MARIETTA, Ga. — Today I lifted weights by myself in a strange gym, my first workout without the prodding and emotional support of my trainer and other gym members who know me.
Sounds like a minor accomplishment, doesn't it? Like walking down the street? It was more like walking barefoot through a field of sand spurs.
First I had to choose a gym. Though I'm in my hometown, I didn't have the slightest idea how to find a comfortable place. I left the first fancy fitness center when the "hostess" tried to sell me their own brand of cologne before selling me a day membership.
I couldn't get through the lobby of the second place. A group of "Samba Saturday" class members was dancing through there on the way to a "Human Sexuality and Aerobics" seminar.
Discouraged after two more tries, I stopped at the Ace Hardware close to my mother's home to collect another bedding tray of bright-red salvia for her when chance--in the person of Jimmy Beasley--solved my problem. Since Jimmy had both the body and friendly personality I admired, I asked where he worked out. Cagle's. That would be the gym for me.
"Friendly" may fit Jimmy perfectly, but when I pulled up in front of Cagle's, I wasn't sure the adjective fit his gym. A low gray building with one shuttered window squatted in a small gravel lot. The single door faced the world from behind mirrored glass. A big, deep-red Harley Davidson motorcycle leaned rather arrogantly by the door, its fat wheels digging ruts in the gravel.
I was in my mother's car, a silver Lincoln about the size of my insecurities at the moment. It didn't make the right statement, something that hit me just as a truck holding two massive, barrel-shaped, non-smiling men parked on my left.
A Very Long Walk
You don't just sit in a silver Lincoln in front of a serious gym as barrel-shaped, non-smiling people look at you--especially if your only companion is a tray of pretty flowers--unless you're doing something. I quickly grabbed a magazine from my mother's mail as the two men walked by my window. We saw the cover at the same time. Gourmet. I might as well have been playing with dolls. I thought of explaining: "Flowers? Hell, I stomp gardens, myself." Instead I just opened the car door and headed to the gym. It was a very long walk.
I think fast when I'm nervous. As the gym door shut behind me, I planned the response I thought would make me sound calm when greeted, stuck my hand out to the guy standing behind the counter and, without waiting for the question, blurted out, "I'm fine."
Charlie Thompson, owner of Cagle's, endeared himself to me by making my gaffe seem normal: "Glad to hear it. I am, too."
As he spoke, the reception area came into focus. The room and the people who drifted in and out had the feeling of my old cabin at Lake Sinclair, where the furniture was theft-proof--who would want it?--but perfect and comfortable, and the company was nonstop and happy.
Charlie Thompson, 33, wholesome as a glass of milk, looks like a body builder, one of those guys who are judged in competition on the symmetry of their muscles, on their beauty. In my gym in the Bahamas, virtually everyone is a body builder (me, too).
Charlie's background, though, is in power lifting. Power lifters are judged solely on their ability to move weight, not their looks. Those who move the most win. Since power lifters win with strength, not shape, they aren't afraid of fat, and many of them own a good bit of it. Charlie Thompson even says fat adds leverage and cushioning.
I don't doubt him, either. Cagle's Gym took first place in eight out of 11 events at the 1986 Georgia Power Lifting Championships. A weight-lifting sport that accepts the rotund. Maybe I missed my calling.
Setting Up the Bar
I felt comfortable after talking with Charlie and entered the weight room rather eagerly, feeling nervous only when I caught the eyes of the two barrel types. They watched me as I walked to a bench, sat a bar on the rack above it and slid weights on each end.
I tried to do all of this very professionally. I lay on the bench. Normally at this point, my trainer would hand me the bar, but my trainer was in the Bahamas. I would have to lift the bar and all that weight from the rack by myself, something I had never done before. A very unnerving thought.
Could I lift the weight? I placed my hands carefully on the bar for maximum torque, closed my eyes, prayed the prayer of the insecure, "O God, don't let me make a fool of myself," and heaved mightily.
Terror gives great strength. The bar nearly flew from my hands, and a weight from the left side sailed through the air, thumping at the feet of the burly types.
The older one, who had glared the most at my mother's Gourmet, walked over to me. "Hey buddy, how 'bout someone to spot you?" he said with a grin on his face. "You look kinda eager."