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Heavy

By the time he died at 32 in 1958, Robert Earl Hughes of tiny Fishhook, Illinois, weighed more than 1,000 pounds, earning a place in The Guinness Book of World Records as the largest man on earth. Except for his neighbors and family, few people knew much about his life until recently, when an astonishing photograph sent the author in search of Hughes’s real story: Raised in a sharecropper’s cabin, trapped in­side half a ton of flesh, this literate, companionable young man had dreamed of seeing the world. Aside from some carnival tours and one disastrous trip to New York, he never lived his dream. But in his short life, he found something else.

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Georgia Hughes of Lewis County, Missouri, was 20 when she gave birth to her first son, nine-pound Robert Earl, in 1926. At the time, Lewis County was known to be the proud home of Miss Ella Ewing, and while not as celebrated as Mark Twain of nearby Hannibal, Miss Ewing owned her own claim to fame—at eight feet four, she was believed to be the tallest woman who had ever lived.

Not long after Robert Earl was born, Georgia Hughes and her 48-year-old husband, Abe, crossed the Mississippi and moved to a farm near Fishhook—they were sharecroppers, and moved frequently to promising farms. The Illinois property, severed from town by a rough-running creek, was virtually inaccessible by automobile, but that wouldn’t matter much—the family was poor, and could afford neither electricity nor running water, let alone a car. When Robert Earl was a few months old, he began to cough—a bit at first, then full-out, violently, for weeks. Doctors diagnosed a case of whooping cough, typically a monthlong hell of unrelenting hacking trademarked by a desperate “whoop” sound on the intake. Today, children are vaccinated against whooping cough, but on the farm in 1926, young Robert Earl could only cough and wait and cough some more.

Eventually, Robert Earl’s cough faded, and life returned to normal. Over the next couple of years, Georgia gave birth to two more boys, Guy and Donald, and while the family remained poor, life on the Hughes farm tasted sweet for its simplicity. As Robert Earl made his way through infancy, his mother noticed that he grew faster than many children, maybe faster than any child should. By the time he reached two, Robert Earl was round enough to cause his father to fetch a doctor, who theorized that the boy’s violent coughs had damaged his pituitary gland, a hormone center at the base of the brain that effects growth. Medical science, the doctor confessed, was helpless to correct it. No one could say how big the boy might grow.

By the time Robert Earl entered the first grade at age seven, he stood a few inches taller than his classmates, but weighed at least 225 pounds, about the same as his teacher, a grown man. Abe took to walking his sons to their one-room school, careful not to allow Robert Earl to become stuck in the muddy paths that led from farm to town. Today, a kid so desperately heavy would be brutalized by classmates, but to the eyes of the kids of Fishhook, who had known and seen and played with Robert Earl every day of their lives, he did not appear different, just bigger. “He was a little heavy, sure, but that never worried us,” recalls Marian Wagner, a childhood friend. “We never mentioned it. Who would think of mistreating him? He was too kind. He was always upbeat and laughing and having fun with everyone, so why would someone think of hurting him?” When the roly-poly boy could no longer run or jump with his peers, they invented new games that suited or even featured him, and if the object at recess was to “get Earl down,” why, you’d better believe that Robert Earl was laughing hardest of all while he whirled in circles to bat away his mates. It never occurred to Fishhook children, separated from the faster world by income, geography, and opportunity, to tease a boy who was so much like them.

Most Saturdays, the Hughes family would travel to the general store, where they would trade their farm goods for life’s essentials. When he was ten, Robert Earl stepped for the first time on the store’s platform scale, where the owner, Gerald Kurfman, added counterweights, then more counterweights, before announcing a reading of 378 pounds. Word spread to neighboring counties about the heavy lad in Fishhook. A doctor who came to examine Robert Earl told his parents that the boy would likely die by 15—that no heart could stand such stress. After that, Robert Earl avoided doctors whenever possible; he thought they were interested only in experimenting on him. While the Hughes family continued to visit the store, no one remembers Georgia watching Robert Earl’s calories or scolding him for coveting marshmallows or treating him differently in any way than she treated his brothers.

At school, Robert Earl leapfrogged his peers in reading and writing, and startled teachers with a memory that bordered on eerie. “If he read something or met someone, he would remember it forever,” says Harry Manley, 77, who worked for a couple of years in the general store. “He only needed one time.” Robert Earl sat in a specially constructed chair reinforced with wires. Every month that chair got tighter and tighter, and every month the boy seemed to get smarter and smarter, to know more about the world and its odd places with strange names. By 12, Kurfman had weighed him at 500 pounds, and Robert Earl had taken to carrying a gallon of milk and two loaves of bread to school every day for lunch. In the fifth grade, while walking home from school, Robert Earl fell into a muddy ditch and had to be pulled out with a tractor and belts by the town’s men. “It scared us all so terribly,” recalls Gladys Still, a childhood friend who watched the rescue. Though the boy never spoke of dying, kids knew he wasn’t supposed to live long, and they remember that day as the first time they were scared for the life of their friend.

By age 14, Robert Earl weighed nearly 550 pounds and could not move well. Once the epicenter of recess fun, he now watched from a sideline bench reinforced by two-by-fours as his classmates frolicked. His school chair no longer held him. Muddy roads had become quicksand to his potbellied legs. Since his family owned no vehicle with which to drive him to school, Robert Earl quit at the end of seventh grade to help his mother, who had become his best friend, with chores around the house.

In the United States, very young children rate drawings of fat children more negatively than they do drawings of children with disabilities.

Nursery schoolers asked to view drawings of children who are in wheelchairs, on crutches, without limbs, disfigured, or obese say that they like the amputee and obese children least.

American children prefer thin rag dolls to fat rag dolls; even fat children prefer thin dolls.

Fat children in the United States are less likely than others to receive best-friend ratings from their classmates.

By second grade, American children use these words to describe the silhouette of a fat child: dirty; lazy; sloppy; ugly; and stupid.

Fat students are less likely to attend college despite high standardized test scores.

Fat students are more likely to be refused letters of recommendation from faculty.

College students rate fat people last as potential marriage partners, behind embezzlers, cocaine users, shoplifters, and blind people.

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Knowledge thrilled Robert Earl, but now, at 15 and nearing 600 pounds, he was unable to attend school or stray from the farm. Simple tasks had become cumbersome: to put on shoes, he needed to sit on the edge of his six-legged bed, then pull one of his legs up and onto the side of the bed, where he would work his shoe over his size ten foot; Guy bathed Robert Earl daily with sponges, because the family had no running water and Robert Earl could not reach many parts of his body.

Robert Earl adored his mother, and they awoke early—she to help dress him in the freshest-smelling, morning-dried work shirt and overalls, he to help her wash dishes, peel fruit, and pitch hay. Those who knew him insist he ate as much as a strapping grown man, but no more. His thirst, on the other hand, was titanic, and his brothers found themselves constantly breaking from chores to bring water to Robert Earl. As his weight continued to constrict the physical boundaries of his universe, Robert Earl began to read voraciously—National Geographic, Life, Westerns, mysteries, travelogues—until he had imported vast chunks of the world onto the real estate of his imagination. At the general store on Saturdays, he would make his way to the special reinforced chair Mr. Kurfman had built and painted a fine shade of green, and oh, could that boy talk about anything! Customers brought Robert Earl the latest magazines and back issues. “Whatever reading material people had, they’d bring and leave for Robert Earl,” says Mary Emma Kurfman, whose husband owned the store. “He appreciated it so much, and he read everything.” People bought him marshmallows and cookies, too, not because fat boys needed sweets, but because they knew his family couldn’t afford the extras, and boys—especially such pleasant boys—shouldn’t go without extras forever.

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Months passed and Robert Earl continued to expand. By 16, he stood five feet nine and weighed 600 pounds. To the folks in Fishhook, Robert Earl’s weight had become as natural an evolution as the beard now sprouting from his brother Guy’s face. Those outside the community were less reserved in their reaction to word of the nearby fat boy. Residents of surrounding counties began to dip their toes inside the general store—“Might you know where the Hughes lad lives?”—and Kurfman would draw them a detailed map, complete with creek. Those people made their way and knocked on the door, and Robert Earl was always happy to see them, always smiled for those cameras he dreamed of owning, always talked about whatever place his guests were going next or current event that caused them worry. When a local newspaperman wrote of visiting the Hughes farm, he described Robert Earl as a “wonderful conversationalist” and remarked on the boy’s “pleasant personality and sense of humor.” The daily paper was so impressed it sent Robert Earl a free subscription, which he devoured every morning.

During trips to the general store, Robert Earl rode in the back of the family’s horse-drawn wagon, holding its wooden sides with marbled arms that rippled retorts to bumps in the town’s rutted roads. Visitors continued to flock to Fishhook as word spread about the fat boy who never frowned, and some suggested that he “show” at the various festivals that become the focal point of autumn country life. In 1946, at age 20, Robert Earl and his family made a trip to the Baylis Fall Festival, where he pushed the scale past 700 pounds. He attracted a crush of observers, sold 160 photos of himself, then took orders for more. By day’s end, he had grossed $240.03, and earned the attention of fast talkers with dollars in their eyes. No, Georgia told the hucksters and anglers, Robert Earl will not be made a regular carnival attraction, carted from town to town to be displayed before the public. The money would have been manna to the Hughes family, but Georgia could not bear the idea of her son as spectacle; she would never allow people to stare.

One Saturday evening in 1947, while in his backyard, a neighbor heard a faint cry from Robert Earl. The neighbor dashed to his truck and drove to the Hughes farm, where Georgia lay on the floor, her mop and bucket nearby. A doctor was summoned. Robert Earl sat despondent that he could do no more to help his mother than yell into the country air—he couldn’t run to help her.

Early the next morning, Georgia died from a stroke. Now 21 years old and 754 pounds, Robert Earl was without his best friend. And the world has a way of changing when you lose your mother and your best friend in the same day.

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