Would You Believe It?
By Patrick F. Cannon
Before the Guinness “Book of World Records”, the shabbier supermarket tabloids and the more dubious television “magazine” shows began to feed our apparently insatiable appetites for the bizarre and just plain goofy foibles of people and things, about all we had was that old standby, Ripley ‘s “Believe It or Not.”
Ripley’s oddities (the man himself died in 1949) always seemed to be the product of simpler days and simpler tastes. A typical entry might read: “John S. Tiresome, inventor of the tire patch, never learned how to drive!” or perhaps (and these were especial favorites): “Farmer Jones, of Hicksville, Illinois, has a cow with six legs and two heads!”
This would be illustrated with a drawing of the cow, with Farmer Jones in proud attendance.
How did Ripley find these gems? Well, aside from the historical stuff (Napoleon, only five feet three in his stocking feet, had to use a ladder to ascend the Imperial Throne!), I guess people just dropped him a line. I imagine that if I went to the barn one morning and found such a cow, I’d want to tell someone.
But the new purveyors of the bizarre are after more adventurous stuff As a result, folks don’t wait around anymore in hopes of digging up a potato that looks like a cocker spaniel, or of harvesting a 600-pound squash. Instead, they try to break one of Guinness’ so-called “world records,” or perform some foolish stunt that will get them on television.
I remember some years ago reading about several men – and one woman -who were trying to break the somewhat dubious record for living (if we can put it that way) the longest time in a cage filled with poisonous snakes. The record was a month or thereabouts. As I recall, a few bites had been recorded, but no actual deaths had occurred among the lunatics involved (no word on the health of the snakes, however).
Alas, Ripley was not immune to these hijinks. I remember one entry (this one actually appeared) that showed a young couple looking at a great white orb, with the following caption: “A baseball owned by Gloria and Mike Carmichael of Alexandria, Indiana, is 55-3/ 8 inches in circumference and weighs 180 pounds – over a period of three years that have added 10, 000 coats of paint. ”
Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t even begin to imagine what would possess anyone to take brush in hand and start painting a baseball. And then keep right on painting. Or, why anyone would care whether or not someone had managed to create the world’s largest Jell-0 mold; or indeed the largest cheese cake, a pizza ample enough to feed Kalamazoo, or a string of jellybeans that stretches from Paris to Rome.
In many cases, these stunts are the result of some publicist’s fevered imagination, or the belief of some citizen of India or Bangladesh that breaking a record will confer an immortality surer than religion. But all they really insure is that someone lurks somewhere ready to sleep with snakes for just one day longer, or create an even bigger tuna casserole.
Oh, how I long for farmer Jones!
(P.S. I just noticed that the new edition of the Guinness Book of World’s Records is high on the New York Times best seller list. Oh, and you can find Ripley’s web site and see what amazing stuff they’re still unearthing.)
Copyright 2016, Patrick F. Cannon