Sunday, July 26, 2009

Heritage of Strength - Harry B. Paschall

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Heritage of Strength
by Harry B. Paschall (From Vigour, 1952)

The literature of every race in every era abounds with sages of heroic strength. In almost every religion you may find the story of a strong man . . . Hercules, Vulcan, Thor, Samson to name just a few among many. The immortal Homer spun his fascinating tales of high adventure around a strong man who was able to outfight, outswim, outrow, out-talk and outsmart all his nefarious adversaries. In those early days the strong man was also a man of keen and vigorous intellect, because all men were strong and athletic . . . even the sages attended gymnasia where they exercised their bodies as well as their minds.

The insidious and envious propaganda of the “strong back and weak mind” came much later when the vain man struggled with an inferiority complex, and each sought through intrigue and various “equalizing” weapons to gain the prestige and power which he lacked as a man. It is factual that in nearly every case where a truly great man has walked the earth, where he was a leader, a statesman, an artist, a musician, a writer, an outstanding craftsman, a mystic or a saint that the man was also an exceptional physical specimen. The little “great” man, who created a great deal of turmoil in the world, the Napoleons, Hitlers, Mussolinis, were relatively inferior physical types. Thus we have a strong and sound basis for our innate reverence for strength. Certainly Richard the Lionheart owes much of his appeal to his ability to unseat his enemies in a tilting match; and Abe Lincoln lost no popularity by lifting a hogshead of whiskey and drinking from the bung. (Lest the Puritans be offended, it is recorded that Honest Abe spat out liquor!) The famous men who were noted for their mental and spiritual stature, yet who were also men of exceptional physical prowess are legion.

The greatest of all artists, Michelangelo, was so strong he could bend a horseshoe; Byron swam the Hellespont; Balzac, his biographer said, “had the muscular torso and shoulders of a weightlifter”; Hoffman, the musician, was terrifically strong; Socrates and Plato spoke frequently or exercise; George Washington held the American broad jump record.

I am well aware that many piddling professors will take issue with me on this subject, and point to the so-called giants of science and philosophy such as Freud and Nietzsche. Give me, like Caesar, men about me who have meat on their bones. History has proven that it is well to steer shy of those who wear the “lean and hungry look.”

An odd circumstance, a marked similarity, exists in the behavior of all the would-be world conquerors which proves conclusively that they realized their own physical shortcomings . . . in almost every case they planned a race of Supermen, and even encouraged breeding for physical strength and stature without regard to customs or morals.

But it isn’t at all necessary to go into the world scene to demonstrate the universal liking for strength. In every village and town there are local legends of strong men. I can recall visiting a farming community during threshing time some score of years ago. Perhaps 30 or 40 men of the neighborhood were gathered together around the village forge where a wizened old man was mending a bit of broken machinery at his anvil. The idle men soon began to make trials of strength to while away the time taken out while repairs were being made, and one of their competitive feats was the hoisting to the shoulder of a two-bushel sack of wheat, while standing with both feet in a small measuring cask. This was very interesting to me, and very amusing, for many of the men got all tangled up with their feet while trying to shoulder the unwieldy bag, and wound up stretched flat on the ground with the sack on top of them (such a sack weighs 120 lb.).

Several of the stronger men were successful, and knowing that I was something of a weightlifter they invited me to try. I found it easy enough, after learning where to grip the sack to maintain control, and then gave them something of a surprise by balancing the sack at the shoulder on one hand and slowly pushing it to arms’ length overhead. The old blacksmith now entered the conversation by telling us that his father (of blessed memory) had been noted for thirty miles around as the strongest man in the county, and that his greatest feat was in lifting the very anvil upon which he was now working, from the ground to the block by grasping the horn (the pointed end) with one hand. He suggested that I TRY to duplicate this stunt, and I know that he felt my chances were negligible.

So I lifted the anvil from the block to the ground with two hands, testing its weight (it proved to be 126 lbs.) and then grabbed it with one hand and flipped it up to the block, so easily that I even surprised myself. The old man was considerably nonplussed, and seemed to feel that I had done his papa an injury. Finding this trick so easy, I took the anvil again, lifted it to the shoulder and pressed it with one hand to arm’s length. I have a feeling now, were I to go back to the village smithy after all these years, that these two feats would still be legendary, unless another and stronger man has been along since.

Sometimes these legends grow, and I shouldn’t be at all surprised were I to go back there now, that someone would tell me that the stranger who lifted the anvil some twenty years ago had balanced it on one finger whole pressing it overhead. Thus we hear of some lifter in the hinterlands who once pressed 250 lbs., his friends tell others that he did 275, the others whoop it up to 300, and a rumor reaches by stages all around the world that Joe Blow of Cactus Junction can press 400 lbs. any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Again, in the way of local legends, there was the tale of a disgraced patron of a pub in Wales who, when his drinks were cut off and he was turned out into the cold, cruel world, shambled down the road a piece until he came upon a huge stone which weighed some hundreds of pounds; this he pounded upon and carried back to the tavern where he deposited it before the door so that nobody could leave or enter.

John Grimek tells a story of Steve Stanko’s papa which indicates that Steve came by his muscles honestly. It seems the elder Stanko ran out of firewood and liquor at the same time and after visiting the tavern, found all the wood yards closed, so he yanked a huge telephone pole out of the ground and carried it home on his shoulders to keep the home fires burning. These poles are about thirty feet long and nearly a foot in diameter at the bottom, so it must have weighed several hundred pounds.

If we will glance backward to our youthful days, we will find many a memory of occasions when strength impressed us. One of my first, I remember, was an occasion in the schoolyard when two of my friends engaged in a fistic encounter over the smiles of a 14-year old femme fatale. One of these lads was about 16 and a big lumbering fellow, while the other was a year younger and much lighter, but very compactly built. The contest lasted only a minute or two, for the smaller boy punched so solidly that each time he connected the bigger lad rolled on the ground. The boys were wearing shorts, and I remember clearly to this day how strongly the calves of the victor stood out as he planted his feet to launch his devastating wallops. The same boy could strike a ball farther than any of us, and he ran like a deer. No wonder he became for most of us a year or two younger a boyhood idol. I have never lost the impression gained at that time through a vivid experience that a man is only as strong as his legs.

One of my favorite boyhood heroes was Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” In this book the huge Quasimodo performed many feats of incredible strength, and carried the heroine to safety from the mob by climbing to the roof of the cathedral, where he held her white body at arms’ length overhead, and waved defiance at the bloodthirsty crowd below. He also swung across the bell tower by hanging blithely to the clapper of the big bell, and here again, such are the quirks of memory. I never hear the chimes of church bells without thinking of Quasimodo’s ungainly figure swooping across the bell tower while dangling from the clapper. I was fascinated by the occasion in Dumas’ “Three Musketeers,” when the huge Porthos chose to exert his superhuman strength, and by the tremendous Roman Arena scene in Slienkiewicz’s “Quo Vadis,” when the giant slave Ursus pitted his strength against a bull bearing his mistress’s nude body bound across the horns, and broke the neck of that ferocious beast.

Alan Calvert once wrote about an artist friend who was also a barbell man and whom he induced to draw some sparkling pen and ink illustrations of strong men for his articles . . . “if I could draw powerful muscles as well as this man, I would never do anything else but sit all day long and draw pictures of strong men for my own delight and amusement.” I, too, would like nothing better than to write and talk about strong men and feats of strength, and I could go on like this for chapter after chapter.

By far the most important of all strongman tales go to the seeker of strength and is the ancient Greek story of Milo of Crotona. This inspiring legend not only reported various feats of strength and athletic ability, but it did more; it told us how Milo became strong through the principle of progression in weightlifting.

Back in the early days of the Greek Olympic Games the big hero was the winner of the wrestling competition, and we must remark that wrestling in those days was a serious pastime, for the losers were carried out on a stretcher. No finicky official would call “Foul” nor pat a wrestler on the back gently to indicate the winner. The champion was announced quite simply by the crunch of breaking bones and snapping vertebrae. A shepherd boy (or maybe we should call him a cowboy) named Milo, became inspired, as boys will, to duplicate feats of the champion athletes of the day, and casting about for a method to develop his body to the proper size and strength, he happened to think about lifting a calf each day until it became grown. The idea seemed logical, and still is. So over a period of several years, Milo would take the calf on his back and walk several paces with his burden; as the beast grew so also did Milo, and when he entered the Olympics Arena he had grown so strong that that it was child’s play for him to pull arms and legs off his astounded opponents. For more than thirty years Milo was unbeatable, and theory of progressive exercise had been demonstrated throughout.

For many years this was regarded as mere legend, and physical training authorities gave little credence to a story they thought was on a par with the Labors of Hercules and the idea that a guy named Atlas was holding the world on his shoulders. But towards the close of the nineteenth century several trainers in Germany and France began to experiment with the Milo principles of lifting increasing weights in the shape of barbells and dumbells. In America in 1902 Alan Calvert formed his company, The Milo Bar Bell Company, after the ancient Greek athlete.

Some twenty years ago a country boy in Tennessee named (most appropriately) H. E. Mann, decided to find out for himself whether the feat of lifting a calf until it was fully grown was a human possibility. He licked a Jersey bull, and not only succeeded in the endeavor, but for some time exhibited through the Southern States, lifting the bull and walking with it over a small stile. It is related that the local yokels were so unimpressed by Mr. Mann’s deeds of derring-do that they refused to contribute anything except tobacco spit when he passed the hat. As a sad end to this venture in showmanship this modern Milo wound up by eating the bull, thus demonstrating once again that the first law of nature is self-preservation.

Long years ago, certain paper-covered books of a very lurid nature (akin to the comic books of today) containing wild tales of cowboys and Indians, murders and train robberies, were surreptitiously purveyed to boys. Some folk called them “penny dreadfuls.” They gave you a lot of gore and action for your money, and we used to sometimes read them in school by concealing them within the covers of our geography book. Our teachers and parents had strong opinions about these gems of literature.

Later on in high school, we became a strength addict, and substituted the then small STRENGTH MAGAZINE as an interesting insert in our Physics book, thus fooling the omnipresent educators, and incidentally learning more worthwhile things than are to be found in any school textbook.

Now, looking back upon those days with a supposedly mature mind, we are more and more certain that learning to care for and build your body is far more important than any subject we were supposed to study in school.

If you are interested in strength, in becoming stronger and more sturdily built, this is a normal and wholesale attitude and as such, highly commendable.

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