The greatest thrill in human history was that of a nine-year-old
with a paperback copy of the Guinness Book of World Records.
Forgive the superlative, but for those of us fortunate to be
fourth-graders in the Golden Age of Guinness it was the -est of
times: The world's smallest woman, the world's longest
fingernails, the world's fattest twins--all were there, in
black-and-white photographs, in that annual compendium worn thin
by our trembling fingertips.
The twins, of course, were Billy Leon and Benny Loyd McCrary,
professional wrestlers memorably pictured in cowboy hats, on
motorcycles, riding away from the camera. (The 723-pound Benny
was the skinny one, 743-pound Billy the husky one.) The world's
tallest man, Robert Pershing Wadlow, was an 8'11" pituitary
giant, who died at age 22 of an infected foot boil, a problem
when your feet are size 37-AA. (Although Wadlow was buried in a
coffin encased in concrete to foil grave-robbing anatomists, a
California museum claims to have his skeleton.) And who could
forget Robert Earl Hughes? Certainly not his tailor, for the
1,067-pound Breman, Ind., native (and world's heaviest man)
always wore bib overalls in Guinness and was buried--as every
new edition felt compelled to report--in a modified piano case.
Benny Loyd McCrary, Robert Pershing Wadlow, Robert Earl
Hughes--the physical oddities in Guinness were always afforded
the same first, middle, last name treatment bestowed upon serial
killers and assassins. It may be a measure of our enlightenment
as a species that hardly anybody uses Shaquille O'Neal's middle
name, Rashaun. Shaq, as the 2002 edition of Guinness notes,
would be dwarfed by the tallest basketball player on record, 8'
1/4" Suleiman' Ali Nashnush, center on the 1962 Libyan national
team. Nashnush is believed to have died in the late 1970s. If he
is now riding out eternity, Wadlow-style, in a spot-welded
sarcophagus, the good people of Guinness do not say.
The Guinness book was started by the Irish brewery in 1955 as a
way to settle bets in British pubs. Although the stout maker
sold its publishing division last summer, the Guinness book
remains, having morphed from a thick, airport-thriller-sized
paperback in its mid-'70s heyday into its current edition, the
48th, which is as big as your high school yearbook--and every
bit as weirdo-filled.
Gone are the famous photographs of Wadlow and the Indian man,
Shridhar Chillal, who still hasn't cut his fingernails since
1952. In their place are some diverting new heroes. Did you know
that the most concrete blocks ever smashed in a "groin break" is
two, which were stacked on a man's groin and then destroyed with
a sledgehammer three years ago in Los Angeles. It seems only
fair that the record is held not by the man who brandished the
sledgehammer but by the man who brandished the groin--Cliff
Flenoy, who appears, disappointingly, to be bereft of a middle
The new Guinness informs us that Michael Wilson of the Harlem
Globetrotters dunked last year on a 12-foot hoop. (Why haven't
we seen that footage played, ad nauseam, among the waterskiing
squirrels at the end of our local newscasts?) The fastest round
of golf by an individual--with the ball coming to rest before
each stroke--remains the 27 minutes and nine seconds required by
James Carvill at the 6,154-yard Warrenpoint Golf Course in
County Down, Ireland. What did he shoot? Did he stop, at points
along the way, for a hot dog and a beer and a leisurely leak in
the woods? Guinness is silent on such questions, maintaining its
mysterious allure by showing us only so much leg.
That's not entirely true, either. The book shows us pretty much
all 49 3/4" of Sam Stacey's legs--she's English, a 17-year-old
Steffi Graf look-alike with the world's longest gams. We are
clued into all manner of stadium superstars: a group of Brits
who formed a three-mile-long Wave; an American woman who nasally
inflated a bubblegum bubble to a diameter of 11 inches; and a
truly unsung hero, Daniel Lambert of Sweden, who opened 50
crown-cap beer bottles with his teeth in a single glorious
minute last March.
True, we are inexplicably deprived pictorial evidence of Kalyan
Ramji Sain's 11-foot-long mustache, but we get, in exchange,
Pierre (Mr. Gumby) Beauchemin, the world's most elastic man, who
enjoys stretching his neck skin over his mouth to create a human
turtleneck. Guinness may have consigned the McCrary twins et al.,
to the piano-case-coffin of history. That's O.K. Time moves on.
The book's still got legs.