Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Great Big Man

The Associated Press reports that Norris McWhirter, co-founder (along with his twin brother Ross) of The Guinness Book of Records, died rather unspectacularly yesterday at the age of 78.
True, he died from a heart attack after playing tennis - which at the age of 78 is pretty cool – but certainly nowhere near extraordinary enough to qualify for any of the record breaking categories listed in the reference work – a work originally created to be distributed by the Guinness brewery as a method of settling trivia disputes in pubs.
The fascinating compilation of strange and amazing facts first conceived by the McWhirter boys in 1954, and leant credibility by their rigid rules for inclusion (official unbiased judging being paramount) has become the gold standard for accurate documentation of the feats, as well as the freaks of the natural world.
I’ve been fascinated by records and by the Guinness book since I received a copy as a get well gift following an appendectomy in 1970. It was the perfect distraction from itchy stitches and the squeaks and wails of my companions on the children’s ward at Orpington Hospital, deep in the heart of England. With photographs and short descriptions of the ‘est’ people and phenomenon the world had to offer (fastest, tallest, fattest, thinnest, richest, longest, largest, oldest etc) the book was an endlessly compelling read, perfect for dipping in and out of as I languished a full ten days, (the great old national health days) the first I’d ever spent away from home. Guinness was a comfort then, and was to become a lifelong interest.
I personally knew a man who for a time held the record as the world’s heaviest man. He was born and raised and lived his entire life on Bainbridge Island in Washington where my family lived for a time later on when I was in high school. He wasn’t quite the fattest man in the world then, but he was certainly well on his way.
Jon Minnoch drove the island’s only taxi cab – one of those enormous, square, squat New York-style cabs, painted a cheery blue and white and available at a moment’s notice to nip down to the ferry terminal to pick up stranded friends and relatives just in from Seattle. There wasn’t much business for a cab, but what there was, Jon surely got.
In those days Winslow (the town part of the island - the capitol you might say) had two sidewalks, one traffic light and a single grocery store. We also had a high school (go Spartans!) as well as an elementary and a junior school, and a small but interesting general populace: rumour had it the family that owned Bacardi Rum paid their taxes there, and what was left of one branch of the Lindbergh family lived extremely quietly in our little island enclave.
(I actually played Lucy Seward to Lars Lindbergh’s shockingly blonde Dracula in the annual high school drama festival; when he bent me over his arm to bite me on the neck, we brought down the house as well as the curtain on the first act.)
But anyway, Jon Minnoch was an important part of island life; as our single method of public transportation (outside of the big yellow school buses) and as an island character, though not, as you might imagine as the freakish fat man (Jon weighed about 900 pounds then, several hundred away from his final Guinness weight) but as the warm and funny family man. The guy who could be depended upon to independently meet every ferry until your Aunt Fanny finally arrived, then bring her home in style and comfort with no extra charge for waiting.
While it’s true you couldn’t miss Jon, you mostly couldn’t miss him because of the big blue and white car, only slightly modified to contain him, whose front seat he entirely filled. He was the head and shoulders and one suntanned arm crooked outside the open window, waving and smiling at everybody as he cruised around Winslow looking for what had to be pretty elusive fares. The island loved Jon and as far as I know, his fame for his weight (eventually topping some 1400 pounds - which was exceeded some years later by the current holder of the title, Carol Yager, fully 200 pounds heavier at her death) was only a big story across the water; back home on Bainbridge, Jon was just Jon – married to skinny little 110 pound Jeannette, and father to two normal sized children.
I still have my 1970 English edition of The Guinness Book of Records. Jon isn’t in it – he wouldn’t have been considered until the early 80’s – and most of the records contained therein are long beaten or broken, but I don’t care; they’re still empirically fascinating, even if bettered by a few pounds or inches or years. It’s a cliché to say that for every strange photo, for every outlandish freaky physical oddity there’s likely just a normal person, trying like the rest of us to get through life unscathed, thinking ourselves uniquely weird, however hidden our record-breaking qualities. Cliched, but for all that, true.
Jon died in 1983 at the age of 42 in the University Hospital in Seattle, weighing a hugely reduced 800 pounds. There’s a great deal of judgment surrounding the issue of weight these days, and appalling stories of people trapped in their homes, unable to move, but still able to consume thousands and thousands of calories as their condition worsens and their weight increases. (I always wonder why their friends and relatives bring them plates full of bacon and pizza and cake and donuts. Presumably they can’t get out to the store or even to the kitchen to get it themselves - but such simple and simple-minded solutions as “stop eating so much!” are only part of the problem. And just because Dr Phil agrees, doesn’t make the notion total crap…) However, Jon’s incredible weight wasn’t caused by over-eating; he was unfortunate in having a medical condition which changed his body and his life before eventually ending it.
But the part that he lived - the tiny part I knew of his life - was a good one; surrounded by a loving family and a gang of friends, fulfilling a need on the tiny island and being seen and known as just Jon... and rarely for his fame or his photograph in the Guinness book.
I intend to keep my book – the one without Jon’s name - and think of him every time I happen to leaf through it. A reminder that every picture tells a story… but usually one entirely different than the one depicted.

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