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Double takes

No, you aren't seeing double when you visit Twinsburg, Ohio, during the Twins Days Festival each year. Twins of all sizes and ages descend on the small town to celebrate, dress up and play. After all, for the rest of the year it isn't always easy to be a twin.

The oak trees are thick and tall, the morning breeze crisp and the small town charm turned on full blast.

Here's a lemonade stand on the sidewalk, 25 cents for some extra tangy homemade brew. Over here, some extra lawn chairs in case you forgot 'em, and over there a box of Dunkin' Donuts, by the porch. Go ahead, help yourself.

It's that weekend again, the one weekend a year when pretty much everybody in Twinsburg lines the curbs of Ravenna Road to watch hundreds of twins, in matching outfits, do nothing more than stroll down the street.

Actually, there's more: firetrucks, candy tossing, hand waving and a pipe organ that plays Yankee Doodle Dandy.

This is the way it has been for going on 24 years now, one weekend a year, people who look alike, dress alike, sound alike and whatever alike show off their total twin-ness during the Double Take Parade. It's the signature event of a three-day festival known as Twins Days.

It's the one place twins give up and say: Go ahead and look at us. You have our permission.

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"Here you're made to feel normal," said 21-year-old identical twin Megan Seipke of Michigan. "People have no idea what it's like to walk down the street and feel like a sideshow. Here you aren't an oddity. You don't stick out."

Unless, of course, you want to stick out.

Parade watchers were treated to older male twins dressed in matching top hats and tails, chubby female twins dressed in turtle costumes, cowgirl twins in matching miniskirts, boots and bandannas, two gals in leopard print dresses riding scooters and two girls in yellow T-shirts that read: "I'm Julie not Janet" and "I'm Janet not Julie."

Bill Brown, who has lived in town seven years, likes the parade because it's different. "You never see it anywhere else."

Twinsburg school teacher Shari Jaskiewicz comes because it's "like a freak show."

Suzanne and Ken Walker of New Port Richey put their two sets of fraternal twins in the parade. Wearing matching black and red hockey jerseys (something they never do at home, mom says) and inline skates, 10-year-old fraternal brothers Zachary and Adam pushed 2-year-old fraternal sisters Allison and Samantha along the parade route in a stroller.

Suzanne says she used no fertility drugs; the two sets of twins just happened. Could there be more twins for the Walkers? Let's just say that thanks to Ken's chivalrous trip to the doctor, no more twins, or singles for that matter, will be coming their way.

Twins Ned and Fred Mitchell of South Carolina, 16-year Twins Days veterans, opted for the parade sidelines this year. They wanted to watch the action instead of be the action.

They were decked out in shiny blue baseball outfits with matching navy socks and Nikes. The 48-year-olds are city council members and Vietnam vets, and they live next door to each other. One of them got a divorce because his wife "couldn't take it. I guess we were too close for her."

Also on the sidelines were 6-year-old twins Bret and Brad Woolard of Newark, Ohio, fawned over not only for their twin-ness, but for their flaming red hair.

Telling her twins apart is easy, Kristi Woolard says, until the snapshots come back from the developer. Even a mom has to take a second look when it comes to photos.

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About 30 minutes southeast of downtown Cleveland, Twinsburg originally was named Millsville. In 1823, identical twins Aaron and Moses Wilcox came to town, donated $20 toward building the town's first school and six acres for the town square, and they wanted payback: Ditch the name Millsville, rename it Twinsburg.

The Wilcox twins died at age 55, within 24 hours of each other, according to the weekly Twinsburg Sun. They are buried in Locust Grove Cemetery, in the same grave, one casket on top of the other.

The Twins Days festival began in 1976 as a way to to honor the Wilcox brothers. Thirty-seven sets of twins showed up, with entertainment by something called the Thunder Chicken, who performed a skydiving feat.

Almost 3,000 sets of twins attended this year's festival, which included a craft show, carnival and contests, and researchers who study such things as how twins' fingerprints differ and how lifestyle choices influence the natural, progressive signs of aging. Twins make perfect test subjects.

Winning a medal in a twins contest is a big deal. Going by the disclaimer in this year's souvenir program _ "These contests are presented for fun and entertainment and are not judged scientifically" _ there must have been trouble some time ago.

Categories include "most alike" males and females, "least alike," "most clever outfit" and "most clever T-shirt".

The town isn't big, so you run into twins everywhere you go: at the crowded store inside the Cracker Barrel restaurant, wandering the aisles of the new Walgreens, at Pizza Hut, tan twin men with matching bald spots and matching white tank tops.

In a hotel elevator, a set of twins questions someone who's alone: "Where's your other?"

Eventually the novelty wears off, and if you are a singleton, you're reduced to sitting back and enjoying the free packs of Wrigley's Doublemint gum.

The company (Remember, "Double your pleasure, double your fun") sponsored this year's festival.

Everywhere you turn on the festival grounds is a twin photo op. (Twins like to take pictures of other twins. Who knew?) Two men dressed as toy soldiers, two young girls in 1950s-style poodle skirts, little boys in Harley Davidson duds, toddlers in bee costumes and two men in handmade headgear decorated with, among other things, dog biscuits and mini dentures.

One of the most photo-worthy pairs were 17-year-olds Nicole and Melissa Bishop of Tennessee, connected to each other by a central hair braid. "We were going to be together anyway," Nicole said. "But being braided does give a whole new meaning to being together."

The girls talk quickly and finish each other's sentences, a rambling jumble of words coming from voices that sound exactly alike.

"Our main goal," they say, is to marry twins. "Oh my God! We took our picture with these hot guys," said Nicole, (though it could've been Melissa), "and we're like, "Can we kiss y'all?' "

Marrying twins means, "You automatically understand each other. It's like you've known each other forever," one of the teens said.

Twins marrying would not be unprecedented. Four years ago, identical twin sisters Ali and Cal McGregor met and fell in love with identical twin brothers Jeff and Jim Stanch.

For two years the couples maintained a long-distance relationship. They eventually married in, surprise, a double ceremony, and all four moved into a big old house in New Jersey.

None of them were looking to marry twins; it just happened. They have come to expect the stares, but they still can't get over how crude people are willing to be in asking about a pair of identical men sharing a home with a pair of identical women.

The arrangement works, Jim says, because of the twin bond. "Jeff and I were always a team, and the girls were always a team. Now we have a team of four."

Many twins see themselves as teams. That made the recent death of Lauren Bessette, a twin and a passenger on John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane, especially hard to take.

"I hadn't thought of my twin dying before," said Patty Blackwelder, a 44-year-old identical twin from Virginia. "When the reports said she was a twin, it took my breath away."

Her sister is Peggy Manderfield. This was their first Twins Days. The sisters live within two blocks of each other, work in the same family real estate business and drive the same kind of car.

They tell this story: Patty, who had recently bought a new home, was on business with her husband in New York. Peggy went shopping for a housewarming gift for her, picking out a framed print of a hunt scene. When Peggy came over to present her gift, she saw the same print hanging on her sister's family room wall.

When they compared receipts, the sisters found that not only had they bought the same print in different states, they bought them on the same day, at the same time.

For identical twins, this sort of stuff happens all the time.