Odd news keeps New Englanders laughing, thinking

Unlucky and stupid criminals, natural oddities, strange quests and weird accomplishments may not be earth-shattering news, but they all grabbed headlines across New England in 2011, providing comic relief and touching moments to the tragic and serious news of the year.

Given their nationwide reach, it's not surprising that a new Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor drew chuckles from some and condemnation from others.

The Vermont ice cream maker in September introduced a flavor called "Schweddy Balls," named for a 13-year-old "Saturday Night Live" skit starring actor Alec Baldwin.

The vanilla ice cream with a hint of rum that also contained fudge-covered rum balls and milk chocolate malt balls was not sold in some grocery stores because of the double-entendre name, but a Ben & Jerry's spokeswoman said enough people found the name funny enough to make it company's most popular limited-edition flavor.

Not many people were amused by a magic trick performed by the chairman of the Abington, Mass., school committee right before a televised meeting in September.

Russell FitzGerald is an amateur magician who was known to open meetings with a trick. But he may have gone too far when he and an unwitting accomplice made it appear as if they had ripped the bra off a female board member.

Rather than getting a laugh, the trick was met with embarrassed silence.

FitzGerald resigned several days later, acknowledging that the trick played a part.

Some of the oddest stories were not necessarily funny, but touching. One such case actually happened in Hawaii, but involved two Massachusetts men.

Rick Hill of Lunenburg was walking on Waikiki Beach in April while on vacation with family when Joe Parker, who works at a local hotel, offered to take a picture.

Parker recognized the Massachusetts accent and said he used to live in Leominster, right next to Lunenburg.

They started comparing notes, seeing if they knew anyone in common.

Parker asked Hill if he knew the late Dickie Halligan. It turned out Halligan was both men's father. They were half brothers who had never met.

A two-faced cat in Massachusetts was celebrated in August for its long life.

Frank and Louie was born with two faces, two mouths, two noses, three eyes - and lots of doubts about his future.

He wasn't expected to survive when he was adopted as a kitten 12 years ago by Marty Stevens. But the exotic blue-eyed rag doll cat is not only thriving, but made it into the 2012 edition of Guinness World Records as the longest-surviving Janus cat, named for a Roman god with two faces.

New England had its share of not-so-bright criminals in 2011.

In Farmington, Conn., a man called 911 to ask a dispatcher how much trouble he could get into by growing one marijuana plant. He was told he could get arrested. He said thank you and hung up. Police later went to the man's home and charged him with possession of marijuana.

In Massachusetts, a jewelry entrepreneur picked the wrong mark in his effort to sell fake gold jewelry inside a Randolph grocery store.

The man approached William Pace and offered to sell him a bracelet and chain marked as 14 karat gold for $100. Pace, who was out of uniform, is not only Randolph's police chief, he owns a jewelry store and knew immediately the gold was fake.

A man in East Lyme at least tried to do a good deed when he committed a crime. Police said the drunk man broke into a trailer behind the high school and stole keys to a lawnmower. He then rode the lawnmower three miles to his parents' house, mowed their lawn, then tried to ride the mower back to the school. He abandoned it halfway and was charged with third-degree larceny and burglary.

A pair of Newport, R.I., thieves also made a poor choice when they decided to rob a pizza delivery driver.

The 30-year-old man and a 17-year-old boy were arrested, armed with a BB gun, after they tried to rob an undercover officer in an unmarked vehicle with a pizza shop sign on the roof. Police had been alerted to delivery driver robberies in the area and set up a sting.

There was no word on the quality of the pizza in that case. There was no doubt about the quality of the pizza in a story out of Stoughton, Mass., in August.

David Schuler grew up in the Boston suburb but moved years ago to Mississippi. He says he had been unable to find a quality slice in the Magnolia State.

So, on a visit home in August he bought 150 frozen, vacuum-sealed pizzas from his favorite pizza parlor and drove them 1,400 miles to Mississippi to share with family and friends.

In August, in Hebron, Me., the Redneck Olympics were held.

They included bobbing for pigs' feet, toilet-seat horseshoes, lawn mower races, a mud run and pie-eating contest. Organizer Harold Brooks cleared out space for campers on his cattle farm.

Cities across the nation put up plaques to commemorate significant historical events. In Lincoln, N.H. in July, state officials put up a plaque to mark a UFO sighting 50 years after Betty and Barney Hill reported seeing a flat, cigar-shaped craft hovering over them in the White Mountains as they returned from vacation in Canada.

Barney, who had binoculars, later told science investigators that he could see figures on the craft. In 1964, they underwent a series of taped hypnosis sessions - recalling they had been abducted and physically examined by "men" who did not appear to be human. Paintings and a sculpture of their descriptions depicted them with large, bald heads, slanted eyes and gray skin.

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