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The Straight Dope 

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In the 1950s gasoline trucks used to have lengths of chain attached to their undersides that dragged along the road. Now they don't. What hazard did they think they were protecting against that apparently has now gone away? --Dennis McClendon, Chicago

An explosion caused by a spark from static electricity, of course. Years ago the danger seemed pretty real. One scientist, demonstrating the cheerful disregard of personal safety that separates timid researchers from dead ones, reported that while he was driving down the highway one day he reached over to accept a pack of gum from a passenger in a car that was traveling alongside. When their hands were still three inches apart, a powerful electrical spark arced between the two and knocked the scientist silly. Lab tests suggest the jolt may have exceeded 10,000 volts.

What happens is that contact between the road and the tires leaves the latter negatively charged. The tires, in turn, create a positive charge in nearby parts of the metal car body. Eventually something or somebody comes along that shorts the charge to ground, and you get a spark. You sometimes notice a mild version of this if you touch a metal part when getting out of your car after a drive.

Ground straps or chains, which at one time were required by law on gasoline trucks, were an attempt to let the static buildup continuously discharge. Just one problem: they were totally ineffectual. What's more, researchers found tire static was a trivial problem compared to the static caused by sloshing of a tank truck's contents. Antistatic stratagems today, Cecil's friends at Amoco report, include electrical grounding during loading and unloading and a "closed loop" filling system that allows no oxygen into the tank at any point. Perfect safety is assured. Just the same, if you're tooling down the road and the gas truck driver in the next lane offers you a pack of Doublemint, say no.


Enclosed please find an article I wrote last October for the Washington Blade that will give you the inside story on Otzi [March 26]. I'm amused to see that an April Fools' joke like this can survive for years. --Aras van Hertum, Washington, D.C.

To quote from Aras's story:

"In its April 1 issue, an Austrian gay magazine ran a story that said traces of semen had been found in the anus of a Stone Age man, whose well-preserved remains had been discovered in the Alps. He was, said the magazine, the 'first known gay man who enjoyed being . . .'"--well, no need to be vulgar.

"The article was apparently an April Fools' joke, but half a year later, the story continues to circulate among gays around the world as fact rather than fiction. . . . Only days after the Austrian gay magazine Lambda Nachrichten published its joke that scientists had attempted to cover up the discovery of semen traces in Otzi's anal canal, the 'story' was picked up and published as fact by three daily newspapers in Europe--one in Switzerland and two in Austria. . . .

"The Chicago-based Outlines News Service, which supplies a large number of U.S. and foreign gay papers with national and international gay news, published the story on September 2 after obtaining copies of the reports in the European dailies. Several subscribers . . . immediately ran the report. . . . After contacting Lambda Nachrichten and discovering the report had been an April Fools' joke, Outlines on September 8 sent out a correction. But by then, the story of the 'world's first known bottom' had left the pages of gay papers to assume a life of its own."

Glad we could get that cleared up. Still, questions remain. Remember that Otzi's otherwise intact corpse is missing its privy part. I can't say more now, but don't be surprised if you hear they're checking around Otzi's neighborhood for a 6,000-year-old Hoover Dustette.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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