Monday, November 29, 2021

Autobiographical Sketches of a Strength-Seeker - George Barker Windship (1862)

 A big "thank you" to Jarett Hulse for this! 
I can't hear you, Soldier . . . 

Here's a bit of background first. 
"Strength is Health: George Barker Windship and the First American Weight Training Boom" by Jan Todd:

And, If you have an interest in the history of lifting, you might enjoy . . . 

Joe Roark's Iron History forum:

"There goes the smallest fellow in our class." 

I was crossing one of the paths that intersect the college green of old Harvard when this remark fell upon my ears. Looking up, I saw two stalwart Freshmen on their way to recitation, one of whom had called the other's attention to my humble self by this observation, reminding me of a distinction which I did not covet. 

It was not quite true. There was one, and only one, member of the class of '54 who was as small as I. Some consolation, though not much, in that! 

But the air of amused compassion with which the lusty Down-Easter, who had made me feel what the digito monstrari was, now looked down on me [go on, look it up, you know you want to. Look 'em all up.], raised a feeling of resentment and self-deprecation which left me in no mood to make a brilliant show of scholarship in constructing my "Isocrates" that morning. 

"True, I am small, nay, diminutive," I soliloquized, as I wended my way homeward under the classic umbrage of venerable elms. 

"But surely this is no fault of mine. -- Hold there! Are you quite sure it's no fault of yours? Are we not responsible to a much greater extent than we imagine for our physical condition?   

After making all abatement for insurmountable hereditary influences upon organization, -- after granting to that remorseless law of genealogical transmission its proper weight, -- after admitting the seemingly capricious facts of what the modern French physiologists call atavism, under which we are made drunkards or consumptives, lunatics or wise men, short or tall, because of certain dominant traits in some remote ancestor, -- after condeding all this, does not Nature leave it largely in our own power to counteract both physical and moral tendencies, and to mould the body as well as the mind, if we will only put forth in action the requisite energy of will?"

This dispostion to cavil at received axioms has beset me through life. No sooner does a truth present itself than I want to see it on its other side. If I hear the Devil spoken ill of, I puzzle myself to find what can be said in his favor. The man who thus halts between conflicting opinions, solicitous to give both their duem, and to see the truth, pure and simple and entire, may miss laying hold of great convictions till it is too late for him to act on them; but what he accepts he generally holds.

My meditations on the subject of my inferior stature led me to a determination to try what gymnastic practice could do to remedy the defect. For some thirty years, gymnastics, first introduced into this country, I believe, at the Round-Hill School at Northampton, then under the charge of Messrs. Cogswell and Bancroft, had languished and revived fitfully at Cambridge. It was during one of the languishing periods that I began my practice. For some five or six weeks I kept it up with enthusiasm. Then I began to grow less methodical and regulasr in my habits of exercise; and then to find excuses for my delinquencies. 

After all, what matter, if, like Paul's, my "bodily presence is weak"? Were not Alexander the Great and Napoleon small men? Were not Pope, and Dr. Watts, and Moore, and Campbell, and a long list of authors, artists, and philosophers, considerably under medium height? Were not Garrick and Kean and the elder Booth all under five feet four or five? Is there not a volume somewhere in our college library, written by a learned Frenchman, devoted exclusively to the biography of men who have been greagt in mind, though diminutive in stature? Is not Lord John Russell as small almost as I? Have I many inces to grow before I shall be as tall as Dr. Holmes? 

These consolatory considerations softened my chagrin at the contemplation of my height. "Care I for the limb, the thews, the stature, bulk and big assemblances of a man? Give me the spirit, Master Shallow, -- the spirit!" 

And so my gymnastic ardor, after a brief blaze, flckered, fell, was ashes. But it was destined to be soon revived by an incident, trifling in itself, though of a character to assume exaggerated proportions in the mind of a sensitive boy. A youth, who had considerably the advantage of me both in inches and in years, and whose overflow of animal spirits required some objective to vent itself upon, selected me as he victim of his ebullient vivacity. He began by tossing my book down stairs. This seemed to me rather rough play, especially from one with whom I was not, at the time, on terms of intimacy; but, making allowance for the hilarity of classmates just let loose from recitationm, I picked up, without a thought of resentment, the abused volume, and took no further notice of the matter. I subsequently found that it was merely the commencement of   series of similar annoyances. This lively classmate would even play tricks on me at the dinner table.

What was to be done? 

i mentioned the grievance to a friend, and he remonstrated with my lively classmate, threatening him with my serious displeasure. "Pooh! How can he help himself?" was the reply which came duly to my ears.

Sure enough! How could I help myself? The aggresor was my superior in weight and size. It was a plain case that I should get badly and ridiculously whipped, if I attempted to cope with him in any pugilistic encounter. But how would it do to demand of him the satisfaction of a gentleman? True, I knew nothing of pistol-shooting and had never handled a small-sword. No matter for that! 

But another consideration speedily drove this scheme of vengeance á l'outrance out of my head. Not many years before, a peppery little Freshman had been insulted, as he thought, by a Sophomore. The Soph, I believe, had knocked the young one's hat over his eyes, as they were kicking foot-ball in the Delta. Freshman sent a challenge, the effect of which was to excite inextinguishable laughter among the Sophs convened over their cigars in the aggresor's room. Amid roars, one of the conspirators penned an acceptance, fixing as the weapon, hair triggers, -- time, five o'clock in the morning, -- place, the Delta, -- second, the bearer, Mr. M_____, the writer of this reply. 

It was a cruel businesss. A sham second was imposed on poor little Fresh. Brave as Julius Caesar, he sat up all night writing letters and preparing his will. Prompt to the moment, he was on the chosen ground. An unusually large delegation for such a delicate affair seemed to be present. One rascal who wore enormous green goggles was pointed out to gthe innocent as Dr. Von Guldenstubbe, a celebrated German surgeon, just from Leipsic. Little Fresh shook hands with him gravely, amid the smothered laughter of the conspirators. The distance was to be five paces; for it was whispered so as to reach the ear of the Fresh, that Soph was thirsting for his heart's blood. They take their places, -- the signal is given, -- they fire, -- and with a hideous groan and a wokd pirouette, the Soph falls to the ground.

The Freshman is led up near enough to see the fellow's face covered with blood, and to hear his cries to his friends to put him out of his misery. Intensely agitated, poor little Fresh is hurried by pretended friends into a carriage, and driven off; and it is not till a week afterwards that he learns he has been the victim of a hoax.

No! it would never answer for me to run the risk of being sold in any such way as this. I must select a surer and more practical vengeance. I thought the matter over quite intently, and finally resolved that I would put myself on a physical equality with my persecutor, and then meet him in a fair fight with such weapons as Nature had given us both. I accordingly said to the friend and classmate who had played the part of intercessorm "Wait two years, and I promise you I will make my tormentor apologize or give him such a thrashing as he will remember for the rest of his life." 

Thus was my resolve renewed to accomplish myself as a gymnast, and, above all, 

Continued in Part Two . . . 

Enjoy Your Lifting!      


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