Where Have You Gone, Charles Atlas?

In those days before television, the most interesting advertising was in magazines. One particular ad was memorable because of its psychological appeal to young males. The ad featured Charles Atlas, who had the most admirable physique this side of his namesake, the Atlas of Greek mythology. The ad showed a full length photograph of Charles, wearing only swimming trunks and looking like he was ready to spend the entire day at the beach. Charles promised young men that if they sent off for his exercise secret, they could also be a magnificent male specimen and the alpha male at the beach. 

Charles hinted at his secret: an exercise method he called dynamic tension, which pitted one set of muscles against another. The advantage of his plan was that it did not require a gymnasium or expensive equipment. One could use dynamic tension exercises in the privacy of one’s home. Sometimes I yearn for the simplicity of those times.

The brilliant advertising campaign to convince young men to send off for the Charles Atlas plan was a sequence of panels much like a comic strip. The first panel depicted a 98-pound weakling at the beach with his beautiful girlfriend. In the second panel, a 200-pound bully knocks the weakling on his gnastus, kicks sand in his face, and wins the admiration of the girl. In the third panel, the weakling goes home, throws a chair against the wall, and decides to send off to Charles Atlas for help. In the next panel, the weakling has worked diligently at the body building exercises until he is now 200 pounds of solid muscle. In the last panel, he goes to the beach, knocks the 200-pound bully on his gnastus, kicks sand in the bully’s face, and reclaims the girl, who hangs on his arm and looks admiringly at him.

Charles Atlas gave hope to 98-pound weaklings everywhere, especially to my friend Billy “Skin Bones” Gwathmy. No girl in our high school ever directed fond glances at Billy, let alone accompanied him to the beach. No girl ever danced with him in the gym during the noon hour. In fact, I can’t  recall ever seeing a girl even talking to Billy. He was so skinny and had such a sickly pallor that girls were afraid of him. He would have been a star on “The Walking Dead” program if it had been made into a movie during our youth. In truth, Billy’s prospects for romance were so dreary that he spent many nights howling at the moon and begging God to give him a girl to love. To be honest, I tried that a few times myself. 

Finally, Billy sent off to Charles Atlas for help. A few weeks later I asked him how he was doing.

Billy shook his head sadly and said, “I gave it up because of a nightmare. In the dream I used Charles Atlas’ dynamic tension exercises religiously until I had built myself up to a 200-pound physique. I worked out day and night every day of the week until I was 200 pounds of pure muscle. I took the prettiest girl in our class to the beach, and a 300-pound bully knocked me on my gnastus, kicked sand in my face, and walked off with her clinging to his arm and gazing at him in fond adoration. 

So what now, Billy?” I asked him.

Looking as determined as Burt Lancaster in “Brute Force,” Billy replied, “If God ever does give me a girl to love, I’m never taking her to the beach.”