“Those were the days my friend; we thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose; we’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way”
Those Were The Days Mary Hopkin, 1967
Young Lions Their faces I remember well, a look of vulnerability or perhaps insecurity in the eye, angular jaws and flaring nostrils hidden behind a wiseguy smirk of insolence, hair matted with sweat. My friends and I all looked different yet, to the man, were all so strangely the same, even though our physical dimensions were as varied as snowflakes.
There was Big Al, larger than life, who swore by his squat, deadlift, and peanut butter sandwiches with gallons of milk regimen as a sure-fire means of bulking up. Big Al claimed to have been skinny at one time, but none of us could remember that far back.
By contrast, The Wizard was only about 150lbs but looked like Steve Reeves…at least from the waist up. Legs were always a problem for most of us. Except for me, Gus, and Frank. For us the legs seemed to grow no matter what we did. Nearly all of us had chest and arms…but not me. Chest grew quickly but arms were too stubborn to grow until I realized I had been trying too hard. Standing barbell curls with over 200lbs looking more like reverse grip power cleans are not the best way to go about getting big biceps. They did, however, help to develop my grip, legs, and lower back.
What many of us needed to learn was to train the muscles, not the ego. Some of us never learned. Dan B. weighed only about 160 but benched nearly 400, as did his adopted brother Dick. These two never squatted, claiming they heard it was bad for the back. Dick went on to get an invitation to try out for The Dallas Cowboys, but never made first cut. He should’ve squatted.
Big Al used to train with Gus, a collegiate hockey player who regularly squatted with 405 for reps, and yes…he too was one of the lucky ones who had legs. It must’ve been the peanut butter sandwiches. Bob L. looked like a Bizarro Superman…same hair and stupendous size, but had maybe 11 inch calves, made to look even smaller sitting as they did beneath his 30 inch thighs. A very odd-looking young man. Bob once guzzled a gallon of milk with Hoffman’s High Protein and an assortment of pills immediately before squatting, and promptly emptied his gastric contents all over the floor. There was an old oil drum over in the corner for such emergencies, but Bob never made it that far.
Red Hog used to do decline dumbbell presses with a pair of 100 pounders. Between sets he would pose in the 10 yard expanse of spittle-smeared mirrors and then ask the rest of us if he had gotten any bigger since the last time we had seen him. Tough call.
Rounding out this group of habitués of the Manchester, N. H. YMCA weight room were perhaps a dozen other guys, ‘weight lifters’ as the ‘Y’ staff pejoratively referred to us. You see, in 1965 training with weights was still a relatively uncommon pastime. Most coaches, physical education teachers, and doctors were adamantly opposed to it, telling us we would become muscle bound and uncoordinated, would stunt our growth, and all our muscles would turn to fat when we got older…never mind that they who had never lifted were already fat. In short, we had been led to believe that our workouts would cause everything from heart disease to the heartbreak of psoriasis.
Fortunately we were a stubborn lot and would listen to no one but our fellow lifters. The result here was the evolution of a subculture and an ‘us against them’ attitude. Soon the weight room crew became an exclusive club whose admission standards were beautiful in their simplicity. If you had heart, you were in. Anybody lacking heart and having the nerve to inflict themselves upon so sacrosanct an environment tying up the equipment would invoke the scornful wrath of the gang until they left and never returned. Yet all of the regulars were polite to one another. A guy may have had a criminal record a mile long and committed unspeakable acts of violence…but in the ‘Y’ weight room it was always, “May I please have that bench when you’ve finished with it.” Amazing!
But on through the 1960s and into the ’70s, still more and more young men flocked to the weight room, the major draw here, I’m convinced, was the camaraderie and raucous atmosphere. Back then there were no females…just guys coming from as disparate backgrounds as one could imagine. There was crazy Chuck, who had just returned home from two combat tours in Viet Nam with the Third Marine Division. His transition to civilian life was, well…difficult. On one memorable occasion, a backfiring city bus on Elm Street caused him to take cover by diving head first through a plate glass window in a men’s clothing store.
In all seriousness, some of the funniest and most outrageous conversations I have ever witnessed took place in the Manchester ‘Y’ weight room, much to the chagrin of the ‘Y’ staff. Another of our crew was Leon, a trooper with the New Hampshire State Police. Leon had told us many times that he would never arrest a person for a traffic violation if they had at least a 16 inch arm. “Cuz the way I see it,” he explained to us through clenched jaws in the most forceful way one could imagine, “Any man that has the guts to build himself some big guns, can’t be all bad!” One to argue even over points of mutual agreement, Leon could start an argument in an empty elevator. Leon was a perfect complement to Bill C.
Bill was the intellectual of our group. He held a master’s degree in business administration from Boston University and worked as bank examiner at Shawmut Bank. Also one of the group was Dr. Dick, an orthopedic surgeon at the local VA hospital. He used to whistle classical music between sets of squats, deadlifts, and bench presses, and went on to take second place in the state power lifting championships for the 198lb class in 1969. Greg G. had also done time in Viet Nam with the Army Special Forces. Once home from the war, he dropped out of college and took a job as an iron worker, explaining to us that he enjoyed the rush of traversing steel girders at dizzying heights. The hard training helped him keep his edge.
Society had yet to embrace the merits of exercise, much less the hard weight training as practiced by my friends and I. Consequently, crowds were never a problem at the Manchester ‘Y’, at the time the only place in the entire City of Manchester for weight training. We actually preferred it that way. Exclusivity has its rewards.
There appeared to have been a common thread running among those of us who drifted into entering bodybuilding contests. Many of us had ‘issues’ with our fathers. Some of us had lost their fathers via divorce or death. Others had fathers who were distant and unapproachable. In my case the hard training helped me deal with the hard feelings I had toward my father. Better to pump the iron than pound my pop, as I often explained to my friends.
For training incentive and innovative ideas we always made sure to check out the latest issues of the popular muscle press. At that time there was Mr. America/All American Athlete and Muscle Builder/Power published by Weider, as well as Muscle Training Illustrated, CBS Sealtest Strongman Dan Lurie’s baby, also Strength and Health, and Muscular Development put out by Hoffman/York. The remainder of the market was taken up by Ironman, published by Peary and Mabel Rader.
The champions of that era were Larry Scott, Dave Draper, Harold Poole, Chuck Sipes, Freddy Ortiz, Boyer Coe, Bob Gajda, Sergio Oliva, Jim Haislop, Don Howorth, John Decola, and Frank Zane.
Each and every month one or more of our gang would be trying out the latest ‘scientific breakthrough’ as revealed in Weider’s magazines. There is no space to get into the supplements we took in any great detail. Wacky! When our hoped for results failed to meet our overly enthusiastic expectations, it was always off to the news stand for the next issue and still more new routines. We eventually realized that what worked best was highly spirited effort with the weights, adequate rest, and proper nutrition. Some of us still don’t get it. One of the guys, Bob B., swore that the only thing that made him grow was to down a whole bottle of either Geritol, Father John’s Medicine, Hoffman’s Energol, or (Shudder!) cod liver oil. I’ll pass.
By late 1974 Charles Gaines’ and George Butler’s tome to the inside world of competitive bodybuilding, Pumping Iron, exploded onto the literary marketplace with the force to a nuclear bomb and opened up the subculture of muscle and might to the public at large. In 1977 the movie of the same name was released to theaters throughout the land and, seemingly over night, Arnold Schwarzenneger became a household icon. Believe it of heave it, prior to this Arnold was known only among ‘his own kind’ in gyms around the world. Having watched him train at the original Gold’s Gym in 1974, I often had the suspicion that there was far more to his grand scheme than merely another Mr. Olympia victory, though we were all encouraged the first time he beat Sergio for the Mr. World Contest in Columbus, Ohio in 1970.
While one competition caliber bodybuilder may turn a head or two, a gang of a dozen such individuals can have a decidedly unsettling effect upon the general public. That was the other thing. We all flaunted our power, going out to night clubs and bars en masse, hanging out on Manchester’s main drag in front of Thom McAn’s Shoe Store and ogling the secretaries passing by on lunch break. People looked but said not a word. Having fun is what we were doing, though too few people to mention shared our view. We were either loved or hated, nothing in between.
By the late ’70s bodybuilding had gone commercial. No longer was it an esoteric pursuit for purist loners. By the mid 80’s anabolic steroids were being sold right out of most healthclubs which by this point were nearly on every street corner. The drugs provided supplementary revenue for the clubs’ burdensome overhead, and helped their members make progress…at least for the short-term. The equipment was the best, but by this point the atmosphere had been sterilized. Disco music and Spandex ruled. Many of my friends quit training while others continued to go to the gym but more to socialize than to train. The weight room had gone the way of most original concepts…commercialized and emasculated, a caricature of its former self.
And as I think back over the decades, I recall all of the friends I had made. Some are dead and some are living. Many are injured. Most of us, in one way or another have grown up, are struggling to hold our families together and, sadly, have discovered that our children find us distant and unapproachable if not entirely irrelevant. Many of our wives have left us for males that are our antithesis. As for myself, I’m still hitting the weights with a vengeance. Some would tell you I train as if I’m fighting for my life. I am.
Keep on pumpin’!