First Things First

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Gravity Was Different Then --
It was yours. You owned it.

Photo by Tom Peterson, Zimbabwe, early '70s

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I watch the news -- I’m a glutton for punishment -- and am continually discouraged by the lack of leadership, the absence of honor and the deficiency of morals among our lawmakers and legislators. Their dismal display of fairness, understanding and competence is frightening.

I’m reminded of a crowd of immature bodybuilding wannabes strutting before polished mirrors and fighting over chrome equipment in a 24-hour gym at 5 PM. “I’m using that; he broke the cable; that’s my bench; they dropped the dumbbells.”

Their behavior is juvenile, embarrassing and destructive. Let’s get back to the heavy lifting, bombers.

Let’s get back to the gym.

I’ll never forget those nasty 60s, the ones sitting crooked on the splintery wooden racks in the dimness of the Dungeon. They were not alone in uniqueness and construction, but they were the only ones that fought back when pushed around. They were scrappers.

The dumbbells in the Dungeon went from the clanking 10-pounders to the rumbling 150s. The 150s, long, thick and formidable, reminded me of locomotives in a train yard: slow-moving black steel, hellishly noisy, awesome in structure and built to perform a serious job. Only a few burly iron-workers were equipped to engineer the monsters, and no one questioned their authority.

The 150s didn’t move far and didn’t move often; they mostly sat still and rumbled.

But Muscle Beach dungeonheads moved the fiendish 60s a lot -- curls, presses, laterals, pullovers, kickbacks, rows and extensions. And everybody bore the legendary scars. Raggedy beads of electric weld circled the skinny one-inch-pipe handles, acting as inside collars for the appropriate collection of loose-fitting plates piled on the ends. The ends were fitted with washers, which were raggedly welded by the same master steelworker, to secure the various 5s and 10s.

The wicked pair rattled like loose wheels on a Wal-Mart shopping cart.

True muscleheads will grab anything. The diligent lifter sneaked up on the 60s in the dim light of the Dungeon and grasped the skinny-arse handles with all their might, unconsciously hoping the stealthy approach would catch the dumbbells off-guard. With bloodshot eyes and clenched teeth, they wielded the toothy iron intensely, seeking a burning pump and snarling frenzy sufficient to overcome their carnivorous bite.

It seems the webbing of the hands found their way far too often between the encircling weld and the loose, hungry plates, a howling blood-fest of the lifter’s grip.

Did I mention the pronounced burrs and slag on the end-plate welds left by the Friday the 13th Chainsaw Welder? Brush up against those little sharpies and you needed a tetanus shot and possibly stitches.

Hey, they beat the chrome-plated humdingers at the His ‘n Her Uptown Health Spa on Wilshire Boulevard. I’d rather be gouged and pierced than see my reflection in a pair of dazzling dumbbells.

I adored the lopsided and battered contrivances pieced together by the Muscle Beach muscleheads. Lifting iron was on their minds, not the invention and building of gym equipment... and it’s not like they were rolling in dough. But need has a way of backing a man into a corner, and boards, hammers and nails and odds and ends go a long way in the resourceful hands of the devoted muscle builder.

Nothing about the Dungeon was pretty -- dank, dark, crummy, eerie -- but everything about it was attractively ugly -- elemental, prehistoric, bulky, honest.

There was one oversized incline bench-and-rack contraption pressed against the far wall. Imagine several sheets of heavily weathered plywood nailed together to form a large ugly box. Now, cut a two-foot-by-three-foot section from the middle, and wedge in a mondo, heavily reinforced homemade incline bench and overhead racks. Lookin’ good, streamlined and sleek.

Talk about need, the guys who built this Ark were heavy incliners, and when 450 pounds came down and resisted going up as planned, they built a place to put it. Big thud, loaded bar on plywood shelf surrounding miffed lifter. From the looks of the bench, it worked, and worked often. The thing was about to burst, a stomped-on shoe box.

I never saw it in use. It just sat there for three years, silent and still, as far as I could see. Truth is, I didn’t go in that general direction, it being particularly dark, dank and creepy and all. Clusters of webs had formed amid the beams above the van-sized incline and an impressive hunk of ceiling plaster hung down one vibration from plummeting to earth. The slightest movement of hush dungeon air caused the spooky mess to quiver.

I ventured over once between sets, feeling my way about the shadows, and dared to sit in the scary, unknown space. Sniff-sniff... something died! Oddly, I had never seen rats in the subterranean gym and suddenly entertained the thought that this is where they lurked. My spine tingled. I looked overhead and imagined spiders with long grey beards gathering in bunches in the dusty, wooly webs. I felt paralyzed. Something fluttered. Could it be a bat?

How fast can a milk-fed 250-pound bodybuilder from New Jersey move, you ask? Before you could say Steve Reeves, I was outta there and doing adrenalin-induced wide-grip chins under the over-head skylight near the wide-open rear door... 21, 22, 23, 24. Mercy!

The classic conglomeration was the Muscle Beach Gym’s version of the skate board. A hunk of plywood, probably left over from the Steve Merjanian safety incline bench and mouse-house project, was fitted with wheels from roller skates, one in each corner. A one-inch pipe about three feet in length was attached to the bottom end of the 12” x 36” rectangle and set the assemblage upon a larger plywood rectangle, 3’ x 5’, that leaned against the wall.

Got it? Good for you! Plates were slid onto the pipe and the skateboard hack squat was complete. The angle of the action was easily adjustable and chosen according to risk and comfort and need. 75 degrees worked well.

It was amazing what the old-school musclebuilder endured to build muscle. By the time I came on the scene, the Muscle Beach equipment displaced to the 4th and Broadway Dungeon in fabulous Santa Monica was worse for the wear. The Olympic bars were bent; few had ends that revolved, and rust, though worn away by handling, had taken its toll.

The wood benches were splitting, braced and re-braced, bent nails everywhere. They were so worn down the splinters were smooth. Covered in red oil cloth, several of the benches had the craftsman’s well-worn plaid flannel shirt puffing out of tears along the edges.

Now look at us. Where has all the glory gone, long time passing? You know where it’s gone; where it always is, in the heart.

Bombers on the horizon... clear the runway... DD


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