Let your freak flag fly 

Some people just don't know how special they are. As she stood in the boiling heat outside International Drive's Ripley's Believe It or Not Orlando Odditorium, the first entrant in last Saturday's promotional "freak-off" worried aloud that the personal attribute she planned to display wasn't quite bizarre enough for the highly publicized event.

"What is it?" a museum representative helpfully inquired.

"A second tongue," she almost whispered.

"That would go under 'Prank of Nature/Human,'" the seasoned pro assessed as he handed her the proper sign-up sheet.

If even the true mutants weren't assured of a win, the first day of the weekend-long contest looked to be a priceless showcase of the finest in homegrown weirdness. To herald its upcoming renovation and interior restructuring, the gleefully twisted tourist attraction had put out the call for our community's more "gifted" members to face off in a cutthroat contest of deviation.

Physical abnormalities were the obvious lure, but there was also room for owners of less intimate artifacts -- curious curios and heirlooms that would fit right in with the museum's ever-growing inventory of gawk-worthy pieces.

The aforementioned "Pranks of Nature" category was segregated into four subsections: Human, Animal, Vegetable and Mineral. Other awards to be given included Weirdest Art Form and Best Talent (Musical), the latter restricted to sounds produced solely by the unaccompanied human body (singing, of course, didn't count). A further codicil stipulated that all of the stunts be kept clean and unobjectionable, to remain within the bounds of the venue's "family orientation." As if most families aren't already strange enough.

Relative normalcy

With that rule in mind, it was no surprise that a number of Saturday's performances were of the tongue-rolling, fist-swallowing variety so often seen at Fourth of July picnics, in which little Janey shows off "that funny thing she can do" for a rapt audience of easily impressed uncles and aunts. One preteen arrived pushing his baby brother in a stroller, and defused my expectations by showing off a cherished orange that had miraculously grown a second skin, instead of devouring his sibling whole as I hoped he might.

For every "B" act, however, there was an "A." A Hispanic-looking girl somehow rotated all 10 fingers halfway around on her hands, her viciously long nails doing a 180-degree turn in the air until they finally pointed up, not down. We all groaned in disgusted admiration.

Turning heads instead of digits, a heavily customized Volkswagen drove onto the premises, its surface covered with microchips, gauges and computer keyboards. This was the dreaded "Y2K Bug," a four-wheeled harbinger of doom whose fully operational software system was capable of receiving data for later transmission to the Internet.

Its creators were Safety Harbor's Todd Ramquist and his gal-pal Kiaralinda (no last name), a pair of "car artists" who billed themselves as "The Whimsey Twinz." Their gaudy labor of automotive love had taken them about three weeks to complete, they told me, although half of the time had been spent in the search for a suitable Beetle.

The Ripley's festivities were the vehicle's public debut, but the artists happily informed me that another of their works -- a "mosaic hearse" -- was currently touring Europe.

"We interact with schools with that one," Kiaralinda beamed.

A group of Japanese tourists stood next to the Bug to pose for photos, no doubt stifling derisive laughter at our feeble culture's snail-like advances in silicon and turbine technology. As we watched, Ramquist told me that he had been alerted to the day's event by an article in a Tampa newspaper. "If you have something weird, take it to Orlando!" the blurb had implored. So that's how we got Koonda Holaa and the Beetchees.

Eager to quease

An aura of desperation loomed over the later entries. Attempting to demonstrate his alleged double-jointedness, a middle-aged guy merely managed to twist his limbs into a sorry state of semicontortion that called to mind a particularly unconvincing infomercial for rheumatism medicine.

"Ripley would have believed THAT or not," Kiaralinda snorted.

I felt the most sorry for a gaunt girl in plaid shorts, who gulped down bottled water in a vain attempt to blow spit bubbles. An eternity seemed to pass as her tongue darted fruitlessly about in her half-open mouth, making her a shoo-in for Best Impression of an Amphibian, but not much else.

Appearing to give up, she relinquished the stage to a genuinely scary gentleman in a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt, who babbled on and on about a conspiracy between the United States Government and our banking institutions -- one that had not only lost him his job as an AT&T employee, but left most of his body seriously burned after a shadowy "experiment" went south. There was one hidden benefit, however: He said he could now communicate with people across the room on a "molecular level," though he chose not to demonstrate the ability (and none of us asked him to). With admirable foresight, he had even brought along visual aids to bolster his case; one was a photocopied front cover from the "Magnus, Robot Fighter" series of comic books.

The employees of radio's WJRR-FM (101.1) who were on hand to help promote the event looked gravely worried. Standing behind the loony prophet, DJ Taco Bob glanced nervously across the parking lot, his eyes full of confused fear. Who knew what this guy would do if he wasn't awarded first prize?

I breathed a sigh of relief when the speech ended of its own accord. Then it was time for Spit Girl to try again, this time turning her back to the crowd to eliminate all distractions. She finally managed to expel a watery sphere that was decidedly puny, but everyone applauded loudly anyway. After all that effort, we didn't want to burst her bubble.

As the tense combatants waited for the votes to be tallied, we noticed that our molecular man had mysteriously disappeared. Perhaps Someone had called him home.

"We were worried he was going to start calling the car 'mama,'" Kiaralinda croaked.

Weighing the odds

Just like this year's Oscars, the final results were all over the map. Some of the less impressive feats earned surprisingly high marks, but the Bug scored a deserved double win in the Weirdest Art Form and coveted Overall Best divisions. The top prize? Two tickets to any U.S. destination on AirTran.

As for the woman with the second tongue: I hadn't seen it. Neither had anyone else who had been standing more than five feet away from her. Apparently, her lack of confidence had sprung from the awareness that her extra appendage was really, really small.

Still, I wasn't about to be dissuaded. "For the sake of journalistic integrity, I have to see your tongue," I kidded her as the winners and losers dispersed around us.

Cheerful despite her defeat, she willingly opened her mouth to give our little group of voyeurs a good look. And there it was ... kinda, sorta. It certainly was tiny, and it indeed might have been a tongue. Or it could have been a lot of other things, none of which any of us should spend too much time thinking about.

"Oh yeah, that's a tongue, all right," I lied. In honor of Mr. Ripley, I decided to believe it instead of doing the other thing. After all, nothing kills a worthy attraction like bad word of mouth.


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