"I HAVE A large hunk of something that I know fell out of the sky a long time ago. I have had it for years. I have asked a lot of people, but no one can tell me how to get in contact with someone who knows about that stuff. I think you can do that. Harald Gille, Turtle Lake, Wisconsin."
KSTP-AM's T.D. Mischke pulled the handwritten note down from the station bulletin board, where it had been tacked up under the heading "Letter of the Week." He called Gille on the air last Tuesday night, ready for a good laugh. "So--what's this you got there?"
Gille told him. How he'd been doing some roadwork up on Loon Lake in Barron County, putting in a driveway for someone's cabin. How, on top of a knoll, there was a crater about 10 feet wide, with a freshly-cut tree stump that had to be 50 years old, and under the topsoil a layer of clay that was hard and white. How he was pushing his partner's Cat with his dozer when suddenly, the Cat jumped from hitting something even harder; how, when they finally broke off a piece, it looked like nothing Gille had ever seen before. The rock was jet black, with silver specks that glittered in the sunlight, and many smaller rocks embedded in it as if it had been liquid at one time. He picked up a good-sized chunk with his dozer blade and took it home.
Mischke was intrigued, and he stopped for a look last Sunday on his way back from his cabin near Amery. Meeting him at an old farmhouse was a guy of undefinable age, with a head of flaming red hair, carrying a tackle box full of rocks. The piece that fell from the sky sat in the yard, about the size of a coffee table, weathered and inconspicuous-looking. Mischke took a piece with him to the Cities, promising to have it analyzed.
Gille has the voice of someone who doesn't talk a lot. He's retired from roadwork now, but he still looks for rocks. In the old days, every time he'd do a road he'd walk it before they put on the blacktop, taking whatever looked interesting. Now he picks over what his tractor brings up. He's got glacier rocks, arrowheads, an axe handle he thinks is at least 20,000 years old. But the one that's held his curiosity is the black rock.
Gille's told people about it for years--neighboring farmers, people in town, a couple of young people who came through. No one knew what to do with it. He thought about writing to a university, "but I never knew how to address a letter so that it would get there. I figured that if it wasn't addressed right, they'd probably throw it away. So I finally decided that I was going to take a chance and write to a news station."
Bob Pepin might eventually look at the rock. He runs the University of Minnesota's Lunar and Meteorite Laboratory; it was his lab that analyzed some of the meteorites that NASA recently announced held signs of Martian life. Pepin says Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Upper Midwest generally are good territory for meteorite finds, in part because so much of the land is constantly turned by plows. Over his three decades at the U, one or two true finds have materialized as a result of calls from the public.
Meteorites have an odd pull on people; you start studying them, Pepin says, and you can't let go. "They're extraterrestrial, that's no doubt part of it." Some are beautiful, with gem-like stones embedded in pure iron; some are very valuable. Collectors will pay $1,000 for half a pound of rare meteorite. To science, because their composition is thought to have changed little over millions of years, they serve as a time capsule from the early days of the solar system.
From the description of Gille's rock, Pepin doubts it's a meteorite. The only real answer would be a test for things like the chemical traces of cosmic radiation, and he'd have to be pretty well convinced that it's worthwhile. "I don't know what they're going to say about it," says Gille, undeterred. "I've thought about it a lot since it's been here. If they don't think it came out of the sky, they're not as smart as they think they are."
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