Those of you who know me now might find this hard to believe, but I wasn't always the upstanding, righteous citizen I am today. Once upon a time, I was a smuggler, and I can tell you it's a terrifying way to make a living. I wouldn't be telling you about it at all, mind you, except that I'm pretty sure the statute of limitations has expired.
The year was 1980, and I was on a safari in Kenya with my family. Our final destination of note was a tent camp in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, a sprawling expanse of savanna at the northern end of the Serengeti plains.
At that point, we'd been in Africa for about two weeks, so my brother and I considered ourselves fairly seasoned adventurers. We'd already faced down lions and cheetahs and scratched behind the ears of every white rhino in East Africa (there were only five left). Thus, when we spotted a wildebeest skeleton about a quarter-mile from our tent, we figured we were manly enough to go check it out.
We grabbed the spears we'd purchased a couple of days earlier at a Maasai village and set off into the bush. Some nearby zebras and impalas eyed us warily, but there was no sign of any predators, and we were able to reach the skeleton undisturbed. It clearly had been there for some time, as the bones were bleached white and scattered about, but the skull, with its large, curving horns, was remarkably intact.
I don't know whether it was my idea or my brother's, but for some reason we decided it would be cool to take the skull with us. We picked it up and carried it back to the tent, where my mother, never one to shy away from nefarious activity, agreed that it would look great hanging on the wall back in Connecticut - if only we could sneak it out of Kenya without getting caught.
Getting the skull to Nairobi was no problem, as we paid off our van driver to keep his mouth shut, but we were not at all sure we'd be able to get it onto an airplane. Security was decidedly lax in those pre-9/11 days, but even a cursory luggage check would be likely to reveal the skull of a large animal. Our only chance, we figured, was to hide the skull in the bag least likely to be thoroughly examined.
I was still a few months shy of my 10th birthday, and according to my recently unearthed smuggler's logbook, I was 4-foot-8 and weighed about 70 pounds. I was the perfect size and age not to attract attention from the authorities, so we stuffed the skull into my duffel bag and crossed our fingers.
I was a nervous wreck as I approached the customs agent, but I was able to lie well enough that he didn't dispute my description of my bag's contents. He passed it through without opening it, and a day or so later, we landed safely in New York with the skull, which hangs proudly on the wall at my brother's house to this very day.
So by now, I imagine you're wondering why I've relayed this little tale of my criminal escapades. I can assure you I'm not trying to brag, even though I did play my role perfectly. The reason I bring up smuggling is because of a news story I read last week about an American fossil dealer who admitted to smuggling dinosaur bones into the U.S.
According to the story, the man, Eric Prokopi, claimed to have "illegally imported a Chinese flying dinosaur, two oviraptors and a duckbilled creature known as a Saurolophus." Most amazingly of all, though, Prokopi was able to smuggle a tyrannosaurus skeleton out of Mongolia and sell it at auction in New York for more than $1 million.
Now, I've never seen a live tyrannosaurus, but I'm pretty sure they're quite a bit larger than a wildebeest. How the hell could someone smuggle one without getting caught? I suppose Prokopi could have used my method, but that would require one colossal-sized duffel bag. The only other option, the one favored by condom-swallowing drug mules, is too disgusting to even contemplate.
However he did it, I have to tip my cap to Prokopi, even though he'll likely be spending time in prison. Smuggling a T-Rex out of the Gobi Desert is no small feat, and a million bucks ain't chump change. In fact, that's enough money to make me seriously consider getting back in the game.