Column: Joe, Charles and me in the 1950s

I was a skinny kid at the age of 11. And 12. And 13. And 14. While I tipped the scales at whatever skinny kids at that age weighed, I wistfully read magazine ads by Joe Weider and Charles Atlas who promised a more powerful way of life. Joe offered me “Exciting courses to a HE-MAN BODY” and Charles introduced me to Mac, who suffered the indignity of having sand kicked in his face at the beach.

In one comic panel in the ad, Mac complains, “Darn it, I’m sick and tired of being a scarecrow. Charles Atlas says he can give me a REAL body. Alright, I’ll gamble a stamp and get his FREE book.” In the very next panel, Mac admires himself in the mirror, “Boy, it didn’t take Atlas long to do this for me. What MUSCLES! That bully won’t shove ME around again!” Charles promised Mac and me that only 15 minutes of “DYNAMIC TENSION” a day would do the trick. In “double quick time!”

Each time I read one of his ads, I was ready to head for the beach, but only after a few 15-minute sessions with Charles. There were only two problems: I had the motivation of a grape. Days and weeks passed and I still hadn’t done anything about building an ironclad physique. My second problem was that by that time my family lived in Iowa. The beach was a lot further than I could manage on my Schwinn Highway Patrol bicycle.

So, I remained sand-in-the-face vulnerable until around the age of 16. We’d moved to Columbus, Ohio. I got a job in a grocery store and invested in a basic set of lifting weights and a weight-lifting bench. Most of my time after school when I wasn’t working was spent in the basement grunting and sweating with the weights.

I had developed an almost-man cave in the basement back there in Columbus. I’d built a wall across one end of the basement completely enclosing my special room. The walls were painted black and white and the budding hobby of photography had deposited a darkroom in one corner.

But, physical results were slow in coming. During one particularly spirited workout, however, I noticed some development in my upper arms. From high school physiology class, I knew these developments had a name: biceps. It didn’t take long to realize that triceps were necessary to support biceps. And that lats and delts were also desirable. I was on my way to the beach! And at last, I had enough interest in physiology to earn a solid B on the final exam!

I continued to body build in my own minor way throughout adulthood after weekday work and on the weekends. Then something happened. It was the day the pendulum started to really swing. The other way. It was the day I turned 52.

I noticed that no matter how hard I worked, I wasn’t forming any new “developments” or anything else. I was now treading water. It was increasingly difficult to bench press the weight I’d handled just a year before. For years, conversations with guy friends usually included a declaration about how much poundage we’d benched that week. After the age of 52, my declarations were, sadly, limited to new television shows or movies I’d seen. The only “benching” I knew was where I slumped to rest after a few struggling “sets” and “reps.”

This column would be longer, but I’m just too tired and depressed to continue.