The Christmas War

In 1964, Larry Kunkel’s mother gave him a pair of moleskin pants for Christmas. He found that they froze stiff during the Minnesota winters, so the following Christmas he wrapped them up and gave them to his brother-in-law, Roy Collette. Collette returned them to Kunkel the next year, and the pants began oscillating between the two as a yearly joke. This was fun until it escalated:

  • One year Collette twisted the pants into a tight roll and stuffed them into an inch-wide pipe 3 feet long and gave them to Kunkel.
  • Not to be outdone, Kunkel returned them the following year compressed into a 7-inch cube and baled in wire.
  • So Collette gave them back immured in a 2-foot crate full of stones and banded with steel.
  • Collette next had them mounted inside an insulated window with a 20-year guarantee.
  • Kunkel soldered them into a 5-inch coffee can and sealed that in a 5-gallon container filled with concrete and reinforcing rods.
  • Kunkel locked them in a 225-pound homemade steel ashtray made of 8-inch steel casings.
  • Collette returned them welded inside a 600-pound safe decorated with red and green stripes.
  • Kunkel put them in the glove compartment of a 2,000-pound 1974 Gremlin crushed into a 3-foot cube.
  • Collette put them inside a tire 8 feet high and 2 feet wide and filled it with 6,000 pounds of cement.
  • Kunkel hid them inside one of 15 identical concrete-filled canisters, which he loaded into a 17.5-foot rocket ship filled with concrete and weighing 6 tons.
  • Collette put them in a 4-ton Rubik’s cube fashioned from kiln-baked concrete and covered with 2,000 board-feet of lumber.
  • Kunkel put them into a station wagon filled with 170 steel generators welded together.
  • Collette returned them inside a cement-truck tank delivered by a flatbed truck and accompanied by a crane.

Here it ended. In 1989 Collette planned to encase the pants in 10,000 pounds of glass and leave them in Kunkel’s front yard. “It would have been a great one,” Kunkel admitted. “Really messy.” But the insulated container failed during pouring and the molten glass reduced the pants to ashes. They reside today in an urn on Kunkel’s mantel.

Cat and Mouse

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Rats have pretty well overrun the globe, but there’s one exception: Alberta, Canada, which has waged a successful war against the critters for 50 years. Owning rats is forbidden to Alberta residents; they can be kept only by zoos and research institutions. The province maintains a rat control zone 600 kilometers long along its eastern border, staffed by eight professionals, and any rats they find are poisoned, gassed, or shot.

“Alberta is the only province with rat-free status, and we take this very seriously,” Verlyn Olson, minister of agriculture and rural development, said in an August statement. “We have lived without the menace of rats since 1950, when our control program began.”

But it’s a constant battle. In 2003 pest specialist John B. Bourne told National Geographic that he worries the wily creatures will hitch a ride to the interior aboard a truck or train. “They are so adaptive, so intelligent, so successful and physically capable … that it would not surprise me if they show up in a place where you’d least expect a rat to show up. I have the greatest respect for this rodent’s resourcefulness, and [its] capabilities scare the hell out of me.”

Leonard Trask

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Maine farmhand Leonard Trask was 28 years old when he was thrown by a horse and began to develop a curious stiffness in his back and neck. The following spring his neck and spine began to curve, forcing him to “bow forward,” but he was able to continue working.

He suffered another fall in 1840, though, and the condition grew worse. He went to 22 physicians seeking advice but was finally told that “no benefit would be likely to result therefrom.” According to an 1857 account, “his neck and back have continued to curve, more and more, every year, drawing his head downwards upon his breasts so there appears but little room to press it further without stopping entirely the movement of the jaws.”

In time he had difficulty even in sitting and reading, and he felt unsafe in riding a horse because he could not see where he was going. In his prime he had stood 6 foot 1, but by 1857 his stature had shrunk to 4 feet 10.5 inches, as his head had bowed entirely below his shoulders. He wrote:

In that celestial, bright and happy land,
Beyond this vale of sorrow, pain and tears,
Where I, erect in glory, hope to stand,
In faith and hope, the future bright appears.

Trask’s condition was unknown at the time of his death in 1861, but it was diagnosed afterward as ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease of the skeleton in which vertebrae can fuse together. His was the first published clinical account of the disease in the United States.

Dubious Punishments

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In the fifth century B.C., a storm upset the pontoon bridges by which Xerxes’ armies were crossing from Persia into Greece. Xerxes punished the strait with three hundred lashes. (Herodotus called this a “highly presumptuous way to address the Hellespont.”)

In the ancient Athenian summer festival known as Buphonia, an ox was slain with an ax, which was then charged with murder and thrown into the sea.

In 1428 Pope Martin V ordered English theologian John Wycliffe’s 44-years-dead body to be dug up and burned for heresy.

In 1519 a group of field mice in Stelvio, Italy, were charged with damaging crops by burrowing. The prosecutor argued that the loss of income prevented local tenants from paying their rents. The mice were assigned a defense attorney, Hans Grinebner, who claimed that his clients aided society by eating insects and enriching the soil. The judge banished the mice but promised them safe conduct and “an additional respite of fourteen days … to all those which are with young and to such as are yet in their infancy.”

In 1685, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Protestant chapel at La Rochelle, France, was condemned to be demolished. Its bell was spared, with a condition:

To expiate the crime of having rung heretics to prayers, it was sentenced to be first whipped, and then buried and disinterred, by way symbolizing its new birth at passing into Catholic hands. Thereafter it was catechized, and obliged to recant and promise that it would never again relapse into sin. Having made this ample and honourable amends, the bell was reconciled, baptized, and given, or rather sold, to the parish of St. Bartholomew.

— James George Frazer, Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, 1918

(Thanks, Brody.)

Benjaman Kyle

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

On Aug. 31, 2004, this man was discovered, naked and unconscious, behind a Burger King restaurant in Richmond Hill, Ga. When he regained consciousness in the local hospital, he was unable to remember who he was or how he’d came there.

That was nine years ago, and he still can’t remember. Benjaman Kyle — a name he adopted simply because it shares initials with Burger King — has been diagnosed with dissociative amnesia. He believes his birthday is Aug. 29, 1948, and he has some fragmentary memories of Denver and Indianapolis. But beyond that his life is largely a blank. He has been the subject of numerous newspaper stories and has appeared on national television, but no one has recognized him. He is the only American citizen whose whereabouts are known and yet is officially listed as missing.

The lack of a name or a Social Security number makes the search uniquely difficult. Benjaman has snapshots of memory: buying a grilled cheese sandwich at the Indiana state fair in the 1950s, and public debates over mass transit in Denver in the 1980s. But these lead nowhere. The Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles tried and failed to match his face with anyone in its records, and the FBI has been unable to match his DNA or fingerprints.

In 2010 he told told the Guardian that he often refrains from telling his story to new acquaintances because “you get two reactions. They want to tell you their theories or they think you’re mad. Neither is much fun for me.”

He acknowledges that many stories such as his turn out to be hoaxes. “It sounds crazy, I know that,” he says. “All I can say is I’m telling the truth.”

(10/05/2015 Some progress, after 11 years!)

The Solway Firth Spaceman

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On May 23, 1964, Cumberland firefighter Jim Templeton was visiting Burgh Marsh in Cumbria, England, when he snapped three photos of his 5-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. When the pictures were developed, he was surprised to see what looked like a spaceman in the background of one of them.

Templeton told reporters, “I took the picture to the police in Carlisle, who, after many doubts, examined it and stated there was nothing suspicious about it. The local newspaper, the Cumberland News, picked up the story, and within hours it was all over the world. The picture is certainly not a fake, and I am as bemused as anyone else as to how this figure appeared in the background. Over the four decades the photo has been in the public domain, I have had many thousands of letters from all over the world with various ideas or possibilities — most of which make little sense to me.”

The best guess seems to be that the figure is Templeton’s wife, Annie, who had dark bobbed hair and was wearing a pale blue dress that appeared white in other photos taken that day. The camera’s viewfinder obscured part of the image area, so it would have been possible for him to take the photo without realizing that Annie was in the shot. But who knows?

A Perpetual Pussycat

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When Winston Churchill died in 1965, his family made a curious request: His country home Chartwell must always maintain “in comfortable residence” a marmalade cat named Jock.

The original Jock had been given to Churchill two years before his death by his private secretary, Sir John “Jock” Colville, and quickly became a favorite. When the cat died in 1975, 10 years after the prime minister, he was replaced with a Jock II, and the line has continued.

The current resident is Jock VI, who is “not at all fond of heights, lightning or opera.”

Dam Ambitious

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German architect Herman Sörgel’s plan to drain the Mediterranean was only the beginning — he also wanted to irrigate Africa by creating an enormous pair of artificial seas. By damming the Congo River he would create a gigantic lake in the center of the continent; he calculated that this would cause the Ubangi River to reverse its course, flowing northwest into the Chari River and creating a huge “Chad Sea” that would seek an outlet in the north, a “second Nile” that would irrigate Algeria. Between them, these new seas would cover 10 percent of the continent.

Sörgel also wanted to build a giant hydroelectric plant at Stanley Falls whose power could bring light and industry to much of Africa. But the plans came to nothing. “The scale of such a project is beyond colossal and is utterly unfeasible politically,” writes Franklin Hadley Cock in Energy Demand and Climate Change. “Its hydroelectric power potential is staggering, as are the environmental and human problems building it would cause.”

The Sourdough Expedition

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In 1910, four years after Frederick Cook claimed falsely to have reached the peak of Mount McKinley, an unlikely quartet of Alaskan gold miners — Tom Lloyd, Peter Anderson, Billy Taylor, and Charles McGonagall — announced they had planted a spruce pole on the mountain’s 19,470-foot north summit. Though using rudimentary equipment and not acclimated to the altitude, they claimed to have made the final 8,000-foot climb and descent in only 18 hours, carrying the heavy pole and fueled only by hot chocolate and doughnuts.

President Taft congratulated them on the feat, which the New York Times said “was undertaken not for the enlightenment of the world, but to prove the pluck and endurance of the members of the party.” But Lloyd’s exaggerated accounts began to draw skepticism (he claimed to have joined his companions on the summit when it appears he had remained in camp), and these only grew when the party could produce no photographs taken above 11,000 feet.

But three years later Hudson Stuck conquered the main summit and reported that, using binoculars, he had seen a large pole near the north peak. The pole has since been lost, but today it’s generally believed that the Sourdough expedition did succeed in reaching its goal. In 1914 Stuck wrote, “To Pete Anderson and Billy Taylor, two of the strongest men, physically, in all the North, and to none other, belongs the honor of the first ascent of the North Peak and the planting of what must assuredly be the highest flagstaff in the world.”

Sporting Timber

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I may relate an odd incident in the life of Dr. [Thomas] Birch. He was very fond of angling, and devoted much time to that amusement. In order to deceive the fish, he had a dress constructed, which, when he put it on, made him appear like an old tree. His arms he conceived would appear like branches, and the line like a long spray. In this sylvan attire he used to take root by the side of a favourite stream, and imagined that his motions might seem to the fish to be the effect of the wind. He pursued this amusement for some years in the same habit, till he was ridiculed out of it by his friends.

— John Taylor, Records of My Life, 1832