the flying reptiles of columbia county

8/18/11

Quetzalcoatlii(bl).jpg

Whilst reading one of her Dinosaur Atlases, Lucy and I came across a creature so stunning that we both lapsed into mini-daydreams just hearing about it. Apparently there was a pterosaur called a Quetzalcoatlus that is believed to be the largest flying animal in Earth’s history. Even conservative estimates give its wingspan as 35 feet, with some venturing it was 43 feet, putting it in the same category as a small passenger plane.

We always have a hare-brained scheme for each Jartacular, and we decided building a life-size Quetzalcoatlus would do nicely. While the Lulubeans designed the basic color scheme (since nobody knows what it really was), I tried to figure out how to pull it off.

I asked several people about working with fiberglass, like those big, smooth climbing creatures you see at city parks and kid-friendly malls, but it looked daunting, and I couldn’t find any decent “how-to” guides for anything north of a speaker cabinet for your truck.

A few days before we got to the farm, there was a violent storm that pulled down trees all over the county. When I inspected our property, I noticed this:

FallenTreeFarm(bl).jpg

One of the massive halves of an ash tree, about 45 feet long, had crashed into the swampy area that freezes over for Tessa’s ice skating shenanigans, and suddenly, my problem was solved. I got our yard man Ernest to cut twenty feet of the trunk, shaved off the bark, then three of his friends dragged it behind my car to the other yard. We counted the rings: 53, and that was only for that side of the trunk.

FallenTreeErnestSaw(bl).jpg

You have no goddamn idea how heavy that thing was. Or maybe you do. If that tree had fallen on our house, it would have gone through two floors like a soldering iron through butter. So I constructed a massive “mount” for the log (leading to the injury mentioned here) and with all of our strength, my buddy Lars, my brother Steve and I hoisted it up. Then we all barfed. Or at least wanted to.

QuetzalLogStand(bl).jpg

How about a more evocative shot, eh?

QuetzalLogStandSil(bl).jpg

The most distinctive part of the Quetzalcoatlus is its beak, which is disturbingly long. Check out Dr. Mark Witton’s art for how they might have used it (although Lucy and I like to think they just soared along the Cretaceous lakes and scooped up fish). So I did some quick geometry with two 4x8s, put in a gate hinge for the jaw, and a screen door spring to make the mouth move.

QuetzalMouth(bl).jpg

Mounting the head on the log was easy once I took off the branch that was meant to be its crest – it was backwards anyway.

QuetzalHalfSunset(bl).jpg

Per Lucy’s instructions, we painted the crest shiny red and bolted it back on, facing the other direction. Then I got two ballet barres left over from the Lucy Dance Room hare-brained scheme and two pieces of PVC pipe left over from the ice-skating Zambiani hare-brained scheme and created the bones for the wings:

QuetzalSideWing(bl).jpg

By now, both Lars and Steve had gone back to NY, so getting the tarp onto the wings would probably have been funnier if it were in black-and-white, sped up and shown in a movie theater in 1921. But once it was bolted to the wings, something vaguely magical happened as I was holding the razor blade to cut it to shape… it was like I was sculpting the tarp, the plastic dropping to the ground so effortlessly. I made swoops, and aerodynamic divots, and it felt… artistic and satisfying. I can’t exactly explain why.

QuetzalFrontHalfWing(bl).jpg

Later, as the sun set, Lucy came out to inspect the mouth, and as the wind blew, the wings gathered up and flapped slowly up and down, and the beak chattered like it were actually talking. She named the beast Siantaugh – pronounced shaun-tah – and said it was from Ireland. And no, I have no idea where she got that from.

LucyQuetzalMouth(bl).jpg

The next day was our last at the farm that trip, so we brought Mommy out for a grand presentation. She and I had just seen the mesmerizing documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, where ancient artists had used the natural curves and bulges of the cave wall to make the horses and panthers come to life. Our Quetzalcoatlus, Siantaugh, is crude and deeply silly, but the natural twist of her trunk makes her oddly lifelike. If only she could take flight, like her forebears once did, how awesome would that be?

LucyQuetzalArms(bl).jpg

completely awesome, that’s how much awesome

17 thoughts on “the flying reptiles of columbia county

  1. kevin from NC

    WOW.. that is really a cool thing. I like the use of lightweight parts…like 2 x 8s!! Have a great weekend.

    Reply
  2. CM

    That’s incredible! I love the entries where you show your projects. What a great thing for Lucy to enjoy, and for anyone.

    Reply
  3. josie

    My son, who is almost exactly Lucy’s age, would instantly fall in love with the “yellow-haired” girl who knows her stuff about the Quetzalcoatlus, let alone one who has ridden the beast.

    Reply
  4. GWFD

    Yawn. Professor Falken could fly his version by remote control. But Lucy is much cuter than Joshua.
    Kidding, I come from love and arcane 80’s movie references. That’s pretty damn cool, Ian.

    Reply
  5. Anne

    I feel like all other dads should just give up and go home, and you can retire the Best Dad of The Century Award here and now. FABULOUS! Our granddaughter Caroline would be in dinosaur heaven with such a contraption.

    Reply
  6. Salem's Little Sister

    I just showed this to my 7 year old Ben and his immediate reaction was “Whoa, that’s lucky! She gets to ride that??” I couldn’t agree more!

    Reply
  7. Neva

    Wow. I’m feeling woefully inferior. Geez. I was excited that I cleared out two years worth of old journals from a drawer this weekend.

    Reply
  8. littlerattyratratrat

    As a parent, I’m used by now to being pwned by Ian, but this is too much. Ian is the ┼░berdad.
    Lucy must sing The Quetzalcoatlus Song, composed by my son at age 5:
    “Rham-pho-rynch-us! Quetzal-coatlus! Rham-pho-rynch-us! Quetzal-coatlus! Rham-pho-rynch-us! Quetzal-coatlus!”

    Reply
  9. kmeelyon

    I read this post when it first went up and I keep coming back to it. What a beautiful gift. It inspires me and makes me happy that I know (or “interknow”) such a wonderful dad!

    Reply

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