern Virginia roadside attractions, Cline decided to go bigger. He turned the faded boomtown of Glasgow, Virginia, six miles from Natural Bridge, into “The Town that Time Forgot.” Cline made agreements with the owners of a dozen or so Glasgow merchants to allow him to put one of his life-sized fiberglass dinosaurs on their property, either on their lawn, in their parking lot, or even atop their building. Then he convinced the town government to pay for 50,000 copies of a promotional brochure he had created. The town fathers, initially convinced that Cline’s creations would help put them back on the map, gave a green light to the plan. So on April Fools’ Day, 2003, Glasgow became the dinosaur capitol of southwestern Virginia. However, Cline’s dinos didn’t pull in as many visitors as the Glasgow authorities had hoped for, so a year later, they pulled the plug on Cline’s scheme.

Not to be deterred (and suddenly having a dozen or so life-sized fiberglass dinosaurs that he needed to so something with), Cline moved his dinosaurs to a forested tract of land adjacent to his Professor Cline’s Haunted Monster Museum & Dark Maze, giving visitors two attractions for one admission price. But he went much further than just plopping a bunch of recreated dinosaurs under the trees and behind the bushes. He imagined a whole alternate history scenario for his creations to romp in, combining his love of dinosaurs, his fondness for the old Ray Harryhausen movie The Valley of Gwangi (also a childhood favorite of mine; my best friends and I stayed up late to watch it during my eighth birthday party), and the regional fascination with the Civil War. He called his new attraction Dinosaur Kingdom.

“(V)isitors are asked to imagine themselves in 1863. A family of Virginia paleontologists has accidentally dug a mine shaft into a hidden valley of living dinosaurs. Unfortunately, the Union Army has tagged along, hoping to kidnap the big lizards and use them as ‘weapons of mass destruction’ against the South. What you see along the path of Dinosaur Kingdom is a series of tableaus depicting the aftermath of this ill-advised military strategy. As you enter, a lunging, bellowing T-Rex head lets you know that the dinosaurs are mad — and they only get madder. A big snake has eaten one Yankee, and is about to eat another. An Allosaurus grabs a bluecoat off of his rearing horse while a second soldier futilely tries to lasso the big lizard. Another Yankee crawls up a tree with a stolen egg while the mom dinosaur batters it down.”

The boys and I on our “pilgrimage” to Foamhenge

Perhaps Cline’s most famous, or infamous, creation arrived the following year, landing on the Natural Bridge landscape overnight, once more on Cline’s favorite day of the year, April Fools’ Day. “‘About 15 years ago I walked into a place called Insulated Business Systems where they make these huge 16-foot-tall blocks (of Styrofoam),’ Mark tells us. ‘As soon as I saw them I immediately thought of the idea: “Foamhenge.” It took a while for the opportunity to present itself, of course.’ … It is, Mark points out, the only American Stonehenge that really is an exact replica of the time-worn original. ‘I went to great pains to shape each “stone” to its original shape,’ he tells us, fact-checking his designs and measurements with the man who gives tours of Stonehenge in England. Mark has even consulted a local ‘psychic detective’ named Tom who has advised him on how to position Foamhenge so that it is astronomically correct.”

Cline’s creations have spread beyond the immediate vicinity of the Natural Bridge monument and park. A few miles to the north, near the access road to another local attraction, the Virginia Safari Park, Cline installed a 14 foot-tall statue of King Kong in the parking lot of the Pink Cadillac Diner. He explains this was actually a protest against the local government’s having forced him to take down one of his signs: “I placed it there three years ago after the county made me take down one of my signs that they said was illegal… Since it’s too much of a challenge to regulate ‘art,’ they left King Kong alone. Now many of the supervisors wished they had left my sign alone.”

Cline’s unfortunate history with fire nearly repeated itself shortly before September 11, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack. A businessman in Waynesboro, Virginia, who had been a high school classmate of Cline’s, arranged for Cline to create a fiberglass memorial to the Twin Towers. However, while the memorial was being installed, a support cable touched a live power line, creating a shower of sparks and a major power outage in Waynesboro. Cline’s creation almost burning down before it was unveiled.

Far worse was yet to come, however. 2012 began auspiciously for Cline; the struggling Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia decided to host an exhibition of Cline’s weirdest figures in February, advertising it as a major retrospective of American folk art. The event was featured in an article in the Wall Street Journal. Investors flew him on a private jet to New Jersey to have him consult on a big job; other art museums contacted him, as well as the producers of a reality TV show. However, just two months later, the centerpieces of his entertainment empire, his Haunted Monster Museum and Dinosaur Kingdom, suffered a devastating fire eerily similar to the fire which had destroyed the Enchanted Castle eleven years earlier.

“A mid-April blaze demolished the Victorian-era mansion that served as the Haunted Monster Museum as well as the centerpiece of a bizzaro place called Dinosaur World where dinos would gobble Union soldiers and where brave visitors could also hunt Bigfoot with a ‘redneck.’ … Although the fiberglass dinos in the woods outside were saved, the Monster Museum was incinerated. The mechanical rats, the ‘Elvis-stein’ monster, and the mighty fiberglass python that seemed to slither in and out of the second-story gable windows all went up in flames late on the afternoon of April 16. … Like the rest of us, Cline says he’s now trying to face the prospect of a summer without his Monster Museum. He’s seen an uptick in contract work, like the 13 men’s room sinks he recently built for the Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. A couple of reality show producers have made inquiries about following him around. Cline veers between ‘pissed off’ anger at an unknown arsonist and the peace of knowing that nobody was killed or injured in the fire.”

Cline’s website, Monstersanddinosaurs.com, has announced plans to reopen the Haunted Monster Museum and/or Dinosaur Kingdom “sometime in 2013.” Until that happy day arrives, fans of Cline’s work can still visit Foamhenge, accompany Mark and his wife Sherry on Lexington, Virginia’s Ghost Tour, or see the artist at work at his Enchanted Castle Studio on the grounds of his former attraction, the Enchanted Castle, the remnants of which can still be viewed from U.S. Highway 11. Cline’s work is also on prominent display along the main commercial drag of Virginia Beach, where his creations are a large part of the appeal of such tourist draws as Nightmare Mansion, the 3-D Fun House and Mirror Maze, and Cap’n Cline’s Pirate Ghost Ride (which replaced a long-running funhouse attraction called Professor Cline’s Time Machine).

And, of course, Mark Cline’s dinosaurs can still be enjoyed at the very place where all of his dreams got their start, White Post, Virginia’s Dinosaur Land (I did a three-part post on my family’s trip to Dinosaur Land, chock full of terrific photos of Cline’s dinos).

Dinosaur Land: Imaginary Monsters

Imaginary giant shark, or the actual prehistoric Megalodon? The model maker didn't know himself!

One of the wonderful, weird, and almost dada aspects of Dinosaur Land is that its builders did not limit themselves to actual dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals. They let their imaginations run a bit wild. The first two creatures a visitor encounters when he or she walks out of the gift shop, through a short, cavern-like tunnel and out into the Prehistoric Forest are a 60 foot-long shark and a giant octopus which stretches 70 feet from tentacle tip to tentacle tip. In fact, to continue on into the park, one must walk beneath one of the octopus’s pink tentacles. Now the park’s operators could have identified the big shark as a Megolodon, an actual prehistoric shark which grew up to 52 feet long. They don’t; I get the feeling the big shark was installed up front, where it could be seen from the road, around the time the movie Jaws was a mega summer hit (my feeling was reinforced when the boys and I discovered you could walk into his mouth through his gills and pose between his giant teeth).

Did any octopi actually grow to be seventy feet in diameter? Who knows? They didn't leave any fossils behind!

The octopus? Who knows? There’s the legend of the kraken, of course. And it’s possible that giant octopi did exist at one time, but we likely will never know, because, apart from their beaks, no other parts of their bodies would have fossilized. As cephalopods, they would have left behind no bones for us to find.

"The Deadly Mantis:" 1957 called and wants its giant bug monster back

So I suppose the big shark and the giant octopus are borderline creatures, on the margin between potential scientific fact and imaginative fantasy. Other critters in Dinosaur Land, however, definitely fall into the latter category. There’s the giant king cobra. Actual examples stretch up to 14 feet long. This representation, on the other hand, towers a good 14 feet high. Then there’s the 13 foot-high praying mantis. Unless its breathing apparatus were to be completely different from that of actual insects, a mantis anywhere near this size would be unable to breathe.

But it is a wonderful reminder of one of my all-time favorite Creature Features, the 1957 giant bug movie The Deadly Mantis, starring Craig Stevens and a bunch of other B-listers I never heard of. The film’s memorable climax takes place when the big bug crawls into the Manhattan Tunnel in New York City and the army goes in after it.

Kong says, "Fay Wray? Who needs Fay Wray? These boys look tastier!"

And then there’s the boys’ favorite, and one of the largest statues in the park – King Kong. Kong is the only figure the park’s managers encourages children to climb upon (into his big paw, at least), so he makes for irresistible pictures. Interestingly, all of Kong’s prehistoric playmates from the classic 1933 film are with him at Dinosaur Land. His companions include a Brontosaurus/Apatosaurus, a Tyrannosaurus, a Stegosaurus, a giant snake, and a Pterodon.

Is this the giant octopus Kong fought in "King Kong vs. Godzilla"?

The only missing creature from the original King Kong is a giant spider (but, to be fair to the park’s designers, the giant spider scene was cut out of King Kong’s original release prints, and was not restored to the movie until nearly fifty years later).

On the other hand, one of Kong’s antagonists from a later film appearance is present, the giant octopus from 1962’s Toho Films monsterfest King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Forget King Cobra... how about "Emperor Cobra?"

One request for the Dinosaur Land folks… my youngest son, Judah, was sorely disappointed that there were no giant turtles in the park. He is a big fan of Gamera (child after my own heart!). The closest thing we could find to a giant turtle was the Ankylosaurus, which looked more like a giant horny toad than a giant turtle.

unnamed colorful beastie menaces the boys

All in all, we loved the place. You could easily take a quick look-through and spend only twenty minutes in the Prehistoric Forest. But you would be denying yourself one of the park’s primary pleasures – an opportunity to quietly and languorously allow your imagination to roam.

a sign you can't miss if you're driving Route 340/522 North

(Go to Part One)
(Go to Part Two)

Dinosaur Land: Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

Allosaurus on the prowl

(Go to Part One)

Dinosaur Land has added a number of additional statues since its opening back in 1964. Most of the additions have been carnivores (or herbivores being eaten by carnivores in life-sized dioramas of ancient life and death battles). I’d be curious to find out how many of the newer carnivores were added to the park after the huge success of the film version of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park in 1993, which helped make Velociraptors part of every red-blooded American boy’s fantasy life.

Watch out, Stegosaurus! Oviraptor is about to steal your eggs!

The park certainly suffers from no shortage of meat-eaters now. Newer dinosaurs include a Gigantosaurus, a Dilophosaurus, a Velociraptor (star of the movie), a Megalosaurus, and an additional Tyrannosaurus, this one trying to take down a Titanosaurus. The park also added a few herbivores, including a Styracosaurus and a mother and baby Stegosaurus. (More fantastical additions have included a 60 foot-long shark, a 70 foot-wide octopus, and King Kong, I suppose to keep the 13 foot-tall praying mantis company.)

Boys, don't tick off the Stegosaurus! You wouldn't want to get whacked by that tail!

Oddly, one of the original figures has disappeared, the “cave man” (possibly a homo erectus, to try to judge from an old photo, but more likely a figure from the artist’s imagination). Possibly he was just too anatomically incorrect (but the 70-foot octopus and King Kong have remained?). Or maybe some overly exuberant children tried climbing up his back or yanked on his arms, toppling him over and smashing him beyond repair? I would bet on the latter, given my own children’s behavior (Asher, my middle son, admitted to breaking off one of the giant ground sloth’s claws while hanging on it; I sheepishly handed over the broken finger to one of the staff).

Tylosaurus is a fish out of water--actually, a marine reptile out of water

Dilophosaurus says, "Aww, Mom, just one snack before dinner?"

Pterodon swoops down on the attack!

Gigantosaurus says, "Mmm... tastes like chicken!" Pterodon says, "Shouldn't have gotten out of bed this morning!"

Megalosaurus about to enjoy an Apatosaurus steak

Each child that attends Dinosaur Land receives a free copy of a wonderful booklet on the park’s recreations that was originally compiled and printed back when the attraction first opened in 1964 or shortly thereafter (the girl in the miniskirt on the rear cover, standing next to the Tyrannosaurus, makes me think the photos in the booklet might come from a little later, perhaps 1966?). It contains photos of the original 27 statues — dinosaurs, other prehistoric animals, and two oddities, a giant praying mantis and a giant king cobra. Especially eye-popping is to page through this little guide and see how comparatively desolate the park appeared in the mid-1960s compared to its lush foliage today. Back then, all of the trees in the park were saplings, none taller than five feet. Today, forty-five years later, the trees are all fully grown and provide dense shade above most of the animals’ heads. It is also intriguing to see how the paint schemes have been changed over the years on the original animals, such as the Dimetrodon, the Oviraptor, the Pachycephalosaurus, and the Stegosaurus. All of them have become much more colorful since their original unveilings.

Who is "Responsible for accidents," Pachycephalosaurus or Levi?

A 1993 article on Dinosaur Land in the Hampshire Review listed the park’s annual attendance at between 18,000 and 20,000 visitors per year, or an average of 50 visitors per day. That would roughly match the level of attendance I saw during the couple of hours the boys and I explored the park on a Sunday afternoon. About half a dozen families with 3-5 members wandered in while we were there, along with another four or five moms pushing a toddler in a stroller. There were a few ten or fifteen minute stretches during which we were the only guests present. Which was wonderful.

Tyranosaurus vs. Titanosaurus (I know who I'd place my bet on)

Despite the four scenes of carnage and combat (a Gigantosaurus munching down a pterodactyl; a Megalosaurus feasting on an Apatosaurus; a battle between a Titanosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus; and, if memory serves, another Tyrannosaurus facing off against a pair of Triceratopses), the park is exceptionally peaceful and quiet, inviting silent contemplation of the ancient beasts (and the fanciful creatures mixed in). I enjoyed as restful a Sunday afternoon with the boys as any I can remember. That, by itself, was well worth the $17 we spent on admission to the Prehistoric Forest.

(Go to Part Three)

Your kindly blog narrator, one second before his head is bitten off

Dinosaur Land: Not Just Another Roadside Attraction

We're there! We're there!

Ah, roadside attractions… at one time in our national childhood, salvation for parents traveling cross country with their kids, looking desperately for a bathroom break and a pause from choruses of “Are we there yet?” Oases of fun for children stuck all day long in the rear storage hatch of their parents’ station wagon, tired of reading the same comic books over and over again.

hanging out with Triceratops

I grew up in South Florida at pretty much the end of the Golden Age of roadside attractions, just before the mega theme parks closed so many of them down by drawing away their customers (I was born in 1964, and Disney World opened in Orlando in 1971). I still remember Planet Ocean, Stars Hall of Fame Wax Museum, the Fun Fair, the Miami Serpentarium, the Mystery Fun House, Ocean World, Parrot Jungle (now Jungle Island), and Monkey Jungle (still going strong!).

My fondest dream as a kid was a pet Stegosaurus that I could ride to school

I loved dinosaurs as a kid. The only life-sized dinosaur statue anywhere near me was a scrawny Tyrannosaurus mounted in front of the parking lot of a furniture store located, I believe, in South Miami, placed there to make parents with kids pull over and take a look (and then maybe wander into the furniture store). The Miami Museum of Science and Space Transit Planetarium had statues of a giant ground sloth and a sabretoothed tiger, but those were prehistoric mammals, not dinosaurs. Had I known back then that a place such as Dinosaur Land existed, I’m sure I would’ve bugged the dickens out of my mom and dad until they agreed to take me to White Post in rural northwestern Virginia, between Winchester and Front Royal (maybe combining that with a visit to relatives in Charleston, West Virginia, not too far away).

Good thing Psittacosaurus is a plant eater--that beak looks sharp!

Dinosaur Land was built the same year I was born. So it’s about 47 years old. The place doesn’t advertise much; I’ve driven the western stretch of I-66 a dozen times or more and never seen a billboard hawking the place, which is located only seven miles north of the highway, up Route 340/522 North. I stumbled upon a description of the place when I was looking online for weekend activities for my three boys. That was back at the height of the summer. I decided I’d wait for a perfect autumn day and then take my sons. The perfect day arrived this past Sunday, crisp and sunny. Off we went.

Mama Stegosaurus and her baby

Diatryma says, "There's Colonel Sanders! Hide me! Hide me!"

Cheer up, Dimetrodon! It'll be sailing season before you know it!

Dinosaur Land is completely charming. Any Baby Boomer (I came at the tail end of the boom) will be plunged into nostalgia by a visit. You enter the attraction through the gift shop (of course). This isn’t as bad as it sounds, because the gift shop is part of the charm of the place, with a tremendous variety of knick-nacks and tchotches for sale at all price ranges, from leather moccasins to dinosaur masks. As a parent, I was very pleased to find I didn’t have to spend a minimum of five bucks per kid on souvenirs; I could’ve easily spent a bundle (had I heeded my boys’ pleadings), but the shop also sold a huge assortment of rubber insects and small dinosaur figurines from 75 cents to $2.95, so I was able to redirect my childrens’ cravings to more reasonably priced items. Admission to the Prehistoric Forest is also very reasonable at $5 for adults and $4 for children (children two and under enter for free).

Pachycephalosaurus reminds himself, "Next time, I need to buy the anti-psoriasis shampoo!"

Once you exit the gift shop, you walk through a “cavern” to get to the Prehistoric Forest. The approximately three acre park contains 37 creature statues (not just dinosaurs), all either life-sized or larger than life-sized (I’ll explain that in an upcoming post). When the park opened in 1964, it had 26 statues. Since then, the owners have added several dinosaur battles and beefed up their stock of the trendy carnivores. Attached to the multi-room gift shop is a modest ranch house where the original owners once lived. They looked out their windows at Tyrannosaurus, a gigantic praying mantis right out of the 1957 monster movie The Deadly Mantis, and a Mylodon, or giant ground sloth. I wonder if they had kids.

Judah says to Moschops, "I prefer lamb chops!"

The dinosaurs are definitely old-school (except for the most recent additions), modeled upon the classic dinosaur murals that line the walls of the New York Museum of Natural History. Since then, paleontologists have completely revised their theories of how dinosaurs moved and lived, and many dinosaur skeletons in major natural history museums have been remounted to reflect the current view of dinosaurs as swift, active animals, possibly warm-blooded, very different from modern reptiles, more like modern birds. The Dinosaur Land dinosaurs, however, would all be very much at home in the Ray Harryhausen dino epics of the 1950s and 1960s.

Stegosaurus, the armored dinosaur which was my favorite when I was a boy, gets lots of love at Dinosaur Land. There are three of them, one an old-fashioned green gentleman and the other two a more updated mother Stego and baby. I was very pleased to see all of them.

cuddling with the friendly Stegosaurus, my childhood favorite

More photos to come! More dinos and other weird, fantastical creatures! A mystery dinosaur! The giant octopus from King Kong vs. Godzilla! And Kong himself!

(Go to Part Two)

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