Help Me, Charles Atlas

When I was 12, I “gambled a stamp” and sent away for details on the Charles Atlas course.

Those of a certain age surely remember the above ad that appeared in comic books for years, featuring a guy who finally had enough of being marginalized, bullied and having sand kicked in his face.

While I can’t say I was physically bullied, somewhere in my childhood I was made to feel less-than by certain kids at school – and a daresay some adults I encountered outside of school. With apologies to my twin brother, he and I were the ones left standing when teams were being picked in phys-ed – until each side begrudgingly accepted one or the other of us.

We were different, Chris and I. Old souls, and literate before we started the first grade. (Math is another story. I still gaze slack-jawed when faced with a seemingly easy fractional equation.)

I never understood the sis-boom-bah – rah-rah-rah mentality attached to sports and foisted on kids who have absolutely no interest in participating. Most of the other boys embraced this mentality, but I wasn’t having any of it. Neither was my brother. I still don’t, and Chris doesn’t either.

But the Charles Atlas ad appealed to me in a visceral way, and when I got the booklet in the mail, I was ecstatic…

Here were success stories (modern marketing would call these case studies) of young men who had transformed their nerdy bodies into chiseled and rugged masterpieces.

I just had to order the course – if only to get even with those who ever doubted me. Not that I wanted the chance to compete with the other boys on the athletic field, but rather possess the ability to be ready and able to kick their asses if they decided to ramp up their disrespect.

But nobody actually beat me up or even tried to. Me and my brother never got jumped by marauding bands of street toughs. But it was enough for me that some of these kids were dismissive and that, if given the chance, they would exclude us from their reindeer games.

They didn’t understand different. And we were different in spades. The fact that we were finally embraced by kids like this after we started playing music is another story.

The course was expensive for that time. If I remember correctly, it was thirty dollars, payable in installments of five dollars each time a new component arrived. The course itself arrived, I believe, every couple of weeks or so – with each mimeographed section no more than like ten pages of instructions followed by what looked like ancient photos of Charles Atlas performing the “Dynamic Tension” exercises. These looked simple enough – and each installment focused on another part of the body.

“Dynamic Tension” was what many would come to call resistance training. The course also covered nutrition, grooming and some advice about the dangers of smoking and drinking to the physical specimen. I also recall advice from the strongman about being careful not to dissipate one’s energy on promiscuity. He didn’t use that word, but the gist was the same.

The first lesson was all about building up the pecs – and was supposed to continue throughout the three-month program – and then we were to add additional body parts as we went along. I can’t tell you how often I started, stopped, and started again.

I never finished the program, but even at 12 and 13, my chest was pretty well developed. I still have the course somewhere, and it would be fun to see it again.

At 57, I can tell you that the biggest bully I ever encountered was myself – and he beats me up regularly.

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