Sunday, November 6, 2011

How I Have Built Myself Into a Physical Marvel - W.C. Fields

How I Have Built Myself Into a Physical Marvel
by W.C. Fields (1939)

Now, my muscles have been the wonder of two generations and three continents. Just to give you an example, I once had a twinge of rheumatism in my left arm and went to the doctor for a once-over. He inspected my arm, but could find nothing wrong. “Except,’ he said, “there is a strange little black speck on the muscle.” I had to smirk! It was merely a tattoo – when I swelled my bicep it read, “Love from Mabel F. Cunningham.”

However, like the late Teddy Roosevelt, I was not always the remarkable specimen I am today. In my youth I was distinctly frail. I well remember that many a time I could not even rush the can for Daddy in a proper manner. The two-quart container of beer was often more than a match for my slender young arm, and I would be forced to drink half the contents to make the burden lighter.

But a curious thing did happen to me while I was still a swain; it changed my life. Here is the story in a nutshell.

It was just 35 years ago that I was talking with Tex Rickard and Death Valley Scotty in the Old Victoria Hotel Bar. I left the café and walked down Broadway. I must have been ‘thinking,’ for the next thing I knew I was struck by a runaway street organ in Alleghany, Pa., and left in an unstrung condition. The entrepreneur of this musical cavalcade, an Italian gentleman, was most profuse in his apologies and sympathies. His poor frightened monkey bit me on the stomach in his excitement. As soon as I was out of the hospital, my thoughts turned to physical culture as a way of regaining my shattered health.

At the start of my health campaign I made one sad mistake, which should serve as a warning to my very dear readers not to rely on mechanical devices for exercise. I took $87.50 from my piggy bank and bought one of those rowing machines I’d heard so much about. Alas, the first time I put it in the Monongahela River and hopped on, the plagued thing sank like a plummet – am I using the right word? And I was bitten on the stomach in practically the same spot by a bill-horned turtle. When I arose to the surface and regurgitated a motley assortment of our diminutive finny friends and clay, my friends on the beach shouted, “Here’s to you! Good luck! Bottoms up, you dumb . . . so and so,” and things left better unsaid. They had evidently been drinking.

It was the Glad Gladiator who set me aright as to exercise and I shall never stop thanking the lucky coincidence that brought his resonant voice to me. One very cold morning in March, I was wandering about the house trying to ferret out a noggin of medicinal spirits when my eye settled on the radio (the radio was merely a chunk of crystal and a couple of earphones in those days). Fearing that my ears were about to chip with the cold, I donned the phones – and heard the Glad Gladiator broadcasting setting-up exercises. From that moment on, I was a slave to his vibrant “one-two-three – bend!” and every morning would find me at my deep-breathing, Grecian bends and crouching arabesques.

In time my muscles developed so that every time I lifted a glass the seam of my jacket would split. I was naturally grateful to the Glad Gladiator for my fine new physique, and one day I made my way to the radio station to view the great specimen of manhood with my own eyes. Unfortunately, I was told by the studio officials, the Glad Gladiator had only that morning dropped dead of pernicious anemia. My chin dropped, but then something happened that dried my tears. The studio’s president, one Bela Nyiregyhazi, who knew more about goulash than a seal does about swimming (these metaphors come to me as natural as – well, I can’t think of one now), entered the room and spied me in the leopard skin that I had slipped on for the occasion. “Give that beast a good currying and report tomorrow morning to take over for the Glad Gladiator.”

For a number of years I broadcast faithfully each morning, helping to build the bodies of America. The results gave me the greatest joy of my life. I received millions of wonderful letters of thanks, one of which I remember above all others. It was an epistle from Mrs. Smolen I. Sutker (whose husband at that time was a member of a group of Swiss bell-ringers who played at a famous restaurant) blessing me for saving her husband’s life. Mr. Sutker, it seemed, could not sleep, for the noise made by disgruntled patrons calling him vile, ferocious and obscene names outside his window, so his good wife wrote to me begging for advice. I knew, of course, the great value of healthful recreation in such a case, so I advised him to run – which is healthful in more ways than one under the condition. I recently received a postcard from him in a bottle. He is on one of the Coco Islands in the Pacific, perfectly happy except that a mosquito carried off his pet dog during one of his sleep periods.

On the other hand, I have known of instances where recreation did no good at all. Take my Uncle Oviatt MacTavish, a frugal old Scot. He became inflicted with insomnia so badly that his business was fast going to ruin. A friend suggested that he pitch horseshoes, and he tried it, but it didn’t work. His horse got so sulky at having to go barefoot that Uncle Oviatt had to give up the sport and replace the shoes on the unfortunate equine.

But then, Uncle Sandy, as he was always referred to in the pawn-broking business, discovered an insomnia cure that earned him fame as the greatest sleeper south of Philadelphia. One day he happened to receive a free copy of the 1911 Congressional Record. On a warm Monday evening he sat down and read 30 pages. When he woke up it was Wednesday afternoon. He got so that after a good dose of the Congressional Record he could sleep as long as 192 hours on end. But his really crowning achievement came when he ran afoul of the law in 1916. It was a frame-up naturally, as you can guess. His enemies had planted a stolen overcoat on him.

I was standing beside him at the time he was apprehended to be placed in durance vile. We had gone to a café to celebrate my fifth year as a Thespian. An uncouth, ill-mannered lout rushed at me and ripped his gold-headed umbrella from my hand. (I had inadvertently picked it up, mistaking it for my cigar, s it was hanging on the bar beside it. The cigar and the umbrella handle being of the same hue, anyone can readily understand this mistake.) He struck me a violent blow just below the eye with a haymaker, raising an egg as big as a baby’s fist on my cheekbone, and said, “Take that, you ham!” “Ham and egg!” expostulated Uncle Sandy, laughing as though his ribs would burst.

But to revert to the overcoat episode: The judge sentenced Uncle Sandy to 60 days in jail. Uncle Sandy stretched out on his bunk and slept through the whole term. And when they came to wake him up, he rolled over and asked for an extra sentence. I strongly doubt whether that record has ever been equaled even on the floor of the Senate.

Uncle Sandy lived to be 96, and he always claimed it was sleep that was responsible. But I am not sure that sleep is the most important thing in health. My Grandfather MacWeenie lived to be 104 and almost never went to bed. He attributed his longevity to his beard. It was the longest beard for hundreds of miles around, and Grandfather would wrap it around his neck like a muffler and stuff it down his trousers to keep his chest warm whilst crossing the moors during the grouse season. It functioned both as an adornment and combination underwear. Just to show you how long it was, one day Grandfather forgot to wrap it around his neck, and, while hurrying for a horse car, he missed his footing, ran right up his beard and kicked all his own teeth out. Both of them.

One fall afternoon, Grandfather MacWeenie was forging his way through a Scotch mist down Suchiehall Street in Glasgow on his way to the House of Correction to see one of his relatives, when two flippant Yankees from New Orleans, U.S.A., passed. One of the Yankees, looked first at Grandfather MacWeenie’s splendid beard, then at his friend, the other Yankee, and sneered insultingly: “That muff would make great winter quarters for bees and insects.” Grandfather was dignified and paid them no mind – or he evidently didn’t hear them – otherwise he possibly would have tried to sell them the beard.

At any rate, I am not a strong advocate of long beards and never have been.

I hope all my gentle readers will forgive my digression. As the exaggerated yarn goes with regard to the gentleman who jumped out the tenth-floor window and said when passing the sixth floor, “I’ve entirely gotten away from my story.” As I was saying, I broadcast each morning for several years, and then one day I received a hard blow. Mr. Noel Whipsnade, our sponsor, and said, “Fields, we’re getting another Gladiator. You’ll have to go. You’re getting the well-known sack.”

“But, Noel –“ I said. He did not give me time to answer, even if I’d had one.

“At the last board meeting we decided radio was no longer in its infancy, Fields. It’s the old laminster.”

Of course, I could see his point, even though it left me stunned. But I was not to be discouraged. I then immediately embarked on a program of physical culture that was thrice – nay, four times – as hardy as any I had undertaken before. I would awake each morning at the crack of noon and walk a good three miles before breakfast to the old Rittenhouse Hostelry, for men only, where the newspaper boys hung out. Then came a long afternoon of baseball, where I learned to yell, “Kill the umpire,” louder than anyone else in the left-field bleachers. Then back to the boys at the old “Rit” as we succinctly (meaning briefly) referred to it. After dinner I would generally occupy myself with volley ball, sometimes varying that with a fireman’s or policeman’s ball. About midnight I would pick out a likely-looking table, and catch forty winks under it. We had no patience with mollycoddles who slept in beds those days. Soon I’d be back ay my break-neck program, and would spend the rest of the night in figuring racing forms, and often as not I’d be able to pick up some fine tips from the bookies and stable hands. It only proves what methodical physical culture can do for you. Never, my gentle readers, take any stock in the man who says, “Pshaw, I sit at a desk all day and never do anything more strenuous than sign my name, and look at me – sound as a bell, sweet as a nut. Exercise is sheer bunkum!” How many times have I heard that twaddle! Little does the average business man know about himself. The truth is that he goes through more grueling calisthenics during a work day than the most active of coal heavers.

Take, for instance, Mr. Frothingham T. Whalebait, to choose a name at random from my morning mail. Mr. Whalebait is third vice-president of a prosperous overshoe-buckle concern in Emporia, Kansas. The very first thing in the morning he executes one of the most advanced exercises I know of, called the Triple Half-Nelson Twist: when Mrs. W. calls him at eight A.M., he gets a head lock on the pillow, clutches the top of the bedclothing with one fist, contorts his whole body into a pretzel design and rolls over briskly on the inner-spring mattress. He reverses this figure at 8:05 when his wife shrieks again; and at 8:15 when she barges in at him with a jagged-edge broom, he pulls off his third Half-Nelson Twist and then gives up and gets dressed and takes a shower, time permitting.

The second exercise I have christened the Coach-Window Adagio, and it takes place after Mr. Whalebait has caught the 8:57 by a hangnail and has finally found a seat. It consists of (a) grasping firmly both handles of a window; (b) exerting all the body pressure upwards; (c) invectives. After proper exhalation and subsequent inhalation of breath, Mr. W. repeats the exercise, and then decided to strangle for the remaining 20 minutes into town.

The third figure is executed after Mr. Whalebait has reached the office, and is called the Sodium-Bicarbonate Dash: at 9:45 he plunges to the elevator, then runs two blocks to the nearest drugstore.

The remainder of the morning Mr. Whalebait occupies himself with two minor, but healthful, exercises: the Pencil-Sharpener Twirl and the Water-Cooler Sprint. The first he repeats until there are no pencils left in his desk; the latter until he feels everyone in the office will KNOW he was partying the previous night.

Noontime is taken up by the Cafeteria Shuffle, a combination of holding both arms outstretched to support a tray and a practice session in broken-field running.

During the afternoon hours he devotes his energies almost exclusively to the Executive Backstand, consisting of tilting rearwards in a swivel chair to the angle of 45 degrees, lifting the legs slowly to the level of the desk, and placing the heels in true center of the glass desktop. The sequence rapidly reversed whenever there is a suspicious footstep just outside the office door.

Mr. Whalebait ends up a day of backbreaking exertion with the stiffest of all exercises, called the Commuter’s Cross-Country. He begins this at 5:15 by raising the right arm and pressing the hand down firmly on the hat; crooking the left arm close to the abdomen, so as not to drop his briefcase, two pairs of three-thread hose that Mrs. w. requested him to pick up, four magazines, one newspaper, one detective novel from the lending library, one pair of roller skates for Junior, one box of cigars and an umbrella. After a brisk run down the platform, gaining a bit at every step on the train that is pulling out, he completes the exercise by performing a kind of Eleanor Holm dive into the vestibule of the last car.

After such a program of physical culture, Mr. Whalebait is is rousing form for an evening of bridge. And yet he claims exercise plays no part in his life! Couldn’t you just kill such people? “Don’t believe in exercise!”

And now, gentle readers, I wish to launch upon one important aspect of health which I have hitherto neglected.. That is the matter of DIET. Diet is ever so closely related to health, and the pity of it is that most of the so-called authorities are completely in error on the subject. Write to your Senators, tell them exactly what I told you and you can mention my name if you wish. Now, take the case of Mrs. F. Gordon Snavely. When Mrs. Snavely came to me she weighed 347 pounds without her stomacher and earrings – and had been dieting for seven years! She had been to Carlsbad, Vienna, Paris. She had gone to India where she ate curries and Bombay chutney with choice wines on the advice of Prince Ranje Manje of Umbey. She not only didn’t lose any of her avoirdupois but gained a few pounds. She had gone to Budapest, where they had ordered lime juice and radishes for her; she had gone to Bucharest, where it had been celery tops and artichoke broth; she had gone to London where it had been dreadfully rainy, as it always is in autumn months.

Finally she had returned to New York, and this is the diet they concocted for her:

One crust of toast
½ oz. gooseberry juice (strained)

Small dandelion green
Acorn au naturel

Eye-cup of iced tea (tepid with no sugar)
Three dried artichoke leaves (no sauce)
Moderate sized finger bowl

Quite frankly I was shocked to find that she had gained eight pounds and now weighed 355 pounds. “See here, my little barn swallow,” I admonisher her in my fatherly way, “you have been going about this matter in entirely the wrong way. No wonder you were unable to get through the Holland Tunnel last Wednesday on your way to Perth Amboy to see your aunt.” Thereupon I prescribed for her the Fields Fodder Fare for Fattened Femininity. Briefly this diet consists of the following: creamed pigs feet and mince pie for breakfast; double sirloin steak smothered in pate de fois gras and two dozen buttered oysters for lunch; side of venison and a salad bowl of chocolate parfait for dinner; French pastry and beer between meals.

Whilst on this diet, I recommend the wearing of one of my diaphanous dresses for Dowager Duchesses which are like – for the lack of a better word – anything. These dresses are resilient and can be stretched like chewing gum. You first vaseline the body. Two jars come with each dress. You pull them over the head until exhausted. Then lie down. Repeat until relieved or satisfied. They come in three types. Slipon, pullon, and rayon, the latter by arrangement with DuPont de Nemours. These trade lasts are copyrighted, pirates beware, including the Scandinavian countries.

Well, my diet did the trick – and after only two months! When I visited Mrs. Snavely in the hospital she had dropped to 83 pounds and kept shrieking that she’d never touch another morsel of food as long as she lived. She smiled the last time I saw her and said: “Mr. F., you did this for me.” It was a compliment I cherish. They were the last words she ever uttered. I sobbed like a child at her funeral. Her husband, to show his appreciation, gave me a Cabochon agate.

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