Dinosaur On My Back

The Tyrannosaurus rex that's attempting to eat my mug in the above portrait is no photographer's prop. That toy-store carnivore has been my son's most beloved plaything since he made the logic-defying discovery that beastly behavior in shopping malls is sometimes rewarded.

The boy adores that scaly scale-model. He sleeps with it, bathes with it, drags it behind him wherever he goes and uses it to hammer small spiders on the front porch. It's a security blanket with teeth and an insatiable bloodthirst. And his affection extends almost as generously to the other quarter-billion dinosaurs in his collection.

Before my son could say his own name, he could tell you quite clearly that the stegosaurus was a plant-eater that used its spiked tail for protection against meat-eaters.

Now four years old, he still has difficulty pronouncing his r's and l's. But he's had no trouble reminding us every ten minutes or so that what he wants most for his next birthday is a pachycephalosaurus--a word I can barely type. This early-blooming paleontological talent is a source of great parental pride--until he asks me to read from one of his dinosaur books just so he can correct my pronunciation, and sneer at me as if to say, "There but for the grace of Mommy's genes go I."

Three years ago, I thought this prehistoric monstermania would be just a passing interest. But as it's turned out, everything else that's managed to briefly snag his attention (helicopters, army tanks, Transformers, me, my wife) has been a passing interest.

My son has always thought of dinosaurs as his pals, despite their generally poor reputations as fun playmates. For his second Christmas, we bought him a six-foot, inflatable Godzilla, pumped it up and then worried that it might scare the chocolate-covered marshmallow Santas out of him. But as soon as he saw the behemoth in attack position near the tree, he ran up and gave it the kind of enthusiastic, full-body hug he usually saves for dogs and Grandma.

The best bedtime stories, he thinks, are the ones I make up in which he and his buddy Brian meet a few lonely dinosaurs out on the playground, bring them home, chow down on hot dogs, watch TV, cuddle up in his bed, go to sleep and live "happiny ebber atter." (He still has trouble with his v's and f's, too.)

I didn't mind this obsession until some capitalist cretin realized there was big money to be made from it. As we speak, our kitchen larder is larded with Sunkist Fun Fruit Dinosaurs, Mother's Dinosaur Graham Cookies, Diner-Saurs breakfast cereal, Chocolate Cookiesaurus snack treats, Gummi Dinosaurs candy, Purplesaurus Rex Kool-Aid, and Chef Boyardee Dinosaurs in tomato sauce.

The few square inches of the lad's room that aren't occupied by dinosaur models, statues, replicas and wind-up toys are occupied by dinosaur posters, puzzles, piggy banks, dioramas, mobiles, records and books of both the flat and pop-up varieties. On his bed are dinosaur-patterned sheets and pillowcases. In his closets are dinosaur-patterned pajamas, belts, socks, underwear, jumpsuits and glow-in-the- dark tee shirts. In his bathroom (the one with the matching dinosaur shower curtain and towel set) are bars of soap and bottles of bubble bath shaped like . . . aw, c'mon. Guess.

How, when and where did my son develop his fetish? I don't know. But it's easy to see why he thinks of dinosaurs as admirable critters. After all, no one would dare say to T. rex, "Finish your cauliflower or die." Nor would they order T. rex to clean its room, go to bed, be quiet, wash its hands, come inside, go outside, stop this, do that or turn off the TV when Thundercats comes on.

Also, consider the live-action role-models today's youngsters have to choose from. When I was a boy, I had Sky King, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, Clint "Cheyenne" Walker, and Steve "Hercules" Reeves. My son's choices are pretty much limited to Pee-wee Herman, Ernest P. Worrell, and Freddy Krueger. So maybe I'm lucky he worships something as relatively innocuous as the three-story, flesh- ripping, bone-crunching creatures that time forgot.

Then again, maybe I'm not so lucky. I mean, it's an old and ugly story: A kid innocently starts fooling around with little toy snakes and lizards, eventually he graduates to larger and more powerful reptiles like iguanas and Gila monsters . . . and before you know it, his craving can't be satisfied by anything less than a pachycephalosaurus.

Where does it end? To what lengths will a teen-age dino-addict go to support his habit? Will he end up in prison for trying to pilfer the entire plastic- dinosaur selection at Newberry's? Am I raising a Dimestore Cowboy who'd kill for a can of Chef Boyardee Dinosaurs in tomato sauce?

Clearly, I have no choice. For my son's next birthday, he's getting Care Bears and a Malibu Barbie.

It's easy to see why he thinks dinosaurs are admirable. No one would dare say to Tyrannosaurus rex, "Finish your cauliflower or die.


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