I first learned about celebrity when I was a kid in Arizona. And this wasn’t from the movies or primitive early television broadcasts. My dad was reading the evening Tucson Daily Citizen when he chuckled and put down the newspaper. “Here’s someone you should know, Teddy.”
He called my attention to a man who had achieved some notice–at least dad had noticed him. L.V. Voss, the celebrity in question, had just trotted into town. I say “trotted” because he arrived from Los Angeles on foot, pulling a rickshaw-like cart containing all his possessions. He had just completed, he said, a 13-month trek from the Canadian border.
Living on 50 cents a day and calling himself “professor,” Mr. Voss claimed expertise in diet and health and lived a vegetarian life. He bragged of limitless stamina, challenging all comers to any feat of endurance. This was long before health-nuts fell from the trees.
Dad read on: “Mr. Voss has deeply bronzed skin, shoulder-length white hair and wears a little less clothing than a bathing beauty.” It was rumored that he sunbathed nude. At 71, the learned professor roamed the West searching for his future mate which he described as “a normal woman fit to love, age 21.” Only when he had found her would he end his wanderings.
Prof. Voss achieved his regional fame by staging feats of impressive strength. He was photographed pulling a delivery truck twenty-five yards, his lean muscles taut with confident determination.
As a coda to the Professor’s story, dad later read that his career had hit a bump when he was demonstrating how he could pull an automobile with his long white hair. He usually did this with the brake off and the car in neutral. Unfortunately, some wisenheimer, as dad put it, had left the car in low gear and Professor Voss underwent a painful hair restyling. Fortunately for the vigorous professor, the press cameras missed the moment, although the incident made the evening paper. Twenty years later, at age 91, the scantily clad gentleman was still searching for his mate.
It was at about the time Professor Voss first came into my view that my brother Mike and I made one of our several hair-brained attempts to make our mark, achieve fame, set a record or something. I was six years old and Mike was nine when, without knowing it, we joined the vanguard of what was later to become the wall climbing fad. As it happened, our climbing careers ended as quickly as they began–mine in a painful catastrophe and Mike’s in laughter at my misfortune.
We were living in a one-story ranch style house that my parents had helped design in a modest Tucson neighborhood aspirationally named North Campbell Estates. The design called for the bricks to be laid in a randomly offset pattern and whitewashed to create a Mexican ranchero effect. The uneven bricks also created an irresistible challenge for two young boys lacking common sense. It was a simple idea: scramble around the house by clinging to the uneven wall surface – without touching the ground. Whoever made it the farthest, won. No prize was named. It never was in these competitions.
Mike and I had tried this stunt in daylight with varying degrees of success. But the final round came one night after we had gone to bed and were supposed to be sleeping. While Mom and Dad read quietly in the living room, we put on our sneakers and climbed out our bedroom window. Mike ascended the wall first and clawed his way up the bricks until he was about a foot off the desert sand. I followed closely behind. We inched our way along slowly, filled with a crazy sense of achievement. As the rules dictated, our feet were not touching the ground.
And then the adventure went sideways for me or, rather, backwards. My fingers lost their hold. I didn’t exactly fall because my feet were barely above the ground to begin with. Rather I sat into a small cactus garden my mother had planted on the side of the house. More specifically, I landed on the horribly misnamed Teddy Bear cactus, more commonly known as the “jumping cholla.”
From a distance, these fiendish plants look fuzzy, but in fact they are a mass of easily detachable arms that are covered with thousands of finely barbed needles. If you merely brush against them, they latch on to you through clothing and shoes. It is almost as if they jump on you. Well, it didn’t have to wait for me to saunter too closely by to make its move. I sat on it.
How to handle the resulting emergency was complicated by the fact that Mike and I were not supposed to be out of the house at night. Plus, Dad had expressly forbidden us to climb on the brick structure at any time. And as always, this misadventure was weighed down by the thick mass of crushing stupidity that surrounded many of my brightest schemes. If experience has taught me one thing, though, it is this: When your ideas blow up, it is a good time to be team spirited about sharing credit for their creation.
As I cried in pain, Mike tried to figure out a way to remove the clump of jumping cholla branches that had attached themselves through my pajamas firmly and painfully to my butt. He could do nothing without ensnaring his fingers, so we were forced to seek help from Mom and Dad. This was humiliating in all kinds of ways.
I spent the next hour and a half bent over my father’s knee. Using a desk lamp, a large magnifying glass, tweezers and needle nose pliers, Dad plucked hundreds of the tiny barbed needles out one by one. Periodically, Mike would poke his head in the door and laugh uncontrollably.
“It’s not funny,” I wailed.
“Stop that, Michael. You’re not helping,” mother said.
In truth, Mom was unsympathetic to my plight because we had disobeyed Dad, but she dutifully helped with the surgery by holding the lamp and magnifying glass trying to suppress a smile. She didn’t have to say, “I told you so.” I had a buttful of quills memorably making the point.
I was reminded of this incident recently when Anders and I watched “Free Solo.” It’s a documentary about Alex Honnold who climbed the face of El Capitain in June, 2017, using only his hands and feet and powered solely by his adrenaline addiction. Watching him scramble up the dangerous rock wall like a creature with suction cups on his toes and fingers gave fresh and vivid meaning to the overused phase “hanging on by your fingertips.” If you haven’t done what Honnold did, you are not allowed to use that expression anymore. Because of my Tucson wall experience, I am allowed to say it, but only very quietly in empty rooms. I should point out, however, that I have earned the lifetime right to say–with expert authority–“pain in the ass.”
Chronicling Honnold’s truly death-defying performance, the documentary asks the inevitable question, “Why?” He answers with the equally inevitable, “Because it was there.” Of course, that is the same reason engineers give for building a road around a mountain.
It’s puzzling the things people will do to make their mark, win a competition, get attention or stand out from the crowd. In the Alps where we have a cabin, each summer l’Ultra Montée is an event that gives intrepid compulsives a chance to win a modicum of acclaim. On the appointed day, athletes run up a very steep trail on the face of the Memises mountains. This is adjacent to the cliff that forced Caesar approaching from the opposite side to halt his march, turn around and find another way forward leaving behind the designation, Mont César. Rock outcroppings can achieve notoriety just by being there.
Having reached the top of the course, the runners do not pause to enjoy the view over Lake Geneva, Les Dents d’Oche or the Jura. Nor do they have a beer and bad hamburger there in the worst restaurant in France – a different sort of distinction . No, they take the telecabine to the bottom and then run up again. And again. It is as if Sisyphus got his bolder to the summit and then chucked it down the hill so he could repeat his feat. The winner of l’Ultra Montée is the one that sprints to the top the most times in 8 hours without cardiac arrest. Up-chucking is not considered a demerit. Why do they do it? Beats me.
On the scale of pointless competitions, I tilt toward eating marathons. Every year at Coney Island there is a contest to see who can eat the most hotdogs in 10 minutes. This challenge is met with a determination only just short of the quest for a cancer cure.
Organized by Major League Eating (MLE) and sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), the Hot Dog Eating Contest is broadcast on CSPAN. You may not be aware that the founders of IFOCE also produced “The Glutton Bowl” on Fox TV because the show vanished like a puff of flatulence after its one and only airing. Too bad because the event featured 12-minute competitions such as downing quarter-pound sticks of butter and gobbling cow brain. (The winner of the bovine challenge triumphed by consuming ten and half pounds. And we think cows are stupid.)
But it’s the Hot Dog Eating Contest that remains the jewel in the crown of Major League Eating. The defending men’s champion is Joey Chestnut. “His appetite is legendary and he shows no signs of slowing down.” Joey won the Mustard Belt in 2019 by downing 71 hot dogs but to his fans’ disappointment was not able to match his world record of 74. Joey has been awarded the Mustard Belt 11 times. Watching the final laps of this competition on Youtube I can hear my mother’s voice saying, “That’s not normal.”
As fame seekers go, one of my favorites is Annie Edson Taylor, an unsung women’s lib pioneer. A teacher struggling to get by on her own after her husband died, Annie concocted a stunt to bring herself notoriety and, she hoped, a comfortable retirement. She decided she would be the first person to plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live to talk about it.
Not a complete fool, Annie used her housecat as a guinea pig and sent it over the falls in a crudely cushioned barrel as a test. The surprised animal survived, so Annie decided to give it a go herself.
On her 63rd birthday in 1901, she climbed into the white oak pickle barrel that she had designed for the journey. Annie had padded the inside with a mattress and added two leather straps to keep herself from bouncing around too much, a design refinement suggested, perhaps, by the cat. A 200-pound anvil was placed in the bottom of the container as ballast to keep it as upright as possible while it bobbed its way over the falls.
And off she went.
When Annie was fished out of the river below, the plucky teacher was uninjured except for some bleeding from her head. She later reflected on her remarkable feat for future generations of daredevils: “I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the fall.” The cat’s reflections on its experience are unrecorded.
In a repeat of an old story, Annie’s manager absconded with the famous barrel, her fortune failed to materialize and, although she did achieve some notoriety, Annie died impoverished.
I have to admit that these days my own competitive ambitions have cooled considerably since my youthful daredevil days. Even if I had a notion to do something physically challenging or with a hint of danger, I am restrained by something a great man once told me and that I pass on to you.
At the end of each session, my twerking coach would always caution: “Be careful. You could break something important.”