Running With a Strange Crowd

In her glory: Mrs. Reuben Ross Holloway had an obsession with the flag.

October 21, 1995|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Everybody knows that if you lie down with dogs you'll wake up with fleas. But if you hang out with eccentrics will you wind up, well, peculiar?

Ask David Weeks. He's a neuropsychologist who spent 10 years studying people like Screaming Lord Sutch, perennial candidate for political office in Britain and founder of the Monster Raving Loony Party, and Marvin Staples, an American Indian who walks, and generally lives his life, backward.

Dr. Weeks, who does his research at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, has co-authored a book about his research titled, "Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness."

Dr. Weeks doesn't admit to having been turned into a flaming eccentric by virtue of his associations. But they have stimulated him: he has discovered, and patented, a new tranquilizer, and found an innovative treatment for repetitive strain injury, the occupational agony of the computer age. "I'm 51 years old," he says. "Inventing things and discovering things wasn't my work until I did this study. I can only think it had some relation to that."

He came to like and respect eccentrics in the course of his research. "They have difficulties conforming to the rest of society," he says. "They quite revel in that, but it has its negative side. Society doesn't always react positively."

In this regard things are better than they used to be for eccentrics, especially women, whose behavior, when odd, used to get them labeled as witches; they were burned and tortured. Later, in the more benign 19th century, the quirky wife or daughter only wound up confined to an asylum. Today, female eccentrics, like Ann Atkin, of Devon, England, tend to be avid collectors. Ms. Atkin keeps 7,500 garden gnomes in her home, and knits gnome hats. Many other women collectors favor cats. Live ones.

Dr. Weeks has learned a lot during his work: that Benjamin Franklin was a nudist; that Samuel Johnson liked to roll down grassy hills to amuse his friends; that Davy Crockett was effeminate, but a fierce fighter nonetheless. Johnny Appleseed (aka John Chapman), who dressed in coffee sacks, had an obsessive single-mindedness about planting apple trees everywhere he went, as most people know. What they might not know is that he was such an advocate for the apple that he would get in a rage when people disparaged it as the instrument of man's expulsion from paradise.

It could have been a peach, he would insist.

Dr. Weeks discovered Marvin Staples, a Chippewa, in Minnesota. Mr. Staples got the idea of walking backward from a movie, but then found that it made him feel younger, so he kept doing it. Mr. Staples wasn't the first to amble in reverse. Plennie Wingo, of Abilene, Texas, began walking backward in 1931 in Santa Monica, Calif. She didn't stop until she wound up a year later in Istanbul, Turkey.

The oddest people, Dr. Weeks found, often live in the most

ordinary places. Minneapolis-St. Paul, for instance, has more genuinely eccentric people per capita than any locale in the United States, more even than San Francisco, a traditional fount of American idiosyncrasy.

Baltimore ranks about 20th among American cities in terms of its Eccentricity Quotient, Dr. Weeks found. In fact, no Baltimore eccentrics made it into Dr. Weeks' book -- despite the considerable efforts of local abnormals like Melvin Perkins, Rudy Handel, Mr. Diz, and historical odd-balls like Mrs. Reuben Ross Holloway.

Melvin Perkins, who ran for Congress and other political offices, brandished his discharge papers from a mental institution as proof of his sanity and demanded similar proof from his opponents. Mr. Diz, a gentle, if mildly shell-shocked horse player, used to walk around town giving balloons to anybody who would accept one.

Rudy Handel made it his life's work to picket the Sunpapers. He was inspired by a dispute over a defective television set purchased through an advertisement. Receiving no satisfaction from the shop that sold it to him, he planted himself outside this newspaper nearly every day for 18 years until his death in 1986.

A true flag-waver

Mrs. Holloway, who favored foot-high hats, had an actual accomplishment to her credit. She was the driving force behind the federal law that made "The Star Spangled Banner" the national anthem. She had an obsession with the flag and would hand out her own certificates of merit to businesses that displayed Old Glory in what she considered a proper manner.

Dr. Weeks estimates that about 1 in every 10,000 people is

eccentric to some degree or other, though many, especially women, are closet eccentrics. Most eccentrics are first-born, come from small towns and rural parts. The United States and Britain are probably the most hospitable to eccentricity. Countries that demand a great degree of conformity, such as Japan, are not.

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