A Wrong Turn

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In February 1978, five young men disappeared after attending a college basketball game in Chico, California. Several days later their car was discovered high on a mountain road in Plumas National Forest, far from their route home to Yuba City. It was stuck in a snowdrift but could easily have been pushed free by five men; the gas tank was a quarter full.

In June, the bones of three of the men were found 20 miles deep in the forest. Inside a nearby trailer were the remains of a fourth, Ted Weiher, wrapped in eight sheets. He had died of starvation and hypothermia. His feet were badly frostbitten, his face bore 13 weeks’ beard, he’d lost half his 200 pounds. The trailer was stocked with food and fuel, but he’d used none of it. Still missing was the fifth man, Gary Mathias (right), whose shoes were found in the trailer.

As it happened, a Sacramento man had been lying in his car on the same mountain road that night, suffering a mild heart attack. He told police he saw a car parked behind him during the night, surrounded by a group of people, but when he called for help they went silent and turned off their headlights. Later he saw flashlights, but these too went out when he called for aid.

Gary Mathias remains missing to this day. “We don’t know what happened to them — we’ve a real mystery on our hands,” Yuba County Undersheriff Jack Beecham said that March. “The prevalent theory is it could be anything.”

Roaming

In a short clip among the DVD extras included with Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 film The Circus, a woman walks past the camera appearing to talk on a cell phone. The best explanation seems to be that she’s using a portable hearing aid, introduced by Siemens in 1924.

In 2013 the clip below appeared on YouTube, allegedly shot in 1938 and again seeming to show a woman using a cell phone. One popular explanation, that Dupont was experimenting with wireless telephones in Leominster, Massachusetts, is apparently not true, but I can’t find any plausible theories beyond that. Draw your own conclusions.

First Across

I can’t confirm this, but it’s interesting: In his 1954 book Lonely Voyagers, French navigator and maritime historian Jean Merrien claims that the first documented case of a single navigator crossing the Atlantic is that of a Native American who reached the Iberian peninsula long before Columbus’ time:

In the Middle Ages there arrived one day on the coast of Spain a man ‘red and strange’ in a craft described as a hollowed tree. From the recorded description, which specifically states that he was not a Negro, he might well have been a native of America in a piragua — a dug-out canoe … the unfortunate man, ill and enfeebled, died before he had been taught to make himself understood.

In Christopher Columbus: The Mariner and the Man, Merrien suggests that Columbus may have known about this man and assumed that he had come from China. I’ll see if I can discover his original source; if I can I’ll update this post.

Atomic Gardening

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1959, when the world was casting about for peaceful applications of fission energy, activist Muriel Howorth established the Atomic Gardening Society, a global group of amateur gardeners who cultivated irradiated seeds, hoping for useful mutations. Howorth published a book, Atomic Gardening for the Layman, and crowdsourced her effort, distributing seeds to her members and collating their results. She herself made news with “the first atomic peanut,” a 2-foot-tall peanut plant that had sprouted from an irradiated nut.

She teamed up with Tennessee dentist C.J. Speas, who had a license for a cobalt-60 source and had built a cinderblock bunker in his backyard. Via Howorth he distributed millions of seeds to thousands of society members, but the odds remained against them: It would likely require many times this number to hit on a mutation that was potentially useful.

The Atomic Gardening Society disbanded within a few years, but it gave way to more ambitious “gamma gardens” of 5 acres and more in which plants are arranged in rings around a central radiation source. This technique continues today in America and Japan.

The Forgotten Winchester

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In 2014, archaeologists conducting surveys in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park found a .44-40 Winchester rifle propped against a juniper tree. Manufactured in 1882, apparently it had stood there for a century.

“It looked like someone propped it up there, sat down to have their lunch and got up to walk off without it,” Nichole Andler, the park’s chief of interpretation, told the Washington Post.

Possibly it had belonged to a miner, a rancher, or a hunter. Winchester manufactured 25,000 of this model in 1882, so its presence isn’t exactly surprising. But why did the owner abandon a $25 rifle?

“It probably has a very good and interesting story,” Andler said, “but it probably is a story that could have happened to almost anyone living this sort of extraordinary existence out here in the Great Basin Desert.”

It’s now on permanent display at the park’s Lehman Caves Visitors Center.

Precocious

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Christian Heinrich Heineken, “the infant scholar of Lübeck,” was so supernaturally gifted that it’s hard even to believe the stories that are told about him. Born in 1721 to a pair of German artists, as a baby he could recite several Biblical stories from memory, and he read the Old and New Testament in Latin before the age of 2.

After he was fourteen months of age the child began the history of the world and could answer any question asked. In his fourth year he could read printed and written matter, although he never learned to write. The multiplication table was learned and recited in order or skipping about. He could relate whole stories in French and knew fourteen hundred sentences from good Latin authors; in geography he knew all the important places on the map.

During a storm at sea he quoted John Trapp: Qui nescit orare, discat navigare (“He that cannot pray, let him go to sea [and there he will learn]”). Introduced to the Danish king at age 3, he said, “Permit me, sir, to kiss the hand of Your Majesty and the hem of your royal garment” and recited his own history of Denmark.

There’s no telling what sort of life lay in store for him, but he passed away after only 4 years and 4 months, apparently of celiac disease, leaving his tutor to proclaim him “a wonder for all time.”

(Jennifer L. Jolly and Justin Bruno, “The Public’s Fascination With Prodigious Youth,” Gifted Child Today, 33:2 [March 2010], 61-65.)

Black Monday

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Something extraordinary happened to the army of Edward III on Monday, April 13, 1360, as they camped in an open field near Chartres during the Hundred Years’ War.

According to the contemporary historian Jean Froissart, “During the time that the French commissioners were passing backwards and forwards from the king to his council, and unable to obtain any favourable answer to their offers, there happened such a storm and violent tempest of thunder and hail, which fell on the English army, that it seemed as if the world was come to an end. The hailstones were so large as to kill men and beasts, and the boldest were frightened.”

Some sources say that 1,000 men and 6,000 horses were killed. Possibly they died through cold rather than trauma; a London chronicle says the “day was a foul dark day of mist and hail, and so bitter cold that many men died for cold.”

Whatever it was, it shook Edward’s confidence. Froissart writes, “The king turned himself towards the church of Our Lady at Chartres, and religiously vowed to the Virgin, as he has since confessed, that he would accept of terms of peace.”

Jack the Snipper

From the United Press, June 18, 1942:

Pascagoula, Miss. — (U.P.) — Everybody in town is just as mystified over the motive of the ‘phantom barber’ as they are about who he might try to clip next.

Without robbing or otherwise disturbing his victims, he breaks into homes at night and snips the hair of heavy sleepers. He has given haircuts to three persons in the past week and not one of them even woke up during the process.

Police chief A. W. Ezell said he didn’t have the slightest idea why a man would want to do such a thing, but because the complaints have been coming hard and heavy, his department has staked a $300 reward for information leading to his capture. He also gave pistol permits to six volunteer officers and ordered the regular police force to be on the alert.

Bloodhounds, given a man’s footprint to start on, have failed miserably. None of the victims could give a description since they slumbered on oblivious of the tonsorial attention they were getting.

Stuckie

Loggers with the Georgia Kraft Corp. were cutting down a chestnut oak in southern Georgia in the 1980s when they discovered the mummified remains of a dog inside the hollow trunk. Experts determined that it was most likely a hunting dog that had pursued some quarry up through the hollow tree sometime in the 1960s. The dog had wedged itself into the narrowing trunk and, unable to turn around, eventually perished 28 feet above ground level. But chestnut oak contains tannin, a natural desiccant that stopped microbial activity, and the dog’s position and a natural updraft through the trunk prevented other animals from scenting or reaching it. So it just remained there for 20 years, waiting to be found.

The mummified dog, now known as “Stuckie,” is on display at the Southern Forest World museum in Waycross, Georgia.

River of Gold

For about two weeks each February, the last rays of the setting sun set Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall glowing orange and red.

The effect is best seen from a clearing close to the picnic area on the north road leading out of the valley east of El Capitan.