The Man Who Ate the 747 - By Ben Sherwood


This is the story of the greatest love, ever.

An outlandish claim, outrageous perhaps, but trust me. I know about these things. You see, I was Keeper of the Records for The Book of Records. I sifted through the extravagant claims of the tallest, the smallest, the fastest, the slowest, the oldest, the youngest, the heaviest, the lightest, and everyone in between.

I authenticated greatness.

In rain forests, deserts, mud huts, and mansions, I watched men and women bounce on pogo sticks, catch grapes in their mouths, flip tiddlywinks, toss cow chips, and balance milk bottles on their heads. They demanded recognition. They insisted on a special place in history. It was my responsibility to identify the worthy.

In New York, I observed Kathy Wafler shaving the longest single unbroken apple peel in history, measuring 172 feet 4 inches. In Sri Lanka, I timed Arulanantham Suresh Joachim balancing on one foot for 76 hours 40 minutes. Our rules of verification are most stringent, and I made sure Mr. Joachim’s free foot never rested on his standing foot and that he never used any object for support or balance. In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, I certified that Dimitry Kinkladze lifted 105 pounds 13 ounces of weights strapped to his ears for ten minutes.1 In New York, I calculated the longest flight of a champagne cork from an untreated and unheated bottle: 177 feet 9 inches.

I snapped the photo of Jon Minnoch, the heaviest person in medical history, 6 feet 1 inch, weighing more than 1,400 pounds.2 I wrapped measuring tape around the 84-inch waists of Bill and Ben McRary of North Carolina, the world’s heaviest twins. I computed the length of Shridhar Chillal’s snarled fingernails, all 20 feet 2¼ inches. I recorded Donna Griffith’s 978-day sneezing fit and documented Charles Osborne’s hiccup attack that lasted 68 years. I spell-checked the longest word in the English language: pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.3

My specialty: all things superlative. Yet I gladly admit I am a supremely average man. In size, shape, and origins, I am the statistical norm: 5 feet 9 inches, 169.6 pounds, born and raised in the Midwest. My given name, John, is unexceptional. My family name, Smith, is the closest I come to a world record. It is the most common surname in the English-speaking world: 2,382,500 people share its distinction in the United States. I go by the initials J.J., my mother’s way of setting me apart from my father, John Smith, his father, John Smith, his father’s father, and all the John Smiths in the world.

For all my ordinariness, I do make one claim to greatness, the kind with no official listing in The Book. Once upon a time, I witnessed the most incredible record attempt, ever. It showed me what I failed to grasp in all my years before as Keeper of the Records. I once believed the wonders of the world could be measured, calculated, and quantified. Not anymore.

In the pages that follow, I’ve reconstructed the remarkable proceedings, presenting the facts that I myself certified. At some point, you might wish to check on these events in The Book, but alas, you will not find any mention, not even a footnote or an asterisk. Indeed, no matter how hard you search the heartland with its corn palaces and giant balls of string, you will never come upon any statue or sign marking this singular feat. There is no official monument to this achievement, no carved inscription to read, no museum or scenic detour with a souvenir stand to make you stop and wonder: Did it really happen?

To know the truth, you must go to a town in the middle of the country where folks care about crops, family, and faith. Stay awhile, listen closely, and you will hear what sounds like tall talk about a man who ate an airplane. Yes, an airplane. Sure, it sounds preposterous, and maybe not too tasty, but drive north of town, past the windmill, over two gentle hills, and you will come upon a sloping field with rows of corn. Look beyond the red farmhouse, near the barn, and you will see a great gash in the ground.

This indentation in the earth, measuring exactly 231 feet 10 inches, is the only vestige of the endeavor. It’s an unlikely spot, and an even unlikelier tale. Believe it just a little, though, and you may shed some of the armor of ambivalence that shields you from your feelings and leaves you sleepwalking through your days. You may discover