Circus strongman barbells, c. early 20th century
My first official sale off sillybillyfolkart.com was the set of iron barbells shown above, each the former property of an old-time circus strongman. I might have kept them in my own pile of curiosities, but, after stubbing my toe on one or the other for the umpteenth time, I decided to present them, without hazard warning, to the marketplace. They were cherry-picked by a Denver collector, who had come across similar examples posted on the internet and priced at hundreds of dollars more than I was asking — a fact he gleefully acknowledged after purchase but soon reconsidered after stubbing the crap out of his toe.
Barbells like these recall a rich, engrossing history of Herculean figures, including, of course, Hercules himself, son of Zeus, revered for his many exploits in dispatching the diabolical. One of his so-called “labours” targeted the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra, whose snakelike traits and vile, poisonous breath bear a striking resemblance to my ex-wife. But I digress.
The Bible, too, chronicles a number of heroic musclemen. It is written in the book of Judges that the mighty Samson brought down one thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Alas, he was no match for the seductive Delilah, who accepted payola to uncover the source of Samson’s strength — his braids of hair, as it turns out — and devise a plan to cut them off. Once sheered, our fallen hero yielded to enemies, who gouged out his eyes and subjected him to hard work in a Gaza prison.
Despite the mortal weaknesses of Samson, his name — and hair — have lived on. Poland-born Alexander Zass, “The Iron Samson” of the early 1900s, could tote a horse on his shoulders. Denmark’s modern-day Samson, John Holtum, stood up to cannon blasts at close range, catching the fiery 50-pound balls in his chest. He missed only once, costing him three fingers.
The smallest of the Samsonian purveyors of strength was Joe Greenstein, who, at 145 pounds, compensated, in part, by growing out his own hair to Biblical lengths. During a 1928 stunt at the Buffalo Airport, Greenstein hitched those locks to the tail of an airplane — yes, airplane! — the pilot gunning the engine up to 1600 rpm. As the spectacle unfolded, the audience nauseated at the grimmest of possibilities, one may have wondered what secret motivations would have oozed from the decapitation had “The Mighty Atom,” as he was known, lacked the might to win the tug-of-war.
In many instances, strongmen of past and present have admittedly built up their bodies to overcome insecurity about physical and social stature, racial heritage, and even attractiveness. The “Father of Bodybuilding,” Eugen Sandow, featured “muscle displays” during stage performances, convinced his body was a work of art, no more or less beautiful than any Greek sculpture of ideal man. After the show, women would pay to touch his muscular bulges. When he died shortly after pushing his car out of the mud, newspapers suspected the cause was a stroke, but, more likely, the great Sandow was done in by complications from syphilis. At the request of his wife, he was buried in an unmarked grave.
Apparently, no amount of brawn and Brylcreem can change one’s final destiny, a fact of life that may be lost on the narcissistic pumping iron at this very moment. To what end are they pumping, I’m not sure, but I’m told by the narcissists closest to me that it has something to do with health and fitness, which I might believe more readily if the intentions of working out seemed less motivated by superficiality. In every club I’ve visited, the quantity of mirrors outnumbers the exercise machines 2-to-1, with so many patrons checking out behinds, theirs and others’, you’d swear you’ve stumbled into a proctology convention.
The obsession with mirrors is particularly worrisome, in and out of the gym. Imagine the extent of self-image misery if you perceived flaws with every glance at your reflection. The daily trail of mirrors would be emotionally long, beginning in the bedroom or bathroom first thing in the morning, followed by several more views, from all angles, as you complete the ritual of bathing and getting dressed. Next up is the mirror by the front door for one last look before heading out to the car, where visor and rear-view mirrors confirm whatever personal insults you levied earlier. At work more mirrors materialize … in the bathroom, at your desk, inside Starbucks, maybe even fired up as an app on your iPhone.
Conservatively, you’re likely to encounter a mirror a minimum of 25 times per day or 8400 a year. If you spend an adult lifetime of, say, 60 years disillusioned with what you outwardly see in you, you’ll have degraded yourself inwardly more than half a million times — a number closer to a million for those whose general disenchantment breeds itemized scrutiny: Nose. Lips. Breasts. Chin. Cheeks. Ears. Eyelids. Hairline. The wish-for-better list goes on and on. Last year, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the total number of cosmetic procedures in the United States approached 14 million, which equates to every single person currently living in Los Angeles, New York City and Dallas combined. The money spent exceeded $10 billion.
As I write this blog, I’m wondering how I got from barbells to boob-jobs — the stream of my twisted consciousness zigzagging out of control. So I’ll take the easy way out, offering up the wisdom of a contemporary strongman, John Beatty, who was imagining his ideal, iron-pumping physique when he said: “I want to have an ass crack that runs clear up to my neck.”
Now that would be something to check out in the mirror.
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