Twist and Shout

Twist and Shout
Life is never straight (Joey Kulkin photo)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Vignettes from Vermont: A 50,000,000-Year-Old Bennington Fish Tale

3 cigarettes for an historic fossil (click to enlarge)
"I've seen enough to know this isn't fake."

BENNINGTON -- A toothless woman and her tattooed fiance took possession of a rare slab of earth last week ...

David Thompson and Tiffany Friend of Bennington

... after a desperate townie traded the piece of natural history for 3 cigarettes.

Turns out the imperfect jagged square dates to the Eocene era between 35,000,000 and 50,000,000 years ago, before the Rocky Mountains rose up and before the Grand Canyon slumped into Arizona, a time reference almost impossible to comprehend when you compare one year to 100 years to 1,000 years ... to 50 million years?

The top layer on one side is white-beige with 2 splotches. 

What makes this piece so unique and what excited Phil Bernnard the most as he eyeballed a magnifying glass are the 2 fossilized fish embedded in pristine condition. One of the fish looks like it drowned in a one of the splotches.

"I'm amazed you can see the bones and the scales," Bernnard, an archeologist from Hoosick Falls, New York, said on the phone hours after he met David and Tiffany at Fiddlehead at Four Corners art gallery in downtown Bennington. He showed up to give them a rough appraisal of their investment. "This is a Mother Nature work of art."

Which is why 34-year-old Tiffany Friend and her 50-year-old fiancee David Thompson -- Bennington natives on disability -- think they've hit the jackpot although Bernnard told them not to hold their breath. He made it clear he's not an expert and is no position to give them the kind of appraisal they want but his experience made him feel comfortable enough to say they'd be lucky to fetch more than $500, maybe $700 or even a thousand, because of the condition of the fossilized fish.

"Honestly," Tiffany said on the phone today, "we said were weren't going to get our hopes up. We were shocked it it was worth anything at all."

Bernnard did have to set the record straight after reading the typewritten note taped to the back of the old slab that said the Eocene Age was 20,000,000 years ago.

Earth has had 5 geological eras: Archaeozoic, Proterozoic, Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic. Within the Cenozoic Era is the Tertiary Period, with 5 epochs: Paleocene (dinosaur age), Eocene, Oligocene, Micene and the era we're in now, Pliocene. 

For a detailed table click HERE.

The strip of paper reads:

EOCENE AGE -- 20,000,000

Incorrect is the 20,000,000 number, Bernnard said, because Eocene was 10,000,000 to 35,000,000 years older, but the Green River and Wyoming references were correct because Wyoming, like much of North America, was covered in water.

Fast-forward a few (million) years. "The geological process," Bernnard said during the phone call, "it's time." Tectonic shifts and the bunching of plates led to the rising of the Rockies -- from Canada to New Mexico -- and during this process the rivers and lakes in what we call Wyoming and surrounding states disappeared.

The species of fish in David's and Tiffany's fossil, made up of hundreds of layers of sediment, Bernnard said, probably died and fell to the bottom of the river and became embedded in clay. Millions of years of mineralization led to fossilization, the process by which a cellular structure turns to stone and that's why the two fish look so perfect though David was wary.

"Nobody can make fish like that," he said in the 65-second video below. The archeologist heard the comment as he studied the fossilized fish and replied "You'd be surprised. But this is something made by Mother Nature."

A third party, who didn't know any of the other three from Adam, photographed and shot video of this gathering inside Fiddlehead, an 84-year-old geological beauty of its own and Bennington's most gorgeous structure built in 1929 with marble from Vermont's quarries.

Twenty-four hours earlier Fiddlehead's manager looked deep into Tiffany's desperate blue eyes as she asked for help finding someone who might want to buy the fossil. Tiffany is 34 going on 112. Life's rough, and she needs money. She needs a lot more than money, but a million bucks for this strange slab is the only thing she's really thinking about. 

For whatever reason the gods look kindly upon the ponytailed redhead. Into her lap falls a 24-year-old Benningtonian by the name of David, who is so desperate for nicotine that he trades a 50,000,000-year-old slab of earth for 3 rollies.

Bennington, My Bennington.

David heard of an archeologist at Camelot Village -- the antiques shopping center just outside Old Bennington. Just one problem. David and Tiffany have no transportation to Camelot Village. It's a 3-minute drive from Fiddlehead at Four Corners but for desperados like David and Tiffany it's a 2-hour walk they're in no position to make for obvious reasons. They just need a little help.

So the manager called Camelot Village and asked the girl who answered if the archeologist was available. The girl said the archeologist hadn't arrived. Fiddlehead's manager nudged a little and got the girl to put him in touch with the archeologist, a man by the name of Phil. So the manager makes one more call, to Phil Bernnard of Hoosick Falls, who hems and haws for a few seconds after the manager's spiel but agrees to come to Fiddlehead the next day to give the fossilized fish fossil a once-over.

Bernnard told David and Tiffany they need a zoologist to name the species of fish and that fossil experts could tell them what kind of money they might fetch by selling it, which is what they want to do because all you have to do is look into Tiffany's eyes as the archeologist puts his knowledge on display. Watch the video below at the 45-second mark when she interrupts him, or tries to, as he's eyeballing the scales of the fish. You can see her train of thought a mile away.

After Bernnard's quick appraisal, David put the 50,000,000-year-old fossil in his backpack and walked his woman out the front door. They were neither happy nor mad, satisfied that someone gave them the time of day.

Things like this happen quite a bit. Person buys a painting for $3 at Goodwill and it turns out to be from the 17th century and he sells it for $190,000. Or this one: Person buys a $3 bowl at a tag sale and it turns out to be a 1,000-year-old Chinese bowl worth $2.25 million.

This is not going to happen to David and Tiffany of Bennington. The 3 rollies they gave David didn't yield an Eocene Era fossil worth millions or even six or five figures. They'll be lucky to get a grand unless this is a missing piece to an Eocene Era fossil puzzle.

Fiddlehead's manager called the couple this morning.

"We'll probably put it on the mantle," Tiffany said. "David built a nice stand for it."

The manager asked "Would you sell it for $500 tomorrow?"

In the background you could hear David grumble. "No. ... It's too cool."

"Be careful," the manager warned Tiffany. "Don't be so stubborn that you turn away $500 or even $750 because you think you'll get $12,000 for it."

"$500 is a lot of money," she said as David grumbled again. "We could use that, though. We're not looking at it, like, someone's going to say 'We'll give you $12,000.' "

David's voice boomed in the background. "It's a good bragging piece."

UPDATE (8/2): Fiddlehead's manager called Tiffany and David again asking if they could locate 3-Cig Dave and bring him to the gallery. David said he doesn't know where 3-Cig Dave is these days although he might be visiting his mom in Barre. When asked where 3-Cig Dave got the slab, David said the 24-year-old told him he found it while cleaning out an apartment for his dad's landlord.

UPDATE 2 (8/2): Tiffany walked into Fiddlehead today with a large, sweaty fella wearing a cap signifying he's a veteran of the Iraq War ...

... and this is 3-Cig Dave -- David Jalalian-Taylor of Bennington, but he's 28 not 24. 

He said he was stationed in Alaska and pulled the trigger often on front lines in Iraq from 2003 to 2006, said he came home with the rank of sergeant. He lives in an apartment on North Street, part of a 3-apartment complex. One of the tenants was a man in his 70's, health failing, Jalalian said, so he up and left for Canada months ago to live with family.

"The guy left so much trash in there," Jalalian said. "He was a pack rat, a hoarder."

Jalalian found the Eocene piece in the attic crawl space. "I thought it was a neat little thing. But I needed nicotine so bad -- stupid me gave it away to Tiffany."

He said he's not worried about people thinking he stole one of the abandoned tenant's possessions because "he told me that if I like anything I'm welcome to it." He kept a painting and photo but wishes he had the fossil he traded to quell the nic-fit.

Tiffany said something funny about the piece she now owns with David Thompson. He doesn't trust her and has bubbled-wrapped and hidden the fossil. "He knows I'm desperate for money and knows what I'd probably do with it."

Fiddlehead's manager told Tiffany he wrote about her being a 34-year-old with no teeth and asked if it's because she used meth. She said no. She lost her teeth because of bad enamel, gingivitis and because she neglected oral hygiene for years. She said she loathes drugs and wants to work with children one day, perhaps in a daycare.

3-Cig Dave is unemployed but wants to get his license and become a bounty hunter in Vermont. He said he has a felony -- he's listed on Vermont's sex offender registry HERE.

UPDATE 3 (8/2): Someone posted this story on and a redditor left a comment leading to a website dedicated to the Green River Fossil Adventures HERE.