Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A young sailor meets Charles Atlas

The young 19-year old man arrived in New York City hitchhiking from the U.S. Naval Frontier Base in Charleston, South Carolina one early morning in 1946. World War II had recently ended, and the horrific memories of this terrible war were fresh in the minds of all Americans. People were very grateful to the soldiers and sailors who had served their country, so the young man wearing his U.S. Navy sailor uniform found it easy to get several rides during his hitchhike journey.

The young sailor had 30-day delayed orders before reporting to his next assignment at Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco, California. Rather than spend his travel allowance to purchase a bus or train ticket, he decided to save the money and hitchhike across the United States, and visit a few places he might never see again. One such place was New York City where he went to seek out one person he always wanted to meet, the legendary Charles Atlas.

This is a true story of my Dad's personal account of meeting Charles Atlas in his New York City office over 60 years ago.

"I arrived in New York City for what ended up being a three day visit. I stayed all three days at the Penn Central Station. Lodging was available there for soldiers and sailors at the bargain price of 25 cents a night.

I visited all the popular tourist attractions while there and wore my sailor uniform the entire time. Most soldiers and sailors wore their uniforms because a grateful public was quick to offer assistance and praise. I was offered a few free meals at some restaurants, and hitchhiking was easy.

I asked for directions to Charles Atlas' office at 115 East 23rd Street. I had memorized this address that appeared in comic book ads of his Dynamic Tension course. Most of my friends knew the address too as it became embedded in our memories from reading the ads over and over, the ones about Mac the 97-pound weakling. We all had a special affection for Mac because of occasional experiences of being bullied a time or two by bigger and older kids.

I took the elevator to Mr. Atlas' office and entered. I remember seeing two framed photographs on the reception area wall. One was of Mr. Atlas holding Bing Crosby and Bob Hope who were sitting in his arms. The other was of Mr. Atlas pulling a streetcar with a long cable.

The receptionist greeted me as I entered the reception area, and asked if she could help me. I told her that I was here to see Mr. Atlas. She asked if I had an appointment to which I replied that no I didn't.

She responded that she was sorry but Mr. Atlas only sees visitors who have an appointment. I told her that I was a sailor returning home to Sacramento but came to New York City to see Mr. Atlas whom I had read about in comic books and always wanted to meet. She was adamant that Mr. Atlas only saw visitors by appointment.

Then I heard a voice say 'send the sailor in'. It was Mr. Atlas who had overheard the conversation from his office. The receptionist directed me to Mr. Atlas' office down the hallway.

Mr. Atlas reached out and shook my hand and greeted me, instructing me to have a seat. I noticed a small tattoo on the inside of his wrist as I shook his hand. He was dressed in a traditional business suit so it was not possible to see his muscles as they appeared in the comic book ads. Recognizing my Italian surname, Mr. Atlas told me that his name was Angelo Siciliano and that he was born in Sicily.

He asked me how old I was and I told him 19, to which he replied that he was old enough to be my father. Looking on his desk, I saw a framed photograph of a young man who was wearing bodybuilding trunks and flexing his muscles. Mr. Atlas saw me looking at the photo and proudly shared that the person in the photo was his son.

As a teenager growing up, my exposure to physical fitness was limited to school gym classes but I was curious about weightlifting and the Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension training method. My interest in weightlifting came from reading the two weightlifting magazines of the time: Bob Hoffman's Strength & Health and Joe Weider's Your Physique. My interest in Dynamic Tension came from reading the comic book ads.

This was an era when weightlifting was not popular, in fact it was strongly discouraged and we were told that it would make you muscle-bound. The only people who lifted weights were strong men in the circus and vaudeville acts, and professional wrestlers. I remember my high school coach telling me that I would get muscle bound if I lifted weights and would not be able to wipe my behind after going to the bathroom. I believed him, as did most other kids, so I was very apprehensive about weightlifting even though very curious.

So I wanted to know what Mr. Atlas thought about weightlifting and asked him. He replied that his Dynamic Tension course was better because it would not make me muscle bound and slow like weightlifting would. I did not ask Mr. Atlas if he lifted weights although I had read that he did in Strength & Health magazine articles. Mr. Atlas told me that he trained at the New York Athletic Club.

Mr. Atlas then told me a story about how one time he was riding a streetcar and there were three teenager boys sitting in the back smoking cigarettes. He approached the three boys and told them that smoking wasn't good for them. Two of the boys responded with disrespectful wisecracks but the other boy recognized Charles Atlas from the comic book ads. After telling his two disrespectful friends whom the man was telling them not to smoke, they ceased their disrespectful wisecracks and all three boys promised Mr. Atlas they would no longer smoke cigarettes.

Mr. Atlas asked me if I had any interest in purchasing his Dynamic Tension Course. I told him that I was teetering between weightlifting and Dynamic Tension, hoping to make up my mind soon. He wrote my name on a piece of paper and told me he would give me a discount if I ever ordered his course.

We spoke a while longer during my visit that lasted about 20 minutes. Mr. Atlas shook my hand as I left and wished me well.

Not that long after I was discharged from the U.S. Navy, I decided to order the Dynamic Tension Course. I wrote Mr. Atlas a letter asking if he remembered me, and the discount he promised, as I wanted to purchase his course. He replied that he remembered meeting me and that his discount offer was still good. I don't remember how much I paid for the course but I do remember that he gave me a generous discount, and was very flexible in allowing me to make payments.

So I started receiving the course in weekly lessons, starting with lesson one and continuing to lesson twelve over a three-month period. I followed the instructions and did all the exercises as prescribed. One of the first exercises I remember was the Atlas chair dip, a pushup done between two chairs. The final lesson was called the perpetual lesson; it included exercises I was to continue performing having completed the course.

I improved my fitness and added some muscle doing the exercises in the Dynamic Tension course, while continuing to read each issue of Strength & Health and Your Physique magazines from front to cover. While I made muscle gains with the Dynamic Tension Course, I wanted bigger muscles like the kind I saw in the magazine photos. I was young and what you could call a 'gain hog'.

There was a photo of a bodybuilder named John Grimek in one issue that showed him standing straight-legged and bent forward touching the palms of his hands on the floor. I remember looking at that photo and marveling his muscular development and extreme flexibility. He had the muscular development that I wanted. It was that photo that ended my teetering between Dynamic Tension and weightlifting. It was my call to the iron.

I abandoned Dynamic Tension training and joined the local YMCA and began weightlifting. I lent the course to a friend who never returned it to me, learning an important lesson of never loan a valuable book to anyone.

I made great strength gains and built big muscles lifting heavy weights, training hard for several years until I got married and had to temper the intensity of my training. It was a wonderful lifestyle and I had opportunities to meet or train with many of the early pioneers of American bodybuilding and weightlifting. People like Tommy Kono and Bill Pearl, both of whom lived in Sacramento at the time.

And I was fortunate to meet Steve Reeves, Clancy Ross, Jack Delinger and Roy Hilligenn - all former Mr. America winners - at Ed Yarick's Gym in Oakland. I met Jack LaLanne who also had a gym in Oakland. And through my friendship with Tommy Kono, I also met Bob Hoffman, John Grimek, Paul Anderson, John Davis, and Doug Hepburn.

My weightlifting experiences were wonderful. I still lift weights two or three days a week, although the weights I lift are very light compared to the old days."

So that's the story of a young sailor meets Charles Atlas.

Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum


Anonymous said...

I like that story. While reading it I can hear your father's voice relating it almost exactly as written, or even verbatim. I doubt you had to do much editing. It shows from where you got your data-prone mind. Great stuff.


Charles Long said...

Great story, Ed. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

What a great story.
Thanks to you and your dad for sharing that with us.

Have a blessed day,

Franklin said...

I completely enjoyed reading the story of your dad. I wonder if there is any relationship between the Dynamic Tension Method as taught by Charles Atlas and the more modern tension treatment "The Naked Warrior" by Pavel Tsatsouline.

Also your other story about starting Oly lifting was very inspiring to me as another Master to start Oly lifting relatively late in life.


Anonymous said...

What a fantastic story. Thank you, pierini, for sharing.
I'm going to go dig up my old copy of Dynamic Tension.

Thanks again!

Pierini Fitness said...

Thanks for stopping by Franklin and Cliff.

Franklin, we are never too old. I've visited your blog before and plan on doing it again to cyber-witness your Oly lift journey. Be safe and remember that rest and recovery is your friend.

Franklin said...


Thanks so much for the support .. Oly lifting has really opened my eyes to what hard work and dedication really mean .. its so humbling yet so rewarding regardless of the numbers.