By Roger Wolmuth
May 18, 1987 12:00 PM

In July 1982 a Blairsville, Ga. minister had just concluded a burial service with the words “We never know who’s going next,” when a bolt of lightning struck dead the deceased’s grandson at the graveside.

In London, Robert Rickard, 42, filed news of the incident in a folder.

In May 1985 Louis Castorano of Fort Worth had to run for cover when 34 fish fell from the sky into his backyard. “I thought someone was playing a joke on me,” Castorano said later.

Rickard, who knew better, filed the event under Objects Falling From The Sky (subsection: fish).

The following September, in China’s Sichuan province, thousands of toads reportedly hopped in a double-file procession through the village of Wangjianan and into the nearby hills.

The five-day toad parade hopped into a Rickard file labeled Swarms.

For Rickard, chronicling the curious has been an offbeat passion and personal obsession for almost two decades. In the study of the small east London house that he shares with his Malaya-born wife, Sam, and their two children, floor-to-ceiling piles of folders bulge with life’s anomalies: UFOs, sea monsters, ghosts, strange cloud formations, odd odors, rocks that move in the night, and more. There’s a March 1986 clipping about a human finger that fell onto a car roof in West Berlin. A report on a monstrous jellyfish hovering over the city of Petrozavodsk in the Soviet Union. Still another about a 21-year-old woman who awoke to find half her ear missing.

What can’t be explained, Rickard collects—and publishes in the Fortean Times, a quarterly newsletter with 1,400 subscribers. Rickard began the paper in 1973 and now has help from oddity spotters in Yemen, Malaysia, the Soviet Union, Japan and a dozen other countries. “I see us as librarians, or shepherds, looking after information that one day may be very useful,” he says. “I am confident that the time will come when a lot of our subjects become legitimate studies in science.”

Rickard’s paper takes its name from Charles Fort, an American journalist who explored the inexplicable. “He thought that the failure of scientists was their reliance on dogmatic thinking,” says Rickard. “Phenomena that do not fit categories make them uncomfortable. Fort thought that was the reason anomalies were neglected.”

Fort published four volumes of collected oddities before his death in 1932 and counted authors Theodore Dreiser and Ben Hecht among his followers. Rickard happened upon the books in 1968 and “fell upon them and devoured them. It was like coming home. He was expressing the very things I had been only thinking about.”

The son of a British army officer, Rickard had spent much of his childhood in India, North Borneo and Malaya before returning to England to finish his education. By the late 1960s he was a graduate of the Birmingham Art School and working as a designer when he began sending newsclips of strange events to INFO, a publication of the International Fortean Organization. Before long, “I was sending enough material to fill an entire magazine,” he says, “so I decided to start my own.”

To support wife Sam, 35, son Jonathan, 6, and daughter Kim, 2, Rickard does microfilm production work for the British and American Biographical Archives. The Fortean Times “is the jam on the bread,” he says. “It doesn’t earn me any money.” Or much respect from the scientific community. “We are the province of cranks and cultists by default because scientists have abandoned anomalies to the cranks.” But no matter, says Rickard, who insists that he and his cohorts will continue to “quantify and qualify anomalies and eventually bring them to the attention of genuinely interested scientists.”

Let the fish fall where they may; Robert Rickard will welcome them with open arms.