It’s the classic story – little boy spends his time after school playing in the forests of rural North Carolina, learns to play the trombone, grows an epic mullet and never really grows up but gets older and studies dinosaurs. Terry “Bucky” Gates is a Paleontologist with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science and North Carolina State University and we had a chance to sit down and talk about what life was like for him when he was in middle school.
Lea: What was middle school science like for you?
Bucky: My science teacher I loved. She was a former marine biologist. Crazy. And she would just do things like put out a bunch of chemicals and say, “Here you go! Have fun today!”
Do you think she had a plan?
I have no idea.
Did you learn from it?
Not really. I mean, it was bad planning. She would put out water, acetone, ammonia and some low pH hydrochloric acid and she goes, “Time to clean up!” and I’m like, “What’s what?” and so I distinctly remember picking up the ammonia and sniffing it and I could feel the ammonia fumes going up through my sinuses. It was bad. Nothing was labeled. I had fun though.
What was fun about it?
It was my friends; it was the freedom in there to do what I wanted to – without ridicule. Yeah, I could ask any question and she didn’t care. She loved it. Every other subject, I guess, was kind of boring – kind of the same. I didn’t like math. I wasn’t great at it – I got it after a while, but not as fast as the other students. So I was able to keep up, but my teacher wanted me to go faster.
“… I could ask any question and she didn’t care. She loved it.”
Were you cool?
Yeah. I’m trying to think about this dynamic – there were definitely some cliques, but there was a lot of overlap. There were some kids who were at one end of the spectrum in terms of their social clique versus another – and I was kind of in the middle, I was a floater – I could float between all of them – and I liked floating between all of them, I didn’t like to leave people out. If I wanted to be in one social group, at the same time I’d feel bad and so I’d float over there and mingle, I’d go back and forth.
So, what was lunchtime like for you?
Lunch time was sitting with at least one very specific person, one of my best friends. We both went to the [North Carolina] School of Science and Math together – the only reason I applied there was because he was applying there. So we went there together and we went to college together, but he went to computer science and I went elsewhere. He helped me move across the country – we’re still in touch today.
What was your biggest worry when you were in middle school?
Girls. Getting a girlfriend. I was worried about how do you get a girlfriend, once you get a girlfriend – then what? Ok, we have the titles now, what does that mean? I had no idea. In many ways I was very socially ignorant. By far my biggest worry.
What was your favorite subject?
Science. Hands down, science. PE was fun, if not science – it was social studies. Not because of the teacher – it was definitely the subject. I love history.
And that translates to what you do now – what do you study?
I study paleontology and dinosaur evolutionary history and how fossils are preserved. That definitely relates back – trying to figure out where we came from. [At this time Bucky is practically jumping out of his seat – his eyes light up and he is clearly excited about his career] People, society, and also in terms of big evolutionary history.
What was your hair like?[10 seconds elapse and it was clear that Bucky didn’t want me to ask this question, but it was out there and now I had to know the answer.]
Um. So, my hair. I started out very short, very trim, very gentlemanly. And then. By 8th grade my mom had this great idea. So my father used to take me to get my hair cut, and then my mother started taking me. And… I’m sitting in the chair this one time and I distinctly remember my mom saying, “You know, Bucky, I was thinking – maybe you should, uh, cut it really short in the front like you normally have but leave it a little long in the back. Because I saw this guy on TV named Billie Ray Cyrus and his hair looked really good.” And I was compliant, I didn’t care, you know – I wasn’t a vain person. “Yeah, mom, sure – that sounds great – let’s go ahead and do it.” So for the next two years I grew it, short in front – party in the back. By the time I hit 9th grade it was horrible. I had this big poufy mullet. And I was so proud of my mullet. I mean, it was my pride and joy. I would pouf it up.
“…Because I saw this guy on TV named Billie Ray Cyrus and his hair looked really good.”
Were you in any clubs? You’ve mentioned band.
That was part of our school curriculum.
You had to do band?
Well, band or shop or art.
And you chose band. And what did you play?
The trombone. From 6th grade to 12th grade.
Why did you pick the trombone?
I don’t know – I guess because it was a little bit different. Most people were choosing the saxophone, trumpet, clarinet; I was like –no – I’m going to do the trombone. I think it’s one of the most versatile instruments. You can play any note at all. You don’t have any stupid little keys to limit you.
Did your parents have to make you practice the trombone, or did you practice on your own?
I never practiced. Only at school. [I was] naturally completely adept at the trombone.
“[The trombone is] one of the most versatile instruments… You don’t have any stupid little keys to limit you.”
Did you ever think you would become a scientist?[Immediately] Yes.
That was quick!
Yes. 6th grade.
What did you think scientists did all day?
I didn’t know. I just said, “I’m going to be a scientist.” In 6th grade I said, “I’m going to get a PhD, and I’m going to be a scientist.” Done. That was it, it was never a question – there was never a worry; that was the plan.
Is your childhood over yet?
How do you know?
Because I still get to play with my kids. And that’s ok. Even when I play hockey occasionally, and I work out, even when I do that I feel like I’m back on the playground. I’m playing – it’s my time for doing what I want, doing what I enjoy and there are no rules. And I like that very much. And, even when I’m cooking, you know, I really enjoy cooking and it’s translated into the same kind of joy that I used to get when I was a kid. So I don’t say that my childhood’s over, in many ways – I’m a lot wiser. Which I really enjoy, but in terms of the purities I think it’s still there.
What do you think your middle school self would be surprised about? Considering your life?
That I’m actually studying dinosaurs. Absolutely.
So if you were to pop into a time machine and open up your TARDIS doors and show up —
And say, “Guess what?!” yeah – they would be totally shocked and happy and thrilled.
Would you give them any advice as you travel back?[Big sigh] – I don’t know because, there’s always the good stuff and the bad stuff that happened but I really love where I am now. In terms of my career, in terms of my family, I mean I love my family, and I’d be afraid that if I did any small thing to change it. You know, “study a little bit harder when they offer you that senior thesis, take that senior thesis and…” I’m afraid if I did that it would alter where I went to grad school and then I wouldn’t have met my wife or who knows what else. And so, maybe, maybe not, I think things turned out well. So, I would say, “No – you just have to live with the same consequences and the same benefits.”
Just, “There are dinosaurs in your future and goodbye.”
Yeah, just be happy with that. And you have an awesome family. Just go with it.
“Go with it.” that’s good advice.
Dr. Terry “Bucky” Gates is a Paleontologist, cheese maker and ancient dinosaur mystery solver.