ST. CLOUD, Minn. - He's the squirrel who's inspired countless YouTube posts and television newscast kickers.
Thirty-three years after first climbing onto a pair of skis, Twiggy the water skiing squirrel is still riding the wake behind a scale-model power boat and still delighting legions of fans at boat and outdoor shows across the country.
"Twiggy's a magical squirrel," shouted one enchanted preschooler at the St. Cloud Sportsmen's Show.
Truth be told, squirrels don't live 33 years - even those athletic enough to ski. Eight squirrels have worn the Twiggy banner since Chuck Best, a roller rink owner from Deltona, Florida, trained the first Twiggy to ski.
Chuck's wife Lou Ann says it all came about by accident after her husband played nurse to a baby squirrel that had fallen out of a tree during a hurricane.
"My husband, he was a nut," she said. The kind of nut who might look at his daughter's toy power boat and then his squirrel - and wonder, what if?
"He starts whittling skis out of Styrofoam then he started working with her in the water and she learned to ski," Lou Ann said.
A local newspaper photographer snapped the first pictures of Chuck's water skiing squirrel. It wasn't long before Twiggy was being seen in newspapers and on television around the world. The traveling show started not long after.
A story that crazy deserves a happy ending, but in Chuck's case it was not to be.
In 1997 he was boating on the Wekiva River when his stepfather fell out of the boat. Chuck was an expert swimmer and trained as an auxiliary trooper with the Florida Highway Patrol. He saved his stepfather, but didn't make it back onto the boat himself.
Neither man was wearing a life jacket, though they were stored on the boat as the law required.
"Drowning people don't mean to hurt you, they just are panic-stricken, they're going to fight you and do whatever they can to get above the water and get air," Lou Ann said.
Chuck had always been the showman. Grieving and too shy to step into the spotlight, Lou Ann shut down the Twiggy show, cancelling all remaining performances.
Then the phone started ringing with offers. It kept ringing, until Lou Ann decided she had to start the show up again - this time with the focus on water safety.
"How many of you all wear a life jacket when you're on a boat?" she quizzes the children who gather around Twiggy's pool. "Do you think Twiggy needs a life jacket?" They all nod in unison.
Lou Ann pulls out a pint-sized life jacket she's cut from a can cozy and pulls it over Twiggy's head.
Lou Ann wants Twiggy to be to water safety what Smoky Bear is to fire prevention. As hundreds gather for Twiggy's skiing show, she definitely has a captive audience.
"I believe with all my heart and soul that was Twiggy's purpose. That's the Lord that provided that," she says.
Crisscrossing the country with a truck and trailer, Lou Ann and Twiggy perform at roughly 20 events a year. The shows provide Lou Ann with both a living and a mission for her life.
Sometimes blessings come from unexpected places, like the squirrel that makes Lou Ann's world go around.
(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)