Americans love a mystery. That's what made Robert Ripley rich, whether or not his "Believe It or Not" stories of half a century ago were absolutely true. That's what makes the "Twilight Zone" and similar TV dramatizations of ghostly and unexplained stories habit-forming.

The fact is, lots of things have been going on on the planet that science or scholarship has yet to explain or prove mythical.

For starters, consider the planet Mars:

Jonathan Swift, the early 18th century writer who sent Gulliver on his travels in a world-famous novel, was a time vaulter. Somehow, about a century before their existence was proven by telescopes, Swift predicted the exact number of moons circling the planet Mars. He even came fairly close to estimating how far they were from their planet. How did he do it? It could not have been just a lucky guess. What was at work here?

And what about prophetic dreams? What is one to make of the sometimes strange experiences of U.S. presidents -- like Abe Lincoln's well-documented dream predicting a violent end, not to himself, but "to some other fellow" shortly before his own assassination?

Just as strange, to this writer, is the well-known deathbed coincidence involving John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They both died on the same day in 1826, and it was the Fourth of July! That was strange but something stranger was to come in the summer of 1831.

James Monroe, the fifth president, breathes his last while visiting his daughter in New York. Mourners note the day: the Fourth of July. That three of the first five chief executives of the United States would die on the nation's No. 1 holiday is beyond belief -- almost as if the Almighty, in a surge of patriotism, wanted to highlight and make sacred their departures. A computation of the probabilities of this happening would be of mighty interest.

Art-history buffs have no trouble turning up strange doings of the past. The jarring resemblance between African votive sculpture and the huge monolithic stone faces of Easter Island, far away in the Pacific, are often quoted in this regard.

Pre-Columbian Central and South American art images sometimes display a freakish resemblance to Far Eastern art thousands of years older. Of course, emigration of prehistoric hordes carried traditions over land and water. But look-alike building methods and art forms would hardly be separated by thousands of years.

One of the biggest of all the mysteries has been the case of the Siberian what-is-it, an apparent extraterrestrial blast that leveled forests for hundreds of miles in 1908, creating a marsh where there had been deep permafrost. Was it a meteorite or part of a comet? Or anti-matter soaring into the earth? A solution was in doubt as recently as 1977.

An even greater mystery and probably a more important one is the mystery of man himself. Where did he come from? And why is he so different from other animal life? One theory is that modern man developed his present level of intelligence, if that's what it is, after being battered through thousands of generations by the terrific pressures of the many ice ages -- periods that forced travel, adaptation, cleverness and even probably language. All contributed to the salvation of the species. *

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