The United States of Amazing



Retiring after 33 years of building railroad boxcars, Thornton Dial of Bessemer decided in 1987 to “make art” (above). The self-taught painter and sculptor, 63, has since placed two works in the permanent collection of New York City’s Museum of American Folk Art and recently sold a canvas for a personal best $90,000.


In July Asia Keller-Tony, 30, won the Ear Pull at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks for a record third time. In the event, competitors sit face-to-face, loop reindeer sinew around each other’s ears and pull until one begs for tea and tympani. Afterward, concedes Keller-Tony, a project manager for the Alaska Native Health Board in Anchorage, her “ears are so sore, I can hardly wash my hair for a week.”


That heady fragrance enveloping Tombstone in late spring comes from Hurl on DeVere’s rosebush, the largest in the world. Planted in 1885, the single white Lady Banksia root has grown to cover more than 8,000 square feet. And exactly how main buds arc on it Replies DeVere, 80: “How’s millions?”


Sam Walton’s down-home touch, analysts agree, has made Wal-Mart, the discount chain he founded, the nation’s top retailer, with 1,573 U.S. outlets. Walton’s wealth is uncommon (estimated net worth: $21 billion), but not his taste in wheels. At 73, he still tools around his hometown of Bentonville in a ’79 pickup that has logged nearly 200,000 miles.


The odds of a golfer making a hole in one are 12,600 to 1. Since notching her first in 1981, retired civil servant Donna Duke. 60, of Camarillo (right) has added 29 more on full-length courses—the last two during a single §March round on Maui. Her gift can he a drag when she tees it up. “The last thing I want to hear is, ‘Let’s sec a hole in one.” says Duke.” Then I try too hard.


Gay Balfour, 50, of Cortez is the proud inventor of the Mother of All Mousetraps. Designed for use on the range rodents that are the scourge of ranchers, his one-of-a-kind, 28,000-pound “Dog Gone” is a street cleaner that has been modified to vacuum prairie dogs out of their burrows with tornado-force winds. “It’s better than shooting or poisoning,” insists Balfour. Easy for him to say…


Forty years ago, Dr. John Kirchner fell into the habit of saving oddments extracted by doctors at Yale—New Haven Hospital’s ear, nose and throat section. “A fellow was out with his girl and began to choke,” recalls the ex—department chief. 76. “Lots of people swallow bridgework. This fellow didn’t have any, but I pulled two teeth out—his girlfriend’s.” Other goodies: coins, peanuts, lipstick tubes and a (wrapped) razor blade. Viewing by appointment only.


The symbol of the annual Delmarva Chicken Festival in June: Warren Mumford’s skillet, a 650-pound, 10-foot-round, eight-inch-deep monster, around which two dozen cooks can deep-fry 800 chicken quarters at a time. The pan was fabricated by the Selbyville sheet-metal shop owner, 70, from durable. 11-gauge, hot-rolled steel. How durable? His first oversize skillet fried 100 Ions of chicken over 38 years.


The most decorated person on Capitol Hill is Eni Faleomavaega, 48, American Samoa’s nonvoting House delegate. Covering the skin from his stomach and lower back down to his knees is a writhing black tatau that combines bird tracks, ship markings and other ancient designs. Precious few still submit to the traditional Samoan rite of passage, a 12-day tattooing marathon that Faleomavaega likens to “open surgery without anesthesia—I didn’t think it would ever end. But if you quit, you will always be recognized as the man that never finished.”


In 1981 Dale Shields (bottom left) of Sarasota nursed a pelican back from near death—a felicity that prompted the retired ear salesman to found Pelican Man’s Bird Sanctuary. Since 1985 his volunteers have rescued and rehabbed 22,000-plus shorebirds. Despite seven coronary bypasses, Shields, 64, broke ground in June to expand his avian sanctuary.


Rudy McLaughlin, 68, and his wife. Ruth, built their dream house north of Atlanta—a 1,700-square-foot, two-bedroom Late Medieval number, complete with stone towers, moat and drawbridge—only to learn that planners wanted to raze it and ram through a six-lane highway. Light months of protests by the McLaughlins lifted the siege: Georgia 140 has been rerouted, so the retired trucker’s castle will remain his home.


Finding specimens to enter in the contest for most imaginatively bedecked cockroaches was easy: Susan Starrett, 41, merely had to draw back her shower curtain. Catching, killing and dressing the critters was harder. But for creating a surf’s-up tableau (above), Starrett and Honolulu coroner’s office colleagues Peter Saffery and Berna Riveria shared $500 (and a one-year supply of the sponsor’s roachicide).


Cascade’s Kay Arnold services the longest postal route in the continental U.S. The 22 rural homes to which he delivers are strung out over 400 miles, as the crow flies. Bush pilot Arnold, 54, prefers a Cessna T206 for making his twice-weekly, four-hour rounds and, space permitting, he ferries groceries along with the mail. On those flights, you might say, the postman also brings rice.


Terpsichore extraordinaire Michael Flatley (above right) has danced solo at Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall in London and toured as a step dancer with the Chieftains, the esteemed Irish folk musicians. But that’s not the main claim to fame of the 32-year-old from Orland Park. Flatley also happens to tap-dance a little—and in 1989 claimed the title of world’s fastest feet when they were clocked click-clacking 28 laps per second.


Much to the chagrin of Bloomington’s Harvey Phillips, 61, “people think the tuba is a silly instrument.” The Indiana University music professor has worked for two decades to erase that stigma by commissioning works for his brass behemoth and staging concerts from New York City to the White House to Los Angeles. And each year, on his 80-acre farm, he throws a week-long blowout called, naturally, “Octubafest.”


“On a good weekend,” reports Arthur Huber, 76, treasurer of the St. Anthony of Padua Chapel outside tiny Festina, “we get more than 100 visitors.” That’s still SRO at the world’s smallest Catholic church. Sponsored back in 1885 by Huber’s great-grandfather, the stone chapel measures 14 by 20 feet—barely enough space to fit four two-person pews.


Stan Herd’s art is best appreciated by those who are high-as in feet-above-sea-level high. Instead of slapping paint on canvas, the organic muralist, 40, plants the fields around Lawrence with carefully chosen seeds and waits for rain. The resulting crops don’t look very special from ground level. But from a half mile up (above left), Herd’s prairie paintings, some covering 160 acres, are complex, detailed and dazzling.


As an Air Force staff sergeant downtiming in the beer halls of post-World War II Germany, Herb Haydock began picking up sudsabilia ranging from bottles to coasters to openers. Back stateside, the paper-mill supervisor didn’t stop. In 1987 Fort Mitchell’s Oldenberg Brewing Co. bought his cache of more than 1 million items (like the papier-mâché brewery mascot, bottom left) to start a museum, installing Haydock, now 61, as its, er, head.


Just as New Orleans’s Mardi Gras draws Easter revelers, Chackbay’s Gumbo Festival is the October Mecca for devotees of Louisiana’s trademark dish. Overseeing the preparation of the 100-pound vats of stew is volunteer fire chief Fred Mars, 47. How much cream goes in the seafood gumbo? How’s the chicken-and-andouille-pork-sausage gumbo spiced? Winks Mars: “If you come down, we’ll show you how to make it.”


In 1980 Edwin Robinson of Falmouth, rendered blind and virtually deaf by a truck crash a decade earlier, was crossing his yard during a summer storm, when lightning smote him unconscious. Though bolts kill some 100 Americans a year, Robinson (right) not only got up after 30 minutes but could also see and hear again. Doctors said to “just accept it as a miracle,” recalls Robinson; now a spry 73, he motorbikes to his job as supermarket bagger.


Scrap the Soloflex and chuck those cross-trainers; Kenny Strachan, 31, of Prince George’s County has invented the ultimate conditioning tool—a $30 jump rope sold via an 800 number. Why’s an everyday item so dear? His patented rope’s adjustable length and weight enable hoppers to perform some 120 Jump-A-Ropic drills that several D.C.-area college basketball teams have adopted. The former accountant’s goal is to one day have skip-rope accepted as an Olympic event. Loopier things have happened.


Scissors last touched Diane Wilt’s hair in 1981, so small wonder that the tresses of the 5’7″ ex-model from Worcester now measure 11’6″ (below). Grooming is frankly a pain in the Rapunzel. For a simple comb-out, she must stand atop a stack of stools, and a wash-and-dry require-a hand I mm husband Huh and their two kids—as well as four hours. One compelling reason for leaving things as is: Wouldn’t trimming her four pounds of hair be shear hell?


The stone of a cherry that shot out of Joe Lessard Jr.’s mouth (above right) landed 53 feet, 1½ inches away, winning the 18-year-old from Blenheim, Ont., the 1991 International Cherry Pit Spitting Championship in Eau Claire. He owes his talent partly to genes (dad Joe Sr. captured the crown in 1986) and partly to practice (a minor-league center fielder, Joe Jr. passes the time between pitches by ptooey-ing pits).


Time was, most motorists on 1-90 sped past Exit 119 and the town at ramp’s end, Blue Earth (pop: 3,745). In 1978 citizens voted $43,000 to erect, in plain sight of the highway, a 55-foot-tall fiberglass Jolly Green Giant (right). Corny? Sure. But Blue Earth, host to one of the company’s canneries, has the last ho-ho-ho; as its mushrooming tourism trade attests, JGG’s a 24-carrot attention grabber.


In Petal, cries of “Jump, jump!” are directed not at desperadoes clinging to ledges but at players who come from three continents for matches at the International Checkers Hall of Fame. The Hall’s 100-odd kingmakers include founder Charles Walker, now 55, who in 1988 took on 201 opponents simultaneously for nearly eight hours and drew 12 boards while winning the other 189.


What does this baker’s dozen—Mikhail Baryshnikov, Dizzy Dean, Ferrante & Teicher, Katharine Hepburn, Julio Iglesias, Captain Kangaroo, Sinclair Lewis, Yehudi Menuhin, Richard Nixon, Minnie Pearl, Dr. Jonas Salk and Henny Youngman—have in common? Their embroidered signatures grace a 63-by-88-inch Irish linen tablecloth owned by Walter Light Jr., 66, of St. Louis. The unique autograph pad, begun by Light’s mother in 1929, already bears 400 names—with room for 200 more.


In two decades of wielding his metal detector, Helena’s Bud Guthrie, 52, has unearthed 4,000-plus gold nuggets. Pride of his collection: the 5½-pound rock—valued at $75,000—he found in 1989 while prospecting north of Phoenix. “The Museum of Natural History in New York City wanted to display it,” shrugs Guthrie, “but that’s too far to go for show and tell.”


You could say Cliff Hillegass, 73, of Lincoln, reinvented the Pony Express. Since 1958. 101 million students who couldn’t face their reading assignments have bought his hypercondensed, bright yellow-and-black study guides. The top three Cliffs Notes best-sellers don’t lack for sex and violence: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth.


Six years ago British-born Sylvia Renee Lyss said goodbye to lounge lizards and hello to homeless cats. After headlining Las Vegas casino productions for some two decades, the hoofer, now 49, traps and feeds stray felines, then arranges neutering. Having also rescued injured dogs, birds and even turtles on her nightly rounds, Lyss says, “I’m grateful there are no dinosaurs around.”


Alton’s Florence Holway, 76, prefers to celebrate the moments of her life not with a camera but with an artist’s tools. “I keep a record in watercolor and pencil of what goes on in the family,” says Holway, who at 8 began limning kin and friends—and births, proms, weddings and parties—in every medium from pen-and-ink to oil. Asked to count her works, which are exhibited locally, she smiles: “Hundreds and hundreds.”


To reach pet owners with her pro-neutering message, Bloom-field animal groomer Lee Day, 37, first needs to gain their attention. Which is why she’s publicly baptized a parrot, “bark mitzvahed” a poodle named Harvey and married not only penguins at Orlando’s Sea World (yes, both bride and groom wore tuxes), but also Tammy Faye Bakker’s Yorkie, Corkie.


As far back as 1000 B.C., Native Americans began incising the black basalt walls of a mesa west of Albuquerque with carvings. In 1985 environmental activist Ike Eastvold, now 50, began lobbying to save those petroglyphs—in all, some 15,000 animals, masks and spiral designs—from developers. He achieved victory last year: George Bush signed a bill that placed the primitive artwork under federal protection.


Ex—maintenance worker ken Elkin was manning one of the brand-new tollbooths outside Albany when the Gov. Thomas E. Dewey Thruway opened on June 24, 1954. Retiring in 1975, he immediately signed on as a part-time tollkeep and at age 81 still puts in 20-hour weeks. “I like to deal with people,” explains Elkins, who in his career has also relieved them of an estimated $3.5 million in dimes and quarters.


Before phones, recalls Ermon Godwin Jr., 63, his Spiveys Corner neighbors communicated via lung power: “When a man hollered, another man could hear him a mile away. They were basically saying, ‘Hey, Jim, this is Joe.’ ” To preserve that tradition, in 1968 the retired banker founded the National Hollerin’ Contest (for men only; women compete in Calling). Does Godwin himself raise his voice? Only, he says, “when Mama-gets after me with a rolling pin.”


Henry Luehr, 71, of Pettibone, abhors waste, so he spent four years recycling the wood from an abandoned grain elevator into an eight-story pagoda that juts an arresting 82 feet above the rolling prairie. So proud is the retired construction worker and rancher of the building’s details (gleaned from back National Geographies and World Book Encyclopedias) that he proclaims, “It’s not Japanese or Vietnamese but a Chinese pagoda—look it up.”


Since Hamilton’s founding in 1791, its illustrious daughters and sons have ranged from novelist Fannie Hurst to current Family Feud host Ray Combs. None has done more to gain his hometown celebrity than Stewart Jones. In 1986 the ad man, now 72, convinced municipal fathers to set their city apart from the 22 other identically named U.S. towns by appending an official exclamation point. Question: Doesn’t Hamilton! belong in Oklahoma! ?


During World-War II, Boise City was the only U.S. town to be bombed. No, not by the Japanese but by a stray B-17 on a training run from Dalhart Army Air Field in Texas. Luckily the practice bombs injured no one, and now town historian Norma Gene Young, 66 (who slept through the air raid) is helping organize a golden anniversary bash: “Instead of wiping us off the map,” she explains, “the bombing put us on the map.”


Deborah Lacayo, 33, of Cottage Grove, carves from toothpicks Dr. Ruth-size works (left) that fetch Babe Ruthian prices: 82,500 for Wizard of Oz and Robin Hood sets containing five characters, each of which measures three-eighths of an inch. Lacayo took up surgical scalpel and dog hair (for applying paint) a decade ago while hospitalized for cancer. By comparison, her mother, a doll-house miniaturist, comes off as something of a log Lady.


When Betty James saw the supple torsion spring that marine engineer husband Richard brought home, she named it Slinky. Forty-six years later, Betty, now 73, still presides over the Hollidaysburg plant that coils 65 feet of half-inch wire into one 11-ounce toy. Of the millions of Slinkys sold, one even made it off-planet: in 1985 Discovery shuttlenauts unwound with it, even absent the gravity that tugs it down stairs.


Just as coal miners used canaries to warn them of deadly gases, Jamie Williams, 29, an agricultural engineer for a watchdog group, hit upon employing common tropical plants to sense toxic chemicals dumped into Providence’s sewers. When Williams’s water hyacinths, rubber plants and elephant ears begin to wither, he says, “there are heavy metals in the system.” Or Guns N’ Roses playing a subterranean gig?


Button, button, Dalton Stevens of Bishopsville has the button—and then some. In 1983, “to keep from worrying my wife,” the insomaniacal product tester began passing the still watches of the night affixing buttons to a pair of pants. Therapy soon became all-consuming. Having glued 100,000 buttons on his car and 50,000 on his coffin. Stevens, 61 (below), is “working now on my hearse.”


You might call Hill City’s Bob Crisman, 42, dermatologist to the presidents. Every autumn since 1976, the National Parks Serviceman has touched up the 60-foot-high faces of the Mount Rushmore Four (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt) by dangling from a cable anchored atop the monument. This year he’s taking six weeks to fill cracks in the granite with a new silicone caulking. Marvels Crisman: “It’s sculpture of the grandest scale—I can stand on a nose!”


Low-power TV station W10BV of Ethridge airs no bad news. “Let NBC, ABC and all them folks carry that stuff,” says owner-programmer-producer-engineer-reporter-camera-person Sarah Evetts (right). Instead she fills up 24 ad-free hours a day with home videos of graduations, family reunions and church sings (and, when needed, whatever’s on Channel 26 in nearby Florence, Ala.). Nor will Evetts publish a schedule: “As long as they don’t know what we’re gonna do,” she says, “they’ll sit and watch.”


Before signing his first baseball contract, Nolan Ryan of Akin (above) cagily persuaded the New York Mets to pay for college after he retired. Still pitching 26 years later—having become only the 20th hurler to win 300 games and having set records for no-hitters (7), strikeouts (5,300-plus) and walks (2,600-plus)—Ryan, 44, allows that “It’s a little late to take them up on it.”


In 1985 Salt Lake City business consultant Jennie Dudley spotted a family living under a city overpass. Every Sunday morning since, she has returned to cook breakfast for the homeless. Dudley, 60, now manager of a thrift shop, and dozens of volunteers contribute the $600 worth of victuals (85 dozen eggs, 50 pounds of sausage, 200 loaves of bread and 60 gallons of coffee) needed to feed as many as 600 beneficiaries.


Designer dung? That’s what the Biruttas of Groton—John, 43, and Gale, 39—process from the wastes deposited by their five llamas. (They raise the Andean ungulates to serve as pack animals for mountaineers but also sell off 2,400 pounds of ordure annually.) “It goes a long way,” says Gale of the odorless, nitrogen-rich product. It must, since organic gardeners who buy “Llama Au Naturele Organic Fertilizer” in two-pound bags could, for the same $9.95, cart home a ton of cow manure.


In the 45 years that Melvin Wyatt has lived at 301 E. Leigh St. in Richmond, the two-story house just off an I-64 exit has been rammed by two dozen-plus speeding cars. “I can only measure how often by all the chips out of the wall—I know it’s over 20 times,” says the former truck driver, 63, who nonetheless has no plans to move. “I ain’t worried about getting hurt. They have to go through brick to get to me.”


Seattle was willing to fund a performance-art project if Alan Lande, 45, could hit upon the right concept. How about Quantum Leaping into yesteryear by turning off all lights for 15 minutes? No. Well then, how about having him shake hands with each city resident? Again, no. Pitch three proved the winner. Having asked Seattleites to submit 3-by 5-inch snapshots of themselves, Lande will unveil in December a 19,000-square-foot collage—art fit for “the largest refrigerator door in America,” he jokes—that will be a 100,000-strong group portrait of the city.


Other U.S. jockeys have ridden many more mounts than Willie Clark’s 10,630, but none can match his 45 years in the saddle. Having finished in the money almost 2,500 times and survived fractures of the skull, collarbone, spine, hands, ankles and feet, the Charles Town resident finally hung up his silks in September at age 69—shortly after a 30-day suspension for reckless riding. “It wasn’t,” grumps Clark. “The riding today, it’s too sissified.”


Margaret Ludwig, 44, of Bayfield, knows fauna like Bo knows sports. The only female tracker on a University of Wisconsin-funded black-bear project, she numbers among her duties visiting caves to see which hibernating sows are pregnant. In addition Ludwig does the census of the Apostle Islands National Lake Shore. Her specialty is amphibians; this Rosie the Ribbiter can identify the mating calls of 11 frog species and is able to estimate the population of each In gauging croak decibels.


By day, David Wimp doctors the lawns of Riverton. Nights and weekends since 1982, he’s been hunkered over an adding machine keying in, one by one, every number from 1 to 5,000,000—then carefully saving the tape as proof of his prestidigitation. Tape to date: 20 miles. Most productive day: Feb. 26, 1989 (7,070 entries). Current ETA: Christmas, 1992. Shrugs the thrice-divorced Wimp, 46: “It’s a hobby.”

—TONY CHIU; with bureaus

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