I have been weight training, bodybuilding and arm wrestling since 1968. Back then, in the rural and modest farm area where I grew up, there weren’t many people who even knew what bodybuilding or weight training was. I had bought a few stapled black and white pamphlets from a sporting goods store in the center of Worcester, a tough and rugged city some ten miles from the farm house that I grew up in.
Within these flimsy pieces of crudely mimeographed pages were photos of Steve Reeves, Bill Pearl, Dave Draper, Larry Scott, and the weight lifter Bob Hoffman. From these few pamphlets, I was able to figure out how to train various muscle groups based on the black and white photos that showed these hugely muscled men doing curls, bench presses, squats, dead-lifts, straddle-lifts, and many other lifts. I found arm training fairly easy because that required, so it seemed according to the photos and scantily written articles of those pamphlets, a bar and some weights. After saving money from delivering newspapers for two years, I had enough money to buy a 110 pound, cerement-filled, plastic bar and weight-set. Curls, reverse curls, forearm curls, triceps extensions overhead, lying on the floor, Olympic lifts and presses where just a few of the exercises that I did every day after school, in the smelly, moldy, and soaking wet basement of my parent’s 18th Century Farmhouse.
After two years of working arms, and a lot of dead-lifting and Olympic lifting, I had to find different ways of training, but I could not afford a bench press or anything other than the one bar and cerement-filled weight set that I used each day. So, I did bench presses lying on the floor and that is about all I could do for chest. I had seen people with great chests’ and wide backs and thick legs, but I wasn’t going to get any of those physical achievements with what I had, at least, that is how it appeared to me looking and comparing my body with the likes of Bill Pearl and Dave Draper.
A few years passed and despite never missing a day of weight training and being able to do 30 pull-ups and beat anyone around in arm-wrestling, when I was 15 years old, my father abandoned the family and my mother was forced to sell the farm-house, the barn, the garage, where I had raised chickens in the basement, and all that with it–gone. Even at this fairly young age, I knew that I had to earn money to survive. I had much bigger life-issues and problems more so than trying to find a bench-press and a squat rack. Eating and sleeping indoors became my greatest daily things to conquer.
That summer I went to work for the traveling carnival and brought my weight set with me. At a State Fair in Rutland, VT., a big muscular guy saw me exercising in the open fairway, in the wee hours of the early morning, just as the sun was coming up. “Oh, hey there young man,” he yelled from a distance in a booming voice, “can I come over and lift some of those there weights with you?” He asked, with a touch of laughter in his voice. He was very big and somewhat intimating looking, but, that type of person usually had knowledge and I was eager to see if he knew a trick or two about lifting weights. When he got up next to me I realized that he looked very similar to the guys in the magazines. He had a huge chest that stuck out five inches and a tiny waist and a V-shape to his back. He stuck out his huge right hand and as I went to shack it he said, “my, my, my, boy—aren’t you somethin’ out hea, liftin’ these old weights at sunrise, on the damn fairgrounds no-less?” he asked cackling like an old crow or the roosters that hung around my chickens when we owned the farm. I didn’t understand what he meant by what he said, but he smiled anyway and I was not afraid of anyone in those days.
He was African-American and he had an accent and a way of speaking that I did not fully understand—he was from the South I would later learn and his mannerisms were not so dissimilar to those that I had seen in a movie once about the South–. As I shook his huge and strong hand, it reminded me of my father’s handshake. My father was a real farmer and was massively strong. He was built like a bull, and other than drink, he loved to work and could outwork any two or three ordinary men. I grew up like that—always doing physical work, so lifting weights was an instant hit with me. Well, Willie, this man who had walked over and introduced himself to me, shook my hand like a vice and asked if he could show me a few of the lifts that he could do with my weight set.
He started putting all the weights that I had. All the weight that I carried around in the possum belly of the Spider trailer, and some other weight that I had managed to find here and there at different fair-grounds. He curled it all, up and down, ten times! I am talking about 150+ pounds, ten times. Instantly, I was in absolute awe of this guy. “Ya no-what, you gutsda do boy?” he said and asked as he put the bar down to the grass where I slept each night no matter what state-fair that I was working in the US a(except when it rained and then I slept in the tiny possum belly of my ride, the spider trailer, with my weights next to me. “What?” I asked. “You gotsda come-over yonder and learn some things from me—you with me son?” “Sure!” I said back eager to see what was possible in the weight lifting version of finding gold in a virgin stream in the Amazon Jungle.
He took me over to where the big-top tent was set up and he brought me into a curtained-off area, in the back, where he had real weights and real benches! He also had old license-plates, some were bent and some where in jagged halves. He also had sledge hammers of all different sizes and weight, and rods of different thicknesses that he had bent. I mean, he had it all—everything that I ever imagined myself doing, he had the equipment to do it. He had all metal bars that were really long with big thick ends—something I had never seen before. He had plates with big holes in the center that were the size of manhole covers. He had dumbbells and kettlebells—a word I had never heard before and some of those Kettlebells I could barely lift off of the ground. He had an entire gym and strongman tools that he traveled around with. ‘Lay down on this here bench, Smiley” he said to me. (That knick name, “Smiley,” would stick for many years).
Now, put your hands about here on the bar, and I’ll lift the bar and you just let-her down real slow-like and use them big arms of yours to push the weight back up—got me smiley?” He asked towering over my head as I lay on his solid, hand-made wooden bench. “Yes, I got it,” I said with the biggest of grins, my heart racing inside of my chest so much so that my head was thumping with each beat. I remember pushing that weight up and slowly letting down for the first time on that bench like it were yesterday. “Ten reps, that’s good kid,” he said as if he were my father. My mind wondered as I sat up and looked around at old photos of Willie with funny shorts on like the muscle guys in the pamphlets from back-home. It felt like I was going to be as big and strong as I thought that I could be.
I saw Willie and lifted those weights with him for that entire fall, for all the carnivals would travel together to play State Fairs up and down the Eastern Seaboard. While I lifted with Willie, I starting learning how to tear thick telephone books in half; balance a 16 pound sledge hammer on the tip of my forefinger and pushing it up over my head to arms length. I learned how to use a sledge hammer in every possible way—holding it out at arm’s length and touching my nose and bringing it back with the head, while not moving anything but my wrist and hand—I bent bars and big nails and I realized that I could dead-lift four times my body weight. Time flew by as we traveled from one Fair to the next—training on no sleep and poor food, but it didn’t matter because I was getting bigger and stronger by the week. The carnival kept moving along, but I knew that I had to go back to school and finish High School.
I managed to get back to school in October of that new school year—better late than never. I was punished by the School principal but it didn’t matter because I was on my own—no one to answer to. School really bored me to pieces anyway and I stayed with friends as often as I could because my brothers and mother were in a small two-bedroom apartment and there really wasn’t room for me—which never really bothered me.
That year of school, I was a junior and I was missing a lot of school and getting into a lot of trouble. I still worked out whenever and wherever I could, but half the time I was drunk. Having no positive role model, I drank more and more until one day I could not do squats. I had learned to clean and jerk 225 pounds in order to lower it on to my back—when I was done with that particular set, I would drop the bar and weights on to the grass. I noticed that particular day that my knees were swollen and painful, so much so that I could not do a second set of squats. I couldn’t understand it, but I had a visceral feeling that it was caused by drinking booze.
Right then and there I had a huge decision to make: If I wanted to be a great bodybuilder, arm-wrestler, strongman and all the things that I was so intrigued with, I knew that I had to stop drinking. On the other hand, though, I loved getting drunk because it made me feel free—free from all the responsibility that had been thrust upon me. Free from the nightmarish beatings that I survived that my father dished out before he left for ever. Booze made feel happy and I didn’t have a care in the world while drunk, but I knew if I kept drinking, I might not ever be any good at anything It took me a while to decide and it was during that school year, not a coincidence, now looking back in hindsight, that I would meet some weight lifting guys in a carnival lot that I helped set up one weekend not far from my hometown. The guys were big like Willie, but much younger and much shorter.
Willie had to have been over six-feet by half a foot I figured—these guys were shorter than me, but they looked how I wanted to look. I asked them where they worked out, “Catalina’s Health Spa, right up the street from here,” they told me shaking their heads, telling what a great place it was and what equipment they had and how there were all the biggest guys in Worcester County working out there. It would be there, after just a matter of months, that I would pay a bucket of saved money (I probably paid $50.00) to see the world’s greatest bodybuilder, a guy by the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Looking at this guy was almost impossible to describe to you now, now that guys his size are in almost every gym; but, back in 1974, in the tiny area where I was from and worked out, he almost looked as if he were from another planet.
I can still remember looking at those biceps and wondering: “how did he get his arms to look like that?” It is just impossible to tell you how much an impact seeing him had on me all those years ago. My worries about where I would live and where I would eat and what I would do with my life just melted away—gone, just like that! No booze required. I realized what I wanted to do with my life. The real problems came the next day as I hitched a ride to the gym where just the day before the world’s greatest bodybuilder had showed us how he trained his mind-boggling biceps and a chest that stuck out two feet from his body. My mind was rapidly repeating everything that this great bodybuilder had said—two of the biggest things were—“you have to eat four to six meals a day in be in the sun most of the year.” I was lucky if I ate one actual meal a day and I lived in Massachusetts—where there are great summers but dreadful winters. I decided to think about the first problem to solve—eating that many times a day.
Whenever I commit myself to something, I am all-in—there are no maybes.” I drank that way, worked that way, and armwrestled people that way. I suppose the getting the extra food started off innocently enough—stealing a loaf of bread here and a couple of cans of tuna fish there, but then it got bigger and bigger and before I knew what happened I was in court for more than a few eggs in my pocket. Before I had left court that day I had the answer—join the military and so I did. In 1976, I joined the United States Air Force. I figured I could eat as much food as I wanted and who wouldn’t want me to lift weights if I were a soldier? I had just graduated at the age of 17 but I would enlist at 18 and actual start training at 19 years of age. I was “all in.”
I was wrong about the lifting weights part though. The first ten days were just filled with hell, chaos and no sleep—forget lifting weights, I was marching twenty miles before lunch. Around the end of the second week, I was made a squad leader and then” the dorm chief.” I asked my TI, Sgt. Cardenas if there was any way that I could train with weights on base (Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas). He said it was unlikely that I would be able to work out while in boot camp.
I asked him every day and since I was clearly the best at everything from doing pushups and pull-ups to firing the M-16, finally he sent me to see the Commander of my Squadron—a Colonel, which I had never been in front of since all TI’s are NCO’s (Non-Commissioned Officers). I put my hat on and walked over to the Commanders Office. I went in front of him after a lengthy wait, saluted him as perfectly as I could and said all the things that you have to rifle out of your mouth with perfection. He spat back while reading various messages, “At ease.” Which is a way of saying relax but not too much. I asked him if I could train with weights while in boot-camp and he picked his head up and said, “Are you out of your mind son?” Then he yelled, “We have people trying to cut their feet because they don’t want to go on a twenty mile run, guys cutting their arm veins to commit suicide—people jumping from rooftops, and you, you want to lift weights on top of all that you have to do each day?” he finished and by then I was back at attention ready to salute, do an about-face and leave, but he surprisingly kind of whispered angrily, “if you really want to do that at the end of each grueling day son, you can be my guest—but you better be top in your class—got it?”
I thanked him and did my duties and started to make gains when everyone else thought that I was absolutely crazy. I graduated at the very top of my class and trained every day through the eight grueling weeks of boot camp.
It was no different at Air Force Helicopter Technical School, where I learned to be an HH-53 Helicopter Crew Chief. I studied, marched, ate a lot and worked out each day. Come to the day of graduation, I was top in my class again and got sent to RAF Woodbridge England. During the eight months of technical school, I had, at a bodyweight of 182 pounds, dead-lifted 685 pounds, squat 405 for five reps and benched 315 for three reps—no drugs, nothing but a short sleeve shirt and my own natural power. Off to England I went, dreaming of armwrestling, strength and bodybuilding.
Once I got to England, I asked to see the base-gym. Shockingly, It consisted of a basketball court and a volley ball net—not a single weight in sight. For a moment, I thought that perhaps weight lifting would have to wait until the three years of overseas duty that I would have to do, where finished and start training again in the states; however, that thought lasted just for that moment as I started to envision how I could make my own gym in the tiny bungalow (a small British house) that I would rent (with a wife and two small children).
I began work on my gym as soon as I could. Meanwhile, on base, we were working twelve hour days, seven days a week—no days off, but I loved work and working on those enormous helicopters was a huge challenge. There is a giant nut that is safety-wired atop of the rotor head of the HH-53 (nicknamed “Super Jolly Green Giant”) and that nut was appropriately called “the Jesus Nut.” It had to be tightened to 3,500 foot-pounds of torque. As far as I know, I was the only guy to ever tighten it and loosen it by myself (and a very large Torque-wrench about five feet long).
Back to weight training and building my home-gym, my first stop was a metal junk-yard. I asked to see the owner and despite his very tough sounding English accent and bravado, I managed to get my idea across. I wanted two sets of solid dumbbells welded together—one pair weighing about 40 pounds and one pair weighing about 80 pounds. We walked the yard looking for round and thick pieces that matched for either side of each dumbbell pair.
Finally, we looked at some thick, round, rod and I showed him where the rod should be cut (to fit my hands with some space on either side) in order to weld the pieces of metal to the rod for each dumbbell. He told me to come back in a week and they would be ready. Then, I waited until 2:00 PM on a Saturday (England is five hours ahead of the Eastern part of the US) and called a friend to ask him to send my armwrestling table (which was being stored inside someone’s barn after my mother had sold the house); and, since he was the AAU President of Bodybuilding, who might he know in the UK or Europe who sold benches and squat racks. I bought benches from Germany and made my own squat rack out of wheels welded to two tall and thick pieces of metal—with a small lip the I banged out with a sledge hammer In about a month, I had a gym within a room that was Eight foot wide and nine foot long—no heat, no air—except when opening some windows in the room.
I trained in that room, everyday, for all of the three years that I was stationed overseas in England. I was three-times undefeated Armwrestling Champion of the UK and Western Europe and, in 1981, I won the very first bodybuilding contest that I ever entered, the “Mr. Titan,” in London, England. I did all that, managed to work ten and twelve hour days on a military base that was on high-alert daily (because of the threat of a USSR attack); and I raised a family. I never touched a steroid and learned a lot about how my body reacted to various foods. I had cases of tuna shipped to me from the States along with sardines. The rest of my diet was chicken, eggs and vegetables—sometime rice if I could find some in the sparse British grocery stores that were the size of my training room in my bungalow—smaller than you could imagine.
When I got back to the US, I was sent to Myrtle Beach and while there I did a number of bodybuilding contests. I got a Honorable Discharge with many metals and awards when my four years of active duty were complete. As my kids grew up, I ran the gym at Westover AFB in Massachusetts—the US Air Force sponsored me while in the Active Reserve. I came in third in both the Jr. Mr. Universe and USA during those two years. I was completely and Honorably Discharged of all Duty in 1983, I competed some 30+ times thereafter, but never making it to the professional ranks, so I opened my own gym in 1987. Little did I know, that I would go on to become a world champion in yacht racing (sailed with, and trained, Bill Koch). I also trained his America Cup Teams and trained other professional sports figures, some of the Boston Celtics: and, I got myself an acting coach and was cast into principal (speaking) roles in “Mystic Pizza,” “Guiding Light,” “Spenser for Hire,” and many, many national TV commercials—fulfilling another childhood dream. I owed all that to weight training and what it taught me.
The story does not end here. In 1994, just a little over a decade past my Air Force career and competing was over, within a split second, I was bed ridden with Multiple Sclerosis for well over a year. I saw MS neurologist after MS neurologist, all with the same diagnosis and prognosis: “It is MS and I am sorry to say, that you will probably never use your legs nor arms again.” For well over a year, I just slept and dreamed of lifting weights again. In reality, I couldn’t lift the lightest of weight—my eyelids.
During this time, Bill Koch, the billionaire yachtsman who I had sailed with and trained, knowing my love and knowledge for and of the Native American’s, asked me if I wanted to go see the Shaman who christened his winning America’s Cup boat (America3), out to the Indian Reservation in southern Arizona to see if he could help me—I said yes, without hesitation. He also told me to find “opportunity” within my disease and what I was going through—I always respected Bill’s advice so with that in my mind and a can in my hand-of I went to Tucson, Arizona.
I could barely stand and walk, but made it on to the plane and off without a wheel chair or help. From the very beginning of this particular phase of my life I told myself to never get into a wheelchair because that would probably be the last time since I believed that was giving into something that you truly want to give into—have someone push you around.
Once in Tucson, I was to meet this Shaman at the Tucson Hospital, in the Veterans section, especially for Native Americans (or, as they all call each other “Indians.” To find this real Shaman named Curtis Keekabah, I spoke on the phone with a woman from the hospital who said, “Take off your watch if you have one and have no jewelry on when you come in and don’t show up on time”—“which is four o’clock”—she hung up before I could ask the obvious—what time should I show up if not at four o’clock? I showed up an hour late and Curtis was lecturing his “Indian Brothers,” mostly men who had been in Vietnam and where alcoholics. He spoke of his own journey of being an “angry Indian” and drinking away his feelings. The story hit home. I instantly related to these men and their trials and tribulations with hard times and alcohol. No, I am not and Indian, but the way that I grew up seemed unchangingly similar to what these guys all had in common. I paid very close attention to what was said and what advice the teacher/shaman had to give out.
After the meeting, I hung around to meet Curtis but before I could, he went through a back door and locked himself into another office, where his secretary did her work. Being a time-conscious, ex-military fanatic, I knocked on the door. She came to the door, “Oh, Hi Paul, it is nice to meet you,” she said as we shook hands. This is where you are going to meet Curtis tomorrow at one o’clock, but don’t be on time. I went back to my hotel room where the wheel chair in the corner began to look very inviting but I hobbled into the elevator and went up to my room of the sixth floor.
Finally, the following day, I drove to what appeared to be a very modern condominium complex. I parked my rental and hobbled over to number 19—thank god, on the first floor. I knocked and Curtis came to the door—“Come in Paul, let’s get going on you,” he said very military like. He had me sit in a chair in front of him and for the very first time in my life I felt that someone was staring right through my eyes into my soul. “So, what are you afraid of,” he asked. My thoughts about the question were very deep and I answered, “Nothing.” “Bullshit,” he said back at me now staring at me like an eagle.
This type of thing went on for three hours and I finally broke and cried. I told him that I was afraid of not being able to walk, not being able to use my arms, never being able to lift weights again and possible never have a life as I once knew it. HE shook his head in a positive way and said, “You are living in fear of more than just those things—your fear goes way back to when you where a little boy crying for help. I sat in the chair and cried for an hour. He finished our session telling me that I was going to learn a lot about myself over the course of the next month and I hobbled back to my car, drove back to the hotel and hobbled back to the elevator and my room.
It is said by the Indians to never write down what you have done with other Indians. I adhere to that unwritten rule so I can tell you that I endured many rituals, including, brutally hot sweat lodges where I nearly died—MD’s had a fit when I told them I had endured sweat-lodges, but they offered little help or hope so I went to an alternative “Medicine Man.” Nothing helped me physically, but I did feel differently in an odd way after spending time on the “Res” with Curtis. When I came home, I forced myself to walk up and down the stairs, holding on to the banister, all day long—every day. I applied a very strict, contest prep type diet. I read and read more and the more about how food affects everything. The more that I read, the more I realized that no had a clue to how to help someone to recover from MS—but, In about two years, I rose up one day and just started to train with weights again. I trained everyday and by 1999, my photographs were appearing in magazines once again. I slowly was able to walk normally, although terrible neuropathic pain kept me from wearing socks and shoes.
Things got a lot better for a while, then, in 2001, I ruptured the assessory (connects to the neck and serves electricity to the motor function) on the right side of my body. (The assessory nerve feeds all the muscles on one side of the body and that is exactly where one of the spinal (“MS”) lesions is located. Most MD’s felt, if I lived, and they said that because my weight dropped from 215 pounds of lean muscle to 149 pounds of skin and bones, I would be lucky to have use of that right side of my body ever again—weight lifting was absolutely out of the question.
It took ten years to heal 75%, enough that I began working out again, fairly heavily by 2010. In the meantime, I wrote two books and wrote monthly columns for “Iron Man” Magazine, along with “Exercise for Men Only,” and “Natural Bodybuilding.” As I sit and write this article, I still battle with MS, that ruptured nerve and some of the motor function of the scapular muscles on that right side, but lifting weights is as big of a part of my life as it ever has been. Now I’m finishing a 600+ page book due out the first of 2014. I have learned an enormous amount about training and I try to pass on whatever I have learned, whenever and however I can. I have learned a lot about life as I approach my 58th birthday. Yes, life is tough, but I had learned from my childhood that no one will ever help you be something, to be happy—you hold the key to all of it, no matter what excuse you may want to bring up.
A lifetime of happiness can start with a cheap, plastic weight set and some old fashion hard work. Never let yourself believe that something is impossible because I can assure you, anything and everything is possible, if you want to work hard enough and long enough at that dream. Just work at sensibly, with passion and science, skill and art; and, take each day as if it were your last day on earth because you never know, what will happen tomorrow—make today your greatest effort.
About the author :
Paul T. Burke has a Master’s Degree in Integrated Studies from Cambridge College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is presently in a Doctorate Degree Program at A. T. Still University, and will be a Doctor of Health Education upon completion. Paul has been a champion bodybuilder and arm-wrestler; and, he is considered a leader in the field of Over-40 and Over-50 fitness training. You can purchase his book, “Burke’s Law,” A New Fitness Paradigm for the Mature Male, from his website, or the Home Gym Warehouse, call (800) 447-0008, or visit www.home-gym.com. ** His second book: “The Neo-Dieter’s Handbook,” A Guide to Finding Your Nutritional Root; Past, Present and Future, will be out in March, 2009 and his third book, “Burke’s Law II,” Reaching Your Muscular Potential through Musculoskeletal Designation (Book Surge/Amazon Publishing, 2013) will be available soon.
Contact Paul Burke: website www.paulburkefitness.com
Call Paul Directly: Toll free 855 308 2200