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SURREAL SUMMER

For centuries, scientists, philosophers and other people with way too much time on their hands have studied the effects temperature has on human behavior. When it's extremely cold, for instance, we know that people tend to stay indoors for extended periods of time. Some eventually develop cabin fever and do things like tie up phone lines to radio talk shows.

Generally, people like "Bruno from Juneau" are harmless and can be cured, although every now and then, someone stays in their cabin just a little too long. Then you get the Unabomber.

However, when it's very hot and humid, like it is right now in Florida, this sort of thing happens:

While riding his bicycle, an elderly man was struck by a car outside a Subway sandwich shop in St. Petersburg. The man got to his feet, staggered over to the car, spit in the driver's face, got back on his bike and pedaled away.

A town commissioner in the beach community of Belleair decided certain programing on MTV and VH1 is "immoral" and wanted to pressure the local cable company to remove the channels from the basic package most people get. (Curiously, the commish had no problem with Martha Stewart Living on the Lifetime channel, or "Hernia Repair Week" on the Learning Channel.)

Dozens of rotund, bearded men mysteriously started showing up at Key West. After they were seen pulling on thick wool sweaters in the 90-degree heat, worried townspeople realized the men were there for the annual Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest.

We could go on, but the point here is that when a hurricane shows up months earlier than normal, when a basketball player who can't make a free throw to save his life (Shaquille O'Neal) gets a 7-year contract worth $120-million, and when a cat in north Tampa dials 911 after it started choking on its flea collar (it was actually trying to dial the Hartz Mountain product information line), you know one thing is certain:

It's not the heat.

It's the stupidity.

There's something about the oppressive Florida heat that turns normal, right-thinking human beings into sweaty, heaving, bug-eyed loons. And when we go outside, it gets even worse.

We know the damage caused by sun and heat on surfaces such as concrete (cracking) and wood (warping) can be extensive. We know this because the general contractors we hire to repair these surfaces drive new BMWs and send their kids to private schools. In England.

So if the sun and heat do that to concrete and wood, just imagine what they do to us.

Actually, the effect is about the same. We also become cracked and warped.

How else do you explain why, around these parts, quality entertainment is watching the school bus figure-8 demolition derby at the Sunshine Speedway. (They had 17 buses in the competition the other night.)

Examples of this are everywhere _ not just Florida.

The people at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta are scrambling to fix an embarrassing typo in the word "disk" that appears on about 2-million Olympic promotional 12-packs of Coke Classic that were distributed recently. In the misprint, the "s" is replaced by a "c."

Workers tried to correct the problem by putting a small sticker over the typo _ but only on boxes that were still in warehouses. Thousands of 12-packs already had been delivered around town. Normally, the small print on the boxes states that the "red disk icon and contour bottle are trademarks of the Coca-Cola Co."

An outbreak of stupidity also occurred in Belton, Mo., earlier this month when a boy who wanted to sleep rather than mow his lawn got a rude awakening when his father started up the family mower _ in the boy's bedroom.

Rickey Worthley woke up his son Michael at 6 a.m. one recent Saturday to mow the lawn. But the 17-year-old said it was too early and told him to go away.

His father left, but he returned with the mower, which he pushed through the door and started. Michael threw a fan at the mower, which was chewing up the carpet, and he called police, who arrested his father and charged him with assault.

Even as far north as Boston, summer stupidity has settled in. Just the other day, four skydiving Elvis impersonators were blown off course and one was critically injured while trying to land in the parking lot of a nightclub.

"Elvis hit town," observed a Boston police spokesman. "He just hit it a bit too hard."

And to prove that this is a global phenomenon, there is a report out of Nepal that a farmer was recently chased and trampled to death by an elephant after he startled the beast while it was mating. The game warden of Nepal's Chitaun reserve said the farmer and a friend were returning from collecting firewood in the park when they encountered the passionate pachyderms.

"They were chased by the aggressive male beast, which killed one of them on the spot," the warden said. Still upset about being discovered, the two elephants then went on a rampage in nearby villages. They destroyed rice crops and corn fields, knocked down houses and sheds, and forced dozens of people to flee their homes. It took the Nepali army to finally drive the elephants back into the forest.

So it came as no surprise when President Clinton canceled his visit to Florida recently. He was on his way here, but he turned around somewhere over North Carolina and flew home.

He said it was because of Hurricane Bertha, but he probably got word that the heat is on.

It was a phone call. From a cat.

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