STRANGE BUT TRUE- Old Pitt: Learn from his shocking death


Q. What's the lightning-season lesson to be learned from The Shocking Death of Old Pitt? –A. Jolie

A. Few people realize that lightning also inflicts countless deadly hits on other species, says climatologist Randy Cerveny in Freaks of the Storm.

Strikes to lakes have been known to electrify the water and kill wagonloads of fish for the locals. In 1939, a single strike at the top of Utah's Pine Canyon killed 835 rain-soaked sheep that had bedded down around a lone tree. Only 15 of the flock survived, as did the sheepherder who slept in his tent.

When a large turkey buzzard, sky high over Nashville, Tennessee, exploded in a blinding flash of lightning, it left just "a few black tail feathers that fluttered pathetically to the ground."

One of the strangest stories involves lightning-famous Benjamin Franklin, who experimented by applying a direct shock to the head of a turkey. When the turkey "died," the electrocutioner tried to revive it "by repeatedly blowing into its lungs," whereupon it "ran headlong against the walls."

"Many researchers regard this odd experiment as one of the first cases of artificial respiration being used as treatment after an electric shock," Cerveny writes.

Then there was Old Pitt, a world-famous circus elephant struck and killed by a violent lightning blast during a Friday matinee in Dillon, Montana. Later, the circus owner had a marker erected over the burial site: "PITT/ killed on the spot/ by lightning Aug. 6 1943/ while showing with/ Cole Brothers Circus/ Last of the John Robinson/ herd of military elephants/ age 102/ May God Bless Her."

Q. If a memory-enhancing pill becomes available, what surprising caution might the manufacturer want to heed? –A. Alzheimer

A. The pill had better not be too effectve, says David G. Myers in Psychology.

Just ask Jill Price, who in her memoir describes a life "overtaken by memory." She said she remembers every day of her life since age 14 with detailed clarity, including both the joys and the unforgotten hurts. Her memory is like a running movie that never stops. It's like a split screen. 

"I'll be talking to someone and seeing something else... Whenever I see a date flash on TV or anywhere, I automatically go back to that day and remember where I was, what I was doing, what day it fell on, and on and on and on. It is nonstop, uncontrollable, and totally exhausting."

A rarity of a memory, to be sure, as far more often we are dismayed and frustrated by forgotten appointments or colleagues' names or by misplaced sunglasses. Perhaps an enhancement pill would have been the wish of cellist Yo-Yo Ma when he forgot his 266-year-old $2.5 million cello in a New York taxi. (He later recovered it.)

Q. Try to picture the prodigious sum of the recent U.S. $800 billion bailout. One way is to imagine spending a dollar every second for over 20,000 years, or 200+ centuries! What's a more life-affirming way? –B. Obama

A. You could put $800 billion in the context of today's species extinction crisis, suggests Jennifer Sills in Science magazine. There are currently an estimated 10 million species populating the Earth. To ward against extinctions, we could equitably award $80,000 to each and every species from our $800 billion cash injection. 

Imagine the 43 species of ants from E. O. Wilson's single leguminous tree in Peru pooling their resources to buy about 150,000 hectares of Amazonian forest, thus helping ensure against their disappearance. Next might be hundreds of species of tree beetles, commanding some 570,000 hectares; even $80,000 should be enough to save the few remaining jellyfish trees. 

The endangered Indonesian "Pakis ata" fern would also benefit greatly, and $800,000 would go a long way in securing the future of the 10 endangered British insects recently featured on Royal Mail stamps.

On the other hand, species that are doing just fine could bank their share of the funds, including roughly 7.5 million species not considered at risk (totaling $600 billion), hedging their bets against some future need. 

 Q. If marooned on an ice floe without food but able to start up a fire, could you cook up your clothes for emergency sustenance? Would your shoes make a meal? –J. London

A. A traveler stranded in the unforgiving Australian outback survived by eating his leather clothing and drinking water from his car radiator, says nutritionist Clive Barnett, author of Doctor in the Kitchen.

If you're lucky enough to be marooned on an ice floe instead of a desert, you'll have an endless supply of water. 

If you're even luckier and have a knife and cooking pot handy, you can melt the ice over your fire and boil strips of your leather shoes, belt or coat. Another option would be to barbecue them over the flame. Leather is animal skin treated with tannic acid, and heating will improve its digestibility and tenderness.

"Of course, if you're wearing edible underwear, your problem is solved!" writes Barnett.


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