Despite our parents’ tales of Spartan physicality, there appeared to have been no vestiges of their reported athletic prowess......no regular exercise, and they drove cars wherever they went. But not my father, who walked to work regularly and had begun walking me to school when I was in the second grade. Out the door he would go at a brisk pace and I was expected to keep up or else. One day, an off the cuff remark he had made resonated with me.
"The human body is like any other machine," he explained, "Use it regularly and we’ll be well served. Neglect it and, like a door hinge that is never used, will rust out and fail long before its time." Extremely astute in hindsight, but at the time I failed to grasp the full scope of his words.
Instead, most of us looked farther away from home for those we would seek to emulate. In the sports world there was Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Bob Cousy. Television brought us the exploits of The Lone Ranger, Davy Crockett, Captain Midnight, and Superman. The great part about the heroes of our youth was that they were so immune to harm that they could laugh at the bad guys. But when force was necessary, they applied it so proficiently that no one was ever seriously hurt. For example, The Lone Ranger would shoot the gun out of the bad guy’s hand. Superman, who could put his entire arm through a brick wall by simply tapping it with his fist, would haul off and pop the villain in the chops with a vicious right cross without doing any permanent damage. All of these characters served the purpose of showing young boys that we should aspire to be better than we were.
A Friday night at 7 o’clock in the summer of 1955......... WNAC TV, Channel 7 Boston
"KELLOGGS OF BATTLE CREEK.......THE GREATEST NAME IN CEREAL BRINGS YOU...........THE ADVENTURES OF....."
"JIMMY! NO MORE SUPERMAN!"
"Aw, gee whiz, Ma! What for?" I said glumly, turning off the set.
"You know what for, you creepy kid! Wasn’t it just last week that I caught you getting ready to dive off our porch railing with my red beach towel wrapped around your neck?"
"Well, yeah, but, but...."
"Don’t argue! And besides......there’s a Red Sox game on that Daddy needs to see."
By the summer of 1959 my neighborhood was abuzz with the exploits of a new hero.
This time it was Hercules. The major difference between Hercules and Superman was that Hercules had real muscles and didn’t have to wear a padded suit. My cousin Joe gave me the run down on the actor who had played the title role.
"His name is Steve Reeves," Joe told me in awe, "I think he used to be Mr. America, and he got to look like that by lifting weights. You know, barbells, dumbbells, and stuff like that."
To me it didn’t seem believable that someone could get to look like a Greek god by simply hoisting a few barbells and dumbbells. After all, my mother had told me this was not possible. Steve Reeves, I surmised, must have simply been born that way. Later that summer I witnessed such a transformation first hand. It was while staying at my aunt and uncle’s house that I was awakened by the sound of clanging iron and heavy breathing coming from the garage. It was Joe’s older brother Gerry lifting weights at well past midnight. Gerry had been a skinny boy, but now at nearly 20 years old had seemingly transformed himself into a man of muscle and might. A couple of days later I looked on in amazement as Gerry did clean and presses with over 200 pounds. Then he did a few one arm bent presses with 145 pounds. I was impressed, even more so when I attempted to lift the bar myself and could not budge it from the floor.
It was after this that I decided to start my own program. I may not have had access to barbells and dumbbells, but instead did pushups, situps, squats, ran, and rode my bike, ultimately working my way up to 100 mile treks. More on this later.
St. Joseph Grammar School, Sr. Rosita’s Third Grade Class, Spring 1958..........
We were all afraid of Rosita. Facially she resembled former Red Sox third baseman Frank Malzone, and walked like a cowboy with a load in his pants. Typically her nun’s habit was soiled and disheveled. Even worse, she had changed many of our last names to unflattering analogs. For example, Bob Bressette’s name had become Bressetti, eventually morphing to Spaghetti. Beverly Kobilarsik became Beverly Gaborsick. Rosita called me James Gangland. As much as we all may have hated this, there was nothing we could do about it, done, I’m assuming after the fact, to break down our egos and make us compliant. The following incident was right out of The Sisters Of Mercy play book on mind control and behavior modification. More pointedly, it’s about brain washing.
It was during an English lesson shortly after lunch. The way the classroom was structured, there were five rows of desks with ten desks to each row. The first student in the first row had been instructed to read the first paragraph on page 52. In sequence, the second student in the first row would read the next paragraph, and so on until each of us had taken our turn reading aloud. While a student was reading his or her paragraph, the rest of us were expected to follow along in our texts. And while this was going on, Sr. Rosita was walking up and down the aisles making sure that each of us were on task. One of the more disturbing things about Rosita was that she liked to physically abuse her students. Often such bouts of violence were triggered by a student’s failure to master a skill in what she felt was a timely manner. Other times there may have been no reason whatsoever.
As her footsteps came down the aisle behind me, my heart rate quickened noticeably. My breathing was rapid and shallow, making me feel sick to my stomach. Rosita had stopped walking abruptly and was now looking over my shoulder. Without any warning whatsoever I was cracked across the back of my skull, grabbed by my left ear and yanked up and down in my seat like a Jack In The Box gone haywire. Dazed and confused, I turned around in my seat to see why I had been treated so savagely. What happened next made no sense to me at all.
"Oh, I’m sorry, Gangland!" Rosita explained, "I thought you were reading on the wrong page........BUT I WAS WRONG! You were reading on the right page. You may continue following along."
For many years I assumed my involvement with exercise and bodybuilding had been inspired by Superman and Hercules. But the more I reflect, it’s just as likely Rosita was responsible by making me want to never again be roughed up by malcontent religious women.
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