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Column: Bodybuilding on the farm

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Back in the mid-1950s, when I was first becoming aware of girls and muscles, I figured the likelihood that I was going to get some of either was highly questionable.

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Then I found the Charles Atlas advertisements.

In his ads, there was always a three-segment cartoon. In the first frame, a bully kicks beach sand at a 97-pound weakling, to his girl’s shame. In the second, it shows him using the Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension muscle-building technique. In the third, the 97-pound weakling – now buff and chiseled – gets even with the beach bully.

Charles Atlas himself was that 97-pound weakling, this at a time when The Great Depression was all anyone could think about, now that we were out of World War I, and no one had really gotten into bodybuilding at all. He happened along just at the right time, kind of when the country was looking for stars to follow. He developed his technique, developed his advertising, and at his peak, employed 24 people just to answer the phone and mail, selling his secret methods, which mainly involved pitting one part of the body against another.

Sigh. Those cartoon advertisements. Beating up bullies. Big muscles. Girls. These struck home with every young boy who was crossing that 90-pound growing range. I was no exception. In Iowa, there weren’t any sandy beaches, but so what? I’d go find one. Nor were there really any bullies in country school, where I was far more fixated on my only eighth-grade classmate’s sudden female attributes. Logic didn’t enter into puberty. Never has; never will. Maybe a bully would come along, and I’d be ready.

Somewhere, at home, a small set of weights appeared, from where I don’t remember. I was 13. I worked like crazy on those, really thought I was getting massively strong. Then one day dad came into the room, grabbed the weight I was struggling with, threw it around like there was no tomorrow, and told me he had a secret way to get strong.

Well, maybe not in quite those exact words. More like, he hinted at how to get really strong. Hinted that he knew how. Told me he’d show me at milking the next morning how to do it.

Warning bells should have been ringing, but apparently my common sense wasn’t any bigger than my muscles. After all, it hadn’t been but a few months since he’d talked me into taking a chew of snoose, out in the barn. The results of that had been catastrophic. Fathers, I was to learn, weren’t always to be trusted completely.

I hadn’t learned that yet. I showed up the next morning, my other chores done, and dad led me to a pen where, since it was still chilly spring weather, he kept a few cows with their newborn calves.

“See that calf?” he said to me, pointing at it across the pen partition. “Lift that calf twice a day; someday the calf will weigh hundreds of pounds, and you’ll be strong enough to lift it.”

He turned to go, then said, back to me: “Better feed and water these mother cows, just to keep them distracted.”

Anything, I thought, to get strong and kick nonexistent sand at nonexistent bullies. I started fetching water, throwing hay down from the mow, getting oats and protein supplement, doing what amounted to more chores, blind to that fact.

I picked that calf up several times that day. For the first few days, it protested heartily, then it just seemed to kind of give up. The calf’s mother eyed me suspiciously until the feed showed up, which shows where her allegiance was.

This went on for about a month, until one day, with the calf playing hard to get, suddenly not on board with the program, I picked him up, and he took to kicking, kicked me in the crotch. Then he got the scours. I had to give up.

It was only later that I realized dad had gotten several new cow-calf pairs fed with no effort.

Charles Atlas would have been proud.

Of him.

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