When the Most Amazing Marvels From Every Corner of the Globe Came to Indiana
“I thought that I, too, could generate a big number.”
I purchased my copy of the 1978 Guinness Book of World Records through a mail-order school book club. Before I even explored its contents, I loved it as an object. It was easily the heaviest thing I had ever received from a book club, thick as the novels my mother and father read sitting on the porch in the evenings, and filled with the authoritarian thin pages and small print found in dictionaries and Bibles. It required two hands for reading. Otherwise, the tome would slam shut, forcing me to shuffle through its 704 pages to look for my place, a kind of needle-in-a-haystack rummaging that made me appreciate the book even more. How many total records must the book hold? Imagine collecting them all, verifying them all. The 1978 Guinness Book of World Records seemed a publishing miracle to me.
I triple and quadruple-checked the details of oddly-sized objects. The smallest rideable bicycle had two 1/8 inch wheels and was pictured sitting in the palm of a man’s hand. The world’s smallest watch had a face not much larger than a match head. I studied these tiny objects because I admired the craftsmanship and attention to detail that creating such small, functional pieces implied. I also enjoyed them because they scuttled definitions of familiar things, because they shattered preconceptions and presented new, and ridiculous, possibilities.
The largest watermelon weighed 197 pounds. The largest tomato weighed six pounds eight ounces and was grown by a man named Clarence Dailey of Monona, Wisconsin. Mr. Dailey’s picture is in the 1978 Guinness Book; he is an older man with big, fleshy ears and horn-rimmed glasses, his shirt collar rumpled like an unmade bed. He stands next to a nameless squat woman. Her hair is white and thin, rising toward the upper-left corner of the picture like a dissipating blanket of smoke. Together they hold before them a tomato the size of a bowling ball. They smile as if showing off a new grandchild. I imagined dinner parties at Mr. Dailey’s house, the white-haired woman sweeping into a crowded dinning room carrying a giant tomato on a tin tray, Mr. Dailey carving the tomato like a turkey.
Chapter 1, “The Human Being,” presented black-and-white photos of the tallest man (Robert Wadlow, 8 feet 11.1 inches, Alton, Illinois); the tallest living man (Don Koehler, 8 feet 2 inches, Denton, Montana); the heaviest human of all time (Robert Earl Hughes 1,069 pounds, Monticello, Illinois); and the tallest living woman (Sandy Allen, 7 feet 7 ¼ inches, Shelbyville, Indiana). Three children surround Sandy Allen in her picture. Their heads hover below her hips. They turn their faces upward. They have their mouths open. All the children keep their hands clenched together before them. They might be praying.
And then there was the photo of Benny and Billy McCrary, the world’s heaviest twins.
They wore matching accessories: identical white cowboy hats, dark aviator sunglasses. Each man was a replica of the other, with the same puffy jowls and shaggy beard. Examining them only from the neck up, I could easily imagine them moving through my neighborhood in South Bend, Indiana, wandering the aisles of Martin’s Super Market, or sitting on the banks of the Saint Joe River, the sun warm on their cheeks as they dropped a line, waited for a catfish to bite. But the way those two men were put together from the neck down caused me and all the boys in Miss Scott’s third grade classroom to stare and mumble and wonder at the picture.
The 1978 Guinness Book of World Records said the men’s weights fluctuated between 720 and 740 pounds, impressive numbers to boys weighing between fifty and eighty pounds. It wasn’t the numbers alone that held our attention. Billy and Benny carried their bulk in a way that made them look not just big, but distorted. The twins had thick chests and pudgy forearms that oozed out of their dark shirtsleeves like toothpaste squeezed from the tube. But the majority of their weight appeared to have settled in their lower halves. Their pelvises, their hips, their thighs were impossibly huge and round, as if a collection of truck tires and beer kegs hid under their checkered pants. In the picture, the twins balanced their startling forms on a pair of matching mini-bikes. All of us boys spent a great deal of time worrying about those mini-bikes.
“They’re going to pop the tires,” one boy would mumble.
“They’re going to wreck the shocks,” another would offer.
“They’re gonna snap those bikes right in two,” a fatalist would say, and all the other boys huddled around the picture would nod in agreement, and the thrill of impending disaster would dance along my spine.
Our conjecture about the mini-bikes sparked further questions.
“How big do you think they were when they were born?”
“What do you think they eat for breakfast?”
“Who would win if they fought each other?”
“What would happen if they sat on you?”
Though we had all probably been thinking it for a long time, Jim Darrin finally asked the question aloud: “How can they use a toilet?”
The 1978 Guinness Book noted this about Billy and Benny: “Since they have difficulty walking, they ride their mini-bikes everywhere, even indoors. Each has a specially built car with a steering wheel post that is rounded in a big loop.” Clearly, these were resourceful and imaginative men capable of crafting ingenious solutions for the challenges created by their remarkable size. I pictured a giant toilet with a bowl like a horse trough.
Billy and Benny’s picture carried magic and possibility for me. The twins didn’t become famous because they were born rich or had family connections. Billy and Benny became famous because they generated big numbers. I thought that I, too, could generate a big number. I read chapter 11, “Human Achievements,” the way a lawyer might scrutinize municipal codes. I looked for gaps, soft records to beat, loopholes I could wiggle through to join those whose glorious achievements were forever preserved between the covers of the Book. Television told me that fame and recognition happened only in New York and Los Angeles, glamorous cities that nobody I knew had ever been to. The Guinness Book told a different story. I daydreamed of being a world-record holder in anything, of opening up the 1979 edition and pointing to my name. I wondered what rewards record holders received: a certificate to hang on the wall, a trophy, maybe free T-shirts that said “World Record Holder” in big red letters across the front that I could wear while local news crews interviewed me. I’d look into the cameras and credit my success to hard work and the support of my family, friends, Jesus, and God.
But mostly I hoped for a medal. I pictured it, gold and shiny and big, the size of a dessert plate, hanging from a red, white, and blue ribbon draped around my neck.
Adrenaline surged through me when I saw that Guinness recognized a record for standing up, a skill I had mastered. But my visions of glory dissipated quickly: “Swami Maujgiri Maharij stood up continuously for 17 years, from 1955 to November, 1973, while performing the tapasya, or penance, in Shahjahanpur, India. He leaned against a plank to sleep.”
I couldn’t sit down again until after I graduated from college?
How is that possible?
How did Swami Maujgiri Maharji use the toilet?
For a time I thought balancing on one foot might be my ticket. “The longest recorded duration for continuous balancing on one foot without any rests is 12 hours by Greg Shaw of Lexington, Kentucky, on March 4, 1977.”
I knew how to balance on one foot, and twelve hours seemed a perfectly reasonable amount of time. I could get up early, eat a big breakfast, take up a position in front of the TV, raise one foot off the ground, stand there, answer a few questions from gathering reporters, keep standing, keep standing, keep standing, call for somebody to towel the sweat off of my forehead, keep standing, try not to think about going to the bathroom, keep standing, break the record, use the bathroom, accept my medal from an official in a simple but solemn ceremony, then eat a late dinner while chatting with my fans.
I began to practice surreptitiously. While I stood in line with my mother at the grocery store, an imaginary drum roll would rumble through my head, and I’d take a deep breath and slowly raise my right foot off the ground. When it cleared the tile floor, I’d hear the clang of a cymbal, polite clapping, and murmured approval of an audience. I’d know I could beat Greg Shaw, knock him right out of the Guinness Book. I just had to wait for the perfect day to make my run at the record, and I didn’t mind waiting. While I waited, hope, light and buzzing like a hummingbird, lived in my chest.
I still wait for that day.
“The duration record for sitting in a tree is 61 days 21 hours 56 minutes by Jim Sparks, 14, in a fruitless mulberry tree in his father’s back yard in Visalia, California, from June 25 to August 25, 1975.”
This record included a much longer time commitment, but my family couldn’t afford to travel during summer vacation, so why not spend the summer in a tree? In the black-and-white picture of Jim Sparks presented in the 1978 Guinness Book, he sits atop what appears to be a cooler shoved into the corner of an expansive wooden platform erected in the branches of a tree. Jim looks out toward the camera. There’s an explosion of mulberry leaves behind his head. He braces his left elbow against left thigh, cups his chin in his left hand, nonchalant, like a man waiting for a bus. Jim Sparks had received worldwide recognition for living in a tree house, an arrangement I had fantasized about since seeing portions of The Swiss Family Robinson on The Wide World of Disney. Even the answer to the bathroom question seemed obvious for this one: a bucket.
I imagined sun rays punching through leaves, dappling my skin in light, whole days spent listening to bird songs and investigating the interior of clouds. I pictured my mother standing earthbound below me and chucking bulging brown lunch sacks straight up; I’d lean out from my platform and pluck my meals out of the air. Before she returned to our two-story house, Mom would yell up to me, “How’s the weather up there?” and I’d yell back “It’s the best weather in the world.” I imagined nights curled up in a sleeping bag, suspended among the stars, breeze stirring my tree’s canopy, the chattering of leaves, a sound like distant applause lulling me to sleep. And I thought about Jim Sparks, about how I loved him for showing me new possibilities and about how I pitied him. Poor Jim Sparks had no idea I was coming for his record, that some perfect day I would mount my tree and my whole world would change.
The 1999 edition of Guinness Book of Records reports that a man named Bungkas “went up a palm tree in the Indonesian village of Bengkes in 1970 and has been there ever since, living in a nest that he made from branches and leaves. Repeated efforts to persuade him to come down have failed.”
Now when I think of the tree-sitting record, I don’t see my mother at the base of the tree, don’t imagine flying lunches. Instead, I see short, dark-haired Indonesian women, clucking and cooing at a man in a nest, trying to coax him down as if he were a cat hung up in that tree. And, I can’t imagine myself living in any tree’s canopy; I can only imagine Bungkas. In my mind, he is wiry and his hair is long and grey and matted. His skin is dirty and leathery, hardened by decades of exposure to the elements. His eyes carry a touch of fire, wild and determined.
But I try to imagine climbing that tree and sitting with Bungkas, sharing his nest, for just a moment. I try to imagine leaning in close and hanging a gold medal around his neck. I try to imagine my breath hot in Bungkas’s ear as I whisper to him. Right this moment, in America, in some limping rustbelt town, there is a boy. A big-eyed boy. That boy loves you. That boy is coming for this medal.