Early this year, a friend of mine astounded a small dinner gathering by correcting a newscaster on television who referred to a school of whales. ''He means, of course,'' my friend said offhandedly, ''a gam of whales.''
This is one of my secret ambitions, which has never been fulfilled to my complete satisfaction. To offhandedly furnish a bit of erudite information to a group who would not expect me to have it.
For instance, I happen to know that the highest point in Florida is in Walton county and is only three hundred forty-five feet above sea level. This is the lowest high point in the United States. It is not a great piece of information, I suppose, but hardly anyone would know it. And I have been saving this unlikely piece of information for a goodly number of years and no one has given me the opportunity to reveal it.
At one time, recently, I did come close. Someone at a party mentioned that Mt. McKinley in Alaska was twenty thousand feet high. I was just about to say, ''Speaking of high and low points . . .'' when some fourteen-year-old girl, who had no business mingling with the adults, said, ''Actually, Mt. McKinley is 20, 320 feet high.'' For a moment it threw me off guard and some nitwit in the group said, ''Oh, I thought Mt. Whitney was the biggest!'' Whereupon this minor teen-aged know-it-all stated, ''Mt. McKinley is 5,826 feet higher than Mt. Whitney.'' After that, I felt I was in deep water and kept my mouth shut.
There is, however, always the hope of new opportunities.
To this end, I often browse through libraries, picking up odd bits of information. Last week, in one of these aimless sessions, I found that the fastest animal in the world is the cheetah, clocked at 70 mph.
I vaguely knew this, having seen a cheetah running after a wildebeest on educational television one time. Actually, I think the television version was 72 mph, but it could have been a hungrier cheetah.
Another bit of information in the speed category which is nice to know, is that a man can run faster than an elephant. Of course, I presume we are talking only about champion runners. I don't intend to put this to any kind of test, myself, with an irritated elephant who might not fit the statistics. It would be just my lot to get an elephant who was already in the Guinness Book of World Records.
All this has given me a new outlook on the animal world. I can sort of place myself, speed-wise, in an all-out race to high ground when the dam breaks. Even though the cheetah would win, I like the possibility of coming in ahead of the elephants.
Not everything in the animal speed world comes as a surprise. I had a pretty good idea that a pig's top speed was 11 mph, having chased a pig once or twice. And the fact that a rabbit can outrun a reindeer seems a natural assumption. But the news a cat can run as fast as a grizzly bear made me bat my eyes.
I have tried to catch cats, on occasion, and they are fast but rather pouncy runners. Grizzly bears have better traction. I've never had to race a grizzly bear. It is just that I have a feeling of respect for their ability. I did have to race a brown bear once, in Alaska, and I got to the jeep first, but it involved certain advantages, among which were a twenty-yard headstart and a firm conviction that winning the race was far more essential to me than to the bear.
The slowest animal I found any record for was the snail. Now, of course, a snail is much slower than, say, a chicken. It is even slower than a spider or a tortoise. But, nevertheless, it zips along at a neat .03 mph, which, for its size and shape and the fact it carries a one-room, calcium bungalow around, is more than respectable.
At .03 mph, the snail averages out a bit over 158 feet an hour. While it is true it would take him a lifetime to go from Los Angeles to Pasadena, and while it is true one couldn't count on a snail hitting that speed for a whole hour, or even sticking to a straight line, it isn't bad if one considers it a sprint.
It remains, now, for me to remember some of this information to drop casually at my next party. I know the odds are against someone asking, ''You know, I've often wondered how fast a wart hog can run.'' But if someone does, I can unassumingly say, ''It is not generally known, but a wart hog cannot run as fast as a giraffe. A giraffe's speed of 32 mph is two miles faster than a wart hog.''
I feel ready. I just hope there isn't some smart-mouthed fourteen-year-old standing around to spoil my act.