Into the Fire

Fighter pilot William Rankin bailed out of a failing jet in 1959 and found himself inside a thunderstorm:

I saw lightning all around me in every shape imaginable. When very close, it appeared mainly as a huge, bluish sheet several feet thick, sometimes sticking close to me in pairs, like the blades of a scissors, and I had the distinct feeling that I was being sliced in two. It was raining so torrentially that I thought I would drown in midair. Several times I had held my breath, fearing that otherwise I might inhale quarts of water. How silly, I thought, they’re going to find you hanging from some tree, in your parachute harness, your lungs filled with water, wondering how on earth you drowned.

The stormcloud toyed with him for 45 minutes before it finally put him down — 65 miles from where he’d bailed out.

Or Bust

In 1909, 22-year-old housewife Alice Huyler Ramsey drove from New York to San Francisco, covering 3,800 miles in 59 days in a Maxwell touring car. She encountered Indians (hunting jackrabbits) in Nebraska, a posse (hunting a murderer) in Wyoming, bad roads, bad weather, flat tires, and breakdowns. All of this is chronicled in her memorably titled 1961 memoir, Veil, Duster and Tire Iron.

With her went two sisters-in-law and a female friend — none of whom could drive a car.

See also Annie Londonderry.

“Lizard Embedded in a Block of Coal”

Lately, in a coal-pit situated upon the outwood, near Wakefield, and belonging to Wm. Fenton, Esq. out of the lower bed or seam, at a distance of 150 yards from the surface of the earth, a block of coal was dug up, which, when broken, contained a lizard, of the species vulgarly called askers; the animal was alive, but upon being exposed to the air, it soon died. The cavity in which it was found, being the exact mould of its own form, no chasm, hole, or external crack appeared on the surface of the block.

Monthly Magazine, 1812


A deaf observer of the American Civil War would have been deeply confused by the outcome of certain battles. That’s because the generals planned to hear the course of the struggle — and, in some cases, the sounds never arrived.

“Acoustic shadows” typically occur when an expected sound is absorbed somehow or deflected by windshear or a temperature gradient. In the Civil War it had significant effects at Fort Donelson, Five Forks, and Chancellorsville. At the Battle of Iuka, a north wind prevented Grant from hearing guns only a few miles away. At Perryville, Don Carlos Buell learned only from a messenger that his men were involved in a major battle.

At the Battle of Seven Pines, Joseph Johnston was 2.5 miles from the front but heard no guns. And certain sounds from the Battle of Gettysburg were inaudible 10 miles away but clearly heard in Pittsburgh.

(Thanks, David.)

Twister Vision

Kansas farmer Will Keller was fleeing a tornado on June 22, 1928, when he turned at the door of his cyclone cellar and looked up:

To my astonishment I saw right up into the heart of the tornado. There was a circular opening in the center of the funnel, about 50 or 100 feet in diameter, and extending straight upward for a distance of at least one half mile, as best I could judge under the circumstances. The walls of this opening were of rotating clouds and the whole was made brilliantly visible by constant flashes of lightning which zigzagged from side to side. Had it not been for the lightning, I could not have seen the opening, not any distance into it anyway.

Only a handful of people have witnessed this sight and lived.

In a Word

adj. full of beer

Richard Redux

More maxims from Poor Richard’s Almanack:

  • The Sting of a Reproach is the Truth of it.
  • Having been poor is no shame, but being ashamed of it, is.
  • Most fools think they are only ignorant.
  • Think of three Things — whence you came, where you are going, and to Whom you must account.
  • Good Sense is a Thing all need, few have, and none think they want.
  • A true great Man will neither trample on a worm nor sneak to an Emperor.
  • A Change of Fortune hurts a wise man no more than a Change of the Moon.
  • Cunning proceeds from Want of Capacity.
  • Nothing so popular as goodness.
  • Write with the learned, pronounce with the vulgar.
  • Love, cough, and a smoke, can’t well be hid.
  • Is there anything men take more pains about than to make themselves unhappy?

“Chaffinch Contest”

At the town of Arimentières, in France, there is a fete du pays, called hermesse, or ducasse d’ Amentières, in which the chaffinch and its fellows are the chief actors and objects of attraction. Numbers of these birds are trained with the greatest care, and no small share of cruelty, for they are frequently blinded by their owners, that their song may not be interrupted by any external object. The point upon which the amusement, the honour, and the emolument rests, is, the number of times which a bird will repeat his song in a given time. A day being fixed, the amateurs repair to the appointed place, each with his bird in a cage. The prize is then displayed, and the birds are placed in a row. A bird-fancier notes how many times each bird sings, and another verifies his notes. In the year 1812, a chaffinch repeated his song seven hundred times in one hour. Emulated by the songs of each other, they strain their little ‘plumed throats,’ as if conscious that honour was to result from their exertions.

— Edmund Fillingham King, Ten Thousand Wonderful Things, 1860

The Gentlest Death

Drowning victims:

  • Hippasus of Metapontum, reputedly drowned by Pythagoras for discovering irrational numbers
  • Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII, in the Nile
  • George, Duke of Clarence, in a barrel of Malmsey wine, according to legend
  • Peter Artedi, ironically now considered the father of ichthyology, Amsterdam, 1735
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley, possibly a suicide or political murder
  • John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim, on the Titanic
  • Grigori Rasputin, eventually
  • Enrique Granados, jumping from a lifeboat to rescue his wife, World War I
  • Virginia Woolf, suicide
  • Josef Mengele, swimming off the Brazilian coast, 1979
  • Hart Crane, suicide in the Caribbean
  • Natalie Wood, drowned in a yacht accident, possibly a murder
  • Dennis Wilson, ironically a Beach Boy
  • Jeff Buckley, in Tennessee’s Wolf River, 1997
  • Spalding Gray, in the East River, suicide

Canadians John and Jackie Knill were vacationing in Thailand when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck, killing both. A missionary later found their camera, which showed the wave approaching until it was nearly upon them.

Strange Bedfellows

In 1948, a few months before his death, Babe Ruth visited Yale to donate a copy of his autobiography. He presented it to the captain of the school’s baseball team.

The captain’s name was George Bush.