WASHINGTON (AP) -- "There's a mastodon in my back yard."
That's what the woman said when she telephoned the
Smithsonian Institution, wondering if scientists could
excavate the ice age creature.
Then there are the folks who called asking if the
Great Wall of China was on exhibit, or how about the
"original Bible." You know, 10 Commandments. Tablets.
Moses. A mountain.
Some of the hundreds of calls the Smithsonian fields
each day involve age-old questions -- what's the name of
the man who invented the wheel? Or space-age queries --
where can they see flying saucers on display?
"They just assume that everything's here and that we
can answer every question," says Cordelia Benedict, who has
supervised the Smithsonian's telephone information services
for nearly a decade. "We treat every call respectfully.
People don't like to be laughed at."
Besides, even Encyclopedia Britannica researchers
have called (asking about the history of the razor blade)
and those ingenious questioners from "Jeopardy" often burn
up the lines seeking game show material.
Benedict and three dozen volunteers answer mostly
mundane questions: How do you get to the Smithsonian's
museums in Washington? When are they open? And does the
Metro pass by? The most detailed questions often get
shuttled to other departments such as anthropology.
"We don't want to make people look stupid, but
some of these questions are off the wall," says Marilyn
London, head of the anthropology outreach and public
information office. "But no question is a bad question."
And London usually has an answer, or knows who does.
"I think we told the guy who wanted to know who
invented the wheel that there was no way of telling," she
says. "But my response would have been, how do you know it
was a man?"
Here are some samples of curious queries and
--Can a small plane land on the Mall? The caller was
sure it could since "all those planes in the Air and Space
Museum had to get there somehow."
--Is Fawn Hall's underwear on display? This from "two
men in a Texas bar who obviously had a lot to drink," says
Benedict. "We get a lot of calls from people wanting us to
settle bets." (No, Oliver North's secretary didn't donate
her dainties, nor hide documents in them as some claimed.)
--Where is the Ark of the Covenant? (Try Indiana
--Does the Smithsonian display Civil War planes?
(The Wright brothers didn't pioneer aviation until 1903.)
--Is the Smithsonian interested in buying the carcass
--Will the Smithsonian sell the starship Enterprise,
used for the popular "Star Trek" television show? "She only
wanted it if the transporter was in working condition,"
Benedict says. (The only life-size Enterprise at the
Smithsonian is the non-flying space shuttle of the same
--Can the Smithsonian set up a caller with a hula
"Actually, I tracked one down for her," remembers London.
"We have a curator involved in South Pacific and Hawaiian
culture, so she knew one."
--How do you say "I'm thinking of you" in Apache?
--Can you send "all the information you have on
human evolution, even the secret stuff?" from a grade
school letter writer.
--How about the coin George Washington tossed
across the Delaware River? The price: $77 million. The
question: Did he really toss that coin?
--Could the Smithsonian take a "petrified whale"
off a caller's hands? He was referred to paleontology. "I
told him that means `very old biology,' and he said, `good
because this is a very old whale,'" Benedict recalls.
--And one of Benedict's favorites: an offer to
donate a collection of potato chips resembling "famous
people and animals."
Benedict keeps the gems of the day -- about three or
four out of every 650 calls made to her department -- in a
battered green folder that "just gets thicker and thicker."
The Smithsonian might issue a book with 150 of the
most interesting queries to mark the museum's 150th year
anniversary in 1996, says Benedict, who hopes to title it,
"There's a Mastodon in My Back Yard."
Hey, what about that elephant-like mastodon?
"There was literally a mastodon buried on her ranch,"
Benedict says. "She was right. We referred her to the
vertebrate department, I think."
Smithsonian telephone information services: (202) 357-2700.