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Barefoot Old Boy, with Cheek

At 77, 'Banana' George Blair is a millionaire and a barefoot water-skiing wonder
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Aquivering army of white space invaders descends on a black video screen. Jabbing the controls with his thumbs. "Banana" George Blair snipes at the advancing aliens. Just as he wipes out the few remaining invaders, the machine resets with a renascent army, poised one row closer than the last. "These little creatures are a lot like me." Blair says. "You can't wear them out."

Banana George is nothing if not inexhaustible. He turns up unfailingly at the Cypress Gardens water ski show near Winter Haven. Fla., where he astounds audiences by barefooting at nearly 40 mph—with a tow rope held in his teeth. Well, almost unfailingly. Five years ago he broke his back while practicing in the lake behind his home in Winter Haven. It was a full 10 weeks before he could barefoot again, "I don't heal as fast as I used to," he alibis.

It's not a bad excuse. When he broke his back, he was 72.

Today the grand old banana man of barefooting is 77 years old, a small, gristly millionaire with the contented look of a guy who has devoted his life to good works. By force of his slightly idiosyncratic personality and his daredevil antics on water, he has become Cypress Gardens' top banana. One minute he'll slingshot off a 15-foot wall into Lake Eloise. The next he'll stand on a stool perched on top of a ski that resembles a small surfboard. As he leaves the water, he pulls a banana out of his wet suit and takes a bite. "I never water-skied until I was 40," Blair says with a curiously flat little grin. "But I've been eating bananas for as long as I can remember."

Bananas are his calling cards. "There's nothing more perfect than a banana," he says, perfectly serious. Chiquita ships him about two tons a year free of charge, and he dispenses them to anyone with an open hand. "They're my favorite fruit." he says, "my favorite color." When he speaks on the telephone, he prefers to use his banana-shaped desk model. (He invariably signs off with the line "Ski you later!")

Blair's passion for barefooting is rivaled only by his yearning for things yellow. His lemony speedboat has more than 400 gold-plated parts; he starts it with a gold-plated ignition key. His two Cadillacs are yellow, as are his wet suit and the drum set he keeps in his rumpus room. At Christmas most years he dons a yellow Santa suit to play Banana Clans at Cypress Gardens.

He's equally bananas ewer the Roman god Mercury. "My alter ego," Blair calls him. "He was fleet of foot in the air. I'm fleet of foot on water." To visit Blair's Winter Haven home is to risk Mercury poisoning. The rooms overflow with Mercury posters, cartoons, engravings. He has Mercury statuary in alabaster and bronze, marble and terracotta, as well as a 17th-century Belgian tapestry, an 18th-century oil by Giovanni Ferretti and two 20th-century lithographs by Salvador Dali.

Blair can indulge these Mercurial whimsies because he's very wealthy. Besides his lakefront estate in Winter Haven, he owns homes in New York City, Paris and Steamboat Springs, Colo. He is also very generous. He has donated more than $300,000 to the American Water Ski Educational Foundation, which makes him a sort of barefoot boy with check.

Yet for all his flamboyance, Blair is a fairly conservative businessman. "I've voted the GOP line my entire life," he says, which must make him a banana Republican. He made his fortune taking baby pictures as the founder of Hospital Portrait Service. He has also been a banker, an inventor, a country music impresario, an exterminator, a TV pitchman and retired. He didn't like retirement: He couldn't use up his energy. He's apt to bob up and down like a channel buoy to show you how much energy he has. "I feel more vital now than at any time in my life," he says.

He's thumbing through a scrapbook in his home office. He's decked out in a rather amazing yellow blazer and yellow slacks. His socks are a much paler yellow than his cowboy boots. His 10-gallon hat is paler still.

"Here's a picture of me when I was a boy in Toledo," he says. "I had a congenitally displaced spine but didn't even know it." He was a strong, athletic kid who jumped over barrels on ice skates. "When I got older, I could jump over my four daughters." he says with a little snuffle of a laugh. "I bet I can still do cartwheels." He threatens to do a couple. But he is dissuaded for the sake of his furniture.

His back condition was aggravated by a fall from a moving freight train. He was a college kid on spring break in 1934, riding the rails with a couple of hoboes. The hoboes wanted his can of beans, but he wouldn't let go. They scuffled. Hoboes and beans stayed in the boxcar. Blair got heaved into a ditch. "I hit the ground back first," he says. "I was in such mortal agony that no amount of morphine could quell it."

The pain stayed with Blair for years. By his late 30's it had nearly immobilized him. He had to crawl out of bed every morning on hands and knees, then clutch his night table to stand up.

Finally, in 1955 at age 40, he submitted to spinal-fusion surgery. His doctor urged him to go to Florida to recuperate. In Fort Lauderdale, strapped in a steel brace from his hips to his armpits, he would sit in his wheelchair and watch ski school students whiz past. One day an instructor challenged him to sign up.

"You must be joking," said Blair, "I can barely walk. How do you expect me to ski?"

"I've seen you get up and down from that chair," said the instructor. "If you can do that, you can learn how to ski."

And after a few false starts, Blair did, brace and all. "The first time I got up. I felt like a giant weight had been lilted from my mind and body," he says. "After all those years of misery, I suddenly felt exhilarated." So exhilarated that he bought a boat and took it home to New Jersey. "I was in a brace another six months," he says. "And every one of those days I was out skiing." He even hired instructors and opened his own school near Edison.

Blair went barefoot six years later. "It looked impossible," he says. "So I thought I'd give it a try."

In those days—the early 1960s—Blair was a bit of a tenderfoot. "Boy, did that hurt!" he says. "There were no wet suits, and the boats were too slow. Barefooting was a real bone-crusher." He needed three days to get the hang of it, an entire year to earn his one-minute rating card, attesting to his ability to barefoot for an entire minute without a break. A year later the barefoot club of the American Water Ski Association gave him his two-minute rating. These days he can bare and grin it for up to 15 minutes. "My feet are so tough. I'll never need a podiatrist," he says.

Banana George didn't compete until 1979, when he was 64. He was watching a tournament when an official asked him why he hadn't entered.

"I can't start at my age!" said Blair.

"Why not?"

Since then he has competed in 11 barefoot nationals, winning medals in his age group every time. From 1984 through '86 and 1988 through '91 he won his age division for barefoot jumping. In 1985 he flew 34 feet off an 18-inch ramp, a record that stood until 1990.

Which is not to say Blair always lands on his feet. He has broken eight ribs and his left ankle. And, of course, there was the back injury in '87. "I was flying through the air like Mercury when I thought, Oh, my god, I bumped the ramp!" he says. Then he thought, "Oh, my god, I'm upside down!" And then, "Oh, my god, I can't move!"

It took all the king's horses and all the king's men to put Banana George together again. At the hospital he was encased in a body brace. Doctors told him he would be out of action for at least a year, perhaps permanently. But less than three months later he was barefooting for the cameras of the Spectacular World of Guinness Records TV show, for being the only human to have water-skied—with or without skis—on or off all seven continents. He notched number 7 six years ago by barefooting in the 28° waters of Whalers Bay, Antarctica. Blair produces a photocopy of the captain's log, on yellow paper, no less: "Today, we met our first iceberg, saw our first humpback whale...and Mr. George Blair performed his barefoot waterskiing along the beach."

Here is a snapshot that shows him barefooting down the Volga River in Russia, where the local citizenry called him Mr. Banana. And there he is on the Amazon, the Nile and Bombay's Back Bay, a fetid body of water that, he says, stank like a septic tank. After bombing around the bay a few times, he let go of the towline and barefooted back to shore. A large crowd converged on him. "Everybody wanted to touch me," he recalls. "It was as if they had seen Christ walking on water."

About the only place Banana George hasn't barefooted is the Bermuda Triangle. He would like to, but he's yellow.

PHOTO

MARK GAMBA

At Cypress Gardens, with the rope held in his teeth, Blair barefoots along at 40 mph.

PHOTO

MARK GAMBA

Yes, Blair does have bananas (he gets them free) as well as two yellow Caddies.