“Human Foot Found in BBQ Grill.” It seems like a headline ripped from those ’90s tabloids in the racks around grocery-store checkouts. But in North Carolina in 2007, a man who bought a smoker-grill at an auction found a left leg, complete with foot, in it. The story soon made the news rounds on local TV stations and then online, especially as the fight over who owned it—barbecue buyer or amputee—flared up. Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel’s documentary Finders Keepers (2015), opening the lid on the lives of the two men at odds over this oddity, discovers a lump-in-the-throat poignancy as it re-appraises just how hard it can be to pick up the pieces of a life.
The two men—John Wood, who lost the leg in a plane crash; wheeler-dealer Shannon Whisnant—both grew up in Maiden, NC. Wood had kept the leg in a storage facility, but his possessions were auctioned off after he stopped paying for the service. Whisnant snapped up the smoker-grill only to find the embalmed, mummified leg in it (“A wha?” “A foot, y’know—five toes an’ five toenails”). But even as Carberry and Tweel trace the to-ing and fro-ing of the dispute, Wood and Whisnant meeting in a parking lot, their TV appearances, and even Whisnant’s merchandising (T-shirts declaring “Foot Smoker Bar-B-Que Grill”), they interview friends, family and the men themselves to build a more nuanced, psychoanalytical portrait of this strange stand-off.
Wood grew up on an estate—tennis court, roller rink, go-kart track—but got caught up in drugs soon after finishing military boot-camp; he was only starting to reconnect with his dad when, on the last flight in Tom Wood’s plane (to be sold the next day), the aircraft stalled out, nosedived, and Tom Wood was killed. So his amputee son, wracked with guilt (he was the co-pilot), held onto his former leg as if still holding onto the past and to his father (he and sister Marian don’t understand how their mother could just leave their dad’s ashes in a non-descript box in the house). But Wood was still disintegrating—struggling with alcoholism and other drug addictions, he even lived under a bridge for a time, penniless.
Whisnant, meanwhile, has his own daddy issues—his father “whupped” him, hard and often. His distance from the man surely accounts for his striving for attention (he even appeared on Jerry Springer). The entrepreneur, spinning and spieling, can keep drawling on, joking, even about himself: “Yeah, I’m crazy, but good-crazy.” But in one wrenching moment, Whisnant recalls, with an edge, how John Wood was “kind of a spoiled brat”—if you were a somebody, you’d be invited to his house for his birthday when he was a kid, but “I guess I’m a nobody.” Soon, Whisnant seems sadly lost in his search for fame.
Nearly everyone here seems cut off, stuck in their own worlds; some are holding onto the past too tightly. They’re weathered, worn down by life’s bitter blows and raw deals. But it’s John Wood whom the documentary follows most closely—as his own mother admits, “You can’t help but like him.” He finds a strange path to recovery—via the Judge Mathis TV show—and seems to gain a modicum of solace. In this backroads-of-America story, stopping in and sitting down with a few folks who are just struggling along mightily, all that’s freakish in Finders Keepers are the strange, fateful turns in everyday lives. V