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Summer prime time for thunderstorms

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July 17, Monday — James Cagney born, 1899.

July 18, Tuesday — Red Skelton born, 1913. Disneyland opened, Anaheim, Calif., 1955.

July 19, Wednesday — Rain ceases, wind increases. Edgar Degas born, 1834.

July 20, Thursday — Plot to assassinate Hitler foiled, 1944. Moon walk, 1969.

July 21, Friday — Ernest "Papa" Hemingway born, 1899. First Battle of Bull Run, 1861.

July 22, Saturday — Moon on the Equator. St. Mary Magdalene. Gregor Mandel born, 1822.

July 23, Sunday — "Rock Around the Clock" topped the charts, 1955. What every gardener needs is a cast-iron back with a hinge in it.

Ask The Old Farmer's Almanac: Are there more thunderstorms in July than at other times? — D.G., Burlington, Vt.

Answer: Not necessarily, although spring and summer are the prime times. Thunderstorms are created when warm, moist air near the ground rises to meet colder air at higher altitudes. The meeting of the two causes the warm, moist air to condense and some very violent updrafts can be fashioned, of the sort that threaten airplanes in flight. Thunderstorms can occur any time of year, hence the "thunder snow" that is a fairly regular event in the north in winter. For some reason, probably to do with temperatures, thunderstorms prefer the afternoon along the Gulf Coast and in the Western and Southeastern states. In the Great Plains, thunderstorms are more customary in the late afternoon or evening hours.

Next to floods, thunderstorms and their accompanying lightning, are the cause for more weather-related deaths than any other weather condition. As a matter of fact, flash floods are often accompanied by thunderstorms, so both factors can sometimes join forces to create some violent and dangerous storms.

Despite the recurring myths, lightning can, indeed (and often does), strike twice in the same place, but it is not attracted to mirrors. Some say that thunder curdles cream and lightning sours milk, but we'd doubt it, at least in these days of modern refrigeration.

Ask The Old Farmer's Almanac: We're going camping this summer. My husband was taught the "log cabin" style of building campfires, while I was taught the "tepee." Care to settle the dispute as to which is more effective? — H.F., Valrico, Fla.

Answer: Are you kidding? And ruin your marriage? Not us! We do have a solution, however. For the most functional fire, especially one that's almost foolproof in a downpour, you want to use BOTH versions. This is the actual truth — not just some conciliatory mediation on our part. What you do is, you find some dry paper, or shave some small sticks out of the insides of a larger (wet on the outside) piece of dead wood. If you don't have anything really dry, put the driest you've got inside your shirt to dry out from your body heat. Now, don't get finicky, here. You're camping, right? You can clean up later, after you get the fire going to heat some water.

While the shavings are drying, gather your bigger sticks and logs and pile them up, log cabin style, in a square, leaving sizeable air gaps between the logs. Don't pile them in a tepee. The squares of the log cabin should get narrower as it gets higher, until you just have an opening big enough to put your hands into. Now, take your smaller, kindling size sticks, and put these into the hole at the top, standing them up, tepee-style, inside the log cabin. These sticks are pretty wet, too, but don't worry.

Next, when you're ready to start the fire, take the driest stuff you've got — paper or the body-heat-dried shavings or whatever, and insert these at the base of the tepee (reaching through one of the gaps in the log cabin base). Light these, shielding the initial blaze from the rain, as much as possible, and blow gently, if necessary, until they light the tepee sticks and then the logs.

If it's NOT raining, you and your hubby should try another camp trick we remember. You both gather your materials for a fire. You both have a coffee can half full of water. Starting at the same time, you each start the fire of your choice, and see who can get the water to boil first. Then you'll really know which campfire version is the most effective. By the way, to ensure you have dry matches for all this, dip some wooden matches into clear nail polish and let them dry before you go, coating the sticks about halfway up.

Ask The Old Farmer's Almanac: I read that Red Skelton, the entertainer, was a 33rd-degree Mason. What does that mean, exactly? — N.K., Boone, Iowa

Answer: Red Skelton (1913-97) is just one of many famous Freemasons. Others include former U.S. presidents George Washington, John Q. Adams, James Buchanan, William McKinley, James Monroe, William Taft, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Harry Truman, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gerald Ford; jazz musician Louis Armstrong; astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin; Italian writer Casanova; British statesman Winston Churchill; Indian fighter "Buffalo Bill" Cody; automaker Henry Ford; magician Harry Houdini; writer Mark Twain; and actor John Wayne. Not all of these achieved such a high degree in the masons, but Skelton did.

The various degrees relate to lessons or divisions of accomplishment within the lodge. Each degree is related to a lesson or series of virtues, such as fidelity, trust, duty, integrity, honor, etc. The 33rd degree is the last, generally associated with the Scottish rite of Freemasons, and considered the highest honor, bestowed for outstanding contributions to the Brotherhood. It cannot be petitioned for but is conferred by unanimous vote of the members. Its recipient must be over 33 years of age.

Always humble and accessible to his public, Skelton was probably both honored and a little uncomfortable with this highest honor. Speaking of his many accolades as an actor and clown, Skelton said, "I don't want to be called the greatest' or one of the greatest.' Let other guys claim to be the best. I just want to be known as a clown because to me, that's the height of my profession. It means you can do everything — sing, dance and, above all, make people laugh."

Skelton was born in Vincennes, Ind., into the circus life, the son of a clown who died two months before Red was born. At the age of 10, Red joined a traveling medicine show and began his work on the stage. His work in radio, stage, movies, painting, and television followed. He performed for eight different U.S. presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt (also a mason) to Ronald Reagan and for three popes. He also grew Bonsai trees, had a rose named for him, was considered one of the all-time great pantomimists and created clown characters (and paintings of clowns) from Freddie the Freeloader to Clem Kadiddlehopper. He turned donut dunking into an art and knew enough NOT to light the cigar that was almost always in his mouth. Quite a man . . .

Send your questions to: Ask the Almanac, The Old Farmer's Almanac, Main St., Dublin, NH 03444. Every day the editors of The Old Farmer's Almanac answer a question on the Internet: www.almanac.com