Five High

Last Thursday, my brothers and I took an overnight train from Northern California to Northern Oregon as part of an every-other-year reunion. The trip, which would take eleven hours if you drove from San Jose to Portland instead, took twice that long on the Amtrak Coast Starlight. But the meals come with the ride and everyone gets a bed and a hot shower, so it’s a cozy way to watch the world go by. In hindsight, for all the time sitting and staring out the window, we could’ve been stacking M&M’s. Just five of the colorful candies one atop the other would’ve landed my brothers and me in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Buy a bag of plain M&M’s (you’ll have zero chance with the peanut variety), count out five, and let the stacking commence.  You’ll get to a tower of two quickly.  You’ll get three one atop the other with time and patience.  But that’s the proverbial end of the line, my friends.  You won’t make it to four.  If you did, you’d join the two co-holders of the former world record.  Last January, Will Cutbill, a twenty-something British engineer, pushed the record to a stack of five.

The “original” M&M’s

The history of M&M’s suggests it’s only appropriate a Brit broke the stacking record.  M&M’s were copied (and somehow uniquely patented) from British-made Smarties, the first candy where a hard-shelled coating protected the chocolate inside from melting.  Here’s another interesting M&M’s factoid.  The first “M” is for Forrest Mars, Sr., the founder of the Mars candy company.  The second “M”?  Bruce Murrie, the son of the president of Hershey’s Chocolate.  No, the companies didn’t join forces to create M&M’s.  During the wartime years of the 1940’s Hershey had a monopoly on rationed chocolate so Mars was forced to use them as their supplier.  Today, M&M’s have evolved to a “fully Mars” product.

It’s safe to say Will Cutbill wouldn’t have broken the M&M’s stacking record without the pandemic.  He was in the middle of the UK’s third lockdown earlier this year when he pondered a lifelong dream of getting into the Guinness book.  He also had a bag of M&M’s in his hand at the time.  Practice led to more practice, and as you’ll see in the video here, the record-breaking moment came as a happy, unexpected surprise.

Marawa Ibrahim – Most hula hoops spun simultaneously

Maybe you’re thinking what I’m thinking.  Why can’t one of us become a world record holder as well?  As I type, I’m munching on Triscuit wheat crackers.  I just built a stack of five on my desk.  What if I went to the store and bought several more boxes, then stacked all those crackers to the ceiling of my double-height living room?  Wouldn’t I and my Triscuits join the Guinness book as well?

Eliud Kipchoge – Fastest marathon

Not so fast, record-setting wannabes.  As you should expect, Guinness has a tried-and-true process, not only to establish world records but to decide if they’re worth pursuing.  You must submit a formal application (even if attempting to break an existing world record).  Your attempt must be deemed ethical (ex. no killing of animals).  Your attempt mustn’t be harmful to the participant (ex. excessive consumption of alcohol).  Your record must be deemed environmentally friendly.  Finally, Guinness must approve the process by which your record will be adjudicated (which in Cutbill’s case included a video instead of an in-person judge). Oh, and unless you’re willing to contribute several thousand dollars to speed things up, plan on a year or more to complete the process.

Mya-Rose Craig – Most northerly climate protest

Now you know why the Guinness book hasn’t grown to a ridiculous number of pages and entries.  The content is regularly reviewed against cultural, societal, and environmental standards.  Records even slightly in question are removed.  For example, Guinness used to list the “largest fish on record” of a given species.  Then people started overfeeding fish just to break the record.  Guinness realized this kind of manipulation was not only cruel but potentially a source of litigation, so they removed the entries.

This quick dive into the pool of Guinness World Records has me thinking my brothers and I made the right choice in not challenging the M&M’s stacking record.  We’d be better off drinking a Guinness than breaking one of their world records (yes, the beer and the book come from the same family).  Besides, how would we stack five M&M’s on a rocking, rolling passenger train anyway?  Nope, not interested in breaking world records today.  But if you don’t mind, I’ll get back to stacking my Triscuits now.

Some content sourced from CNN Business video, “Good luck breaking this deceptively tough world record”, the Guinness World Records website, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Covering My Tracks

A passenger train sweeps through this little vacation town every morning at a quarter past eight. The first sound you hear is an almost apologetic “ding-ding-ding” to alert cars approaching the seaside crossing. The next is the “click-clack-click-clack” as the wheels grind a percussive beat with the twin rails below. Finally, you’re consumed by the rush and roar of the train itself, barreling towards its next destination without so much as a split-second’s thought about stopping.

Dings, clicks, rushes, and roars – which typically wake me from my vacation slumber – are comforting music to my aging ears.  These trains cover the same tracks they did during the innocent summer days of yesteryear.  The beaches here are more crowded than they used to be.  The houses make grander statements.  The ocean is a few centimeters higher and the sand threatens to wash away with each passing season.  But the train, which once called this town a destination (but now simply passes through), faithfully maintains its daily schedule from points north to points south and back again.  Some things never change.

My family’s first summer house here – the upper floor of a duplex – was mere steps from the train tracks.  In those ten-and-under years, well past dark, my pajama-clad bleary-eyed brothers and I would bolt to the front screen door in the middle of the night, drawn to the roar of an oncoming freight train.  We just had to see the roving locomotive headlight flash by one more time.  During the day we’d dash to the rails just before the train passed by, laying down countless pennies to be flattened.  I still see them – pancaked, shiny and hot – as the giant wheels flipped the coins wildly off the rails.  Sometimes we’d never find them again.

The allure of the passing train was something intangible; a magnetism I can’t find words for, even today.  You had its awesome mechanical power, its symphony of distinct sounds, the romance of faraway destinations, and the untold stories of countless passengers.  You had the promise there would always be another train coming down the tracks, if you were just willing to wait long enough.  To a kid, the train was equal parts come hither and go away; the exciting and the scary combined into one imposing, larger-than-life spectacle.

There was a time I would’ve thought trains were meant for childhood and nothing more.  But they still click-clacked through my life after that.  As a teenager, I rode those same “Pacific Surfliner” coaches several times as a convenient connection between Los Angeles and San Diego.  In college, a freight train rumbled across campus in the wee hours, most often witnessed as I walked back to my dorm from late-night dates.  In my junior year in Rome, Italy; Eurail pass in pocket, the entire continent beckoned with its on-schedule trains and speedy routes to exotic locales.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area begged a resident to ride trains.  My first corporate commute was on a train of sorts: the Powell-Hyde cable car line from Fisherman’s Wharf to Union Square.  When we moved south of the city, Caltrain became the easiest way to commute to the heart of downtown.  When my job also moved to the south, Caltrain still served as the easiest option, the nearest station a twenty-minute walk from my front door.

“Royal Canadian Pacific”

No mention of trains – at least for me – would be complete without a nod to the Royal Candian Pacific.  RCP rail tours include private rooms in restored vintage carriages, daily meal service prepared on-board, and spectacular scenery as you click-clack through the Canadian Rockies wilderness.  The RCP is kind of like a…, no, it’s exactly like a five-star hotel on wheels. They even throw in tuxedoed waitstaff.  Unless the Orient Express is your idea of a typical vacation there’s nothing quite as grand as the RCP.

Years ago, my wife bought me an LGB model train set.  The LGB was probably the largest scale of any of the model railway sets out at the time; its cars a good foot in length and almost as high.  We’d set up the tracks every December so our “Christmas train” could cruise under the boughs of the tree above.  I often wonder why my wife bought me that train set.  Maybe I commented enough about how much I enjoyed the rail commute to work back then.  More likely, she still recognized the boy in the man, the one who would rush to the screen door in his pajamas when the locomotive went barreling past.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.