Facebook Twitter



Summertime, and the living is . . . queasy. You're perched on the very cusp of the season - rocking in the hammock, sipping a cool something - but deep inside, you're not quite as calm as you'd like to be. There are summer questions you still can't answer, riddles and puzzlers that have been gnawing at you for years like so many blood-crazed mosquitoes.

Relax.Summer's no time for you to be worrying. Here at the Institute for Barely Relevant Information, we've done your worrying for you. We've plumbed the depths of human knowledge, circled the globe (well, the block) seeking facts and figures that make the whole hot-and-sticky thing a little more understandable. Summer's biggest issues and some of its most trivial pursuits - a few information-filled sentences can make all the difference, you know.

Or you can use the paper to swat bugs.

Heat by the bagful

Where does charcoal come from? Glad you asked. The driving force, so to speak, behind the modern charcoal briquet is none other than Henry Ford, father of the Model T. A waste-hater from way back, Ford was looking in the 1920s for a way to turn wood scraps from his auto production line into money. His answer? Turn them into briquets. He teamed up with one Orin Stafford, who had developed a "retort charring" technology, and by the 1930s was selling those little pillows of fuel - not to mention picnic barbecues - through Ford auto dealerships.

Ford's charcoal operation, by the way, was based in the town of Kingsford, Mich., and Ford Charcoal was eventually renamed. (You've seen the name.) In case you were wondering.

What's on the grill?

According to the Kingsford folks, who keep track of such things, it's chicken leading the pack, showing up on the grills of 64 percent of barbecuers. Hamburger and steak check in with 57 percent and 56 percent, respectively, while hot dogs lag behind at 25 percent. Fish? Just 11 percent.

But wait! The latest numbers from the Barbecue Industry Association (of course there's a Barbecue Industry Association) put burgers on top, followed by steak and chicken in a virtual dead heat, and hot dogs.

And what's under the grill?

Charcoal, and plenty of it. The Barbecue Industry Association lists 1995 U.S. charcoal sales at 823,712 tons. That works out to - don't we make it easy for you? - 164,742,400 10-pound bags.

But don't turn up your nose at gag; if charcoal briquets had heels, LP gas would be nipping at them. The latest BIA survey finds charcoal grills in 56 percent of American households, and LP gas grills closing fast with 55 percent. (That comes to more than 100 percent? Easy: Some people are multigrilled.)

Meanwhile, the most popular "aromatic wood" is? Hickory, with 5.5 million pounds shipped in '95, followed by mesquite, with 3.9 million pounds. Are you an alder fan? You're a niche, Mitch: a mere 200,000 pounds.

And how many in a trunk?

Would summer be summer without a trip to the drive-in? Apparently not. At their peak in 1958, there were 4,063 drive-in screens in the United States. By the end of 1995, there were only 848.

The state with the most screens? California - no surprise - with 311. But how about No. 2? It's Ohio with 63, followed by New York (44) and Indiana and Missouri (42 apiece).

Swingin' days, swingin' nights

It takes 45 minutes and about 1,000 feet of rope to hand-weave the 84-by-60-inch "bed" of a deluxe, two-person North Carolina hammock. Hatteras Hammocks in Greenville, N.C., sells 75,000 to 100,000 hammocks a year - the largest hammock manufacturer in the world, says owner Walter Perkins III. At its production peak, Hatteras Hammocks can turn out 800 hammocks a day. The busiest time of the year? Father's Day. And most hammock buyers aren't buying for themselves.

"Nobody needs it," says Perkins, "and it's a great gift!"

Sing a song of summer

Everyone's got a favorite summer song; there are hundreds of them. But did you know: In the 40-odd years of the rock era, only two - count 'em, two - songs with the word "summer" in the title have ever been No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 or Top 100 Charts. Can you name them? We'll tell you later. (Hint: One of them isn't even a rock song.)

I'm hot and I'm wet (and I'm smelly)

If sweat came in a package instead of dripping off your nose, the ingredients list might read: water, salt, potassium, urea, ammonia, sugars, proteins and iron. Most people have two types of sweat glands. Eccrine glands react mostly to heat and show up all over the body, although they're concentrated in the armpits, soles and palms. Apocrine sweat glands react to emotional stimuli - stress or sexual arousal, for instance - and are concentrated in the armpits (busy place, those armpits), the groin and around the navel.

Are we there yet?

You thought you were the only one who's crazy about Triptiks, those hold-in-one-hand, personalized travel maps from AAA? Wrong. In June, July and August of 1995, AAA issued 2,141,691 of the things - and they're predicting an 11 percent increase for the same period this year.

Do all roads lead to Disney World? It only seems that way. Actually, AAA travel managers project that this summer's most popular auto-travel destination is indeed Orlando. The rest of the top five? Grand Canyon, Los Angeles/Anaheim, Williamsburg and San Diego.

AAA's domestic "Hot Spots" - this summer's destinations with a sudden surge in popularity - are: Atlanta; Cleveland; Foxwoods Casino, Conn. (there's gambling there); Metropolis, Ill. (there's more gambling there) and Philadelphia.

You'd pucker, too, if it happened to you

It's light, it's comfortable, it's perfect for summer. Wear it outside, and some people will still laugh at you.

It's seersucker, the dimpled star of a million summer strolls. The secret? Alternating yarns woven at normal and slack tension. The slack yards start to buckle during processing and presto: a puckered stripe that won't cling to clammy skin.

Maybe the funny name accounts for the giggly reaction; what kind of a word is "seersucker" anyway? It's a Hindu word, actually - "sirsaker" - which comes from a Persian word - "shir-o-shakar" - which literally means "milk and sugar." Oh.

Why me? Why not you?

"Exactly what attracts mosquitoes to man or to one human being instead of another is not understood," says the Encyclopedia Americana.

Not quite, says Wisconsin entomologist Phillip Pellitteri. "It's kind of a body-chemistry kind of thing.

The two biggest determining factors, he says, are a particular person's levels of carbon dioxide and lactic acid. The more of either you give off, the more attractive you are to mosquitoes.

And how does that work?

Carbon dioxide levels are generally similar among people at similar activity levels, but the more active you become, the more you'll produce. (On the other hand, the better shape you're in, the more efficiently you'll use oxygen, and less carbon dioxide your exercise will produce.

Lactic acid levels, meanwhile, vary plenty from person to person. It's lactic acid that many insect repellents are designed to counteract, says Pellitteri; and effective repellent basically neutralizes the mosquitoes' lactic-acid receptors. The buggies may come close, but then they get their signals crossed.

"The mosquitoes can't tell what you are," Pelliterri explains. "And that's why they don't bite."

Other, less important, factors? Body heat. Perfumes or shampoos that resemble the nectar mosquitoes imbibe when they're not drinking blood. And even, perhaps, hormonal changes - Pellitteri cites studies suggesting that women's susceptibility to mosquito bites varies during their menstrual period.

Speaking of women

Only female mosquitoes bite; they need the blood to nourish their eggs. And it's not really a "bite": Mosquitoes can't even open their jaws. Instead, they pierce a victim's skin with six needle-like "stylets" in the center of the proboscis. Mosquito saliva keeps the human blood from clotting while it's being sipped, and it's our allergic reaction to the saliva that causes the famous welt with the incorrect name.

And the winners are . . .

The second-biggest rock-era hit with "summer" in its title is "Summer in the City" by the Lovin' Spoonful, which held Billboard's top spot for three weeks in August of 1966.

And "summer's biggest hit? "The Theme from `A Summer

Place'," Percy Faith's instrumental and one of the top-charting songs of all time. It spend nine weeks at No. 1, starting in February of 1960. February.

Go figure.