Guppy to Guillotin: The Namesakes of Words

Author Philip Dodd i i

hide captionAuthor Philip Dodd traveled the globe researching the lives of people whose names give the English language its color.

Courtesy of the author
Author Philip Dodd

Author Philip Dodd traveled the globe researching the lives of people whose names give the English language its color.

Courtesy of the author

For author Philip Dodd, a simple trivia question sent him on a quest that crossed oceans and spanned continents.

The question: What fish was named for a West Indian clergyman?

The answer is in the title of Dodd's new book, The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium: From Joseph P. Frisbie to Roy Jacuzzi, How Everyday Items Were Named for Extraordinary People. From Guppy himself, who was quite a character, to the Earl of Sandwich and instrument-maker Adolphe Sax, Dodd delves into the lives of those who left their names deeply embedded in the English language.

Tracing the paths of these often unwitting heroes, Dodd's travels took him from Texas — where he met the notorious cattle rancher Samuel Maverick — to Trinidad, where he found the spot where naturalist Robert Lechmere Guppy found his now-famous freshwater fish. Though many of his subjects are long dead, Dodd also found people still alive, well and brimming with ideas, including inventor Roy Jacuzzi, who lives in California.

Some of the stories Dodd discovered were tragic. He tells the sad family story behind the Mercedes, which was named for the young daughter of Emil Jellinek, an entrepreneur who commissioned the first Mercedes cars. Jellinek lost his fortune in the war and died a broken man in 1918.

Andrea Seabrook spoke with Dodd about the stories behind some of the characters who give the English language its color.

Excerpt: The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium

Book Cover: The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium
Note: There is language in this excerpt that some readers may find offensive.

Chapter 1: Joseph P. Frisbie and the Meaning of Pie

"When a ball dreams, it dreams it's a Frisbee." — "Steady" Ed Headrick

During an occasional moment of reverie, whenever I imagined a journey to discover the source of the Frisbee, my mind had most frequently projected images of long, sandy beaches on the coastline of southern California: maybe dusk in the shadow of Santa Monica Pier or hanging with some flaxen-haired beach bums in a secret surfing rendezvous, larking about with Frisbees while waiting for the next big wave. Sun-dappled pleasure was the overriding mood, lazy summer afternoons launching Frisbees across park lawns a dominant memory.

So, as the Metro-North train out of Grand Central Station trundled under a lowering sky and past the fading industrial glories and dilapidated warehouses of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and a keen wind from Long Island Sound whipped in a boringly persistent drizzle, my sense of dislocation was acute. Not a flaxen-haired hedonist in sight, only indistinct figures bent double, heads down, scurrying to keep out of the pin-sharp rain.

However, Bridgeport, and not Santa Monica, was my destination. For this is the home of the Frisbee — certainly as far as its name is concerned. One historian has even enthused that Bridgeport is "the Kitty Hawk of the Frisbee." For seventy years, on Kossuth Street, there stood the red-brick buildings of the Frisbie Pie Co., manufacturers and suppliers of some of the finest fruit pies in all of New England. Generations of deliverymen and consumers had discovered that you could idle away time by flicking the company's metal pie tins — each embossed with a Frisbie logo — and watching them fly.

The head of the company was Joseph P. Frisbie, a mainstay of the city's business community during the opening decades of the 20th century, when Bridgeport was in full boom, its motto Industria crescimus ("By industry we thrive"). There was even a rousing song about Bridgeport written by J. F. Smith and J. F. Ryan ("Bridgeport, I am longing for you, for you're a grand old town"), although I suspect the two songwriters probably dashed off similar ditties about any city that would pay them to sing its praises.

The downturn had come relatively quickly for Bridgeport. During the 1920s corruption scandals damaged civic confidence, and the Wall Street crash of 1929 and subsequent years of depression left severe stress fractures in Bridgeport's economic edifice. The residue of industrial decline is still visible. The train passed vacant lots next to abandoned factories with broken panes and fading signs and nudged into the station alongside unused jetties and rusting gantries. One urbane New York businessman had surprised me by telling me over lunch the day before to "be careful in Bridgeport."

I had never heard of Bridgeport until I needed to go there, but as often happens when a new name or word enters your consciousness, your eye and ear are attuned to spot it again shortly afterward. A couple of days later, I was walking along East 41st Street between Grand Central Station and the New York Public Library. I glanced down to find I was walking over a series of plaques carrying quotes from authors. This was Library Way, an installation promoting great literature. The selection of quotes was unpredictable and imaginative, from E. B. White to Gu Cheng and Marianne Moore, each one illustrated in bronze by Gregg LeFevre.

A couple of plaques along the word "Bridgeport" leapt out in a quote from Mark Twain's retro-sci-fi novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. After receiving a bash on the head in an armaments factory Twain's hero is transported back in time to A.D. 528. He comes round to be greeted by a knight on an armored horse and, not knowing he has shifted centuries, assumes the stranger is from a traveling show, maybe a circus, possibly an asylum. They set off together, and after an hour's journey fording brooks and crossing glades they spot a town by a winding river and a fortress bristling with turrets and towers. "Bridgeport?" asks our hero, pointing. "Camelot," replies the knight.

*

While Bridgeport's Camelot days were in full spate, Joseph P. Frisbie was building up his family's pie business. His father, William Russell Frisbie, had set up the company in the 1870s in the immediate wake of the American Civil War. He had been a manager for another baking enterprise in New Haven before moving to Bridgeport to set up his own company, which he ran out of the family's two-storey frame house. His sister Susan oversaw the baking, while William hustled their pies with a smart horse and trap and a nifty maxim: "Do one thing at a time, and do that well."

Joseph P. was born in the Kossuth Street house in March 1878. He helped out after school and in vacations and later applied a natural engineering instinct to make the family's life easier. In order to have the ovens at the right temperature for the start of the day, the ovens had to be turned on at two in the morning. Joseph P. rigged up an automatic timer that allowed his father to enjoy a few hours more of uninterrupted sleep.

He took over the company — in his mid-twenties — on his father's death in 1903 and steered its fortunes for the next four decades, expanding its output and its efficiency. The family house became the site of a factory with baking rooms, delivery bays and new machinery, much of it invented by Joseph P., who preferred to custom-design and build his own equipment: a pie rimmer using the principle of the potter's wheel, meat tenderers, a cruster that could process eighty pies a minute. Since there was no electricity for the bakery, he had a power plant constructed in the basement. In a questionnaire for the American Dictionary of Biography, completed by his staff after Joseph P.'s death, his colleagues wrote that these innovations and inventions were what he most wanted to be remembered by.

He had high standards of cleanliness and hygiene, a trait learned from his father. The deliverymen in their fleet of trucks and the factory staff wore snappy uniforms, the salesmen crisp jackets with bow ties and peaked caps. They had good wares to sell, up to thirty varieties of individual and family-size pies, delivered hot to a network of grocery stores. Apple was the best seller, with mincemeat second in winter, especially at Thanksgiving; you could also choose from pineapple, pumpkin, strawberry, huckleberry and blueberry.

Business was solid, and Joseph P. took to his role as a civic leader with aplomb. He was elected an Imperial Potentate of Pyramid Temple of the Shrine and was president of the Kiwanis Club, which he addressed in 1923 in a talk on the role of the pie. Despite his sober and punctilious demeanor, in the photographs that survive of him — in which he appears round-faced and slightly balding — he presents a genial expression. The transcript of his speech reveals a self-deprecation and some sly irony. "Pie is a modern institution," he said. "The fact that pie was not invented earlier in the history of man is one of the contributing reasons why the pathway of life has not been as smooth as it might have been." Eve, he suggested, should have made a pie with that fateful apple.

In the New Haven Historical Society I came across a directory of the Frisbie family in America, compiled by Nora G. Frisbie of Claremont, California. As genealogists like to do, she had logged each Frisbie with a reference number in chronological order. The family name (which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is the 7,277th most popular name in the United States — you never know when that information might save your life) has been spelled in various ways. As well as the Frisbie line, there have been Frisbys, Frisbeys, Frisbes and Frisbees — and at the time of the American Revolutionary War there was a total of fifteen variants. It probably hasn't escaped your notice that the plastic Frisbee ends in double e, while Joseph P.'s surname was the "ie" version. The reason for that we'll come to later.

The family's roots were in England, in the Leicestershire village of Frisby, and the most likely connection with the New World was the arrival in Virginia in the early 1600s of one Richard Frisbie. Edward Frisbie, possibly Richard's son, later settled in the Connecticut village of Branford, 20 miles or so along the coast from Bridgeport. Nora Frisbie (#3,799 in her own catalogue) was naturally biased in favor of her kinsfolk and proud of their energy, civic commitment and community spirit. "Frisbies have something unique," she wrote, not least among Americans their ability to trace a family line back to the early 17th century, and beyond that to England. She pointed out a high occurrence of twins in the family, noted that Frisbie characteristics include striking china-blue eyes, a streak of stubbornness, offbeat humor and a leaning toward civic duty, and reported that some 100 Frisbies had registered patents with the U.S. Patent Office.

Certainly Joseph P. (#3,793) fitted most of these elements of the family profile, and his inventions and determination helped boost output and sales of his pies. Under his leadership production rose from a couple of thousand pies to 200,000 a day in 1940, when he employed nearly 800 staff. New branches of the Frisbie Pie Co. were opened, in Hartford, the Connecticut state capital, Poughkeepsie, New York, and Providence, Rhode Island.

This upward swing slowed after Joseph P. suffered a minor heart attack in the 1930s. Thereafter his formidable energy levels were diminished, although his mind was still perky: a company Christmas card of 1940 contains a little doggerel rhyme he'd written telling the story of the company: "Dad and Peter, their efforts, combined/Made tasty pies of every kind/Their little shop was soon too small/Big ones were added both wide and tall." He died the following year.

His widow, second wife Marion, took over the running of the company, but she was never as impassioned by the business, and in 1958 — by chance the year that the Frisbee was first marketed — the Frisbie Pie Co. was sold. An auction that August was offering fifteen cake mixers, a pair of traveling ovens, a mechanical cow cream maker and ten pie rollers (assorted sizes). Twenty years later even the fabric of the red-brick factory was under attack.

A Frisbie relative, Peter C. (#7,374), researching his family roots in the mid-1970s, tracked down a former employee in Bridgeport who held a set of keys for the now abandoned factory on Kossuth Street. Inside the derelict, dirty building, he had a chance to rummage through the jetsam and found some boxes of photographs — including shots of the Frisbie Pie Co.'s baseball team — along with metal dyes and much of the pie-baking equipment. These massive machines were bolted to the factory floor, and Peter had no way of salvaging them. The time he next checked the machinery had gone, and shortly afterward the factory was demolished, its footprint at some point the parking lot of a jai alai court and later a dog track.

But though the fabric and the materiel of Joseph P.'s empire had been destroyed, the reputation of his pies lingered on. Those who had sampled them could still summon up a strong memory of their taste. Children taught down the road at the Kossuth Street School recalled the aromas that drifted through the open windows of their classroom; at the end of the day they would run down to the factory's garage doors, where lenient staff let them buy broken, burned or damaged pies for a snip.

*

Nancy Nickum Damtoft has more personal memories of Joseph P. Frisbie than most. She is his niece. Her mother's sister was the Marion who became Joseph P. Frisbie's second wife in 1927.

Had she known Joseph P. well? "Heavens, yes." If Nancy's parents were away she and her sisters would go up for the weekend to the Frisbies' clapboard home on Lookout Drive in Brooklawn Park, an upscale suburb of Bridgeport. The Frisbies were childless but had taken in — though never adopted in any formal way — a child named Betty, and they welcomed extra playmates for her.

Nancy remembered that Uncle Joe would come home from the factory at the end of the day, where Aunt Marion met him at the door with a smoking jacket. He often brought back a pie fresh from the ovens. While supper was being prepared he had time to sit and play with his nieces, amusing them with his gold repeater watch. "He was never robust after his heart attack, but he was very twinkly, warm, charming, lots of fun. His humor was dry. It just snuck up on you." No matter how twinkly, though, his eyes were not china blue, she said.

She also recalled that Joseph P. had a strong artistic side. He was a photographer who set up trick shots of himself and Aunt Marion apparently playing bridge against themselves, he was a painter in a self-taught Grandma Moses style and — appropriately for this book — he was a fair hand at the saxophone, as well as the clarinet, flute, xylophone and glockenspiel, all of which he played at home, though never in public.

Thanksgiving time was a special treat. "We would pile into the car and go to the factory. It was never terribly busy on Thanksgiving, so Uncle Joe would take us all around, show us the vats and the ovens, and then he'd give us a cookie. The pie company was a very large part of our lives." Nancy's favorite pies were the cherry and the mince. Like Joseph P.'s employees, she remembered him taking pleasure from his inventions. "He was very proud of his apple corer."

Would her uncle have enjoyed knowing that the family name, albeit in a slightly transmuted form, lived on? "Oh yes. He'd have thought the Frisbee was fun. He would have been very pleased."

Joseph P. did not leave any notes or Christmas ditties about his staff's habit of tossing the company's pie tins around, so we don't know if he saw them from his office window and allowed them to blow off some steam, or if they had to do it surreptitiously when the boss was away. But several former employees have confirmed that pie-tin tossing was a regular pastime, and rumor has it that if the river behind the factory were ever dredged, hundreds of old Frisbie pie tins would be delivered up.

*

The Frisbie pie tin came in three sizes: four, eight and ten inches across. These tins are much sought after by Frisbee collectors; they have a whole industry's worth of plastic Frisbees to amass, but the pie tins are particularly valued because of their rarity. A couple of examples are kept in the vaults of the Bridgeport Public Library — two 8-inch pie tins, pressed out of plain, now dull, metal, and each with a perforated F in the bottom and a ridged rim that added some basic level of aerodynamicism.

The transition from pie tin to plastic Frisbee does not follow a simple or direct line. The pie tins were certainly used for throwing or flipping, but so were many other objects. There are reports of Hollywood movie crews taking empty film canister lids and spinning them across the lot, of decorators using paint can tops, of cookie tin lids in flight. During the middle years of the last century there was a whole lot of lid-flippin' going on.

There are plenty of schools of thought about the true precursor of the Frisbee. A highly unlikely theory contends that a Yale student of the 1820s, one Elihu Frisbie, took a collection tray from the college chapel and discovered its flying potential. Frisbee historians refer to the natural inclination of mankind to throw flat, smooth, round objects, from skimming stones across a lake, to the discus and the Roman infantry under Scipio Africanus, who took on Hannibal's army at the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C. by flinging their circular shields at the enemy.

Nancy Nickum Damtoft is certain that as well as Frisbie Pie Co. employees, she knew of coastguards from New London, farther along Long Island Sound, who flung them off the fantail of their boats after eating the pies for lunch. Persistent claims to the origin of Frisbee throwing are also made by students from Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Williams — whose student body drew heavily on the Bridgeport area — and other colleges reached by Joseph P.'s delivery vans.

A statue of a dog catching a Frisbee was unveiled in 1989 on the campus of Middlebury, Vermont, promoting that college's claim as the true home of the idea: members of their Delta Upsilon fraternity said they had taken Frisbie fruit pie tins on a road trip in 1939 and learned the technique while a flat tire was being fixed. Mary Witkowski at the Bridgeport Public Library is dismissive of anyone else's attempts to muscle in. "Bridgeport," she told me defiantly, "is the rightful Home of the Frisbee!"

Wherever the pie tins were thrown, they could cause a nasty contusion if they connected with an unsuspecting head, so instead of "Fore!" the tin-chuckers would yell out "Frisbie!" to give anyone in the immediate crossfire time to take evasive action.

One of the Yalie Frisbie pie-tin throwers is Stephen I. Zetterberg, a lawyer now based in Pomona, who was at Yale Law School from 1939 to 1942. Oh yes, he remembered, he and his college chums had thrown Frisbie pie tins across the Yale Law quad, trying to avoid the attentions of the "elegant, but muscular" campus police, "the best-dressed persons in town," who were bemused by this habit. The space in the quad was too restricted for throwing baseballs, but a pie tin was perfect and provided light entertainment whenever he and his friend Phil Singleton, an engineering graduate from the University of Michigan, got tired of sitting in the library.

Zetterberg and his chums didn't claim to have initiated what they called pie-tin sailing, but they did try and apply some scientific principles to the art form. Another friend, Bill Platt, was at MIT and later worked on airplanes during the war. Together they examined the aerodynamic principles involved and tried to find ways to adapt the pie tins to improve their flight, fitting rubber extrusions to increase their gyrostability and going as far as contacting rubber companies to help their mission. "Had war and educational requirements not intervened," he said, "we might have taken it much further."

*

Stephen Zetterberg and his friends were not alone in considering the commercial potential of pie-tin sailing. Over in Long Beach, California, Fred Morrison, the son of an inventor, was drawing crowds as he threw his missile of choice — the lid off a five-gallon tub of popcorn — to his girlfriend. The spectators would ask them where they could buy one. Following a wartime stint in Stalag 13 he evolved the concept with an Army Air Corps colleague named Warren Franscioni, thinking that maybe there was a market for a plastic flying disc once peace was achieved.

There was serendipity in the timing of his idea. The 1940s was a decade when the knowledge and widespread application of plastics was rapidly evolving. The first man-made thermoplastic was Parkesine, a cellulose, unveiled at the London International Exhibition of 1862 by Alexander Parkes, a Birmingham metallurgist. An array of substances quickly followed: celluloid, rayon, cellophane, and then the first true plastic, Bakelite, the invention of a Belgian-born American chemist, Leo Hendrik Baekeland, which became available in 1907. Baekeland freely admitted his main aim had been to make money, and indeed he amassed millions from his plastic: Bakelite was used for telephone and radio casings, and later in weapons during the Second World War. In the 1920s and 1930s, nylon, PVC, polystyrene and polyethylenes arrived, and in the immediate postwar years plastic became a viable option for any product designer looking for rigidity with lightness. Fred Morrison once remarked that the Frisbee was "perhaps plastic's finest form."

Other events combined to assist the marketing of Morrison's plastic disc. The Roswell UFO incident of 1947, the imminent prospect of space travel and the relatively recent discovery of Pluto (in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh) helped introduce the idea of the flying saucer into postwar popular culture.

Morrison and his partner plugged into that and started perfecting what they initially called Morrison's Flying Saucer or the Pipco Flying-Saucer — other early names included the Whirlo Way and the Arcuate Vane — which they demonstrated at West Coast county fairs. Onlookers did not believe the pair could throw their saucer with such accuracy, so they pretended it was traveling on invisible wires.

Although Morrison and Franscioni made some progress, sales did not take off. The pair split, and Morrison continued producing what he now called the Pluto Platter. He made contact with Rich Knerr and Arthur "Spud" Melin, whose company, Wham-O, produced the hula hoop, a toy that equally captured another postwar interest — in this case in the South Pacific, when Hawaiian shirts looked cool and the ukulele was in vogue. Wham-O had clout and strong distribution channels, and in 1955 they struck a deal to market the Pluto Platter. Morrison retained a royalty on all future sales.

On January 13, 1957, Wham-O's first Pluto Platters were released. On the underside of each disc were the mantra-like instructions written by Fred Morrison's wife:

Play catch — invent games

To fly flip away backhanded

Flat flip flies straight

Tilted flip curves — experiment.

With David Waisblum, the current Frisbee product manager at Wham-O, I watched one of the company's earliest TV ads for the Platter, featuring a freckle-faced, all-American kid and majoring on the prevailing interest in sci-fi and space exploration. I liked one of the ad's taglines: "The sensational flying saucer that you command."

At some point shortly after the launch of the Pluto Platter, Wham-O sent out an advance team to conduct some direct market research on New England's university campuses to get feedback on how best to pitch the Pluto Platter. They reported that the successors of Stephen Zetterberg were still shouting out "Frisbie," and that at other colleges "frisbieing" was the common name of the sport. Wham-O took the word and with a deft tweak of the final vowels created a brand name that seemed to suit the toy's fizzing, whizzing flight combined with a suitably childish "whee." In 1958 the Pluto Platter was rereleased as the Frisbee.

The Frisbee was entering a toy market where brand names are — as far as I can tell — rarely named after real people. It is an industry in which the creation of an invented brand name is a vital part of the research and development process and commercially preferable, since all rights can be protected. (The honorable exception is Barbie, launched in 1959 and named after Barbara, the daughter of the doll's creator, Ruth Handler.)

*

Sales of the Frisbee were surprisingly and disappointingly sluggish. The hula hoop still reigned supreme and Frisbee production tailed off until the mid-1960s when a savior arrived, a recently appointed Wham-O employee who found a way to revive its fortunes.

This was Ed Headrick, who had joined the company as head of research and advertising. Ed had played some Frisbee and during a brief college career had dabbled in aerodynamics. He looked for ways to improve the Frisbee's potential. In those days he was very much the corporate man: in one trade press clipping he looks like a typical U.S. sitcom dad, suited and bespectacled. His daughter Valerie remembered him leaving for work at eight with his briefcase like everybody else. The difference was that he'd come back in the evening with a new prototype under his arm. "Hello, honey."

"How was your day at the office, Ed?"

"Just swell. I invented the Superball . . ."

Ed Headrick made one small but critical improvement to the Frisbee, adding a series of raised concentric rings on the top of the disc, later dubbed, though not by him, "the Lines of Headrick," like something out of Tolkien or J. K. Rowling. These rings proved performance-enhancing, stabilizing the flight of the Frisbee, which in earlier incarnations had a tendency to wobble midflight. Ed Headrick's other idea was to reposition the Frisbee, moving it out of the toy market and into the young adult and sports arena. And he added pizazz to the promotion. A natural showman, he appeared on The Johnny Carson Show, where he threw a Frisbee (or so he said) over the studio lights to curve around the audience and hit the sticks lying on the Carson band's snare drum.

By the end of the decade the Frisbee had been successfully relaunched and found a new role as a symbol of the counterculture, the perfect accessory for hippies lounging in San Francisco's Candlestick Park. As Ed said, the Frisbee was "the emblem of the unruly," a lifestyle accessory allowing people who were "anti-everything" to be "pro-something."

That didn't prevent the U.S. Navy from running a research project, reputedly burning up $375,000 of taxpayers' cash, to produce a report called "Aerodynamic Analysis of the Self-Suspended Flare" to see if Frisbees could provide an alternative to parachutes for dropping flares to illuminate temporary wartime airfields. The conclusion was they couldn't.

Frisbee aficionados developed new sports. Up in Michigan a family of brothers called Healy created "guts," the aim of which was to line up and hurl the Frisbee as hard as possible at your opponent. A bunch of students from Maplewood, New Jersey, created Ultimate Frisbee, a non-contact alternative to American Football. It became a popular sport in schools because it teaches unspoken communication and since there are no officials the teams jointly determine any decisions. The philosophy of Ultimate is that consensus should prevail, not the person who screams loudest. It's hotly tipped as a future Olympic sport.

In the 1970s Ed himself invented Disc Golf, using the Frisbee as both driver, putter and ball. In place of holes he designed chain-link baskets. If you could hit the chain links accurately, the Frisbee would drop down into the basket, completing the "hole." There was some shrewd commercial calculation behind his game. Whereas a single Frisbee used for catch could last for years, Disc Golf required a range of discs, which would get scuffed and chipped and need frequent replacing.

By the time Ed Headrick left Wham-O, sales of the Frisbee had reached 100 million and rising. And sure enough, where money is involved, the claims and counterclaims of who really came up with the idea began to rumble.

I talked about this with David Waisblum at the Wham-O building in Emeryville, just outside Oakland, California. It was another dank day; I wasn't having much luck pursuing the California dream. We discussed the tectonic clash between the Frisbee and big business. The spirit of Frisbee, the grassroots view, said David, was "Spread the love. Just believe in it." He is still an active Ultimate player, who understands the mentality. "Who wants to get the crap kicked out of them on a football field? Not me." But some of his friends, he thought, would consider he had sold out by joining Wham-O, which in recent times has been bought in turn by larger corporations — Mattel, Charterhouse Group and Cornerstone. Commercial envy and greed, say the purists, taint the spirit of the Frisbee.

As late as 2006 Fred Morrison, the Pluto Platter inventor, was publishing a book called Flat Flip Flies Straight (the title based on those original Pluto Platter instructions) because he was unhappy with versions of Frisbee history being put about, which he felt diminished his role in its evolution. It's always the way.

*

To pursue the spirit rather than the greed, I visited the headquarters of Ed Headrick's Disc Golf Association. This turned out to be an anonymous building in Watsonville down in the fruit orchards of Monterey County next to a row of abandoned greenhouses. Inside I met Farina Headrick, Ed's widow, and the association's general manager, Scott Keasey.

They were in the final stages of preparing plans for a museum in Ed's honor due to open not far from the U.S. Masters golf course in Augusta, Georgia. The museum would contain a quantity of Joseph P. Frisbie memorabilia — not only some pie tins, but an even rarer pie cabinet, and the collector's Holy Grail, a brick salvaged from the Frisbie Pie Co. building on Kossuth Street.

I think I would have enjoyed meeting Ed, who died in August 2002, after suffering a stroke at a Pro Disc Golf Championship in Florida. It was a surprise to everyone, as he had always been fighting fit. In the Second World War he had been in Europe with the 87th Cavalry of the 7th Armored Division, taking part in the Battle of the Bulge, riding shotgun with a bazooka on a jeep. He'd had a stint as a deep-sea diver, a water heater salesman and as an executive for a program described as TV's Good Housekeeping, before finding his niche at Wham-O.

Farina explained that she had met Ed in her native El Salvador. In answer to my question about what had attracted her to him, she took me to see a huge black-and-white photo of her and Ed. He was handsome, tanned, taut biceps under a white T-shirt, level eyes (his nickname was "Steady Ed"). "That is why I fell in love with him!"

Farina had brought some of Ed's archive for me to look at. Ed clearly had an impish, boyish sense of humor. One of his business cards was tiny, with the inscription: "The lack of business from your firm forces me to use this economy size card." Another concluded his career highlights with "Handsome & Humble." A Wham-O annual report featured Ed in drag as Miss Steady Eddie, 1973 hula hoop national champion.

Scott told me that beneath Ed's humor there was a steely core. He could be fusty and difficult on occasion. He defended the patents of his Disc Golf targets ferociously. And he wore a medallion that he told everyone was the only gratitude — plus $50 in consideration — he had ever received from Wham-O.

It was time to throw some Frisbee. I headed outside with Scott, who nipped to his car to fetch his personal disc collection. The putters looked like traditional Frisbees, slow floaters designed for close-controlled approaches to the target. These were relatively easy to use, though it still took a while to master the action. The drivers were a different matter — like plastic sawdiscs, designed to cut through the air. At full pelt, they travel like a Harris hawk in attack mode. The world record long-distance throw is around 800 feet, the length of two and a half NFL football fields.

Scott decided to go out on the open road and let rip. His first disc exploded into flight a foot or two off the ground and continued to rattle up the road. The second was fighting a slice all the way, but didn't quite clear a neighbor's chain fence. Barking erupted. "Holy shit, there's a German Shepherd in there. It's gonna frigging chew my disc." An initial parley with the dog was not promising, and Scott decided to retrieve it later.

It was my turn to let a driver loose. It shot away in a massive arcing hook, skimming the top of a greenhouse and disappearing round the corner of dirt. This was like a golf novice on the first tee being given a Callaway driver, to be handled with care.

Scott explained that the beauty of Disc Golf was that it was organic. Courses were set out on public land, and once the targets had been installed anyone could pull up with their discs and play. Unlike traditional golf the course did not need to be cultivated, in fact its rawness was part of the sport's charm, an at-one-with-nature experience — his own favorite course overlooked the Pacific at Monterey — and free courses meant no economic barriers.

Here was a sport that suited the spirit of Frisbee. And the spirit of Ed Headrick. In later life Ed let his hair grow long, sometimes sported a gray ponytail and an earring and rode a motorbike. Although he had successfully played the corporate game and knew the value of his patents he was a compassionate humanitarian. Farina told me that even when he was in the hospital after his stroke, he said he wanted to create an MRI body scanner that was less forbidding, so that patients who were scared would feel relaxed.

In the files of the Bridgeport Public Library was a letter from Ed, sent after he left Wham-O, to Huntley Stone, the lawyer for Marion Frisbie, Joseph P.'s widow, offering her the chance to earn some money by trademarking the Frisbie name, as compensation for the original pie-pan flying by the company's drivers. "While there may be no legal requirement for this effort," he wrote, "I personally feel it is time the Frisbie family had some fun also."

"Steady Ed" had a name for Frisbee freaks. He dubbed them Frisbytarians and playfully created an imaginary religion. After his death, he said, he wanted his ashes to be used in a limited edition set of golf discs. After some discussion among his relatives his wishes were met. Sitting on top of my bookshelves as I write this are a driver and a putter from that limited edition, each containing a little piece of Ed. As he was fond of saying: "When we Frisbytarians die, we don't go to purgatory. We just land on the roof and lie there."

From The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium by Philip Dodd. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Claimant, 2008.

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