THE DINOSAURS have had a rough year. Now, under a slate-gray ky with the cold wind sweeping down from the Shenandoahs, you can see the toll in the peeling skin and the odd missing tentacle, claw or tail. Vandals have ripped off the mastodon's tusks, the sun has faded the tyrannosaurus rex to a creamy dun, and the wind blows brown pine needles into the open mouth of the 60-foot shark and flaps the furry coat of the giant sloth.
But people who are surrounded by prehistory learn to take the long view, and Joseph C. Geraci knows it will take more than these few insults to do in his fiberglass beasts. Come spring, he will haul out his ladder, patching goo and DuPont auto-body paint and revive the faded triceratops, the muted oviraptor, the humbled stegosaurus and the rest.
Geraci has lovingly performed this rite of renewal each year for all 22 years that he has owned and operated Dinosaur Land, at the intersection of Rtes. 522 and 340 south of Winchester, Va., about an hour west of Washington. A short, stocky man in a blue plaid shirt, he is 74 but looks 60, and is clearly at home here; in fact, he lives in Dinosaur Land, in an apartment he has built in back of the red brick gift shop.
Business is slow this time of the year. Today there is not a single customer in the shop, which features rubber dinosaurs, dinosaur decals and dinosaur T-shirts. Geraci is puttering around doing some general maintenance, but sets down his electric drill and talks:
"It was in '62, my (contracting) business wasn't going so well, and my wife and I were driving through Florida and we saw some dinosaurs at one of those Putt-Putt golf courses outside Orlando. It turned out the place belonged to a man named Jim Sidwell. He used to work for Disney, then he got tired of sitting around drawing and started making these dinosaurs. I got in touch with him five by April or May.'
When Geraci got back to Virginia he built a little gift shop at this lonely highway crossroads and waited for the quintet of reptilian replicas to arrive. He figured they might attract "a few" extra customers.
But when the five dinos arrived in April 1963, "You never saw such a traffic jam! They were backed up I don't know how far. We had the county sheriff out here. He said, 'What are you going to do about all these cars?' My little shop here was cleaned out in a month!
"See, we didn't have the park then. We just set them out front. The first five were the brontosaurus, the tyrannosaurus rex, the triceratops, the mammoth and -- what was the fifth one? Wait, let me look at the postcards . . . yeah, the ground sloth.
"So Jim says, 'I'll make you 10 more for next year, and you can make a park.' And every two or three years after that he would make one or two more . . . "
Now there are 36.
A walk through Dinosaur Land, alone, on a cold fall day can tug at you in a way that is hard to describe. There is something in the swirl of dead leaves around the gaily painted tentacles of a 70-foot fiberglass octopus; something in the defiant gaze of the giant sloth, designed to thrill a crowd but now just scanning an empty path.
The beasts are not all dinosaurs. Inexplicably, a giant cobra, a 13- foot-tall praying mantis and a 30- foot-tall King Kong are wedged in with the prehistoric models. A ramp leads to King Kong's upturned hand; the hand is frayed and worn from the hundreds of children who have settled into the lumpy palm and clutched the big black thumb.
The strange emotion keeps pulling. This is not the only fiberglass dinosaur park in America: There are at least four on the West Coast, all of them on the old highways bypassed by the interstates. They were built in the late '50s and early '60s, and you can't help reflecting that that was perhaps the last time a majority of Americans could appreciate a dinosaur park on its own terms, as an "entertaining and educational" experience, as the faded sign in front of Dinosaur Land puts it. In our sophistication, dinosaur parks now seem hopelessly funny, silly, "camp". It's an attitude that started in the '70s, a time when we acquired a new kind of appreciation based on mockery.
BACK IN THE SHOP, Geraci is eating lunch. "You ought to come in the spring. The business really picks up then. And we'll have this done." He unrolls a sketch of a lizard's head, with its mouth wide open -- Sidwell will build two of them to be placed over the two doors of the gift shop. "You'll walk right into the mouth," Geraci says proudly.
But aren't there any problems here? Geraci is hard of hearing, so the question has to be shouted again.
For once, his open face clouds. "Those damn college kids. I used to have a caveman out front, and they would steal it off the pedestal, then throw it in the river or something.
"People all want a souvenir. They think since you let them in, you owe them something -- a finger or a toe. They'll come in at night and take something just for the meanness of it . . . Why would they do that?"
There is no answer, of course, and it is a hard world that has dinosaur- claw stealers in it, especially when the dinosaur belongs to a half-deaf man who has probably put 10 coats of paint on it.
But there is hope in Dinosaur Land, and it is embodied in the worn palm of King Kong's hand. For every finger-stealer and dino-mocker there have been a hundred kids who gleefully climbed into the big black hand and made all of Dinosaur Land come alive with an easy, involuntary twitch of the imagination.
And something that Geraci finds quite remarkable is starting to happen. "We're getting people who came when they were kids, coming back and bringing their own kids . . . "
So maybe traffic doesn't back up for miles anymore, but kids still come and find strange and wild beasts in the foothills of the Shenandoahs. As the brochure puts it, "They were as true as you are alive."