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Moments in a Life: Amazing Stories

Amazing Stories


Here is a collection of some of the most amazing, surprising, or otherwise odd things that have ever happened to me or been experienced by me.

The most amazing thing I ever saw
I thought long and hard about this one after having read about how this sort of thing should be included in an autobiography. I finally realized exactly what was the most amazing thing I ever saw, and here it is.

This was in the early 1960s when we were staying at my mother-in-law’s little farmhouse about 15 miles north of Columbia, Missouri. It was a warm summer night, and I was sitting on the back steps by myself, just thinking. A movement over by the chicken house, about 30 feet away, caught my eye. It was Retta’s female cat, Goldie, who was believed to be almost 25 years old at the time. Retta had told me that Goldie had learned how to talk, and that in particular she knew how to say “hello.” I didn’t really believe her. Nevertheless, I watched old Goldie as she padded across the lawn towards the front porch, which was a bit to my left.

Abruptly, she turned her head in my direction as she walked, looking directly into my eyes. As soon as we had made eye contact, Goldie opened her mouth and said “hello” to me. I was dumbfounded. She had meowed her “hello” but it was distinctly and unmistakably a hello. Not only that, but it was quite obvious from her body language and expression that she knew exactly what she was doing. As if it were nothing at all, she turned back to her path and continued walking to the porch, leaving me flabbergasted and speechless. I think it is safe to say that I have never been more amazed at anything in my life. A cat that actually talked! I’ve never gotten over it, and I can still remember her doing it as if it were yesterday.

The second most amazing thing that I ever saw
This one also involves a cat. A cat that “died” and was resurrected. It happened in 1994. I was driving along Silverton Road in Salem, Oregon, when I saw a large cat at the side of the road facing toward the other side. I silently prayed that he would stay there as I passed by. He didn’t. Just as I drew abreast of him, he suddenly moved toward the car, disappearing behind the right front fender. In a split second I heard and felt the horrible sound of a small animal being run over by the right front tire. That had happened several times in the past, and the result had always been the same—a dead animal. I looked back in the rear view mirror and saw the poor cat lying in the road, motionless.

I made two u-turns and returned to the scene of the accident. I pulled over to the curb in order to get out and at least pull the poor creature out of the road. At that instant a car stopped in the middle of the road and two teenage boys got out. One of them reached down and picked up the cat, gently cradling it in his arms. Abruptly, the cat came to life, jumped down, and ran away. I exclaimed “Whoa!” and the poor teenager looked thunderstruck. To this day I have no idea how that cat survived being run over by my car. A miracle?

The third most amazing thing that I ever saw
Once again, this episode features a cat. This time it was our little polydactyl calico tabby named “Baby.” This was in 1994, right after we had brought Baby home from the veterinarian clinic, where she had been spayed. She had climbed up on our chest freezer, which is about 35 inches tall. She decided to jump down, and as she landed on the floor she winced visibly. I thought to myself, Wow, that must have hurt! I decided to keep an eye on her the next time she got up on something fairly high and needed to get down.

I didn’t have long to wait. Within an hour or two I found her up on the same freezer. When she prepared to go down, I observed her closely to see how she would handle it. She jumped off and then did something literally astonishing: She landed with her two front paws planted firmly on the floor and her body canted upward at about a 45-degree angle. Like some Olympic gymnast, she held this pose for a split second and then slowly and carefully lowered her body until her hind feet touched the floor. At that point she trotted off, as if the whole performance had been nothing at all.

She repeated this routine every time she jumped down from any height of a foot or more until a couple of weeks had passed, at which point the sutured surgical incision probably didn’t hurt any more. To say that I was impressed by this acrobatic maneuver would be putting it very mildly indeed. It’s safe to say that it is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen any animal do. And she did it not once, but dozens of times.

The freakiest thing I ever saw
The freakiest thing I’ve ever seen happened in the fall of 1979. Retta and I and a youthful friend named Mark Widner (pronounced, oddly enough, as
wide-ner) were walking through a wooded area in the La Cueva park east of Las Cruces, New Mexico. It was a beautiful, sunny day in late September. As we walked into the edge of a small open glen along the creek we suddenly heard a loud sound like escaping steam—“shhhh!” Instantly we all knew what it was—a rattlesnake. But we couldn’t see where the sound was coming from.

Abruptly the leaf-strewn floor of the little glen came alive. In an almost frightening way, the leaves began moving in opposite directions along a jagged line. Our eyes could not make sense of what they were seeing. For several seconds this bizarre pattern continued, and then the head of the snake passed over a small branch that was lying across its path. Evidently, this allowed our eyes to sort out what they were seeing, and instantly the entire snake popped into view. It was apparent to all of us that it had been the snake’s body that had made the incredible zigzag pattern that only a second before had looked as though the very leaves were alive.

The snake, a good-sized Western Diamondback, then curled up into a classic defensive posture, its head ready to strike at anything that came too near. Mark wanted to kill the snake, but Retta and I persuaded him that the snake had as much right to be there as we did. So he left it alone and we went on our way, richer for having seen something genuinely freaky that all of us would remember for so long as we lived.

One of the funniest things I ever saw: Kiki and the snow saucer
Kiki was a little black and white Sheltie dog who lived with us for over seven years. When we first got him as a pup, he didn’t seem to bark at all. Our daughter Jennifer named him when she found a book of hers titled
Kiki: The Story Of A Little Dog Who Forgot How To Bark. Of course, our Kiki soon found his bark, which was always much worse than his bite. He was a very smart dog, as most Shelties are—and as you will soon find out.

When Kiki was about two years old, we were living in Germantown, Maryland (just north of Gaithersburg). I was assigned to NOAA headquarters at the time. In February of 1972 we had a big snowfall, about a foot deep. One night we were all out in back of our house where there was a rather steep little hill running down into a creek bed. The kids were riding a snow saucer down that hill and having a ball. Then we had the bright idea to see if Kiki would like to ride the saucer down the hill. The kids set him on it and told him to ride it down the hill, giving him a little push to get started. As the saucer accelerated down the hill, Kiki began barking. A sudden bump threw Kiki off the saucer, but he got up instantly and began chasing the saucer down the hill, barking at it furiously. About half way down the hill he caught up to the saucer, and somehow—none of us had the slightest idea how—he managed to get back onto the saucer and proceeded to ride it the rest of the way down the hill, barking the whole distance.

When the saucer got to the bottom of the hill, it stopped abruptly, throwing little Kiki off into the snow. He immediately got up and began running around the saucer, barking at it vociferously. All five of us were caught up in paroxysms of laughter. It was one of the funniest things I ever saw in my life.

About two years later, after we had returned to Boulder, Colorado, we had a good demonstration of Kiki’s intelligence. One winter’s night he had done something he shouldn’t have and I had banished him to the backyard for a while. Several times he barked to come in (even though it wasn’t very cold outside), but I kept telling him that he’d been a bad dog and had to stay outside for a while. After a while more, we heard him barking again, but this time it was an unmistakable bark that meant “I see something that shouldn’t be here.” Thinking it might be an intruder of some sort, I went to the sliding door and opened it, expecting to see him standing out in the yard, barking. Instead, he slipped into the house the instant I opened the door. It was painfully obvious that he had tricked me with his “intruder” bark to get me to open the door so he could come in. Although it’s embarrassing to be outwitted by a dog, I didn’t have the heart to make him go outside again.

He spent the rest of the evening inside with his family.

A surprising reaction by our dog

When we were first married, we got a little Sheltie we named “Pixie.” He was the runt of the litter, but he was a barrel of fun. On evening he did something really surprising. We were entertaining some guests with a slide show of Kodachromes I had taken recently. Pixie began to show some interest in the pictures on the screen. Finally he went up to the screen and sniffed at the picture that was being displayed, then he ran around to the back of the screen to see if any of those things were back there. This surprised all of us. But it was nothing compared with what came next.

PixieReflection
While Pixie was in back of the screen, I quickly changed to the next slide. I said, “Wait until he comes back and sees that the picture is different,” never imaging what his reaction would actually be. When he did come back around to the front of the screen and saw the new picture, he jumped as if he’d just stepped on a live wire. Then he retreated to a position behind me and wouldn’t have anything more to do with the pictures on the screen. We all laughed our heads off at his antics, but we agreed that he showed a depth of perception and understanding uncommon with dogs. His reactions were darned near human.
 
Here is a picture of Pixie observing his own reflection in a mirror—another rarity in animals.

Muffy Bear and the blue dogs
Back in the 1980s we lived in Las Cruces, and we had a little Pekingese dog named Muffy Bear. He was originally our daughter Laura’s dog, but she moved out and couldn’t take Muffy with her, so we kept him. His formal name was Muffit Bear, but he quickly became known as Muffy. He was a smart little dog, and nearly fearless. Many a time we saw him face down much larger dogs. There was a dark-colored dog about twice Muffy’s size who thought he was the boss of his neighborhood, which happened to be on the path we took Muffy for a walk on twice each day. Once when we were passing by, the dark dog was out with a couple of subservient doggy friends. When he saw Muffy walking by, he charged without hesitation, legs all stiff, hair standing up, and snarling ferociously. Muffy turned and calmly watched him approaching. He did nothing but look at the dog. When the other dog had come within about six feet, Muffy had done nothing but stand there watching him, with a look that doubtless said, “You and whose army?” At that point the other dog stopped dead in his tracks, scratched the ground with stiff legs as if to assert his dominance without actually having to do anything to Muffy. Then he beat a hasty retreat. Muffy just walked off, as if it were all in a day’s work.

Much later I was walking Muffy one day when I saw a young man with two dogs come around the corner ahead of us and start down the sidewalk in our direction. Both of these dogs were a uniform, light bluish-white color, so I refer to them as “the blue dogs.” One of them was fairly large, about the size of a Doberman, and the other one was smaller, about the size of a small Dalmatian. Both were short-haired, but I have no idea what kind of dog they were, or whether they were purebred or mixed breed. Not wishing to risk a confrontation with Muffy by these two dogs, who looked somewhat menacing, I picked up Muffy Bear and carried him in my arms past the young man and his dogs. Just then a friend of ours, a fellow named Hamilton who went by the nickname “Ham” happened to drive by. As he passed me he called out the car window, “Good thing you picked up Muffy Bear so he wouldn’t attack those dogs!” We both laughed as it seemed a good joke at the time.

I found out several weeks later that it was no joke. I started on one of my daily walks with Muffy, and as usual, I let him run freely. He was so good that all we had to do was holler “Wait!” and Muffy would stop dead in his tracks and wait for us. He would automatically stop at the curb before crossing any street and wait for us to give him permission to cross. So I thought nothing of it when Muffy ran ahead of me and disappeared around the corner. Suddenly I heard a tremendous commotion coming from around the corner—barking and growling that sounded like Muffy Bear. I hurried around the corner and could not believe my eyes.

There, about 50 feet ahead, was the same young man with the two blue dogs. The larger of the two was hiding behind the fellow’s legs. The other one was cowering in front of the man, visibly trembling in fear. In front of them was Muffy Bear, growling ferociously at the two dogs. The smaller one was easily twice Muffy’s size, and the larger one was probably three times his size. They were both totally intimidated by this little Tasmanian Devil that confronted them.

I rushed over and picked up Muffy Bear so the young man and his dogs could proceed in peace. The young fellow just looked at me as if to say, “I can’t believe my dogs were cowed by your little dog!” And so it was that I discovered what Ham had told me so jokingly just a few weeks earlier was definitely no joke.

Muffy Bear was incredibly intimidating.

Only two dogs ever got the best of him. One was a large mixed breed dog who didn’t approve of Muffy invading his territory and let him know in no uncertain terms that he was not welcome. The other was a large, rather ferocious dog who lived down the block and hated Muffy for some reason that even his owner could not understand. He barked and growled every time Muffy went past on one of our walks. One day the woman’s son left the front door open, and the dog came out and confronted Muffy. He did the same thing the other dog had done. He stood over Muffy and bit him up and down his sides, but without doing any actual damage. It was just a sort of “This is what I could do to you if I wanted to.” Not a true dog fight, just a warning. Both times Muffy just trotted home briskly, as if he just wanted to forget about the whole thing, totally chagrined.

Once Retta and I saw Muffy intimidate our neighbor’s German shepherd dog, a female that probably weighed about 100 pounds (Muffy weighed about 12 pounds, dripping wet). Muffy charged the German shepherd, which promptly went belly up. Muffy climbed up on her chest and stood there growling. Every time the other dog would attempt to move, Muffy would growl ferociously and the other dog would immediately lie still. We finally had to pick up Muffy to break up the confrontation.

Muffy Bear died in 1992 at the age of some 15 years, a bit young for a Pekingese. He was badly missed.

Our “Autopilots”
I believe that we all have what I call an “autopilot”: our subconscious mind—if that is the right term—that runs all the time and takes care of little details for us without our having to think about them consciously. It seems to be a part of common human experience, for example, to turn out a light switch without thinking about it and then be unable later on to recall whether or not we really did turn off that light. The key words here are “without thinking about it,” which means that it was our “autopilot” that turned off the light. For this reason, we cannot recall later whether or not we really did do the thing in question. If we happen to think consciously,
Oh yes, better turn out the light, we are very likely later on to remember having done it. Episodes like this are such a common part of the human experience that I doubt many of us take much time to consider them carefully and to speculate as to what sort of mechanism is involved in them.

I have one example of my own that should serve as a sort of “wake-up call” about this sort of thing. It happened way back in 1965, but it is still as fresh in my mind as if it had happened yesterday. I was driving to work one morning in our 1965 Mustang following my usual route, which took me along an access road parallel to a primary feeder street (Baseline Road). I was perhaps a hundred meters (yards) or so from an intersection where the access road and traffic from Baseline Road crossed paths. I was musing about some problem I had been working on lately when I suddenly became aware that I was putting on the brakes. I thought,
Why am I hitting the brakes? Seeing no immediate reason for it, I took my foot off the brake pedal. It was then that I saw in my peripheral vision a vehicle on Baseline Road that was bearing down fast on the intersection ahead. Quickly realizing that the two of us could be on a collision course, I immediately reapplied the brakes.

In a flash I understood what had just happened: My subconscious mind, operating in parallel with my conscious mind, had perceived the vehicle on Baseline Road, realized the danger it posed, and hit the brakes—all without conscious realization of any of this on my part. This incident impressed on me for all time the degree to which unconscious, or subconscious, processes can take place completely independent of conscious thought processes. It was a truly amazing instance of the efficiency of the “autopilot” we all carry inside us.

Computers—which I believe we have created arguably in our own image—have only fairly recently begun to incorporate parallel processing capabilities in their repertoire. Yet human beings are constantly speaking of how they are “multi-tasking,” a process that often includes some kind of parallel processing. We are all familiar with the phenomenon whereby something we had been trying to recall without success will suddenly appear in our mind with no conscious effort on our part. Who or what causes this to happen? I believe it is our autopilot.

Hot stuff: How we once played with solid-fuel rocket propellant
When I was first stationed in the Signal Corps detachment at White Sands Proving Grounds (now White Sands Missile Range), I was assigned to a small group headed by a civilian meteorologist that was trying to evaluate the effects of wind on the trajectory of a medium-range missile called the “Honest John.” (The Honest John was deployed as the m31, a nuclear-capable surface-to-surface missile, in Europe in 1953.) If this assignment seems strange for someone whose MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was “radar repairman,” I couldn’t agree more. I had been trained to trouble-shoot problems with thyratron or magnetron circuits, not missiles led astray by surface winds. But one does not argue with the military. As we always maintained, there are three ways to do anything: the right way, the wrong way, and the Army’s way. In any case, here we were, working way out in the middle of the desert in the Tularosa Basin of southern New Mexico. A lot of the
time—hell, most of the time I suppose—we had little or nothing to do but wait for the next scheduled launch of an Honest John. We whiled away these hours doing whatever struck our fancy.

Stacks Image 234
Approximate cross-section of a stick
of Honest John solid rocket fuel
Credit: Drawing by the author
Every so often our fancy turned to escaped fuel sticks. To explain, the Honest John was a solid-fuel rocket. Its fuel came in the form of long sticks of a material that looked like some kind of plastic, which was formed into an odd shape as shown in the illustration on the right. Whenever one of the rockets was launched, pieces of unburned fuel were frequently ejected and fell onto the desert floor. The GIs in our detail had discovered something very interesting about this solid fuel. If one were to ignite one of these fuel sticks with a match—or better yet, one of the ubiquitous Zippo lighters that almost everyone had in those days—it did not explode or even burn ferociously. It was like lighting fire to a stick of wood, and it burned like a stick of wood—provided that it was in the open air and had an abundant supply of oxygen. If deprived of oxygen, however, it would burn furiously. This discovery explained how pieces of unburned fuel were able to fall to the desert floor without being consumed: once in the open air they would revert to burning like a stick of wood, and the wind that was generated in falling would put the fire out, allowing the remainder of the fuel to survive and burn another day.

But this was by no means the end of it. Those guys had discovered that you could make a sort of amateur rocket out of these pieces of unburned fuel. We spent a lot of our spare time doing this. We would find an empty soda can—in those days they were made of steel, not aluminum—and enlarge the hole that had been used to drink the beverage the can had originally contained. When the hole was big enough, we would insert a piece of unburned Honest John fuel that was somewhat longer than the can into the hole. We then laid this IRD (Improvised Rocket Device—a term I just made up) on the desert floor and set fire to the end of the fuel stick. We then retreated to a safe distance behind one of the ubiquitous boondocks (sand dunes anchored by desert vegetation on the top) to watch. As soon as the flame reached the hole in the can, the fuel stick would begin to burn like a torch. Within a few seconds the flame would be shooting out of the hole like a tiny jet exhaust. The can would then take off with a “whoosh,” skidding across the desert floor like a crazy thing. Rarely, one would hit something hard enough to make a small explosion. Mostly, they just burned themselves out.

I recall once when one of these IRDs scooted up the curved side of a boondock, managed to slip through the vegetation at the top of the slope, and soared into the air. At this point it began darting in all directions, like any rocket that has no means of stabilizing the direction in which it travels. We just ducked down behind our protective boondock and hoped that it would not happen to come in our direction, which it did not.

A few of these devices got so hot that the steel can actually melted in places. (We always tried to retrieve the results of our “experiments,” although often we were not successful.)

We had a lot of fun making and watching these little improvised jet units. You may think it was somewhat foolhardy, and you’re probably right. But GIs with nothing much to do are known to engage in activities OSHA would frown upon. Our little occupation was likely far from the most hazardous of the leisure activities that errant soldiers have ever indulged in.

Watching the 8:15 express
When we lived at 61 High Street in Glen Ridge, our house was only about a block away from the Erie Railroad tracks. Half a block from our house High Street ended in a tee-intersection with Wildwood Terrace. Taking a right turn onto Wildwood—going east—one quickly rounded a bend where the street ran toward the northeast and crossed the railroad tracks. The distance from our house to the railroad tracks was probably less than one quarter of a mile. So it was a relatively easy thing for a young boy to get down to those railroad tracks early enough in the morning to watch the 8:15 express go by. The Glen Ridge station was just to the left of Wildwood Terrace where it crossed the tracks, and almost all of the passenger trains stopped there to pick up or discharge passengers. But the express train that passed by at 8:15 in the morning—so punctually that you could probably have set your watch by it—roared through the Glen Ridge station without even slowing down.

So quite often I and perhaps my brother or a friend, like William Trimmer, would position ourselves near the railroad crossing shortly after 8:00 in the morning and wait for the express to go by. It was an experience that few people alive today have ever known. It began with the dinging of the warning bell and the lowering of the crossing guards, a precursor that announced the approach of the as yet unseen and unheard train. Shortly after that we would hear the faint chugging of the steam engine, which grew louder and louder, until the train itself appeared around the bend in the tracks about a quarter-mile from the crossing (the tracks were in a cut west of the Glen Ridge station, which had steep sides that prevented seeing past the bend).

Our eyes were now glued to the approaching locomotive, which grew rapidly larger—and louder—as it approached us at a high rate of speed. I can only guess at the speed of that express train, but I suspect it was not less than 60 miles per hour. Within seconds the locomotive passed in front of us with an ear-splitting blast of chugs, hissing steam, and pounding driver wheels, quickly followed by the coal car and then the passenger cars, in which we could see people—mostly men in those days—sitting, some puffing on cigars, as they traveled to their work places in Jersey City or Manhattan. Even the clatter of the wheels on the passenger cars was nearly deafening, and likely hard on our ears. The entire train rocketed past us in a matter of a few seconds, and then it rapidly shrank into the distance east of us, the sound and fury of its passing gradually dwindling away.

Having absorbed the entire spectacle of sight and sound, we then went about our boyish occupations, only to repeat the whole sequence again some other day. I don’t know how many times we were spectators in this mini-extravaganza, but I’m sure the number would run into the dozens.

This was “train-spotting” in the late 1930s, an innocent precursor of later, more sinister versions.

Two and a half feet of snow flurries
Some time ago, the comic strip “Shoe” showed one of the characters shoveling snow. In response to a question about what he was doing, he replied, “According to the newspaper, I’m shoveling partly cloudy!” Well, I can top that one from real life. To do so, I have to go back more than 60 years to Christmas Day, 1947. The newspaper that day carried a forecast for the following day that read: “Partly cloudy with possible snow flurries.” Not very exciting. We all went to bed that night without giving it a thought, I’m sure.

We awoke the next morning, December 26, 1947, to see about three inches of snow on the ground, with more coming down at a rapid rate. After breakfast, my brother and I went out to horse around in the snow. By that time it was almost six inches deep. At lunch time the snow was about one foot deep and coming down even harder than before. We were amazed—it didn’t seem possible. Really deep snowfalls—say, one foot or more—were unusual in northern New Jersey. Nevertheless, the snow kept falling furiously.

Mrs. Biggs across the street from us was one of the last persons that day to get anywhere in a motor vehicle. About two o’clock in the afternoon, with the snow some 15 or 16 inches deep and growing deeper by the minute, she managed to get her car out of the driveway and into the street—with a little help from us willing teenagers—and drove off down Sherman Avenue to pick up her husband at the Lackawanna train station, about a mile away. I don’t recall clearly, but I think she and Mr. Biggs actually made it back to the house perhaps a half hour later. In retrospect, it was an amazing feat.

Meanwhile the snow continued, not only unabated, but actually with increasing ferocity. For the last few hours before supper time, the snow accumulated at the amazing rate of some four inches per hour. That’s some serious snowfall. Our mother did not even attempt to try driving to the station to pick up Dad, who did not get in until nearly six o’clock every evening. He finally arrived home around seven o’clock or thereabouts, cursing and stomping the snow off his feet. He said the snow was so deep he could barely slog his way through it.

After a late dinner, my brother and I ventured outside to see what was happening. It was still snowing. We were wearing galoshes, rubber boots that buckled up and extended perhaps 18 inches up our legs. Every step we took our boots sank into the snow and disappeared, leaving only our leggings from the knee upwards showing. I knew it had to be over two feet deep. For an hour or so we wandered around the neighborhood, marveling at the winter wonderland that had transformed our world in just a few short hours. Finally, about nine o’clock in the evening, the snow tapered off and stopped. We got as far as Bay Avenue, the main street that ran east-west only two blocks from our house. It was deserted. A fire truck lay abandoned diagonally across the middle of the street, blocking any traffic that might otherwise have ventured along—an unlikely proposition in any case.

The next morning, in my guise as amateur weatherman, I went out with a yardstick and proceeded to measure the snowfall. It was not hard. One was supposed to make, say, ten measurements and take the average of them as the snowfall figure. But this snow lay “crisp and deep and even” (as the Christmas Carol has it), and every measurement I made was exactly the same: 30 inches even. Two and one-half feet of “snow flurries”!

The official snowfall at Newark Airport was 26.3 inches, breaking—no, demolishing—a record of 22.4 inches set by the notorious “Blizzard of ’88,” a record that had stood unchallenged since March of 1888. In New York’s Central Park they measured it at 25.7 inches. Both records remained on the books until the 1990s.

This snowstorm literally stopped everything in the NewYork-New Jersey metropolitan area. It took three days for the snowplows to get to our street. Meanwhile, we had made a killing shoveling sidewalks and driveways for people at anywhere from $8.00 to $15.00 a pop—a lot of money for teenage kids to make in those days. When the snowplows finally arrived, they threw huge heaps of snow onto every freshly shoveled driveway, which then required re-shoveling. More money, and more sore muscles.

Shoveling this snow mandated a whole new technique. The trick, we discovered, was to do each shovel-sized area in three stages: (1) stick the shovel in one foot below the top of the snow, lift it up, and throw it over your shoulder; (2) take the next foot of snow and do the same thing with it; and (3) scoop up the last six inches of snow—which being compacted, was the heaviest—and throw it over your shoulder, too. This meant that shoveling one walkway was like shoveling it three times—or shoveling one three times as long. It was lot of work, even for active teenage boys.

I’ve seen lots of amazing snowstorms in my time. A 22-inch snow in April of 1957 in Boulder, Colorado, that fell literally overnight was one. Another one was a nine-inch fall in Ithaca, New York, that came down so fast that a bus I boarded just as the snow began had to make a run to the depot for chains by the time it got to the next bus stop—one short block away. But nothing I’ve ever seen can match that incredible 30-inch snow on December 26, 1947, in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. For me, it is the granddaddy of all snowstorms.

Snow flurries—indeed!

George Gamow and the B-sub-Fs
I was a senior in Engineering Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder in the school year 1956-57, which was the same school year in which world-famous physicist George Gamow (pronounced “
Gam-of”) became a member of the University faculty. Gamow was well-known for his work in theoretical physics, notably for solving the problem of alpha-decay of atomic nuclei and his theory of nucleosynthesis during the “Big Bang.” He was, however, most famous for his popular writings about physics, for examples, The Birth and Death of the Sun (which I have a copy of) and One Two Three … Infinity.

In my senior year at the University of Colorado I was privileged to take an honors course in physics under Dr. Gamow. He was a big man, quite tall, but with an oddly high-pitched voice (not unlike the voice of Dr. James E. McDonald, the University of Arizona atmospheric physicist who was an outspoken advocate of the ETI hypothesis of the origin of UFOs). Both men’s speaking voice was somehow disparate with their physical appearance. Nevertheless, both were intelligent men, and Gamow’s intellect was piercing in its intensity. It was awesome to be in Dr. Gamow’s presence—intimidating, even.

During this same school year Dr. Gamow was teaching a graduate course in nuclear physics. Near the end of the first semester Gamow told the head of the physics department that he intended to flunk about half of his graduate students. The department head was aghast and told Gamow that he could not do that, explaining that any grade below a B would be tantamount to a failure and would likely cause the student to be dropped from the graduate school program.

Dr. Gamow evidently was not pleased with this dictum, as was amply revealed when it came time to post the grades. (In those days grades were publicly posted in the hallway of each department, with the students generally being identified only by their initials rather than by their full names.) Gamow’s list consisted of a few As, some Bs, and a long string of grades written as B
f, which Gamow explained in a footnote as meaning “I would have flunked this student if they had let me” or words to that effect.

These grades quickly became a standing joke among the physics students. If one of them received a lower grade than he had expected in a course, the others would tease him with remarks like, “Well, at least it’s better than getting one of Gamov’s B-sub-Fs.”

George Gamow also was famous for his sense of humor, and this was a good example of it.

The calculator wizard
When I first started work at the National Bureau of Standards in Boulder, Colorado, in 1957, we used mechanical calculators for most computations. We did have a mainframe computer, an IBM 650, which was a rather primitive machine. It read programs and data in on punched cards, stored programs and data on a rotating magnetic drum, and sent output to a monstrous printer that used pin-feed paper. I was the section computer programmer, but it took weeks just to get a program running on the mainframe; so most of the time we did computations on mechanical calculators.

Most people who worked there had Monroe calculators on their desks. These were tinny little machines that were continually jamming or otherwise malfunctioning. Many of them spent more time in the repair shop than they did in action. Each section also had one Friden calculator, a large and expensive calculator that had the distinction of being able to extract the square root of numbers automatically. As section computer programmer, I rated a better machine than the average employee and was given a Marchant. If the Monroe was the “Chevy” of calculators, the Marchant was the “Cadillac.” It was a heavy duty machine and rarely jammed. I soon became quite proficient at operating my Marchant.

In fact, I became somewhat of a legend within the organization. If someone wanted to figure out how to do something on a calculator, people would tell him, “Ask Thayer. He can figure out anything on a calculator.” All of this attracted the attention of the Marchant salesman, who began giving me new models to work with. Marchant came out with a new model about once a year. The salesman would come back and ask me what I liked or didn’t like about the prototype model I was using at the time. Sometimes my suggestions were even incorporated in the final production model. The salesman, whose name I can no longer recall, said he had never seen anyone anywhere who could operate one of his machines with my speed and accuracy.

Sometimes I would play around with my calculator just to see what it would do. So did Richard Feynman. Now Dr. Feynman had a brilliant mind. He won a Nobel prize in physics. He invented a diagram to use in solving particle interactions that is still in use today: the Feynman Diagram. I met Richard Feynman once, while he was teaching at Cornell University and I was a student; this was in the 1949–50 school year. I don’t know what his IQ was, but it must have been at least 30 points higher than mine—probably more than that. He reported in his book
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1985) that he once discovered that 1 divided by 243 yielded the result 0.004115226337…. He said “I thought it was kind of amusing.” This happened while Feynman was working at Los Alamos during World War II. Oh, and he also used a Marchant calculator.

I found a rather similar amusing result when one day I chanced to divide a series of all 1s by 0.9 on my Marchant calculator. The result of that is 1234567901… and the only reason there is no 8 in the sequence is because when you get to the number 10, it carries back, changes the preceding 9 to a 0, and the carry from that changes the 8 to a 9. So the complete series is 12345679012345679012345 … etc. I proved this to my own satisfaction by doing double precision calculations on the Marchant using a method I had devised earlier.

I don’t know whether this proves the old theory that “great minds run in similar channels” or—rather more likely, I believe—that Feynman and I shared the same sort of playfulness.

Richard Feynman’s untimely death from cancer at the age of 69, in 1988, was a tragedy. In 1999, he was ranked as one of the ten greatest physicists
of all time in a poll of 130 leading physicists conducted by the British journal Physics World.

The night I out-drove Roger
During the winter of 1954-55 I joined the Milburn Ski Club, having been invited to by my friend John Symonds. Once a month the ski club met at a resort hotel in a nearby town, located south of Milburn. Upon the conclusion of this meeting it was traditional for everyone to pile into their cars and make a mad dash for Milburn, where some of them would meet at a local bar to review the evening’s events. Over the years this drive had turned into a sort of de facto road race. One of the club members—a big wheel, as I recall—was named Roger. Roger drove a late model Cadillac convertible. Even if he did not start out that way, he always ended up in the lead before the caravan got back to Milburn. The road between was fairly straight and lonely (yes, Virginia, there are lonely roads in New Jersey, believe it or not!). Evidently the local gendarmes never snapped to what was going on, because none of the ski club members ever got stopped during this unofficial Le Mans run.

I met a woman at the ski club meeting one night. Her name was Marian Irons, and her dad was the Chief of Police of Franklin Township in northern New Jersey. Marian worked at the Prudential Insurance Company in Newark and lived in a house in Milburn that she shared with two roommates. Marian and I always went to the ski club meetings together. We drove in my 1949 Olds 88—which merits a section of its own, by the way. It always galled me that the others let Roger get away with dominating the run back to Milburn from the monthly meeting place. But with Marian in the car with me I didn’t want to risk challenging Roger.

During the summer of 1955 Marian went on a cruise to Europe and was gone most of the summer. I worked at a series of service stations. One particular night I was working the night shift at a station near Elizabeth. I was the last one out and had to close the place up when I left. My route home took me through the same town where the resort hotel was that the Milburn Ski Club met at once a month, and, of course, it followed the same road back to Milburn that the ski clubbers used. This particular night, as I drove out of the town where the resort hotel was (I believe it was near Mountainside), I came upon and passed a couple of cars that looked familiar. Suddenly I realized that this was the night of the ski club meeting, and I had just caught up with the tail end of the mad dashers. I was taken by a sudden impulse to show them how it really should be done. I put the pedal to the metal. One by one I passed them, until finally there was no one ahead of me but good old Roger, who, as usual, was driving like a maniac. Determined to do him one better, I pressed my attack. Soon I had him in my sights, and before you could say “Roger” I had passed him. He must have thought he was passed by a rocket ship or something. I was nearly airborne. I’m not sure how fast I had to go to pass him, but I do remember at one point seeing the speedometer at 95 and climbing steadily.

Suffice it to say that Roger got the shock of his young life. I think it was the first—and possibly the only—time that he got passed during the race back to Milburn. I don’t know if he recognized my car, but I didn’t care. I was well satisfied with what I had done.
Fait accompli!

It’s a good thing there were no cops on the road that night. I’d probably still be in jail.

One of the biggest shocks of my life
Back in 1952 I was drafted into the US Army and ended up in the Signal Corps. In September of that year I was sent to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, for training as a radar repairman. This was practically in my back yard, being only about an hour’s drive from our home in Glen Ridge (my parents moved to Short Hills while I was still in the radar repairman course). Those of us who were assigned to Fort Monmouth heard that it was a “country club.” Those who have been in the service will be familiar with this syndrome. One is assigned to a new post that has the reputation of being a “country club” but upon arriving there discovers that it has “just now” become a hell hole. This is basically what happened to us. When we arrived there we found that Fort Monmouth had just been assigned a new commanding general, and he was very strict. His name was Major General Lawton, and the worst thing about him was his attitude towards GIs who had the misfortune to get involved in an automobile accident. It seems that the general’s wife had been killed in an accident in which the other driver was at fault. This left Lawton as an embittered old man. He proceeded to go on a one-man crusade to punish GIs who were, in his opinion, poor drivers. We heard about one poor sergeant who had the misfortune of falling asleep at the wheel while returning from leave. His car left the road and he was banged up rather badly. To add insult to injury, General Lawton had him court-martialed and saw to it that he was busted to buck private, forfeited six months’ pay and allowances, and some other things. Lawton’s ferocity towards erring GI drivers soon became legendary.

In the late summer of 1953 I was working at the Evans Signal Laboratory, a part of the Fort Monmouth complex, after having graduated from the radar repair course (with very high grades, by the way). I had bought myself a 1941 Ford coupe, which I drove back and forth between Ft. Monmouth and home—now in Short Hills—and into town occasionally (we all had permanent passes that allowed us to be off base until midnight each night).

One evening in late August I was driving in Red Bank, just off base, looking for a friend of mine. When I suddenly saw him drive past in the opposite direction, I stopped my car and began backing up—without bothering to look to see if there was anyone behind me. Instantly I heard a horn blowing. I hit the brakes and simultaneously heard and felt a crash as my car collided with something behind me. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a siren mounted on the car I had hit.
Oh great! I thought, I’ve run into a police car.

I got out of the car only to discover that things were much worse than I had supposed. I had run into General Lawton’s staff car. His car was a 1951 or 1952 Buick with one of those huge chrome grills that reminded you of buck teeth sticking out. My bumper had struck the grill and broken several segments. There was no damage to my car. Fortunately for me, the general was not in the car at the time or he probably would have drawn his .45 and shot me dead right on the spot. Instead, his driver, a second lieutenant, got out of the car and said, “I guess you know you ran into the wrong car.” Boy, did I ever know!

To say I was scared witless would have been somewhat of an understatement. I was arrested by the MPs and thrown in the brig for a while. They let me go, however, and I eventually made it home before having to face the music with the general, who happened to be away on business at the time. While I was at home I discussed my predicament with my parents, as well as notifying them that there would be a claim against their insurance policy (which was also covering me). Dad told me that he knew General Lawton very well and had to do business with him quite often. Of course! Dad was in defense electronics, having been made a fellow of the IRE for his work in developing airborne radar during the war. This put him in the same kind of business that Fort Monmouth handled for the military. I had a small ace in my pocket.

When I finally had to go face the general, he asked me all sorts of questions. One of his questions gave me the opening I was looking for. He asked me what my father did. I told him that Dad was a vice president of Bell Telephone Laboratories. On hearing this Lawton shot me a sharp look, and asked, “What did you say your name was?” I told him, adding, “My father’s name is Gordon N. Thayer.” I could see this perturbed him, for which I secretly rejoiced. No one else in the room—including my battalion commander, among others—picked up on this action so far as I could tell. The general quickly dismissed me. My battalion commander, a major, told me he thought I handled myself well in front of the general. I thought to myself,
If only he knew!

General Lawton was, of course, now in a bind himself. He knew he would have to work with my dad in the future. If he came down on me as hard as he wanted to, this would make things awkward whenever he had to deal with Dad. He ended up doing about the only thing he could do. As I would find out much later, he told my battalion commander to put me on the first available list to ship out—to anywhere, he didn’t care where. As it turned out, the first list was for some personnel to be transferred to White Sands Proving Grounds (now White Sands Missile Range). My name was on it. The major told me that the general just wanted me out of there. The last thing Lawton wanted was for some private to be telling people how his staff car had been involved in an accident.

He should have saved himself the trouble. When I arrived at White Sands a few weeks later I found that my reputation had preceded me. I would tell some other GI about how I happened to be shipped to White Sands, and he would say, “Oh you’re the guy! You’re famous, everybody’s heard about that.” Even a year later I was still hearing this same thing, sometimes from GIs who had come from far away places, like Fort Hood, Texas. Bad news travels like the plague.

In a way, it’s too bad that Lawton never knew what a favor he did me. If I had not gone to White Sands Proving Grounds my whole life might have turned out much differently. It was a pivotal moment for me.

As for General Lawton, he did not fare so well. Sometime in 1954 he had another errant GI court-martialed for some driving mishap. But this time he had picked on the wrong guy. That soldier turned out to be a nephew of Frank Pace, who was Secretary of the Army at the time. Pace ground Lawton into hamburger. He was drummed out of the service (forced to retire, I believe), and all of the poor GIs he had persecuted—including the sergeant I mentioned earlier—had their records cleared, their ranks restored, and their forfeited pay and allowances paid back. I suspect Lawton died a broken and embittered man.

In pace requiescat [pun very much intended!].

Better late than never
One day in 1954 I was a few minutes late for my physics class at Newark College of Engineering. As I walked in I quipped to the professor, whose name was Dr. Hoffman, “Better late than never!” To which Hoffman, who had a heavy German accent, retorted, “Dot’s vot you t’ink! I’m giffink der boys a liddle five-minute qviz, and dare iss only three minutes left!” Taking up the challenge, I grabbed a copy of the quiz, sat down, and worked like a fiend for three minutes.

I aced it.

The square root of three cylinders
One night during a chemistry lab at Newark College of Engineering our lab instructor gave us a problem to solve with our slide rules (remember slide rules?). We were to determine the number of cylinders of a certain gas that would be required to produce a given amount of product in a specific chemical reaction. I was the first one through with the calculation, so I raised my hand and with a big grin announced, “The square root of three cylinders.” I expected some laughter but instead I got a big shock when the lab instructor launched into a tirade against students who gave impractical answers to questions. He said the correct answer was two cylinders of the gas. I was so stunned and flabbergasted that I could manage no reply.

If the same thing had happened today, I would have retorted with something like, “Lighten up, dude. It was a joke.” In point of fact, that instructor was wrong. The reaction he had specified would not have required two whole cylinders of the gas. It would have required one full cylinder and about 73% of a second cylinder (the square root of three is 1.732…). If that stuffed shirt wanted to throw away the second cylinder of gas just because most of it was used up, all I can say is that he certainly wasn’t very conservation-minded. With almost 27% of the gas remaining, that cylinder could have been used in some other chemical reaction (or whatever). Why throw it away just because it is partially used up?

So as it turns out, my answer—although whimsical and humorously stated—was actually more accurate than his. The reaction would have taken almost exactly 1.732 cylinders of the gas.

The caiman’s last hurrah
Sometime around the end of World War II my brother and I bought a baby alligator from a pet shop in Montclair. The place was run by a Japanese-American by the name of Hammurabi. He sold us the baby alligator, which was already about 15 inches long, for $15.00, as I recall. Fifteen dollars was quite a bit back then, especially for a couple of kids whose allowances were probably about two bits a week. That $15.00 was probably equivalent to over 100 of our inflated dollars today. Our Aunt, Ethel Quirk, gave us the money.

We had that alligator for about a year, give or take a nickel. Trouble was, he wasn’t an alligator. After checking reference sources carefully, I finally decided that he was a caiman. Caimans are found in South America and are a close relative of the American alligator. Caimans have vertical light and dark bars on their bodies and tails. So do baby alligators. Alligators lose their bars as they mature, caimans don’t. Our “alligator” grew to be about two and a half feet long, and his vertical bars were just as pronounced then as they were when we got him. So he was almost certainly a caiman, not an alligator (I’ve since discovered that real alligators were almost extinct by the time we bought the caiman, and most “baby alligators”—even those sold in Florida—were actually caimans imported from South America).

This caiman, whom we never named, was quite a character. He was fierce as hell, and wouldn’t let you touch him without trying to sink his teeth into you. Neither of us was anxious to find out what that would be like, so we were very careful when we handled him. He spent one summer in a little concrete-lined pool that Richard and I built. It was about two feet in diameter and about a foot deep, and was placed in the middle of a large enclosure made out of one by six lumber, about six feet square. The top of the enclosure was covered with screening. It held captive a collection of snakes (garter and Dekay’s snakes), frogs, tadpoles, and salamanders. The caiman enjoyed dining on frog’s legs—and the rest of the frog, too. He would hide under the water for what seemed like hours, until a hapless frog jumped into the water. Then with a snap! the frog disappeared in the mouth of the caiman. He kept us busy catching more frogs that summer.

In the winter our reptilian friend spent his time in our basement inside a makeshift “alligator” cage. One day he got loose somehow. Mother went down there to do the wash, and the caiman went scurrying across the floor and scared her out of her wits. She refused to go back down there until we caught the caiman and put him back in his cage.

But with the advent of winter the supply of frogs dried up, and with them, the caiman’s food supply. We tried all sorts of substitutes, like raw hamburger, but that caiman wanted something he could catch and kill. I suspect he starved to death. At any rate, we found him dead one day in the early spring. But he didn’t look dead. He was in a standing position on all four legs, with his mouth open in a menacing manner. Richard and I saw the opportunity for a little mischief. We took the lifelike dead caiman and placed him on top of one of the trash cans, which were at the bottom of the stairs leading into the basement from the side door of the house.

Now I must digress for a moment. I know it will seem incredible in this day and age, but back then trash collectors actually came into your house to get the trash and garbage. Since they usually came early in the morning, before anyone was up, you left your side door unlocked so the they could get inside to retrieve your refuse. Ain’t that a gas? Oh yeah, the mailman also delivered the mail to your house, putting it into either a mailbox on your porch or a mail slot in your front door (we had a slot). And he did it twice a day, every day, once in the morning, once in the afternoon—even on Saturday! After you’ve recovered from the shock of reading all of this, I’ll continue my story.

Ready?

We left the dead caiman facing the foot of the stairs, where we knew the trash collector would see it the next morning when he came for our trash cans. Our parents discovered our plan, but surprisingly (to us) they went along with it. The next morning I was awakened early by the noisy clanging of the trash truck. My bedroom was on the second floor right over the sidewalk and side door of the house. Richard’s room was also on the second floor on the same side of the house, just on beyond the side door. Our parents’ room was on the other side of the house, also on the second floor.

I could plainly hear the trash man as he walked along the sidewalk toward the side door, whistling as he went. I heard him open the door and go clumping down the stairs. Then there was a sudden dead silence for about a split second. This was followed immediately by a blood curdling shriek and the sound of pounding feet going up the stairs. Outside I heard the poor fellow babbling almost incoherently to his buddies. “It’s going to eat me. It was looking at me!” Then came the solid voice of his supervisor, trying to calm him down. He finally got the man to go with him and show him the “monster.” The supervisor wisely took something with him, probably a broom or shovel, in any event something with a long handle. He used this to poke the caiman and make sure it was really dead. Then I heard him saying, “See? It’s dead. It can’t hurt you. Now get that trash into the truck!”

That was the end of our fun, but we all had a good laugh at the poor guy’s expense. None of us has ever forgotten that morning. It turned out to be one of the best practical jokes I’ve ever witnessed.

A moment of terror
In order to read what I am going to relate next and understand what it’s all about you must have seen the movie
Bladerunner, a 1982 film starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Darryl Hannah, among others. If you haven’t seen it, go out and beg, borrow, or steal it right away, watch it, and then come back and read the rest of this….

It’s mid-June of 1989 and I’m returning from a conference in Ottawa, Canada called “QNX ’89.” I take a bus from JFK to the Port Authority bus terminal on the east side of Manhattan. It’s about ten o’clock at night. As I get off the bus I think back to where we (Retta and I) caught the same bus a week ago to go to JFK. All I have to do is walk out to the street, turn right, walk about half a block, and I’ll be at the entrance to the main terminal. From there I can find the place where the bus to New Jersey leaves that will take me back to my parents’ home in Short Hills. I walk out into the balmy June night and what I see hits me like a physical shock. There are people standing everywhere, like zombies. On the sidewalk, in the street, everywhere.

Some are talking, but most of them aren’t doing anything at all. Just standing there—like zombies. The sight sends a sudden chill through me. Numbly I begin walking down the street to my right. I come to an intersection. Funny, I don’t remember there being an intersection between the airport bus terminal and the main terminal. But I’m too scared to stop and look around, so I keep walking. Across the intersection and down the street. The zombie density is increasing as I walk. Suddenly I realize I’ve made a big mistake. This looks all wrong. I turn around and begin walking back to the intersection. I walk like someone in a dream, putting one foot in front of the other without really knowing how I’m doing it. I feel like a character in a dream. This isn’t really happening, is it?

It seems to take me forever to get back to the corner, but I finally do. Sure enough, there is the main entrance to the Port Authority terminal—across the intersection and down the street to my left. The light changes and I enter the crosswalk, noticing that some of the zombies are beginning to look at me, as though I’m the weirdo instead of them. Somehow I make it across the street and start walking toward the terminal entrance.

By this time I’m scared out of my wits. I see bizarre things going on all around me. Drug deals going down in plain sight of two of New York’s finest, who have gotten out of their parked cruiser to talk to a couple of the zombies. They don’t seem to notice anything strange about what’s going down. I can’t understand this, because what I see looks to me like a scene from a nightmare.

I walk quickly down the sidewalk toward the entrance of the terminal, being careful to look straight ahead and not make eye contact with any zombies. Suddenly the night air is pierced by the shriek of a siren. Abruptly a police car careens into view from a side street, lights flashing. Its siren makes a hollow, haunting wail that sounds unreal. It darts down the street and just as abruptly disappears down another side street, its siren quickly fading away. At this point I am struck by the realization of just what I am experiencing. I have become immersed in a real-life version of
Bladerunner. The New York City of 1989 has already become—at least at night—the epitome of the nightmarish version of twenty-first century Los Angeles depicted in the movie. I’m not just seeing it—I’m living it.

Now I’m really getting scared. I quicken my pace, praying that I can make it into the terminal before something horrible happens to me. Another emergency vehicle, this one an ambulance, shrieks its way down the street and disappears into the murky night. Shivers are running up and down my spine like malevolent sprites, chilling my guts which seem to have completely stopped working. Out of the corners of my eyes I see the zombies looking at me with evil intent—or is it only my own imagination?

Finally, after what seems like a small eternity, I reach the doors to the Port Authority bus terminal and push my way in, relief pouring over me like a giant wave. But I’m not safe yet. As I stand looking at a schedule board to see which level and lane my bus will leave from, a young black man accosts me. He asks me what bus I’m taking. When I tell him, he grabs my attaché case and tells me he will guide me there. I dare not refuse, for fear he’ll pull out a shiv and attack me. True to his word, he takes me to the right place. I slip him a few dollars for his help. He thanks me and leaves. One more hurdle overcome.

I find that I must wait about twenty minutes for the next bus. I notice weird looking dudes wandering around. Even here, on one of the highest levels of the terminal, we’re not safe. One by one others show up to wait for the same bus. I feel better—there is safety in numbers. Suddenly a tall black man is among us, accosting the waiting passengers for spare change. I try not to notice him as I carefully study the book I’m pretending to read. Abruptly the black man is barking at me, his face inches from mine. “Got any spare change, buddy?” It’s not a request, it’s more like a demand. I tell him, “I’ve only got a quarter, and if I haven’t got it, I won’t get home tonight.” It’s nearly true. Actually, I have two quarters. One is to call the cab company when I get to Milburn. If they don’t answer or won’t come that late, then I have to use the other one to call my poor mother to have her come down to the diner where the bus stops to get me. To my surprise, the black man accepts this explanation, saying, “Okay, buddy.” He moves on.

Finally, after another small eternity, the bus comes. Only when I’m on the bus and it is pulling away from the terminal do I feel safe. My guts resume working, a bit too well now.

A week later, after Retta returned from Israel, I stood in the kitchen of my parents’ house and told her of my experience that night. Afterwards she told me that the expression on my face as I related these events spoke much louder than my words. Even today, nine years later, it still sent chills up my spine when I wrote this.
Blade Runner come to life. Wow! Never in my wildest dreams….

The first time I saw ball lightning
On Sunday, July 2, 1972, Retta, two of our children (our son Dan and younger daughter Laura), and I all observed ball lightning at a distance of about ¼ mile from our home in Gaithersburg, MD. A few weeks afterward I reported this event to a local weather reporting network that I was a member of. Here, with some editing, is that report:

During a violent lightning storm at about 1800
EDT, lightning struck simultaneously in two places in our subdivision while my wife and I and our two youngest children (Dan and Laura) were looking out the window to the west. While looking in the direction of the southernmost strike, I became aware of a bright light, like a searchlight, shining in my eyes. Looking to the north at the spot where the other stroke had touched down (if that’s the right word), I saw a brilliant blue-white light, like that emitted by an electric arc welder, but much larger. It looked like a mercury-arc searchlight pointed at us and seemed to be perhaps six feet in diameter. The edges were ill-defined, and appeared to be radiating outward, as if an explosive charge had detonated and the initial blast had been frozen in time so that it never got any larger, but kept trying. My first impression was that it was an arc on some power lines, caused somehow by the lightning stroke. After about five to seven seconds, it abruptly went out, leaving behind only a little wisp of black smoke that meandered upward and was quickly dissipated.

At that point, as we stood transfixed, we could see that the place where the light had been was right on top of a chimney—the highest point in the immediate neighborhood. As I looked for the power lines that I felt sure had been involved, I suddenly remembered that the part of the subdivision where this happened has underground utilities. It then occurred to me that perhaps the lightning stroke had set an aluminum TV antenna “on fire” (aluminum will burn if it gets hot enough, just like magnesium), but we could see an intact TV antenna still standing on the roof not far from the chimney where the strange light had appeared. It was only then that the four of us realized we had just witnessed one of nature’s rarest phenomena: ball lightning.

Interestingly, although we observed the house for about ten minutes or so, as far as we could tell no one ever came out to look for damage or just to see what happened. It seems ironic that the occupants of the house (if they were home) remained blissfully ignorant that this rare and awe-inspiring event had just taken place literally right over their heads.

The second time I saw ball lightning
I got a second look at the rare phenomenon of ball lightning on June 19, 2010, in Bradenton, Florida. I was driving north on 9th Street East between 53rd Avenue and 301 Boulevard (named because it was once Florida state highway 301) in a sudden and violent thunderstorm, with blinding rain that was coming down so hard I had slowed to about 20 mph (speed limit is 40 on that stretch). It was raining so hard I could barely see across the street when I saw a lightning bolt strike a utility pole about a thousand feet away. It created the same kind of intense, blue-white ball we had seen in Gaithersburg, Maryland, 38 years earlier, almost to the day. This one, however, lasted only a few seconds and then it was gone. Whether it left a wisp of black smoke behind as had the one in Maryland I have no idea. It was raining so hard that once the ball itself disappeared, I could no longer even make out the utility pole itself.

Nevertheless, I was astonished to have seen something as rare as ball lightning twice during my brief sojourn on this earth. Life, it seems, truly is stranger than fiction.

Every man for himself
The street where we lived when I was a little boy was paved with cobblestones. Actually, it was the street that ran alongside our house, a main thoroughfare called Belleville Avenue. It led to the town of Belleville, which doubtless accounted for its name. Quite a bit of traffic ran along this street. One afternoon when Dad was preparing our dinner and I was playing in the hallway nearby, there was a loud noise outside. Dad looked out the window and said “Holy smoke!” It seems that some guy lost control of his car going up the hill on Belleville Avenue and ran across a neighbor’s lawn, hitting a large tree that was growing in their front yard. It was probably close to two feet in diameter. The force of the collision broke the tree off, leaving a stump about a foot tall. According to my dad—who wouldn’t let me look because, as he told me years later, it was too gory a scene for my young eyes—the driver got out of his car and stood on the curb next to the street, bleeding like a stuck pig. Finally someone stopped and picked him up to take him to the hospital. Contrast this scene with what happens today in a similar situation: police cars come, an ambulance comes, and usually a fire truck, too. Back then it was every man for himself.
 
The ultimate noise machine
Many trucks used Belleville Avenue. Among these were the Railway Express trucks. These were strange looking beasts, rather tall and narrow but fairly long. They had a chain drive connecting the engine with the rear axle. Their wheels were large but very skinny. They had long wooden spokes and wooden rims sheathed in steel. And I kid you not, you don’t know the meaning of the word “clatter” until you’ve heard a truck with metal-rimmed wheels careening pell-mell down a cobblestone street. They were truly the ultimate noise machines.
 
In my mind’s eye I can still see one of those Railway Express trucks going down Belleville Avenue. And coming from somewhere deep within the recesses of my memory’s hoard, I dimly hear the godawful clatter it makes as it roars past me.
 
What a rush!