THE ESSENTIAL QUESTION is not whether Professor Bob Slaughter is out of his mind but whether he’s in it. I suppose if I knew the answer I wouldn’t have schlepped out to this landlocked northeast Texas hamlet to speculate about what kind of fish it was that ingested a small Gulf Coast mermaid sometime around the turn of the century. Or whether said mermaid was kin to another one found partially digested in 1947 in the maw of a 12-foot hammerhead shark caught from a Port Aransas pier.
But what are my options? The professor is in possession of the mermaids’ bones. Not to mention those of mermen, werewolves, flying fairies, leprechauns and a dozen other beasts found from here to Mount Fujiyama. Having unearthed all of them, he wants to go public. And is-his exhibit at the Trammell Crow Pavilion opened last month. He’s even writing a book: Fossil Remains of Mythical Creatures. Think about it.
“I found her in 1970 on my annual vacation to Port Aransas,” Slaughter explains, not long after I arrive in Ladonia, a town of 700 about 80 miles northeast of Dallas, and park on a middy lane at the gate to an old cotton gin. Restored and reconfigured into studios, workshops and outlying guest cottages, the gin is now the headquarters of The Ladonia Foundation, set up in 1988 by Slaughter and wife, Juliana Bernier, a sculptor, to oversee a small artist-in-residence program, More to the point, it is also the home of Ladonia University. Not exactly SMU, where Slaughter was chief paleontologist for more than two decades, but it wasn’t SMU that yielded the bones of never-never land.
“Hurricane Carla had taken out about 250 yards of Mustang Island’s protective dunes back in the ’50s,” Slaughter continues. His audience, in addition to me, is a group of cultural adventurers from Dallas’ Goethe Center, the German Saturday School and Alliance Francaise.
Having come out for a country picnic, they’re now hearing about the Catch of the Day. We’re eyeing each other the way you do people following you too closely in the House of Wax.
“A friend of mine and I had gone down to look for artifacts,” Slaughter proceeds. “That was when we found this fish.” He points to a plastered specimen mounted on the wall. In it is the skeleton of a previously unclassified species he figures to be a kind of herring, its outline imbedded in cementlike sand known as hardpan. “It wasn’t until later when we opened its stomach that we saw its last meal.”
Slaughter leans forward and points to the fish’s stomach. His guests lean forward with him. Inside the fish is me fossil of yet another skeleton. But this one could be in a Walt Disney movie. It looks like a tiny woman-larger than a Smurf but smaller than Dr. Ruth. “It’s a mermaid,” he says, grinning through his white beard, patting his stomach. “Homichthys sohli. A new genus and species. Homo for human; ichthys for fish. And Sohli from my friend’s last name.”
The visitors listen with the kind of half-suspension of disbelief that inspired FT. Barnum’s career. Or maybe it was the wine from the day’s picnic. At any rate, they walk through a spacious loft in the main building like Little Leaguers in Coopers-town as Slaughter introduces them to the rest of his 18 “beasts,” each as carefully mounted as if in a museum. Outside, spring rain falls on the verdant 5-acre campus and on the dairy cattle at the pond. Except the cattle are painted wooden silhouettes. Chickens pecking down on the lawn are also decidedly two-dimensional.
Slaughter’s Gallery: Bunyup, a marsupial/man who apparently kept a Tasmanian devil as a pet, is, like Olivia Newton-John, from Australia. Five-foot tall Oni is Japanese. Very bad dude-“mean as the devil but dumb as a post,” says the professor, who proudly points out bits of flesh partly preserved because of the volcanic ash in which Oni was found. He notes that the fossil has only one arm, because the other broke off sometime back and is currently downstairs in a workroom being repaired. I know because later, Slaughter pulls it out and shows it to me.
Isusu-the flying demon of Assyria, not the car-looks like a pint-sized Batman preserved in travertine. Slaughter says he discovered the remains while on an expedition to Lebanon. But it was in England that Slaughter came across two of his favorites, the Cliff End fairies, a pair of small, winged creatures, one male, one female. Since the women were nocturnal and the men worked day jobs, Slaughter assumes they only got together in the evening, which would have been a truly happy hour. “This hypothesis is suggested by these lightning bugs,” he says, pointing to invertebrate indentures in the rock. “They only came out around dusk.”
No, really. He’s even made a clado-gram-family tree-showing the linkage of the creatures to each other and to their human cousins.
As for the ’’incipient leprechaun” skeleton found in Celtic brick in a peat bog near the Boyne River, it’s about 4,000 years old. About 18 inches tall, it is “larger than the leprechauns of today,” Slaughter notes. “So a reduction in size over time must be theorized to have occurred.” He further theorizes that Irish leprechauns are similar in size to the 2-foot variety found in Spain, from which the mini-Celts of the Auld Sod are believed to have originated. But both variants of magical midgets are also not unlike the dancing Duende goblins of southern Mexico, and various gnomes of Europe, so they’re probably all related. Small world.
Even smaller for the Menehune of Hawaii, who are only about 6 inches tall, more or less the size of the Pacific mermaids-smaller cousins of the Gulf Coast variety. Slaughter knows about the Mene-hune, having retrieved the remains of several of them from the rim of a volcano on the Big Island. He’s going on about this in some scientific detail when a man in his 30s interrupts.
“Are they still in existence?” the man asks.
I chew on my tongue and think about Nolan Ryan’s knee. The very first creature Slaughter discovered, after all, was Pan. Slaughter calls his bronze rendition Dead Pan.
“I just want to know if they’re still around.” the man asks again, staring at the volcanic sediment in which the little Mene-hune met their maker.
“Well,” Slaughter finally says, “they might be.”
Leaving his guest to ponder this (“I like them to vacillate,” he admits later), the professor slowly descends the wooden stairs to the mill floor, where Juliana is showing other visitors the remains of Neptunoides, a big guy with flipper feet in full bronze chest plate. The remains were discovered in Greece in 1943 by a German soldier in the temple of Poseidon near Sounion.
Slaughter came into possession of Neptunoides as the result of a pub conversation with a student and a subsequent trip to Al-Alamein. Egypt, near which the skeleton had been lost after being stolen by a German colonel who figured it would be worth something following the war. But the colonel died when his truck hit a land mine. Neptunoides was flipped into a ravine, where it remained buried under rubble until a German captain who knew of its whereabouts and didn’t really like the colonel all that much told his story to the student who told it to Slaughter. And so on.
Slaughter, meanwhile, is outside in the light drizzle explaining an arrangement of flat rocks he brought back from southern Mexico-“I won’t go into the details of getting through customs”-that clearly show tiny footprints left by the Duende. These are tiny demons who also cavort in the rain and have a reputation for bringing bad luck if you watch them dance-kind of like debutantes. Slaughter says he’s having a colleague, Nathan Montoya. of the SMU dance department, analyze the patterns to determine what the ritual was about.
To show the intricacy of the steps, Slaughter drops onto his knees in front of one circular swirl of tiny toes. “See, this is where they slipped and fell.”
A red-haired woman stares and furrows her brow. “You’re fooling me. Those are the footprints where your granddaughter slipped and fell.”
“No,” says the 65-year-old professor. stretched out like he’s playing Twister. “Duende.”
The woman looks closely at the prints, then at Slaughter. She’s thinking about it. “No,” she shakes her head, and finally laughs. Just then a dog saunters across the imprinted evidence of tiny dancers. Like they say, bones are in the eye of the beholder.
WHAT SPINAL TAP WAS TO HEAVY METAL documentaries, Bob Slaughter is to paleontology. Fossil Remains of Mythical Creatures is as loopy as it sounds, and also about as wonderful. Like Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, it’s a puzzle of the mind, though not nearly so complicated. All you have to do. like Tinker Bell said, is believe. Or don’t. Professor Bob figures to gel the last laugh either way. You could say he’s been futzing with reality all his life. You could say he’s a mythical creation himself.
He would, and has. Or, in his own words: “You can make up a better job than you can get.” Which is Slaughter’s lifelong modus. There’s simply no other way to look at the rise of a borderline juvenile delinquent to the top chair in paleontology at SMU without so much as a college degree.
Poetically enough. Slaughter’s creation of Slaughter started with cars-things that suck up the residue of all those dinosaur-era beings paleontologists find so appealing. Seventeen and barely able to hold his own at Woodrow Wilson High School, young Slaughter managed to get his hands on a ’35 Ford, which he discovered he could pay for by bootlegging shipments of Sheetrock to builders in post-WWII Dallas.
A few such entrepreneurial feats and Slaughter not only owned a succession of cars, but learned the key to success in Big D: real estate. With the advice of his father, a builder, Bob bought a little property near SMU-18 lots at $1,100 each- and became a builder himself. A decade of that pretty much set him for life, but he strained at the restrictions of marketing conformities that limited his houses to “pink or salmon brick.”
“It was no fun at all,” he concluded. “I began to think, ’What else can I do?’ “
Naturally, paleontology leapt to mind.
Outfitted with little more than a lifelong love of animals. Slaughter decided he wanted to become head of the Dallas Museum of Natural History. The job was taken, but that was a temporary inconvenience. Sooner or later the directorship would open up; and when it did, Bob Slaughter wanted to be ready. He took it on himself to informally audit classes in geology, biology and other sciences at SMU. He read all the time. Academics sneer at autodidacticism-learning on your own instead of through the bureaucracy-but Slaughter didn’t care. Normally he had the attention span of a moth, but not with the stuff he liked. And he liked something about ancient beings.
He found he could take care of business at his building sites in the mornings, then catch up on some light tome from Darwin in the afternoons and still have time for his wife, Billie Mae, and two children in the evenings. Flexibility meant he could sit in on the lectures of professors like John Harrington, who once demanded that Slaughter explain what he was doing in class, but who liked the explanation and took the rather bizarre proto-student under wing.
Before long, Slaughter was digging up fossils at sites around Dallas and learning to write “pop” articles about his work. By the late 1950s, his publishing and enthusiasm attracted the attention of graduate dean Claude Albritton and geology professor Jim Brooks. In 1960, Albritton offered Slaughter a job as a nonsalaried adjunct instructor. But others were courting the ruffian digger: offers came in from archaeological museums in New Mexico and Oklahoma. In 1962, Dean Albritton made Slaughter an offer he couldn’t refuse and didn’t want to: curator of the newly created Shuler Museum of Paleontology, which was not really a museum but an office from which Slaughter could continue his research and scholarly publishing.
Slaughter stayed until 1985, having earned the status of full professor and having made respected discoveries about the effects of climate on evolution and the living patterns of small placentals and marsupials. He also contributed his own technique-bulk washing. The process, much like gold prospecting, involved the sieving of tons of mud and silt in hopes of finding Slaughter’s own version of gold- perhaps a thimbleful of tiny rat teeth millions of years old.
He became a campus character in his own right-after-work interdisciplinary “brainstorming” sessions at The Quiet Man and other nearby pubs were legendary. “We eventually got people from all the sciences to come by.” Slaughter says. “It was amazing. I began to realize something about knowledge. Somebody knows the answers to all the questions. It’s just that any one of us doesn’t know all the questions. That’s why I’ve always liked to share ideas. Artists generally don’t want to share or modify ideas, but I don’t feel that way. If there’s a better way of doing it, I’ll go for it.”
It’s therefore not so difficult to imagine Bob Slaughter standing in the shade of a boulder in the Qattara Depression in the Egyptian desert in 1985 with a head full of questions and wondering how to share them, It made him sad.
“It came to me quite suddenly,” he says. “In the desert you can be really alone. You don’t see people or anything. It’s a funny feeling. I got to thinking of the animals whose bones I was seeking as being in the flesh, of really being around.
“Imagine-rodents the size of rhinos, horses the size of dogs, beavers the size of bears, antelope with five horns! That’s what saddened me. No one was around to see and appreciate them. No one saw their mating dances, or heard their sounds. We don’t know if the little bitty horses brayed or whinnied. We don’t even really know if they had stripes or spots. Because they’re extinct.
“And that’s when it hit me. Mythical creatures and extinct creatures actually have a lot in common. Neither is complete. The extinct creatures have bones but no dialogue, no narrative of their lives. Mythical creatures have the dialogue that cultures have created for them but they have no other reality.”
And so he decided. He would henceforth dig in other realms. He’d found enough bones of extinct species. His role now was to give substance to the creatures of myth. “I think the myths are the true story anyway,” he says.
Encouraged by Juliana, whom he married following the death of Billie Mae in a 1979 car wreck, Slaughter took early retirement. He sold the last of his grubstake land to finance his work and to pay for the cotton mill in Ladonia, which would serve not only for me artists’ colony Juliana wanted to set up but also for the research quarries of Ladonia University. Among workbenches filled with buzz saws, plaster, chisels, welding torches and pulverized bone used in moldings, Bob Slaughter would become an alchemist, a wizard, a magician. There he would open the doors between science and art and wait patiently in his mind as “each creature presented itself to me for reality.”
“I’m indebted to the Rod Serlings of the world for the idea of more than one plane of being inhabited in the same place and time,” Slaughter writes in the introduction to the manuscript of his book. “As speculative and seemingly unprovable as this idea is, it seems the only route to explain creatures that seem impossible combinations of animal forms…As a paleontologist it is extremely difficult to even imagine how a mermaid could come to pass. But if I’m to ponder mythical creatures as real entities for whatever reason, I have to come to grips with this.”
Over fava beans and hummus at Ali Baba, one of Slaughter’s favorite cafes, he’s telling me about Rugaru-the half-man/half-wolf of Louisiana, and I don’t mean Harry Connick Jr. This hairy, big-toothed beast was 8 feet tall and weighed about 500 pounds and was brought down in 1921 by Cajun trappers and their dogs in a bayou in Lafourche Parish. (Slaughter has a map; he has maps of every fossil site.) Scared that they might get in trouble with the law, the trappers had shoved the huge, half-human body into a well and left it. As luck would have it, no small child from West Texas named Jessica ever did a header into the well, so the ad hoc grave and its gruesome contents remained a swamp secret.
Slaughter only learned about it through T-Jean Ledet, a graduate student who had come to hear the professor lecture at Tulane in the early 1970s. Eventually T-Jean led Slaughter to the well, where they hoisted the skeletal remains, plastered them and shipped them back to Ladonia. “The odd thing,” Slaughter recalls, “is that we found a quartz crystal tied to a bottle chain around its neck. Now, the only place that crystal comes from is in the Ozarks-which means he’d been up there and probably accounts for the Big Foot legends of that region.
“There’s one more thing. One day I was talking to Juliana-she’s French Canadian-and she said Rugaru sounds like the French term loup-garou. That would make sense, because this was Cajun country. Loup-garou means werewolf.”
We walk outside and hop in Slaughter’s wife’s restored 1940 gray Lincoln Zephyr. It’s late but we need to get over to the police forensic lab. Detective Cheryl Palmer, a forensic artist who makes sketches and plaster moldings that reconstruct the appearances of unidentified crime victims-sort of a paleontologist cop-has put together renditions of Slaughter’s mythical fossil creatures. When we arrive, though, Palmer is working on something more Of This World-reconstruction of the face of a recent female murder victim. She’d been shot through the teeth. Palmer shows us the hole in the mostly decomposed woman’s skull. She also shows us a book of sketches of her previous work, fleshing out, literally, faces known only to their bones.
Slaughter wants to see how she’s doing with El Nauhual, an invisible Aztec spirit-man who was poisoned by an angry campesino. Bob and Juliana look at Palmer’s preliminary sketches and speculate whether El Nauhual wore a metal crown or a feather headdress. The big problem is that since El was invisible, so was his skeleton. His bones were so clear they were only discovered because of a covering of algae from a pool underneath a waterfall. As you can imagine, Slaughter’s having a tough time with that one back at the Lado-nia lab.
They agree on feathers and a few minutes later we’re driving home to the secluded house near White Rock Lake that Slaughter built for his parents in 1951. He and Juliana now keep it pretty much like a Big Thicket nature retreat-black snakes, baby ducks and mosquitoes on the small pond behind. The neighbors don’t like the snakes, but Slaughter figures he got there first.
The professor and the sculptor are bick ering. Have been since they ran into each other on St. Paddy’s Day 1980 at the Knox St. Pub. She’s rolling her eyes about his inability to get things organized and he’s pretending he has no idea what she’s talk ing about. Sun’s out, sky’s blue and we’re just cruising Mockingbird, him in his Greek fisherman’s hat, his neck and face lined with decades of working under the hot sun; he’s humming “yabba-dabba-do” and thinking about Lord knows what. I did hear him mention something about fossil remains of aliens.