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A few months ago, this magazine published photographs from the portfolio of Robert Natkin, a local photographer who worked in the 1940s and 1950s. Natkin trained his lens mostly on hardened city people and landscapes, and his work resonated with the black-and-white urgency of an artist who believed he was shooting stories, not subjects. My job was to write a short essay to accompany his work. Most of the photos were slice-of-life Chicago: poor folk; bathing beauties; a jailbird; factory workers. One photo, however, seemed misplaced, as if it had wandered from a different collection and had settled into Natkin’s book for the night. It showed a rail-thin young farmer playing checkers with a very heavy man. I recognized the large man immediately. He was Robert Earl Hughes, and I knew him from The Guinness Book of World Records. I remembered his weight—1,041 pounds—and another odd detail that had lingered in my memory since childhood: Hughes had been buried in a piano case.
There is much to behold in the photo—piled rolls of flesh, a five-foot-wide chair, tent-size overalls, brotherhood. I did not think to write about any of that. I stared at the picture for much of the day, and when I considered how to describe such a scene, one thought kept returning. I knew the heavy man was lonely.
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My dad was fat. At the time I was born, he stood 5 feet 11 and weighed 280 pounds. Like many little boys, I worshiped my father. He was a traveling salesman, and my first memory of him is from a business trip we took together when I was four. We had stopped outside a steak house for dinner, and as his business partner, he allowed me to help close the car trunk. I slammed my thumb in the trunk lid and it began to swell. My dad took me inside the restaurant, using his stomach to push past the long line of waiting customers until we reached the bar, where he ordered a glass of Coke in which I could soak my finger. When the ice melted, he ordered another Coke. At four, the world is a rush of ominous faces, fantastic noises, and dangerous happenings. At four, my father’s size struck me as the perfect protection against a place so large as the world.
I took many more road trips with my dad (my job was to read the maps, watch the gas, and tell my share of stories). Out across America, I noticed that people treated him differently; they were nervous around him, anxious to get away from him, and I remember thinking as the years and trips passed that a person could get lonely being fat in America, that my father looked lonely in America. When customers joked about his weight, I had to will myself not to blubber, even though I was studying karate magazines and playing Little League baseball and becoming a pretty tough young guy. In hotel restaurants, when my dad thought I was still in the bathroom, I peeked around corners to watch him slathering dinner rolls with whipped butter, even though he told me he never used butter, it was too fattening. I remember that he didn’t look lonely when he ate those buttered rolls.
I began to look into the life of Robert Earl Hughes. I checked libraries, the Internet, bookstores, magazines. Though his picture in the Guinness Book was familiar to millions worldwide, little was known of him, save for his hometown (Fishhook, Illinois) and the year he had died (1958). I started digging. The skinny man playing checkers in the photo turned out to be Robert Earl’s brother, who was alive and living on a small Missouri farm. I found his telephone number. Yes, the brother told me, if I’d like to drive some 300 miles, I could ask about Robert Earl—might even be a few other folks around who remembered him. I hadn’t been on a road trip since my father died of a heart attack in 1995, but I collected my maps and checked my gas, and set out to find Robert Earl Hughes.
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Fishhook, Illinois, is too tiny even for some mapmakers. Located about 300 miles southwest of Chicago near the state’s westernmost tip, the town claims the same general store, two churches, and one-room schoolhouse it did in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Hughes family called it home. Four of Fishhook’s 29 current residents have agreed to meet me at the general store, where they remember the Hughes family trading eggs and cream, socializing, and bringing their eldest son by horse-drawn wagon to be weighed on the platform scale. First, however, they recommend that I stop at the Pike County Historical Society in nearby Pittsfield to view a collection of local newspaper clips.
The historical society opens mostly by appointment in winter, and it is not heated. One board member, a retired high school history teacher, says that if I can stand the cold (most folks can’t) and want to read the miles of yellowed news clippings spread across ancient wooden tables, I may avail myself of the life of Robert Earl Hughes.
Three hours later and steeped in the outline of Hughes’s life, I arrive at the Fishhook general store. The four residents, including the widow of the long-time owner, have cleared a table in the back, where crinkle-cut snapshots of Robert Earl sit piled in a corner for my consideration. The store, they regret, is smaller than it was in its glory days in the 1940s and 1950s, when the town depended on it for meat, milk, shoes, feed, britches, and hammers; when the upstairs room hosted wedding receptions and lodge meetings; and when children paid 12 cents each to sit on benches and watch Gene Autry movies. For two hours, these people reach back into their lives to remember their friend Robert Earl, and by the time I leave for my hotel, the giant man from the Guinness Book has stepped from the gallery of freaks and oddities frozen with him on those pages, and ambled forward as a living, breathing human being.
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