Thursday, December 01, 2005

Star Light, Star Bright, Woman Hit by a Meteorite
My friend Tom passed this on to me (including the headline): On November 30, 1954, Ann Hodges, a 31-year-old resident of tiny Sylacauga, Alabama, was taking an early-afternoon nap on her living room couch when an eight-and-a-half-pound chunk of rock smashed through the roof, destroyed her radio cabinet, bounced, and landed on her. It was the first, and so far only, recorded instance of a meteorite hitting a human being. The room became choked with dust. Hodges’s mother rushed in, thinking the chimney had collapsed. Then both women saw the strange black rock sitting on the floor. It had left Ann Hodges with bruises on her hand and thigh. Had someone thrown it at their house? They called the local police and fire department, who, confronted by the strange stone, eventually brought in a geologist. The rock, it turned out, was not of this earth, and the Hodgeses suddenly were local celebrities. Sylacauga’s mayor visited and had his picture taken among the growing throng of media and onlookers. Ann’s husband, Eugene, had been out of town on business. He came home to make his way through the crowd. By then the meteorite in the living room had already been taken away by a U.S. Air Force helicopter crew and transported to a military base in Ohio. The Cold War was just starting a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the government was quick to confiscate anything from space that fell on U.S. soil. Eugene Hodges was not pleased. He figured that a space rock must be worth a lot of money-a windfall that was rightfully his family’s. Indeed, representatives of the Smithsonian Institution and other museums came calling, offering thousands of dollars for the rock. The Hodgeses hired a lawyer to help get it back, and the government gladly yielded it when it became clear that the cantaloupe-size missile wasn’t part of a Soviet spacecraft. But the Hodgeses still had more time to spend in the courtroom. In the wake of the hubbub, their landlady retained a lawyer too; since the meteorite had landed on her property, she maintained, it belonged to her. After all, she needed to repair the meteorite-size hole in the roof of the house, and that cost money. After more legal wrangling, all widely reported, the Hodgeses eventually settled with their landlady and got possession of the meteorite. But by 1956 they found that all the lucrative offers had dried up; the Smithsonian, for instance, had gone on to find another piece of the same meteorite a few miles away. The couple made the best of things, milking their fame as well as they could. They appeared the TV game show I’ve Got a Secret. Finally, Ann Hodges, exhausted by the all the stress and attention, got rid of the thing. She donated it to the University of Alabama in 1956, against her husband’s wishes. The rock, which turned out to be more than four billion years old, is still on display there. It is one of the most popular displays at the university’s Alabama Museum of Natural History. Ann Hodges never fully recovered. She had a nervous breakdown a few years later, and the Hodgeses eventually divorced. She died in 1972. When asked about the meteorite decades later, an 82-year-old Eugene Hodges was philosophical. "I wish it’d never happened, but it did happen," he said. "There’s nothing we can do about it now." The mayor, Ann Hodges, and the police chief examine the rock beneath the hole where it entered the room. (Alabama Museum of Natural History, the University of Alabama)

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