HAVRE DE GRACE -- At last the usual June miasma inevitably descends, bringing with it bad air from Baltimore and dire health warnings from Washington. And residents of our afflicted region, no doubt including the celebrated cop-killer and litigant Flint Gregory Hunt, are wondering if each breath they suck in may be their last.
I found myself considering these and related subjects the other day as I baled some unusually nice alfalfa hay in the smoggy haze, and tried to see if I could check the pollution content in the air with the most sophisticated instrument I had available, my nose. No luck. No warnings flashed to suggest that perhaps I should stop breathing for the sake of my health.
All I could smell was the hay, which was near at hand and decidedly pleasant, and some other farm-related odors at greater distance that were, if not as nice as the alfalfa, at least familiar. A certain electricity was in the air, too, presumably produced by a large black thing looming in the sky to the west and emitting what might have been the sounds of celestial discontent, or indigestion.
I wondered if the large black thing intended to bring rain, which would mean cooler air and temporary relief from both heat and pollution warnings, and if so, if it planned to do it quickly enough to spoil my hay. It was advancing in my direction with all deliberate speed, and every once in a while a great shaft of lightning would come out of it, which may have been what started me thinking about Flint Gregory Hunt.
Mr. Hunt, unless his lawyers can save him, is scheduled to die not by electricity but by poison gas. If his execution does in fact take place, he will achieve what many yearn for but few receive, an honest-to-goodness footnote in the history of his time. He'll be the last murderer gassed in Maryland.
Maryland is giving up gas in favor of more cutting-edge technology, which does not mean that corrections officials will soon be advertising for an ax-wielder. The state is going to continue to rely on chemistry to impose the ultimate sentence. But in the future it will deliver the lethal substance by hypodermic, which is considered daintier and more humane.
To generations past, it was thought appropriate that those sentenced to death as punishment for horrendous crimes should die horrendous deaths, but our era has different values and likes to prettify things. So in the future the most vicious murderers will get the needle, preceded, one assumes, by cookies and milk.
A man of means
Out here in Harford County, there's only routine interest in the case of Flint Gregory Hunt. We're much more titillated by the case of Jacob Leeder, a retired Aberdeen Proving Ground scientist who died a few months ago at the age of 83. His estate, recently probated, included a $700 car, a $117,000 house in Bel Air -- and a stock portfolio worth about $36 million.
Mr. Leeder worked for many years at the Proving Ground's Ballistic Research Laboratory, which has for many years been one of the federal government's greatest repositories of brilliant eccentrics. He was a physicist by training, with a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and by all reports he was very good at his job.
It was known that he dabbled in the stock market, but not that he did so with such notable success. He was something of an introvert, and had few close friends. He never married, and had no children. The after-tax bulk of his estate -- not nearly so impressive once the federal government has made off with its 55 percent and the state with its 10 percent -- will go to two nieces, who presumably were astounded to get the news. A variety of organizations concerned with animal welfare will share the rest.
In its report on the probate proceedings The Aegis, the local paper, quoted a Baltimore lawyer as saying that in today's America, it isn't uncommon for multi-million-dollar estates to be left by ''nondescript people.'' But Mr. Leeder, it seems in retrospect, was anything but nondescript, however modest his chosen lifestyle.
One wonders now, given his evident uninterest in most of the things rich people typically spend their money on, what it was that drove him on. The intellectual challenge? The not-uncommon idea that the accumulation of dollars is a way of keeping score? Or was it just simple curiosity, the desire to see how far the bull market and his own determination would carry him?
I guess we'll never know. But it's interesting to see so much wealth amassed with so little apparent effort. It's rather the way a thunderhead builds up, I thought, sitting on the tractor under the darkening sky. Eventually something happens, maybe death or maybe disaster, and then there's a cloudburst of dollars which flow back into the economy once again.
CRACK! Came the lightning once more, a lot closer. I headed for the barn with the last wagonload of alfalfa, and when I got there big fat drops were pinging on the tin roof, as loud as silver dollars.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.
Pub Date: 6/29/97