A Note From the Neighbors

At 5:12 p.m. on November 26, 1977, an unidentified voice appeared on the transmitters of Southern Television in the United Kingdom. Identifying itself as Vrillon, representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command, the voice broke in to a news broadcast to warn viewers of “the destiny of your race,” “so that you may communicate to your fellow beings the course you must take to avoid a disaster which threatens your world and the beings on other worlds around you.”

Accompanied by a deep buzzing, the voice warned against the use of nuclear weapons and stated that humanity had “but a short time to learn to live together in peace and goodwill” before it destroyed itself.

Investigators decided that pranksters were behind the broadcast, aiming a transmitter at a VHF receiver to overpower the “official” signal with a joke message.

But no one knows for sure.

Jerimoth Hill

If you’re visiting Rhode Island, you might be excused for wanting to visit Jerimoth Hill: It’s the highest point in the state.

Unfortunately, you’d be taking your life in your hands. Jerimoth is private property, and it’s owned by a singularly cranky 77-year-old named Henry Richardson, who monitors the trail with motion sensors. Here’s how he’s greeted other visitors:

  • Assaulted them verbally (“Shoot all the damn highpointers!” “Get the hell off my property!”)
  • Threatened to break cameras
  • Started fistfights
  • Let the air out of their car tires
  • Shot them with rock salt
  • Chased them through three states by car

Under pressure, Richardson’s son agreed in 1998 to let hikers visit the highpoint on national holidays. Before that, the 812-foot rise “was considered less accessable than Mt. McKinley.”

Who’s On First?

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Mount Everest has lost a lot of its intrigue since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit in 1953. Indeed, it’s become a big business in Nepal: Between 1998 and 2001, 560 people reached the “top of the world”; last year Pemba Dorjie Sherpa set a new record by making the climb — five miles straight up — in 8 hours and 10 minutes.

Still, it’s perilous, particularly in the “death zone” above 26,000 feet. Hundreds have died, and most of the corpses remain where they fell, frozen solid.

One of those bodies may hold some astounding evidence — proof that the summit was reached 29 years before Hillary’s achievement.

In June 1924, two British climbers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, had climbed to within a few hours of the top. They were using oxygen, which doubled their speed; their geologist reported seeing them climbing “with great alacrity … near the base of the final pyramid” shortly after noon. But the climbers were obscured by mist, and vanished. Had they succeeded?

In 1933 one of their ice axes was found above a large snow terrace. This narrowed the search. If the bodies could be found, Eastman Kodak thought it could retrieve “fully printable images” from their cameras, which would presumably show the summit if they’d reached it. (Irvine was an avid photographer.)

At first the mystery only deepened. A Chinese porter told of finding an “English dead” near the terrace in 1975, but he died in an avalanche before he could reveal any details. Then, in 1999, Eric Simonson found Mallory’s body, with rope trauma indicating that the two climbers had fallen together. But there were no cameras, and still no sign of Irvine’s body.

That’s where the mystery stands now. Last year a new effort began to recover Irvine’s body — details are at Mallory & Irvine: The Final Chapter. So far they’ve retrieved some puzzling artifacts, but no clear answer. Stay tuned.

Project Habbakuk

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During World War II, Lord Mountbatten and Geoffrey Pyke approached Winston Churchill with a novel plan to reach German U-boats in the mid-Atlantic, where land-based planes couldn’t reach them. They wanted to build an aircraft carrier out of solid ice.

It sounds crazy today, but if they’d gone through with it Project Habbakuk might well have lived up to its biblical billing (“be utterly amazed, for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told”). Mountbatten and Pike planned to assemble 280,000 blocks of ice into a ship 600 meters long, with a displacement of 2 million tons (today’s Nimitz-class carriers are 333 meters long and displace 100,000 tons). It would carry electric motors, anti-aircraft guns, an airstrip, and a refrigeration unit to keep everything from melting.

Pro: It would be practically unsinkable.

Con: It would take 8,000 people eight months to build it, at a cost of $70 million.

In the end they made a little prototype in Alberta, but the project never got any further. Still, it’s a credit to Churchill that he even considered such an outlandish idea. “Personally I’m always ready to learn,” he once said, “although I do not always like being taught.”

The Headington Shark

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The Headington Shark landed on the roof of 2 New High Street on Aug. 9, 1986, the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

The house’s owner, Radio Oxford presenter Bill Heine, said, “The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation. … It is saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki.”

That sounds nice, but it’s still a big shark. The city council couldn’t argue that it was dangerous — Heine had special girders installed to support the 25-foot fiberglass body — but in 1990 they insisted it counted as unpermitted “development.” Heine appealed to the secretary of state for the environment, Peter Macdonald, who supported him: “As a ‘work of art’ the sculpture (‘Untitled 1986’) would be ‘read’ quite differently in, say, an art gallery or on another site. An incongruous object can become accepted as a landmark after a time, becoming well known, even well loved in the process. Something of this sort seems to have happened, for many people, to the so-called ‘Oxford shark.'”

So the fish stayed. And it seems to be growing on people. In 1992, Times writer Bernard Levin called the shark “delightful, innocent, fresh and amusing — all qualities abhorred by such committees.”

Edmund Trebus

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As a packrat, Edmund Trebus took the cake. He also took washing machines, rotting clothes, wood, motorcycles, windowpanes, and old refrigerators. Before the Polish émigré died in 2002, at age 83, he had filled his four-story London house with mountains of garbage collected at local junk shops and building sites. One room was full of vacuum cleaners, another with cameras. He collected Elvis Presley recordings maniacally.

In their garden, his wife used to sit in a deck chair among towers of crap. When she left in 1981, he filled in the hole. In the end Trebus was living in one corner of the kitchen, with only a Jack Russell terrier for company. He needed ladders to get in and out of the house, which had no running water, working bathroom or electricity.

In 1997, after being buried under one of his own “litter traps,” designed to catch burglars, he was hospitalized for gangrene. When he got out, he found that the town council had finally got a court order declaring the house unfit for human habitation. Six men and five trucks took 30 days to remove 515 cubic yards of waste.

He’d filled it up again by 2001.

Spring Heeled Jack

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jack2.jpg

A villain worthy of DC Comics, Spring Heeled Jack leapt liberally around England between 1837 and 1904, attacking isolated victims who described him as a muscular devil in an oilskin.

If he was the devil, he wasn’t a very ambitious criminal, generally just crashing carriages and groping women. But he could jump 9-foot walls, perhaps using spring-loaded footgear, judging from some ill-preserved prints.

An anonymous letter implied that a human prankster was terrorizing London on a bet, and incidental reports began to mount. In 1838 four witnesses saw him breathe fire and jump to the roof of a house, and in 1845 he threw a 13-year-old prostitute from a bridge, his first killing. On the night of Feb. 8, 1855, long trails of hooflike prints were seen in the snow throughout Devon, crossing roofs, walls, and haystacks. By 1873 thousands were gathering each night to hunt the ghost.

Nothing seemed to stop him, including bullets, and he even attacked a group of soldiers at Aldershot Barracks in 1877. He was last spotted in 1904 in Liverpool, leaping over a crowd of witnesses and disappearing behind some neighboring houses.

There’s no good explanation. Some suspected the Marquess of Waterford, who was known to spring on travelers to amuse himself, but the attacks continued after his death. Others have suggested a stranded extraterrestrial, a visitor from another dimension, or a real demon. We’ll never know.

The Green Children

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“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” wrote Albert Einstein. “It is the source of all true art and science.”

That was true even in the Dark Ages, though the mysteries were a lot iffier back then. William of Newburgh records an “unheard-of” prodigy in East Anglia around 1150, when reapers were gathering produce during the harvest near some “very ancient cavities” known as the Wolfpittes. “Two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in gaments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations.”

Taken in by the villagers, they learned to eat beans and bread, which in time “changed their original color” until they “became like ourselves.” The boy died shortly after he was baptized, but his sister continued in good health and eventually married.

On being taught English, they told this story:

  • “We are inhabitants of the land of St. Martin, who is regarded with peculiar veneration in the country which gave us birth.”
  • “The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sunrise, or follows the sunset. Moreoever, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river.”
  • “On a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St. Edmund’s, when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were, entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields where you were reaping.”

William closes: “Let every one say as he pleases, and reason on such matters according to his abilities; I feel no regret at having recorded an event so prodigious and miraculous.” It’s poetic, in any case.

Harry Stephen Keeler

http://staff.xu.edu/~polt/keeler/jackets/ducracksman.jpg

Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967) wrote mystery novels so bad they’ve been called “coincidence porn.” In The Ace of Spades Murder he introduces the guilty character on the third-to-last page; in X. Jones of Scotland Yard he explains on the last page that Napoleon Bonaparte is the culprit.

And his gifts extend beyond plotting. His characters are called Criorcan Mulqueeny and Screamo the Clown and Scientifico Greenlimb and Wolf Gladish and State Attorney Foxhart Cubycheck, and he writes titles like Finger, Finger!, The Yellow Zuri, The Amazing Web, Find the Clock, and The Face of the Man From Saturn.

Even at the level of simple prose, he’s entirely helpless. Here’s a typical passage from The Case of the 16 Beans:

The door now opened, revealing, as it did so, a strange figure — a half-man, no less, seated on a “rollerskate” cart! — framed against the bit of outer hallway. But no ordinary half-man this, for he was a Chinaman; quite legless, indeed, so far as the presence of even upper leg stumps went; but amply provided with locomotion, of the gliding kind, anyway, in the matter of the unusually generous rubber-tired wheels under the platform cart.

There’s even an appreciation society now, which is fortunate, because most of Keeler’s numerous works are now out of print. In 1942, the New York Times wrote, “We are drawn to the unescapable conclusion that Mr. Keeler writes his peculiar novels merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy.” Amen.

Mermaid

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:1921MermaidLegs.jpg

Encounter with a Newfoundland mermaid, recorded by Richard Whitbourne, 1610:

“Now also I will not omit to relate something of a strange Creature that I first saw there in the yeere 1610, in a morning early as I was standing by the water side, in the Harbour of Saint Johns, which I espied verie swiftly to come swimming towards me, looking cheerefully, as it had beene a woman, by the Face, Eyes, Nose, Mouth, Chin, eares, Necke and Forehead: It seemed to be so beautifull, and in those parts so well proportioned, having round about upon the head, all blew strakes, resembling haire, downe to the Necke (but certainly it was haire) for I beheld it long, and another of my companie also, yet living, that was not then farre from me; and seeing the same comming so swiftly towards mee, I stepped backe, for it was come within the length of a long Pike.

“Which when this strange Creature saw that I went from it, it presently thereupon dived a little under water, and did swim to the place where before I landed; whereby I beheld the shoulders and backe downe to the middle, to be as square, white and smooth as the backe of a man, and from the middle to the hinder part, pointing in proportion like a broad hooked Arrow; how it was proportioned in the forepart from the necke and shoulders, I know not; but the same came shortly after unto a Boat, wherein one William Hawkridge, then my servant, was, that hath bin since a Captaine in a Ship to the East Indies, and is lately there imploied againe by Sir Thomas Smith, in the like Voyage; and the same Creature did put both his hands upon the side of the Boate, and did strive to come in to him and others then in the said Boate; whereat they were afraid; and one of them strooke it a full blow on the head; whereat it fell off from them: and afterwards it came to two other Boates in the Harbour; the men in them, for feare fled to land: This (I suppose) was a Mermaide.”