The Bacula Mystery

Kage Baker liked art museums. Classic museums like LACMA, time-specific ones like the Getty, eccentric ones like the Musee Mechanique. There’s a Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles (currently moving to Glendale, where it will open early next year) that she adored: coloured glass, coloured light, coloured glowing superheated gas – perfection!

I like museums, too, but my favourites are the natural science institutions. Kage would obligingly accompany me  to exhibits on fossils and such; and of course as Angelino kids we were trucked off fairly regularly to the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History in Exhibition Park. We both enjoyed strolling through its cool, marble halls – we both loved the Hall of Gems, the enormous malachite boulder in the front hall, the historic costumes … but I liked to walk among the dinosaurs, and they unnerved Kage. Especially after the buttons were installed to bring some of them to life. Kage would be out examining antique roses in the Park, while I was peering happily up into the jaws of some roaring Tyrannosaurus.

The assemblage at the La Brea Tar Pits on Wilshire Boulevard was perfect for us. It’s where we visited as adults, when we were free to pick our own museum excursions instead of being shipped off on force-fed tours. It has LACMA, the largest art museum in  Western America; its permanent exhibitions are a delight, its rotating ones are legendary (it’s where Kage once, wickedly and astonishingly, touched a Van Gogh). Being constructed, as it is, at Rancho La Brea, LACMA is built on an active and ongoing archeological site – and it shares its location with the George C. Page Museum, wherein all manner of osteological treasures reside. Someone for everyone! At least, when everyone was defined as Kage and I.

The Page Museum was opened in 1977, when we were in our early 20’s. We therefore encountered it as adults, wandering in after a morning spent amid the Rodin reproductions, admiring the mastodons sinking in the tar. There’s an amazing mastodon skeleton in the Page, with such a magnificent sweep of tusk that one gets vertigo just following the curve of its shape. There’s also an exhibit on the only human ever found in the Tar Pits, poor eponymous La Brea Woman: a Tongva lady, most likely, whose polished bones are cyclically clothed in holographic flesh as you stand in from of her case.  It’s assumed, from the scarring on her skull, that she had a galloping sinus infection; she either fell in during her delirium, or was tossed in by her frightened neighbors when she babbled like a demon in her fever. Sad lady, she gave Kage the horrors as she faded in and out of reality in her Snow White glass coffin.

Luckily, Kage’s spirits were always restored by the Wall o’ Dire Wolves. Dire Wolves were once an apex predator around here – lupine giants the size of Smart cars. Hundreds of them have been found in the Tar Pits. I don’t know to which admiring curator this idea first occurred, but eventually someone had the idea of mounting their most eye-catching remains. There was a wall of dire wolf skulls – which I think is still there – toothy jaws agape, from teeny puppy-wolves whose baby teeth were mostly pitiful, to great elders who could easily have bitten my arm off. But even those were not as impressive as the bacula display.

I don’t know if it’s still there. I should go look. It was a huge box of glass, taller than our heads, mounted in front of a window – and silhoetted there against the northern light were hundreds of bacula … Kage was entranced.

Bacula, Dear Readers, in case you are unaware, are penile bones. Most mammals have them, a handy little built-in marital aid. Even most primates have them, though they aren’t very large in gorillas or chimpanzees. They are absent, though, in  equids, elephants, monotremes, marsupials, lagomorphs, hyenas, and cetaceans. And humans.

In almost every culture, they are magic. Human culture, anyway – but then, human males don’t have any, and must have noticed their lack when butchering other animals. Maybe the wolves and ferrets and cats don’t worry about them; and the rabbits and horses have other masculine claims to fame. But for humans, they are often warrior magic; walrus bacula, for instance, are used for Inuit war clubs. Kage’s theory about the display in the Page Museum was that it was part of the place’s spiritual protection – which she felt was badly needed, what with the unfortunate LaBrea Woman out there in the front hall.

Anyway, that afternoon in the Page Museum was where we first found out they even existed. It was just the sort of revelation that museums are supposed to deliver – something outlook-broadening, something to change the whole way you look at the world around you! Ideally, these magic moments are not confined to children, but accessible to adults as well. We were certainly enlightened by the bacula display …

“Wow,” I remember Kage saying, gazing in fascination at the display. “The ways of the Lord are indeed marvelous.”

Tomorrow: more from Castle Bacula

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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6 Responses to The Bacula Mystery

  1. athene says:

    “Bacula….” I did not, in fact, know that! I have newfound respect for the fact that the actor, Scott Bakula, held steadfastly to his name rather than choose a stage alternative. He must be counting on the limitations of the American system of education.

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  2. Kate says:

    Well, as another giant of the entertainment industry remarked, “No one ever went broke over-estimating the ignorance of the American public.”

    Is it weird I DO know this stuff?I can’t help it, things stick in my mind …

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  3. PJ says:

    I haven’t been to the Page in years. I really should go back.

    I once volunteered at the tar pits in the summer between high school and college. I worked two weeks in the micro-fossil lab and two weeks handling and checking the catalog numbers on excavated bones (before the advent of computerization). Scut work, but very interesting. Then, sadly, I had to get a real job to help pay for college. I’d hoped to work my way up to the pits eventually. *sigh*

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  4. Kate says:

    PJ – some years after high school, I did a stint as a temporary data input clerk for the eventual computerization of those records! To my sorrow, I didn’t get to work at Rancho La Brea, but in some dull Wilshire office a few blocks away. It was cool, though, immortalizing the data.

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  5. Cryssie Stauber says:

    I love the La Brea Tar Pits and the Page. Although the exhibits were always fun, my fondest memories involve going there with my parents as a kid to watch the Disney movies (such as the original Fantasia).

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  6. Kate says:

    Ah, Cryssie, the film festivals at Rancho La Brea were great. I once went there with Kage, way back in the ’70s, to see a refurbished print of The Wizard of Oz. It was presented by Ray Bolder, the Scarecrow himself – then fabulously old, but alert and spry. And he danced for us! I actually got to see Ray Bolger dance, live on stage. It was astounding.

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