bronzing the iron......

humble brag, mumble and boast...

You see, my neighbor's dad had a weight set and lifting bench in his garage. Every year, on the first day of summer vacation, he would invite all the boys from the neighborhood to his garage where he shave their heads.

Summers in the south can get rather brutal, so getting a buzz cut for summer was common practice amongst all the neighborhood boys between 4 and 10 years old. It wasn't difficult to see why meeting in Herb’s garage every year quickly became a tradition.

As with most traditions, there was much more significance behind this gathering than simply getting your head buzzed. It was about camaraderie and community. It was about sharing something with the other boys in the neighborhood.

It was about being part of something bigger than yourself...and of course, it was during times like these when it became starkly manifest to me that I was destined to live the life of a proverbial black sheep.

All the other boys in the neighborhood thought that I was scared to sit on Herb’s lifting bench and get my head shaved. They interpreted this tradition as a right of passage, a way of proving their manhood.

I would stand there while all boys and their dads taunted and teased me.

They would tell me how hot and miserable I would be all summer if I didn't do it. They called me a coward and a wimp. They thought that I was afraid to get my head shaved, however that wasn't the way I saw it.

As far back as I can remember, I could never bring myself to unquestionably follow the herd. If I saw everyone else doing something, I would automatically take a step back and analyze the situation.

My father knew this about me and would stand there silently smiling while I dodged every bullet of peer pressure. It wasn't just the fact that his son was different that made him smile, but because he knew that after the ritualist head shaving came the ritualist battles of strength.

Getting your head shaved was how the party got started, but that's not how it ended.

You see, the year previous was the first year that my father and I had attended this gathering. Of course I refused to get my head shaved that year as well.

Afterwards, the strength battles began.

The first contest was the bench press.

Herb would brush all the hair off of the bench and start loading the bar. Since some of us were still toddlers, he started out with and empty bar. Everyone had to do one repetition.

After that he would throw 2.5 pounds on each side and everyone would get another chance. The contest would keep going like this until there was one man left standing.

I had fared pretty well my first year and lasted longer than any of the other boys my age. Mitchie, Joey and Hank however, who were all a couple of years older than I, had put up significantly more weight.

Mitchie beat everyone that year and he was actually much smaller than Joey and Hank.

When the bench press contest was over, it was time for the arm wrestling contest to begin.

Once again, I had managed to win against every opponent who was the same age as me, but I just couldn't compete with the older kids.

This frustrated me immensely and it felt like I had been cheated. It didn't seem fair.

If I were the same age as them, I would have beaten them, I thought to myself.

After the party was over, I walked home with my dad and told him about my frustration. I told him about how I wanted to beat the older kids and how it wasn't fair that they were older.

"Well, strong is strong, no matter how old you are. You don't have to be big to be strong, all you have to do is practice" my dad said.

That was my dad's answer to almost everything..."Practice, practice, practice".

It didn't really matter what you asked him, that was his answer.

"Well, how am I supposed to practice, if I don't have a lifting bench and weights?" I asked.


"Iso-what?" I asked.

"Isometrics. It's how you get stronger without lifting weights or getting bigger"

Then he went on to show me how to arm wrestle myself and how to prop my feet up against one side of a door jam and push against the other side with my hands. He said I could even push as hard as I could on the bumper of his parked car with my feet against the cement wall next to the garage.

I was immediately hooked on the idea and started doing these two exercises all the time. I found it exciting to try and find different places to do the exercises. Eventually, I started coming up with my own isometric themes and variations.

So a year went by and I kept practicing. In fact, Mitchie (who was known for being the toughest kid in the neighborhood under 10 years old) and some of the older boys took notice to my strength gains when they were wrestling with me.

Actually, Mitchie had been somewhat of a "mentor of manliness" to me since I was about 2 years old.

That's a subject matter for another book, but suffice it to say, he loved to challenge me. By the time he was 5 years old, he had literally invented hundreds of games which he used to test my strength, speed and resistance to joke.

From seeing who could eat the most pencils to who could sit with their bare ass on a hot piece of steel that had been baking out in the summer sun all day.

Mitchie was a maniac and the stronger I became, the more he loved to challenge me. He said I was like a spring because no matter how hard I got thrown down, I would bounce right back up like a spring.

He said that he had never seen anything like it before and would invite his older friends over and challenge them to throw me on the ground. They would stand around me in a circle and laugh their heads off every time I would pop up like a jack-in-the-box.

The point is, when my dad and I came to the head shaving party the second year, he was smiling because he knew how much stronger I had become. After all, my dad had also been wrestling with me.

So the time had once again come for us to bench press.

Although I had not touched that bar for a year, the first few lifts felt like nothing. While the rest of the boys my age were quickly eliminated, I was now holding my own with the big boys.

It felt like the rounds were never going to end. Herb just kept stacking the weight on until it was down to just me and Mitchie.

Mitchie kept laughing and making cocky comments throughout the entire contest. "Oh no, look who thinks he's strong..." etc.

Then it finally happened.

I saw Mitchie start to struggle. His face turned bright red. I don't remember how much weight was on the bar, but it was certainly much more than any of us weighed corporally.

It took Mitchie almost 30 seconds of shaking and screaming to get that bar up, but eventually he did it.

This was the moment of truth for me. Of course, I could have just walked away satisfied having beaten Joey and Hank, but that thought hadn't even crossed my mind. To me, that wasn't even a victory. It was just a logical part of the process.

So I threw myself under the bar and waited for Herb to spot me.

I couldn't believe how heavy this bar felt. It felt like someone dropped a Harley Davidson onto me. Buoyancy sent the bar sailing toward my chest and I heard everyone yell...

"Are you okay? Do you got it?"

"I got it" I said in a muffled gravely voice as I managed to push the bar a couple of inches away from my chest.

I was panicking for a few seconds until a vision flashed over me. A vision of my being in the driveway pushing against my father’s car.

The car wasn't' going to hurt me. I was just pushing for fun. Every time I pushed against my dad's car, I would be overwhelmed by maniacal fantasies, as though I were a protagonist in a film who had just gone psycho and managed to lift a bulldozer off of their child.

Whenever I had this fantasy, I noticed that I could push exponentially harder into the car than before the fantasy took place. For a few moments it felt like I might actually rip the car in half. I remember having the belief that if I didn't let go soon, that I would actually push right through the steel and my dad would have to buy a new car.

It was as if I could summon upon forces outside of myself to come and push with me.

As I recalled this vivid sensation in Herb's garage, I felt myself beginning to cross over. Suddenly, I felt that same insanity that I felt in the driveway behind the car. That external forces were working with me.

The bar instantly felt lighter and within a few seconds of "flipping on the switch", I managed to lock out the bench press.

When I sat up, my entire body was trembling. I felt clumsy to walk.

It was now Mitchie’s turn again. Herb threw on a few more pounds and Mitchie went for it.

As soon as Herb let go of the bar, the bar flew to Mitchie’s chest.

"Get it off me" Mitchie yelped.

Herb took the bar off him and everyone clapped as Mitchie walked away from the bench.

"What about you?" asked Herb pointing at me.

"I'll take the tie" I said.

Was he kidding? I could barely stand up.

"Looks like we've got two champions this year" said Herb as he held up our hands and let out a giant belly laugh.

"Alright, let's eat and then we'll have the arm wrestling contest".

Herb loved to grill hamburgers and hotdogs in his backyard. He and his wife hosted barbecues all summer long and they were always a good time.

During lunch all the other kids and their fathers kept asking me how I had gotten so strong and like a parrot, I just kept saying the same thing my dad always said..."Practice, practice, practice". I saw my dad looking over at me smiling throughout the entire lunch.

Although the hamburgers, pickles and coleslaw were delectable, I couldn't eat much. I was too focused on the arm wrestling match ahead of me.

When lunch was through, all the fathers and sons went back into the garage to start the arm wrestling match. Once again, I didn't have much trouble with the kids my age, however something strange happened when I started beating the older kids...I would get accused of cheating.

Some of the older kids, I had to wrestle two or three times because they kept accusing me of cheating. We would rematch while the fathers kept a close eye on us. Eventually, it was decided that I wasn't cheating, but all that extra arm wrestling really wore me out when it came time to go against Mitchie.

I asked Herb if I could take a little break before I arm wrestled Mitchie and he granted me 5 minutes.

I took those 5 minutes to reflect on the bench press and how I was able to call upon that insanity in order to lift the bar. I figured if I was going to win the arm wrestling contest, then I was going to have to once again call upon that insanity.

When my break was over, Mitchie and I clasped hands.

Since Herb didn't have a regulation arm wrestling table, we had to keep our free hands table and across our chest. We weren't allowed to grip underneath the table.

I was so wrapped up in my thoughts, that I didn't even notice when Herb yelled "Go!".

Mitchie instantly slammed my hand to the table.

"I wasn't ready!" I yelled.

"Don't worry" Herb said. "The last match is best 2 out of 3".

Alright, I thought to myself, two can play at this game.

Herb started the countdown and just before he was about to say "Go!", I slammed Mitchie’s hand into the table.

Mitchie didn't protest to Herb. He just looked at me, smiled and said "Alright son, now I'm gonna teach you a lesson".

Mitchie loved calling me son as though he was a man and I was a boy.

For the third and final round both me and Mitchie were both putting on the pressure before Herb said "Go!", so it was an fair start.

Mitchie turned on the juice pretty early and put me at a disadvantage. After a few moments, I managed to turn on a little insanity and get back up to the top. I turned on the insanity one more time and put him at a disadvantage.

This went back and forth for a while until we both started getting really tired.

I could feel Mitchie’s arm trying to rest. He was resisting just enough to not lose, but not enough to win. I noticed that if I let up a little, then he would let up a little.

We were both just trying to keep the game in the middle and wait for the other one to tire.

That's when it hit me.

If I let up a little every few seconds, then Mitchie will let up too. Eventually, we will barely be pushing at all and then I can surprise him by calling upon my insanity reserves all at once.

When I felt the time was right, I let up significantly a split second before I turned on all the insanity just so I could muster. Mitchie was now about half an inch from being pinned. He tried turning on more juice, but he was too tired and at too much of a disadvantage at this point. After about 10 seconds or so, he was finally pinned.

I couldn't believe it. I was too shocked to celebrate.

I was waiting for Mitchie to protest, but he never did. He didn't even look upset. He just laughed and said, "Yeah, well I'll still kick your ass".

He was right. He could still kick my ass, and that's exactly what he did almost everyday for the rest of the summer. His games and "lessons in manliness" became even more outrageous, from who could jump out of the highest tree to who could put tabasco sauce in their eyes without crying.

One time, he even challenged me to see who could sand the most skin off their shin with a 24 grit sanding disc.

Don't ask me why I went along with these challenges. Mitchie’s reasoning seemed very convincing at the time.

next... mediocre.....