The Legend of Shortarmguy
What the hell happened to my arms?
My arms are very different. I only have 8 fingers. My left arm is less than eleven inches long from elbow to fingertips and has no thumb. My right arm is almost normal length. It’s hand has 3 fingers and a monster thumb which was formerly my index finger until they re-crafted it when I was less than 6 months old. It’s now held to my hand by a set of ancient Frankenstein stitches.
But what the hell happened to them?
When I was little, kids would ask me about it and I’d come up with something wild. I’d tell them I was an actor on the set of Jaws and the mechanical shark went crazy on me or that during the filming of King Kong the big monkey stepped on me. If the kids persisted in asking, I’d tell them “I was just born that way.”
In reality, I never understood more than that. All I really knew is that I was just born that way. I went through a lot of surgeries when I was very young and remembered the pain and the scary hospitals a lot better than I remembered the explanations for why I was there in the first place. I picked up that I was different because of something in my genes although I never could find anything in my pockets. Sometimes I heard my mom speculate that my dad was shooting drunken swimmers, but I didn’t know what that meant either. The explanation that I was Just Born That Way stuck with me better and carried me through childhood.
I handle my explanation differently now that I’m an adult. I tell small children who ask me about it that “God ran out of clay.” They seem to accept this as a plausible explanation. If I’m in a mischievous mood when children come to my house to visit, I tell them that my dog did it to me so they may want to be extra nice to him. When other adults ask me about my arms, I say “I was just born that way. By the way, how’d you get so fat?” Nosy bastards. Hey, I never said this was niceshortarmguy.com….
Childhood had it’s challenges. Meeting new people was a big issue when I was little. Adults would ask weird questions to me or my parents. Other kids would give me funny looks. I felt everyone treated me like I was strange. It rarely lasted. Once people became used to my odd limbs, they eventually realized that I was a pretty good egg and started treating me the same as everyone else. I remember once in the second grade, I started at a new school. During break, some kids started picking on me on the playground. Words were said and one of the boys pushed me. Unknown to me, my little hand popped out of the long sleeve shirt I was wearing. The kid saw it and looked at it like it was a piece of poop on a stick. The boys all started backing away. Naturally, I had to give chase. They were vampires and I just pulled out the silver cross. It had to be quite a sight. For the remainder of recess, a tiny little boy chased a group of the tough kids around the schoolyard like some sort of monster. We went back to class never discussing the incident. After a few days, even these boys became my friends. My arms didn’t bother me, so why should it bother them. Eventually they would show off to others by having me touch them with my Freak Hands. I didn’t care. I thought it was cool to have something unique that others thought was interesting. Pretty soon most of the kids in class wanted to touch my hands or watch me do tricks with them. “Hey, stick your hand in your mouth!” or “Bend your thumb all the way back and do the catapult thing!” They laughed at me, on my terms.
Oh sure, some kids would try to tease me about it, especially when they first met me. I never let them get to me. I also made fun of myself right back to them and usually had a better joke than they did. This really threw them for a loop. This was their chance at being the big shot funny guy and here was this Handicapped kid getting the louder laughs. They didn’t like that. They typically then befriended me or avoided me.
Having goofy hands didn’t hold me back as a child. Why should it have? I could do most things I really wanted to do. I swam like a frog. I went bowling with two hands instead of one. Although my golf swing left a little something to be desired, I’d occasionally get one on the green. I participated and many times would be competitive with my long armed counter-parts. The notable exception is water-skiing….I never could get up on a pair of those damned things!!
My friends and I had a lot of fun with my arms as I grew older. We could be merciless to strangers. There was a time in high school, a buddy and I went to McDonalds. I was driving, pulled into the parking lot and slid into a Handicapped Space. In hind-sight, I’m sure we looked like hooligans. Windows rolled down, rap music blaring off the stereo in my 1974 lime-green Nova, sporting sunglasses, we were certainly some disrespectful punks. I slipped the gear into park and was getting ready to open my car door. Nearby, some busy-body old lady nastily pointed out that we couldn’t park there, it was a Handicapped spot. I proceeded to lift my arms into full view and proclaim “Lady, look at my arms!”. I knew I’d achieved the desired effect when her jaw dropped, so I went for the throat. Pulling the car back out, I pretended I was crying while saying to her “You know lady, it’s people like you that make people like me want to go and kill themselves.” And I left McDonalds. I have to think she never questioned people’s parking preferences again.
I was generally accepted in high school. Some teachers would even tell me I was inspiring for other students. But I wasn’t trying to be a role model, I just wanted to belong. For example, I was in wrestling for 3 years. I wasn’t great. I didn’t even win a match my sophomore year, won just a few when I was a junior, and was victorious about half the time when I was a senior. I don’t think I lost the majority of my matches because of my arms, though. I just wasn’t disciplined enough. Partied way too much. But I liked wrestling and figured I had nothing to lose. If I lost, it was what people expected and if I won, I was an inspiration to others. I remember one match the best. I was a junior and the other guy was a freshman. I think my arms intimidated him, because he kept backing away from me. My coach was shouting at me to go after him and I locked up with him. I used my legs a lot in wrestling and tangled myself around his body. I gained control of his legs and hips with my right leg and somehow rolled my self into a position where my left leg was holding down his shoulder directly to the mat. My upper half was in a push-up position while I was pinning this kid with my legs. The whole auditorium was going nuts. People were cheering, my coach was shouting instructions, the kid was grunting and I was pushing up against the mat as hard as I could. When the referee blew his whistle and slapped the mat signifying that I’d won the match, the crowd let out a roar that I can still hear to this day. That was a pretty good feeling.
Sometimes, I was too accepted. Because I made fun of myself so openly, people thought they could say or do anything to me. I had no privacy. The story that best illustrates my point was the time after I lost my virginity. The event happened at a party. One of my friends had set it up for me. After I’d been in the room for awhile, a group of people barged in the room to see me and the seductress who I was deflowered by. They teased me for awhile, then the group left the bedroom and the party resumed. However, word spread. The next Monday at school, I was applauded and slapped on the back. I was greeted in the cafeteria with chants of “Swank got laid!” Before long, the whole school knew. Fast forward a few days. We’re at the regional High School Girl’s Basketball Championships. The crowd is pretty rowdy and throwing stuff all around. Someone gets hold of a large cardboard box and it gets passed all over the place from hand to hand. Eventually one of the school officials gets it and puts an end to the fun. The crowd grew restless. Chants of “We want the box” start filling the auditorium. Someone gets the bright idea of using the Handicapped Kid as the new plaything and lifts me up to the waiting arms. People start passing me up the bleachers to the top. Someone remembered the chant from the cafeteria and soon the entire student section is chanting ”Swank got laid!!!” So now the whole town of Clear Lake, Iowa knew my accomplishment. It was one of the proudest days of my life!
Many people might feel sorry for someone with arms like mine. There’s no reason for that. I’ve discovered many ways to use them to my advantage. Sympathy can be a fun emotion to play with. When I was under 21, I’d get into some bars by saying I couldn’t get a driver’s license because of my arms. I’ve been let go with a warning for several traffic violations just by showing a little extra sleevage. The best example I can think of goes back to my college years. Parking was terrible at the University of Northern Iowa. It could take 15 minutes to find a spot and then another 10 to walk to class. Parking illegally was often the only choice. After racking up about $150 in tickets, I decided something needed to be done. I appealed all my infractions to the college traffic board . I was greeted at the hearing by seven people with stern looks on their faces. I sat down at the long conference table and didn’t remove my winter coat. The director asked why I was appealing. In as shy a voice as I could muster, I meekly stated “I have trouble carrying my books to class.” The board exchanged confused glances with one another. The director finally asked me why I had trouble. Realizing my error, I stood up at the table and pulled off my coat. Instantly all seven heads dropped from looking at me to looking at the table. They excused me from the room, waived all my violations, and best of all, arranged me to get a Handicapped Parking Sticker. I was so excited! I had the Golden Ticket! For the rest of my college years, I parked closer to classes than my professors did. Oh sure, it bugged me somewhat to be classified “Handicapped” and people would give me funny looks when I stepped out of my car. They could stare all they wanted though, they still had to park way the hell over there!!
Which brings me to the one thing I didn’t like about growing up with funny arms. It would drive me nuts to be stared at in public places. I felt like people doing it were judging me and I never had a chance to defend myself. I wanted to stop them, grab their staring heads and yell “Hey, doorknob! I ‘m not a freak-show…so back off.” But I couldn’t do that to everyone, everywhere I went. I just had to put up with it. I eventually learned the best defense. I’d stare right back at people straight in their eyes. Most people would turn away in embarrassment once they realized their guilty pleasure had been discovered. Only truly ignorant people would continue staring at my arms after our eyes met, so I had to screw with them. I’d “accidentally” touch them with one of my disfigured paws or start to scratch my crotch in full view. Most of the time they’d be so freaked out by this, that they’d get away from me as quick as they could. Mission Accomplished!
Externally, I feel I handled being stared at well, but inside it bothered me for a long time. I couldn’t get over the frustration of being classified as helpless or “Disabled” by strangers. I wanted to explain to them that I was a normal person! So I started to do stand up comedy. If I couldn’t talk to the staring eyes one on one, I’d talk to them in groups at comedy clubs. I’d explain it to them the best way I knew, the way I’d been developing since elementary school. I’d make jokes about myself.
Here’s some of my Act:
Hi! Allow me to introduce myself….my name is Todd Swank…Robert Todd Swank….people call me Bob…..because that’s what I do if you throw me in the water.
So I supposed you’re all wondering what happened to my arms….good question. You see before I was born, I was up in heaven….chilling with God. God goes to me Todd….God always calls me Todd….he says Todd “I’m afraid we’re going to have to make a few cutbacks this year, so you have to make a choice. Would you rather have straight arms……or a really big pecker?” I mean….Heyyyyyy…..what could I say….He’s God. And at least he kept his word. You know what they say…..what God takes away from one part of the body, he has to make up for someplace else. (I’d then point to a lady in the audience and exclaim) “Thank you very much!” Awwwwww, I know I shouldn’t say jokes like that…but I figure, if black people can spread the rumor that they have big weiners….why can’t I do the same thing for handicapped people, huh?
I have to do what I can for my people. Because it’s tough to be Handicapped. Society doesn’t know how to treat us. They don’t even know what name to call us. We started out and we were crippled…then we were handicapped….then disabled. Now we’re up to my personal favorite…..physically challenged. Pffft! Physically challenged! What the hell does this mean? The last time I was physically challenged was when I tried to wipe my butt with my left hand here!
I had a friend once suggest to me that I should go see a plastic surgeon….to see if he could help fix my hands. I thought this was a pretty good idea. So I called up a plastic surgeon on the telephone….but he just kept hanging up on me. I don’t know why. I called the doctor on the phone and asked “Do you do hand jobs?” Apparently not.
I always wanted to be an entertainer. So I decided to become a comedian, because….well, I figured a juggler was completely out of the question. I’d throw the balls up with my right hand and they’d just land over there someplace.
…..And the number one disadvantage to being thumbless…..Headless hand Turkeys!!
Until my mid-twenties, I performed at a variety of venues throughout Minnesota and Iowa. I was on a television variety show in Waterloo, Iowa, and a two time finalist in the Twin Cities Funniest Person amateur competition. I told my jokes at clubs, bars, and parties. I never passed up a challenge to get behind the microphone. Sometimes I was a hit, people would laugh their butts off, and I felt like a rock star. Sometimes I stunk up the place and felt like burying my head in the sand. There’s no greater feeling of loneliness than standing on a stage with the spotlight on you, telling a joke and being responded with a loud silence. One of my favorite ad libs was “you know you’re bombing when the only people laughing in the room are the other comedians.” But whether I made people laugh or not wasn’t important. I was able to tell a group of strangers the story of who I was. I was more than my appendages. I was a pretty good egg. Comedy made me feel good about myself.
I quit doing comedy about four years ago. When I started, I had dreams of being famous. The whole world would know that I had funny arms and that they didn’t bother me. They were only one part of me. I thought I could use my situation to inspire others to look at their own “handicaps” in another way. I’d teach people to embrace the things that made them different, not to hide from them. Others could learn how to overcome the fear of bad first impressions when they met people. Humor is an effective tool to bridge over people’s pre-conceptions. By making others laugh at one’s handicaps, the attribute becomes just one part of a unique individual rather than defining that person completely. My techniques allowed me to become the funny guy with goofy arms, rather than just the guy with goofy arms.
As much as I wanted fame, I gradually learned I had an even greater desire. Growing up relatively poor, I found it essential to have financial security. So I set my dreams aside for the time being and proceeded working towards this goal. I moved to the Twin Cities in 1992. After a year of job hopping, I landed at a small computer wholesaler selling computer components to resellers and system builders over the telephone. I was in the right place at the right time. The industry was in the midst of the computer revolution, so there was no shortage of prospects. I had the desire and motivation to make a ton of calls and my quick wit developed on the stage helped transform the prospects into customers. Best of all, by selling over the phone, I didn’t have to deal with the goofy hands issue. It was the perfect opportunity for me. My career has brought me all I could have ever wanted and more. I’ve won many great prizes and trips over the past 8 years. I’ve also met many, many wonderful people and have developed several life-long friendships. Although I don’t consider myself rich financially, I do feel I have the financial security I once strived for.
Now I want to be famous again.
It’s my goal in life, as strange as it may be. I can hear the cynics now exclaiming what kind of goal is this? How childish. What a weirdo. Whatever ate this guy’s arms has now gone to his brain.
I sometimes have the same doubts. I’m 30 years old, I have a beautiful wife and two amazing sons that have had their own massive challenges they were born with. (See Don’t Steal my Sunshine story under Family link) My life is set. My responsibilities are defined. Why in the world would I want to set such an outlandish goal like fame? My rational side says it’s unrealistic, yet I can’t escape the desire.
Some people may think that being famous is a selfish goal. Like I want to start some sort of “Cripple Cult”. It will be so cool. I’ll attract a huge mass of followers. People will treat me like a god and I’ll convince them that if they stroke my left arm, they’ll be blessed for life. By putting my thumbless hand in their mouth, even greater miracles will happen. This is exactly what I want.
My actual reasons for wanting fame aren’t entirely clear to me. I’m sure part of it goes back to childhood. Being different, one does have strong desires to be treated the same. Maybe the desire to be famous is just a reaction to my underlying fear of not being accepted. I don’t think is the reason. I’ve always felt I was put on this earth for a special purpose. Maybe it’s to help people. Maybe my story will inspire some people to not take their own “handicaps” so seriously. It might get people to laugh at their own problems and to open up to those around them, so they’re not held back by these perceived problems.
Our society has become so sensitive lately. So many people seem to fear their position in life is threatened. Political correctness has pervaded all facets of life…in politics, in the workplace, in the media, everywhere. We’re no longer supposed to make fun of people’s race, religion, culture, gender or their funny looking arms. It seem everyone wants to be a victim. We need to be careful not to offend these people, because they’ve had it so rough in life. This is such a load of bullshit. We all need to quit focusing on what makes us different and start focusing on what makes us the same. This is the only way we can come together. Otherwise, all we’re doing is driving each other apart. Everyone needs to lose the chip on their shoulder. Lighten up. Make fun of yourself. It does bring people together. Communication is so much easier if one side doesn’t feel the need to tiptoe around certain aspects about the other side. Words are just words. If one is determined not to allow others to hurt them with words, they can’t.
I’d like to show people how to change their attitudes about they’re own situation. Maybe they’ll embrace what makes them unique and not worry so much what others think about it. Maybe not. At least I’d like to give it a shot.
So how do I become famous? I guess I could try comedy again, but that would be very tough to do with my family and work commitments. I’ve decided the place to start is right here. Everyone famous has a website devoted to them. I don’t have any fans to make mine for me, so I’ll have to do it myself. I’m hoping the miracle of the internet can help me. Shortarmguy.com could be the beginning. If people find my story interesting enough, hopefully they’ll tell others. I’d like to put my creative skills to work and make aspects of this site that people will want to visit again and again. Maybe some of the wonderful friends I’ve developed over the years can submit ideas to me to enhance, improve, and add to my site to make it engaging for more and more people. Hint hint. C’mon guys….throw me a fricking bone here.
So now you’ve read my story and heard my plea. Please give me feedback about my site. Email me at email@example.com. Tell me what I need to do to improve…submit links to me. Send me funny or inspirational stuff to post on my site. My goals are simple, I want to get this site famous nationwide. I want to inspire people to not be held back by their perceived Handicaps.
And always remember that Classic Slogan….
“Hire the Handicapped. They’re fun to watch!”
- Todd Swank aka shortarmguy