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Power in the bones

For 24 years, Frank Garcia has been drawn to the Shell Pit. Soon, he'll have to quit.

By BEN MONTGOMERY
Published May 4, 2007


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ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND YEARS AGO, GIVE OR TAKE, a whale dies. Its flesh is devoured by sharks. What remains of the carcass comes to rest in a bayou and tides spread bones across a small dip on the bed. Sediment builds around the bones. Shells from millions of tiny sea creatures are deposited on top of the bones, then more sediment, then sand. When the water recedes over time, grass and trees grow. The bones come to be about 6 feet above sea level, 8 feet beneath the surface of the earth.

And there they sit, undisturbed, for thousands of years.

APRIL 22, 2007, 8:54 A.M.: The pickup bounces over the sand and the rocks and stops on the edge of a pit. It's Sunday, a few hours past sunrise. Church parking lots a few miles north in Ruskin are filling. Frank Garcia, the paleontologist leading this morning's expedition to the Leisey Shell Pit, says this is like church because he has come in search of something.

Something grand. Prehistoric.

Something to put him once again on the map of public consciousness.

He unloads plaster, shovels, latex gloves and cardboard boxes containing bits of bones that resemble a portion of the spine of a small whale.

Then he walks to the edge of the pit and stops on a ledge and stares into the hole.

"If these vertebrae were here, " he says, "and they were closely associated, there's a damn good chance the skull is here, too."

 

SOMETIME IN THE 20TH CENTURY: A man scrapes the palm trees and scrub brush and grass from the land and plants tomato seeds in the soil above the bones. The seeds grow into plants and bear fruit.

 

APRIL 22, 2007, 9:24 A.M.: The songs of shovels rise from the Leisey Shell Pit, a barren and brown terrain pocked by dozens of small test digs. One ditch - about 10 yards wide and 50 yards long - has been excavated by heavy equipment, leaving two 8-foot bluffs on each side that expose layers of earth: sand on top, the soil, then bedrock, then shell, then another layer of moist sand.

The fossil hunters - Jerry Zolg, Wayne Simmons, Grace Boyle and Rob Carlson - dig quickly into the sand at the bottom of the easternmost wall.

Frank Garcia watches from a few yards away.

At 9:36 a.m, there's the sound of shovel on bone.

"Frank, " Simmons says. "I don't have my glasses on."

Frank digs in and examines the piece.

"Alligator snapping turtle, " he says. He tosses the fossil aside.

"Historic proof, " Wayne says, "that turtles dominated the earth, not dinosaurs."

9:42 a.m.: Wayne strikes solid again, but before it registers, he has tossed the bone and dirt over his shoulder. The fragment is lost.

"Sorry, Frank, " he says. "I didn't realize it until I tossed the shovel."

"Thanks, okay, " Frank says.

"I should've been more careful, " Wayne says.

"Well, maybe if we had more time, " Frank says, "but we've got to get the hell out of here."

 

1972: The land is void of tomatoes and cauliflower. Earthmoving equipment rolls into what is now known as the Leisey Shell Pit and scrapes into the dirt, deeper and deeper, harvesting shells to build roads. As the excavators dig, bones are exposed.

APRIL 22, 2007, 10:20 A.M.: "Frank, " Wayne says. "Take a look at this."

Frank slides on his side to get closer. He sticks his knife into the soil around a dark spot.

"Let me see, " he says.

Then: "That's a vertebra."

Then: "Look, look, look, look, look! More here. We've got it there, there, there and there."

Then: "Rinse that off and look at the scrapes on that from the shark's teeth. That tells you it was at least deep enough for 6- or 7-foot sharks to come in here and devour it."

Then: "This is close to the neck here. No doubt. The skull is somewhere around here. Got to be."

Then: "C'mon, baby. What's going on here?"

 

JUNE 28, 1983, MORNING: Frank Garcia is restless. He jumps in his truck and rushes to the offices outside the Leisey Shell Pit and gets the attention of Eric Hunter, the manager.

On a previous visit to the site, Frank found garfish scales and horse and llama teeth in a yellow limerock layer. He suspects there are more to be unearthed. He can't stop thinking about it.

Hunter tells him the crane operator recently discovered a new pile of fossils.

Garcia darts to the site. He jumps into a pit and stares at the wall as the rain pours and lightning flashes.

He cries.

JAN. 4, 1984: A news conference is called at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa. A young amateur fossil collector named Frank Garcia talks about his find.

A few months later, the New York Times' Walter Sullivan writes: "What is believed to be the richest deposit of early Ice Age fossils ever found in North America has been partly uncovered in a quarry near Apollo Beach, Fla. It is expected that the deposit will ultimately yield as many as 60 species."

Garcia works 117 days straight. The yield grows to be 140 species from the Lower Pleistocene era, about 1.5-million years ago, more than a dozen of them new to science.

Garcia's name appears in newspaper stories. They tell how a kid who flunked the first grade made one of the nation's biggest fossil finds.

The man who wanted to prove to his father that he wasn't stupid appears on the Today show with Bryant Gumbel. The man who will fail at marriage five times is named Hillsborough County's Favorite Son.

And he likes it. The notoriety, the discovery, the approval: "Being the first one to see something that has never been seen before, " he says, "it's a power trip."

Power, from bones.

He gains fans who say he's the best of the best.

He gains critics who say he's all about himself.

He self-publishes a biography and donates skeletons to universities and lectures at elementary schools and starts a fossil club and opens a museum called the Paleo Preserve near the Leisey site.

And he returns time and again to the pit that made him, in search of more.

More bones.

More power.

 

APRIL 22, 2007, 11:42 A.M.: The volunteers are growing weary.

"I feel like Captain Ahab, " Frank says. "I'd do anything to find that whale."

Garcia is 60 now, and his own spine is held together by rods and screws. He wears a back brace when he digs.

"This is it, " he says. "This is coming to an end."

The fossil hunters have a month left in this pit, maybe two. The richest archaeological site in Florida is to become a protected nature preserve off-limits to digging.

The question that remains, then, is this: What becomes of a man whose life is tethered to a piece of land when he is cut from that land?

He knows he's changed since this all began.

Later, asked to explain, he would take a walk in the woods and then write his thoughts down and call back to say he has "more confidence" now and he's glad he got the chance to "stand on the world stage for a brief moment" and add "a new chapter in the history of life" and that "every day to me is a celebration" and that he's often reminded that "time on earth is quickly counting down."

For now, though, 24 years of digging at this site has come down to the fast-paced search for the skull of a 100, 000-year-old whale, to one more skeleton, to a man standing proud and sad on a Sunday morning inside a hole in the earth as the sun beats down on his bones.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or 813 661-2443.

[Last modified May 3, 2007, 08:42:00]


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