Charles Atlas

16 Nov

            Not long ago, an ad popped up on my computer that caught my eye. It was accompanied by a photograph of a muscular man in what I would describe as an old-fashioned bathing suit, resembling today’s cotton briefs. I am not sure what it was for, but the image reminded me of Charles Atlas, and the many ads that ran in comic books and mechanic’s magazines back in the 50’s.

            “Give me 15 minutes a day, and I’ll give you a new body,” the ads promised. A photo of Mr. Atlas wearing a bathing suit was usually positioned off to one side, taking up half the page, as if to imply that anyone in the world could look like that. The image was not much different than the one that appeared on my computer.

            I’m not sure when I decided I needed a new body. I was probably around 10 or 12 at the time, and a very avid reader of comic books. I cut out a coupon from one of the ads, and sent it in with a money order and a great deal of anticipation. I was tired of doing chin-ups on the shower bar in our bathroom, and couldn’t wait to begin the bodybuilding course that would transform me into something more than the “97 pound weakling” in the ads getting sand kicked in his face by the local beach bully. I was old enough to ride my bike to the public pool in town, and feared the worst. I wanted to spend as many summer days there as I could.

            It was not hard to miss the pool; everything about it was blue; light blue, dark blue, turquoise blue. It stood out against the dry dusty meadow and parking lot that surrounded it like a sparkling glass of water. If the owner, Mr. Walton, was trying to establish the point that this was the place to cool off on a hot day, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. My friends and I rode our bikes there 3-4 days a week during summer vacations, carrying our bathing suits rolled up in towels, and eager to hand over the quarters our mothers gave us for admission, so we could race into the locker room to change.

            “Last one out’s a rotten egg!” someone would shout.

            The locker rooms were located on the ground floor of a two-story building that also housed Mr. Walton’s office. It was set back from the edge of the pool, about 30 feet from the deep end, and we could see him now and then, standing at a large plate glass window on the second floor, peering out over his domain. Every once in a while, his voice would come booming over the loudspeakers and break the constant chatter of bathers with an announcement of some sort about running, or diving into the shallow end.

           The area between the locker rooms and the pool was usually the most crowded spot. It was a favorite gathering place for kids, daring each other to jump off the 15 foot diving platform, or learning to do flips off the lower boards, but it also became a stage of sorts for a very unusual show.

            One afternoon, a tall man stepped out of the locker room wearing a bathing suit similar to the one worn by Charles Atlas, although a bit smaller. It could have been a forerunner of the Speedo line, but the man was obviously built for it, with a bulging chest, and muscular legs. We didn’t pay much attention to him at first, until he carefully laid a blanket on the concrete apron between the two locker rooms, stood in the center of it, and began to flex his muscles in slowly choreographed poses. He put one leg behind him, leaned back a bit, and bent his arm up in classic bodybuilder style, showing off a bicep that was probably bigger than my head. After holding that pose for a few minutes, he very slowly changed his position so that he could bring up the other arm. It seemed to me that he was in a trance, not speaking to, or looking at, any of the curious bystanders, as he went through several other moves. He grabbed a wrist, and twisted slightly so that no one would miss the size of his forearms or triceps, and then put both hands behind his head and turned around so that everyone could see the cascading ripples that ran down his back. When he was done, he unfolded an aluminum lounge chair and laid back in the sun for half an hour or so before getting up to run through the moves again.

            He became a regular feature at the pool, usually showing up on weekends when it was most crowded, and we came to refer to him as, “The Muscleman.” It was never clear to me why he was doing what he did, but after seeing him a few times, the novelty began to wear off until he added something to his routine that I could not believe: he stood on his hands, feet perfectly pointed toward the sky, and very slowly lifted one hand off the blanket, and balanced himself on the other. It was a feat that went beyond the simple poses we had seen before, and I'm sure it must have inspired me to do something about my 97 pound body.

            Charles Atlas based the 12 lessons in his bodybuilding course on the concept of “Dynamic Tension.” The idea was to build strength by creating tension between opposing muscles, and the photos in the booklet that came with the course looked very much like the set of poses adopted by The Muscleman. I read through the book, but there was no mention of the possibility that someday I would be able to stand on one hand. The best I could do was a simple three-point headstand, and even then, if I did not have a wall to keep my legs up, I would usually fall over in a heap.

            My infatuation with acquiring a new body did not last very long. There were other things in life that seemed more important. I would be the first of my friends to climb to the top of the 15 foot tower and do a cannonball from the diving platform. I could afford to leave the handstands and poses to The Muscleman. Everyone has their claim to fame.

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