To tell the truth, back in my pimple-encrusted adolescence I was more like an 87-pound weakling. Maybe less. Which was doubly humiliating because according to my childhood mentor, legendary American body builder Charles Atlas, it was generally recognised that the industry standard for weaklings should be set at 97-pounds. In the weakling department, therefore, I was in a class of my own.
I first encountered the legendary Charles Atlas, self-styled “world’s most perfectly developed body” some time in the mid-nineteen sixties. At the time he was a fixture on the back pages of the British comics I used to read regularly. He would grin back at me from grainy photographs featuring a backdrop of some exotic beachside locale. The backdrops always made a big impression. We lived in Glasgow at the time and pictures of sand and surf tended to inspire an almost religious awe.
This was shrewd marketing on Charles’ part. The Charles Atlas ads tapped intravenously into the very heart of my generation’s aspirations. He understood us better than we understood ourselves. We craved sunshine. We dreamed about palm-fronded beaches. We were pale, skinny, spotty-faced sun-worshippers condemned to endure a sunless existence. As a consequence our bodies had failed to emerge from the maggoty larvae stage and malingered shamefully at the 97-pound point of our life cycle. Or 87-pounds, in my particular case.
Charles’ advertisements deftly summed up everything I wanted to be, everything I manifestly wasn’t. The ads featured the classic cartoon illustration of a skinny, bespectacled youth suffering the ultimate humiliation – yes, the old sand kicked in the face routine. Hovering over the weedy kid with the concave chest was the archetypal muscle-bound bully taunting me – did I say me? I meant of course him, the bespectacled weakling – with a maddening sneer. Completing the tableau there would of course be a bevy of bikini-clad females looking on piteously and thereby making my – that is, the weakling’s – humiliation complete.
And then, the killer punch line: a photograph of an avuncular Charles Atlas hovered above the cartoon asking the very questions that tormented my soul by day and by night:
“Tired of having sand kicked in your face?”
“Ashamed of being an insult to manhood?”
“Sick of being Soft, Frail, Skinny or Flabby?”
Tick, tick, tick, tick.
Of course, in reality no one had ever actually kicked sand in my face; I don’t think I’d even seen any sand at that point in my life; but I just instinctively knew that if the opportunity to attend a beach ever presented itself in the future, sure enough, some muscle-bound jerk would promptly materialize before my face and kick sand into it.
Boy, that Charles Atlas, he really knew how to get to the heart of the matter. It was as if he had read my tortured, angst-ridden adolescent mind. And, in a way, he had. For Charles had been there, too, down amongst the myopic, emaciated losers, or so he revealed in his bracingly frank tell-all advertising copy. He himself had once been a “pathetic 97-pound runt”, a “skinny failure” and – oh the bile and bitter humiliation – a “wallflower”. Hey Charles Atlas, I would have said to him – had he by some miracle of teleportation materialized in the living room of our dingy Glasgow tenement – don’t be so damned hard on yourself.
So you see, he had felt my pain. We had a connection. Which was a bit of a miracle when you think about it. I mean, there was the age difference for a start. Judging from the photo, Charles looked to be around forty albeit a vigorous and virile sort of forty. I, on the other hand, was thirteen years old and by no stretch of the imagination could I have been considered a vigorous and virile thirteen. Myopia, laziness and a phobia of contact sports had conspired to deprive me of any glory on the sporting fields or indeed anywhere else. So then, definitely not a good thirteen. In fact, to be ruthlessly accurate, you would have to say I was like a thirteen year old trapped inside the body of a feeble eleven year old. The babushka doll of weaklings.
Then of course there was the issue of the Charles Atlas underwear. I believe the accurate name for them would be briefs. They were short; they were tight; occasionally they were leopard skin. Charles was inordinately fond of the briefs, insisting on wearing them to the exclusion of any other form of clothing. This was fine on the beach, obviously, but Charles seemed set on making a dress code out of a fabric scrap scarcely larger than his groin circumference. With a body like that, he could have cut a swathe through Madison Avenue in a grey flannel three piece suit, but no, Charles would have none of it. It was to be the briefs or nothing (I believe he did a stint of nude art class modelling in his youth). I will confess that the briefs caused me to have my doubts about Charles early on in our association. My main objection was to the flaunting of the privates, the tool kit, the family jewels, (insert own euphemism). The Charles Atlas briefs accommodated a prominent bulge that looked very much as if he might be concealing an oversized banana about his person. Disporting himself in his underpants in the back pages of comics, well, it was all a little racy for my puritan tastes of the time.
There was also the peculiar case of the unnatural skin. On the black and white page, Charles’ skin was possessed of a strange sheen; it appeared to glow eerily as if exhibiting the after-effects of some form of radioactive exposure. It just didn’t look right. One day I realised that the condition Charles had contracted was what the rest of humanity outside of Scotland called a ‘suntan’. In my defence, the thirteen-year old Glaswegian version of me had seen little of that particular dermatological condition. A suntan as in, like, from the rays of the sun? Good God, who knew such things were possible?
Despite our glaring differences vis-a-vis groin flaunting and radioactive skin, Charles Atlas had stumbled upon a central image that crossed the barriers of age, dress and geography. Every adolescent in the country understood skinny, underdeveloped bodies. A whole generation of moderately undernourished British kids reared on fish suppers, egg and chips, potato crisps and sweets could look at that cartoon and identify with the gaunt little wimp in the National Health spectacles staring forlornly into the mirror. Charles even helpfully provided a checklist of body parts so that we could tick those areas requiring the most emphasis. Did we want a) broader chest and shoulders, b) iron-hard stomach muscles, c) tireless legs, d) more energy and stamina e) more magnetic personality.
It was a case of ticking every box and sending off my money order to 10 Chitty Street, London W1. Over the course of the next twelve months I received thirteen Charles Atlas Health And Strength lessons, every one of which I treated with reverence, as if it had been a tablet of Mosaic law handed down from on high.
The essence of the Charles Atlas program revolved around what Charles was wont to call “the secrets of dynamic tension”, a technique that allegedly came to him out of the blue whilst observing a leopard stretching itself at the local zoo. Personally I don’t believe a word of it. Sounds like advertising copy hooey to me. But at the time, to a thirteen year old, it all made perfect sense. Every superhero must have his moment of epiphany, the turning point after which nothing in his life will ever be the same again. If Charles had been a comic character he would have called himself The Leopard or maybe Claw or Cat-man and there would be much leaping from tall buildings clad in leopard skin briefs with maybe the face-saving addition of a pair of lycra tights and a cloak, for decency’s sake.
Charles’ “secret” comprised of pitting one muscle against the other as well as variations of push ups and sit ups. Basically, then, a set of exercises that could be done on the cheap without expensive equipment and in the comfort of one’s own tenement slum. As such, it had much to recommend it to the average Glaswegian runt. Of course, there were teething problems. I wonder whether Charles anticipated the horror with which Scottish youth would have greeted his instruction to strip down to underpants in order to perform the exercises. We just didn’t do that sort of thing all that often, particularly in the depths of a Scottish winter. I imagine Charles worked out in a sunlit bungalow where an individual might go for years without sighting a beard of frost attached to a membrum virile (once again, insert your own euphemism), and where thermal long johns were largely unknown outside the circles of Florida retirees of a certain age. I wrote to Charles at length on this matter citing the risk of frostbite and pneumonia to dangerously under-dressed Scottish adolescents but no reply was forthcoming. I took this to be a sign from the guru to his acolyte that I should stop whining, man the hell up and learn to love my y-front briefs.
As the lessons arrived, roughly on a monthly basis, a pattern emerged, a profile of Charles Atlas and the values he held dear. He took a strong stand on drugs. The use of tea especially seemed to enrage him. Charles never mentioned cocaine or pill popping, but he did warn us repeatedly against the evils of tea. Who knows, perhaps this goes some way to explaining why there are so many coke-snorting, amphetimine-fueled, fitness fanatics around who wouldn’t be caught dead drinking tea. I struggled with the tea issue. I imagine most of Charles’ British students did the same. Coming off a lifetime habit was never going to be easy. And yet Charles would not budge on this, once more not deigning to reply to my frantic letters on the subject. His only suggestion in the lessons was to replace the morning tea ritual with a glass of hot orange cordial. And so, thanks to Charles Atlas, I learned that there are few beverages more unspeakable than hot orange cordial. I still gag a little when I think about the taste.
On the other hand, Charles was hugely enthusiastic about milk, perhaps recklessly so. We were expected to drink a glass of the stuff each hour of each day for a week; but wait, there’s more; the following week we had to increase this to a glass of the wretched cow juice every three quarters of an hour every day for a week; but wait, there’s still more; during the third week we were instructed to up the ante to a glass of milk every half an hour of every day for the week. Just to sum up, then, drink four hundred and eighty glasses or so of milk over three weeks. Presumably the diet ends here because most of the students have to seek hospitalisation. And God help the lactose intolerance brigade, for I suspect Charles would have slapped the snivelling wretches down with a stern admonition to man the hell up.
When Charles wasn’t busy trying to hook his students onto an intravenous milk drip he would wax lyrical on another of his passions – the application of a wondrous liquid guaranteed to cure a comprehensive list of the world’s ills. We speak here of olive oil. Olive oil, Charles? What, you mean, like the salad dressing? I never quite understood this peculiar obsession until I recently discovered that the real name of the man I knew as Charles Atlas was actually Angelo Siciliano. Now it all makes sense. Who else but an Italian olive fanatic would seriously encourage young people to drink a glass of olive oil every day, rub copious quantities into the hair to stimulate the scalp and even inject it into the rectum before an enema (outlined rather messily in Lesson Three).
But I think my faith in Charles was most seriously undermined by his attitude to women. Even an 87-pound runt could see that my milk-guzzling, oil-smearing mentor was a tad out of step with the Swinging Sixties raging around us. He subscribed to a morality just left of the early church fathers from Saint Augustine onwards in that he did at least draw just short of blaming women for all carnal temptation. That is, I think he did. I can say with certainty that he was a great believer in cold baths in the morning, hard beds and early rising, all of which were designed, one gathers, to prevent us from succumbing to the demeaning temptation of self-pleasuring. I can also say with equal certainty that none of these measures worked. At thirteen, self-pleasuring was high on my agenda and, indeed, I would have had no hesitation in giving it priority in any list of the seven habits of highly effective teens, such was my dedication at the time.
At no stage in the thirteen lessons did Charles mention women directly but one was left with the unmistakable impression that the female of the species represented a distraction from the real centre of attraction in the world according to Charles Atlas – one’s own endlessly fascinating physique. Like all body-builders Charles must have been self-absorbed to an extraordinary degree in order to achieve such physical development. That, after all, is the name of the game. Little wonder, then, that his lesson program espoused a way of life leaving no room for any other obsessions. In his private life, I later learned, Charles was happily married and devoted to his wife. I just wonder how he found the time in between the exercising and drinking all that milk.
Charles Atlas drifted out of my life in the late 1960s when I began to realise that his Spartan regimen belonged to a different era than my own. Possibly it was the olive oil enemas. Or maybe the prudish allusions to the sins of the flesh and that vile devil’s brew lurking in a teapot. The briefs didn’t help either; definitely not what they were wearing in San Francisco during the Summer Of Love, 1967. In fact, Charles was even more out of step with the zeitgeist than I knew. Those grainy advertisement photos of a beaming forty-year-old man were deceptive. Angelo Siciliano was born in 1893 and would have been in his seventies when I subscribed to his health and strength program. So then, he wasn’t even a father figure. More like a grandfather, actually. He died in 1972 at the age of seventy-nine, not that old for such a relentlessly healthy exercise enthusiast. I still have all the lessons. Now that I live in Australia I go to the beach a lot and I can testify with every confidence that the Charles Atlas health and strength program absolutely works – over the last forty years or so not a single muscle-bound bully has kicked sand in my face or attempted to humiliate me in front of anyone clad in a bikini.