The Hulk

The Hulk

 

At a prepubescent 10 years old, I happily still sported baby fat and had no issues with my body image.  My innocent lack of self consciousness was shattered one fateful summer afternoon at the local community pool when it became very obvious to me that my breasts were larger than the 16 year old female lifeguard who I secretly admired.  Like Adam and Eve after eating the apple, I was suddenly aware of my pear-like physique. I could not deny other signs of my flagging vitality. The annual Presidential Fitness Test that was visited upon elementary school coach potatoes each fall was an embarrassing reminder that I did not possess the ” right stuff”.  The test revealed in a very public setting my most carefully guarded secret : I could not do a pull up. My inability to hoist my 130 lb, 5′ body over a metal bar that was less than 18 inches above my chin, was devastating.

 

My thirst for strength and fitness led me into an amusing phase of self obsession.  I became keenly aware of physically fit athletes.  I  marvelled at Olympian weight lifters.  I obsessed over the Mr Universe contests as Austrian Schwartzenegger and American Lou Ferrigno competed for the most perfect body.   I worshipped NFL defensive giants Deacon Jones, Mean Joe Greene and Dick Butkis as they prowled offensive backfields breaking quarterbacks like dry kindling.  In Pro Wrestling, Freddy Blassy epitomized the brash bravado that came with pectoral muscles.  He denounced all “pencil neck geeks” and made it clear that no bully would kick sand in your face if you were sporting biceps that could crush walnuts.

 

As with many seemingly benign adolescent obsessions, there was a dark secret leavened in with my enthusiasm, energy and determination. This closet shame led me to develop a secret gymnasium in our garage – fashioning weights from paint cans and broken rakes, dumbbells from sledgehammers and a pull up bar from a spare curtain rod.  My first workout was a train wreck as my 50lb bench press of paint cans slid off my makeshift bar and dented my Mom’s Ford Pinto.  I attempted a bicep curl with the hammer and dropped it over my back, barely missing my dog Max who had come to watch my covert self improvement with confused amusement.  He fled the garage yelping.  The final indignity was taking the spare curtain rod and fixing it between the beams of the garage rafters.  The wooden ladder creaked mockingly as I climbed to attempt my private chin up.   I grasped the narrow rod and hung for a moment in the air.  I squeezed every ounce of energy from my arms, arching my back  whipping my legs for momentum.  The rod bowed for a moment and then slowly lifted me to eye ball level.  My first pull up was within my grasp. I strained and heaved. I did not notice the strain on the metal until it snapped, catapulting me into a lawnmower which ripped a foot long tear in my new levis. The mower’s leaf catch was crumpled beyond repair as was my fragile ego. I was convinced that I was forever ” fat boy”.

 

Years later, despite stretching to 6′ 2″ and playing competitive sports at all levels, I still winced at those memories like a loose rock in my shoe.  Like so many paintings in the private galleries of our lives, we sometimes circle back to complete unfinished works.  At 43, I decided to reattempt body building in hopes of defying nature, gravity and Kelloggs food products.  As with all my obsessions, I attacked my new regimen with relentless gusto. I did not realize it but excessive weight lifting does odd things to a person’s body.  New muscles appear in unintended places.  The odd hump forms on your right shoulder.  Success is very uneven. New undiagnosed aches and pains play tricks on your mind.  Clothes do not fit.  Buttons pop off pants and dress shirts at an alarming rate. Yet, despite the Kafkaesque symptoms, everything feels a little more in control.  Your inner twenty-something begins to stir but struggles to escape its forty something prison of padding.

 

I found myself at the Fitness Club of New Canaan every day. I bought a lycra garment that squeezed me tighter than an English sausage.  I fell deeper into the abyss of self obsession. On business trips I found myself asking if the hotel fitness center had free weights.  On vacation, I would scour the area for the only gym within 100 miles the way others drive for hours trying to find an espresso drink in the Adirondacks. I was hooked.

 

I began to feed the obsession buying shirts one size too small. This fashion detour caused my spouse to wince with embarrassment. “It’s just a phase,” she kept repeating.  Despite my promotion back to size LG shirts, she continued to buy me XL clothing.  Did she not see what was happening to me ?  The guns ?  The pecs? The hump on my back ? I sensed her distain for my new found passion but ignored it figuring it could be worse.  I just knew that if I kept up my routine, it would be impossible for her to mock me with here black belt diminutives.  I was not lifting “little” weights at a “little gym”.  I was no longer a “little” obsessed. Nothing about weight lifting is small.  It is big.  You are big.  Everyone should be big.

  

I wanted to be even bigger. I was too afraid to try steroids as they were a) illegal, b) known to cause severe health problems and c) drive you insane once you run out of things to lift.  All I could think about was what were these exercise leviathans in Flex magazine eating and where could I get some of it.  If I could replicate their diets, I would be flexing well into my 90’s. It was on a routine visit to a fitness club retail store that I got my answer and had my eyes opened to a vast universe of nutritional supplements. As I walked the aisle of power powders and amino aids. I was confronted with grand promises and testimonials to the ultimate power of these products.

 

The first row of items trumpeted the amazing powers of whey.  What the heck was whey ? Didn’t Little Miss Muffet eat the stuff ?  Perhaps, if she had just eaten “Mega Isolate High Performance Whey” or Whebolic” she would have smashed that intrepid anachronid while in a whey rage and then followed his drooping silk thread back to wipe out his 2000 other family members.  There was an entire shelf of items that should be regulated  by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Musl Blast clearly targeted extreme athletes and soldiers of fortune. After two scoops of their powdered stimulant I could be a rippling machine of destruction,  climbing Mt Everest in the morning and perhaps toppling an Asian junta in the afternoon.

 

Nitro protein drink should be illegal in 12 countries.  It’s explosive combination of natural and synthetic supplements can transform even the meekest of weaklings into a time bomb of testosterone. This lean muscle maximizer utilizes Chernobyl strength doses of protein and induces anabolic insulin production for maximum creatine saturation.  Wow! I want that. Each serving is the nutritional equivalent of eating nine bison. Freak Fix, Pit Bull and Anabolic OD were my favorites.  I mean we’re all adults here. You are a freak and you need a fix. Drink this and go personally move your house to that new lot on Weed Street or get picked up by the police for chasing a UPS delivery truck. It’s your life.

 

At this point, I was becoming a supplement junkie in a creatine haze. I then had my moment of clarity.  The obsession with weights stemmed from my inability to do one stupid, lousy pull up.  I drove home and grabbed the chin bar that regularly bumped my head as I entered my son’s room.  I hung low and hesitated.  My body started to raise. The biceps strained and my back arched. My chin rose above the metal finish line and a lifetime of “fatboys” fell away.

 

Somewhere in the weightlifter universe, the Force shuddered.  Another potential “juicer” had just gone to the Dark Side.

 

A Solid Piece of Wood

Master Sergeant rank insignia for the United S...
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A Solid Piece of Wood

We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being. -Thornton Wilder, Our Town

I met the man they call “Woody” in the gym as I was struggling to finish the final repetition of an overly ambitious bench press.  A wry, sarcastic voice cascaded down from above and asked, “you need a little help there, young lady? Looks like you are a going a bit light today?”

I stared upside down past folded muscular arms to a silver moustached face.

The former Marine wearing a “Semper Fi” work out shirt with a twinkle in his eye smirked and sighed.  “Ok, I will bail you out but only this once.”. With a grunt, Steve Wood easily hoisted the 225lb weights off my chest and liberated me from my humiliation.

Over the next few years, we became friends swapping insults, stories and political punches as the world around us shifted and changed. I was surprised to see him in uniform one day – learning that he was the senior shift lieutenant for the New Canaan Police.  I had pegged Woody for a football coach, ex-Secret Service or prison warden. He exuded authority but had learned to speak only when spoken to and had that quiet ability to endure moronic people.  I was not sure if he looked more intimidating in his uniform or in his cut-off Harley Davidson shirt, tossing up bench-presses and shaking his head as Congress and ultimately the White House took a hard left turn in November.   Woody would only stiffen to attention when his wife, Pat would walk by – tipping us off that he was not the ranking officer at home.

I quickly gathered that he was a tough man, extremely candid and consistent.

If he were anything other than human, he would be the granite face of a Sierra Nevada mountain.  As I got to know some of the other officers in town, I learned of the great respect that was afforded this 32-year veteran by the entire force.  ” He had enormous integrity,” one officer shared. ” He was the most consistent and disciplined person I have ever met.  Even when he was sick from chemo, he was showing up to work every day.”

He initially did not let his tribe of gym buddies in on the fact that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As he endured chemotherapy and a nine-hour surgery, he astounded his friends and family – barely slowing down at work, on the bench press or at his cabin in the Catskills where he hunted and rode his Harley, “hunting down liberals” he used to joke.

His oncologists referred to him as the ” iron man”.  As an ex-Marine, he had utter contempt for his cancer cells calling them “terrorists”. He would wander into the gym on a Saturday morning a day after chemotherapy and chip in that” we laid a good round of napalm on the bad guys yesterday in the chemo session”.  Woody’s advice to anyone fighting illness was attitude is everything.  “If only a small percentage survive, you have to believe you are going to be one of them.  Also, have a good support system – doctors, cops, gym nuts, family, and exercise.  If I had been a couch potato I wouldn’t be have lived so far beyond the initial prognosis. “

Anyone who knew him, watched in absolute amazement as he showed no fatigue and inspired everyone around him to focus on what was important as the stock market was crashing and jobs were being lost.  In the darkest moments of his hand to hand battle with cancer, he showed us that courage and patience were the building blocks of any life well lived.

As a father of a teenager, I asked Woody to describe today’s teenagers versus those he encountered as an officer in the 70s, 80s and 90s.  He smiled and quickly pointed out that kids today expect too much and do not always understand the value of knowing how to work hard for what you want. He shakes his head once again with that world-is-going-to-hell-in-a-hand-basket  disgust that I witnessed a thousand times growing up in my father’s home.  I could see it in his eyes – the teens of the 60’s are running the country now and the teens of the 70’s – the same teens he used to hustle out of the woods that were now parents of the children that were trying to find their way in a world filled with conflicting messages and an absence of role models.  He believed parents make or break a kid –and often jokes that “ the apple never falls far from the tree.”

Woody quickly pointed out that he was proud of how some kids have learned to work together on teams – in sports, in the community and socially.  He was intensely proud of his daughters Kim and Kelly, their husbands and his grandchildren.  In his own way, he felt he imparted by example rather than fiat, the Corps principles – the value of teamwork and the fact that a team of four people can defeat a much larger force of less cohesive individuals.

Woody’s daughters loved and admired their Dad and savored the way he interacted with his grandchildren offering a lightly sandpapered love that only a tough older generation grandfather could provide.  He and Pat, were  a perfect blend of leather and lace and the perfect guardrails for their growing families.

Steve Wood protected and served our community for 32 years – in sickness and in health.  He commuted to a town he admired for its small town charm and its ability to resist the changes that turned smaller communities into commercial cardboard cutouts.  As he drove the streets and patrolled the neighborhoods, he investigated robberies, collared drunk drivers and intervened in domestic disputes.

On April 19, 1989, Sgt Steve Wood received a call regarding a shooting that resulted from a drug deal that went bad resulting in nine wounded people.  Four armed and dangerous “bad guys” (as Woody calls them) fled the scene in a car and were racing at breakneck speeds through residential neighborhoods.  The suspects eluded officers from Darien, Stamford and Norwalk and turned onto Old Stamford Rd to make their escape.  Waiting for them was a police roadblock at Talmadge Hill and Old Stamford manned by Sgt Wood and another officer.  Woody could see the vehicle racing up the road followed by twenty police cars.  “There was no way out for these guys” he shared. “I thought of my family and then remembered the general rule of force, understood what I needed to do and did it.”  The gunmen decided to drive straight into the police roadblock and the officers.

“I had the shotgun and it was obvious that they were not going to stop. Just then my cell rang and for some reason I picked it up. It was the wife wanting me to bring home some milk.  I told her I would call her later.  Moments later I was leveling the shotgun at the car and firing several rounds.  We stopped the bad guys in their tracks preventing them from carrying on into New Canaan. I slept like a baby that night.”  For his role in apprehending the criminals, officer Steve Wood received a medal and two meritorious days off as did the other officers who risked their lives.  Woody shared with me that his definition of a hero is someone who knowingly puts themselves in harm’s way, risking death or injury to protect another person.   Ironically, he did not consider himself a hero but he admired and respected any fellow officers, the military and individuals who put their service to their community ahead of themselves.  He believed the term hero is used too loosely.

As we spotted one another on weights over the years, he spoke economically — except when the topics drifted left of gun control, lack of personal responsibility or entitlement programs. Two years ago, I received an invitation to Waveny House to honor Lieutenant Steve Wood, who was retiring after 32 years of service.  I knew he would not want a big party and instead prefer like MacArthur to just fade away – always the old soldier.   But it was not to be.  It seemed according to New Canaan police and their chief, Ed Nadriczny, had other plans.  Friends, family, fellow officers, fire fighters, city officials and people who knew and understood Steve Wood as a fine man and great leader were there to honor him.  There was a slide show and given that this is a family newspaper, I cannot share the exact contents but suffice to say, those that roasted the man, paid him his due.

Woody will be missed by anyone who ever crossed his path.  He was 100%, genuine American and never spent a day apologizing for his nation. When someone suggested he write a letter to his more ” liberal” Congressman when it looked as if his insurance coverage would not pay for an experimental procedure late in his cancer treatment, he shared he would rather jump off the Golden Gate Bridge than enlist a Nancy Pelosi-lover for a handout.  In the end, Woody did his own homework and made a business case as to why and how his treatment should be covered.  He succeeded in convincing his insurer that he was worth the investment.

For all his insistence on personal responsibility, Woody cared for people — putting himself at risk – often for those he did not even know. It was a thankless task at times, especially helping those who viewed him as a cardboard cut-out with a badge.  He just chuckled at their lack of consideration. He confided to me that he hoped New Canaan will someday offer affordable housing for those that work and help serve this community.  He then proceeded to bend my ear about the chaotic parking.  In Heaven, he won’t miss the accidents, suicides and personal injuries but will smile when the bad guys gets caught.  Above all, he showed us how to live, love and fight and what a hell of a fighter he was – – taking on the cancer terrorists and savoring every final day with his family.  If you had asked him what he wanted most, it was not recovery or even to be free of his pain, it was for the Republicans to take back the White House and sort out the mess.”

I can’t think of a finer man or better companion one could hope to meet should you find yourself in a foxhole, tracking a 12 point buck or waiting behind a road block to take on a speeding car full of heavily armed bad guys.  Woody’s legacy is all around us – in his stalwart spouse, his daughters, their husbands, their children and those of us who knew him.  You can see him every day in the attitudes and commitment of the police officers and Marines he now leaves behind.

A community like our town is built out of many things – brick, mortar, people, commitment, history and a shared set of values.  Any structure can withstand the ravages of time if it is forged out of the right material.  I can’t think of a better piece of New Canaan than Lieutenant Steve Wood – as solid a piece of wood as you will ever find.

Vaya Con Dios, My Friend!

Too Young To Die

Too Young To Die

I recall my so called misspent youth
It seems more worthwhile
Every single day
Cruisin’ Van Nuys and acting so uncouth
All the joys of runnin’ away

There was no speed limit
On the Nevada state line
The air was red wine
On those top down nights
Just you and me
My old roller skate
And the common sense
To know our rights

Sweet old racin’ car of mine
Roarin’ down that broken line
I never been so much alive
Too fast for comfort
Too low to fly
Too young to die

David Crosby, Too Young To Die

She was already a decade past her debut and she was struggling to capture her audience’s imagination.  She was an aging actress – tempermental, unpredictable and the shakes in times of stress.  She was a true platinum blonde, a bantam weight whose critics maligned her for her Bavarian simplicity.  She traced her parentage back to a German industrialist who in concert with Adolph Hitler had conspired to create a legion of utilitarian vehicles known as “the people’s car”.  Her friends nicknamed her “Bug” presumably for her endearing hyperthyroid eyes, curved muscular frame and an evolutionary sense that she could somehow go on forever.  I adored her the first time I set eyes on her.

Her gas gauge would stick and often needed to be gently tapped to avoid a humiliating walk down a lonely road with a gas can.   Despite her pecadilloes, she was intelligent and resourceful, a marvel of engineering genius, deploying a clutchless manual transmission that offered all the joy of a stick shift without the hassle and wear of a manual clutch.  She could go forever on a gallon of gas and would fearlessly transport me on inexpensive road trips without so much as a whimper.  She was cautious on corners having been born just before her siblings were fitted with strut front suspension.  She punched her weight using her tiny base and light weight to maximize a 1.6-liter, 60 horse engine. And, she was all mine.  It did not matter that she was a diva and that I was ingénue arm candy.  She would spend the next several years opening my eyes to a brave new world.

Her death was a sudden, surreal crash of twisted metal and burning rubber. As we left a summer tennis match with friends, we were broadsided by a Nissan that was unable to navigate a hairpin turn, crossing the yellow lines to broadside her.  As I staggered from the wreck, I saw that she had yielded as much of her door as she could in an effort to save me.  Her side had accordioned under the pressure of the collision and the chassis was a hopeless pretzel of scrap metal.  I somehow understood that we were never going to see one another again.  Her job was done. As she lay dying, it was clear she wanted me to find a younger, more contemporary companion.

The insurance adjuster wrote me a check for $ 5,800.  She was callously referred to as a“total loss”.  It was a profane transaction.  In my mind, she could never be replaced.  I was in mourning but life in the land of freeways went on. I needed a new partner.

I moved on to a copper-toned beauty from the far east– a Datsun 280Z 2+2, I found her at a used car lot which is the equivalent of saying you met your spouse at an airport cocktail lounge.  I could tell she had been around the track but it was hard to gauge her true age.  She seduced me with promises of high speeds and a front seat that would never be without a blonde or brunette. It was a stormy romance riddled with public outbursts that left me stranded at parties and broken down along desolate stretches of interstate.  Her ancient fuel injection and manual transmission left her wild and unpredictable.  She required constant maintenance and even with bills mounting, I remained with her out of a misguided loyalty.  A phone call changed everything.

My father had received a Renault Alliance as part of a special promotion from one of his advertising clients.  This 1986 Motor Trend Car of the Year could be mine for cost.  She was French and given the French’s penchant for elegance and passion, I divined this would be the sartorial equivalent of driving a Hermes tie.  Our first date was disappointing.  She was seasick green with a thick ankle, square chassis. She had an unimpressive interior and instrumentation that resembled an arcade video game. As with all French, she was whimsical and preferred short work weeks.  She was incontinent and often left embarrassing oil and fuel stains in the garage. California traffic overheated her delicate disposition and in the end, she just sat down and went on strike.  She was the Maginot Line of automobiles. Yet, c’est la vie, we were together less tan a year and she was a cheap date.

I graduated to a rugged, patriotic stage and decided to buy an American truck. We had liberated Kuwait and oil was once again out of harm’s way.  The Chevy 4X4 was the Clydesdale of sports utility vehicles.  She would croon country and western ballads as we knifed deep into the mountains on ski, fishing and backpacking trips. It was constantly dirty from the mud and chaos of weekends away.  Yet, as I rose in business, I felt the need to find a more dignified vehicle that would come to symbolize my success. A truck simply did not convey the image that I wanted to project to the world..

My need to reinforce the perception of my progress in life began to spiral out of control. Through a series of what seemed fortuitous events, I purchased a Jaguar XJ6.  It was a car not really suited for a 30 year old American but for people who wore Burberry, spoke with a feigned Eton accent and were never seen needing to use the toilet.  They were the elite of society and I wanted in the club.  My veneer was shattered one day as I drove my wife and in-laws into San Francisco.  A VW bus filled with long haired Dead Heads pulled up alongside the Jaguar as we waited politely at a stop light.  They motioned me to roll down my window.  I lowered the tinted glass expecting a request for directions or perhaps even a compliment on the car’s incredible lines and form.  The red eyed, bandannaed twenty year old jutted his lower jaw and with his best country club lockjaw asked me, “pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?”  There was an explosion of laughter and exhaust as the VW drove off.  I suddenly felt like I was driving me father’s car.   I resigned myself to return to my humbler German roots and find a partner appropriate for my standing.

I am now back in the bosom of Audi and am content.  I get restless at times and when I occasionally see a sleek Italian model, I feel like she is mocking me for even coveting her.  She seems to be suggesting that I could never handle her power or price.  When these green shadows of envy creep in, I remind myself of how happy I was in a simple yellow VW bug with a broken gas gauge, a microscopic engine and a tortoise like sense of invincibility.  I knew that when the traffic died, the bling dissolved, the advertising ended, the rain stopped and the dust and gravel setlled, she’d still be there – – two of us alone on some ancient stretch of desert road.

“Too fast for comfort, too low to fly. Too young too die. “