LONDON — When I was very young and innocent, Superman comic books provided many moments of fanciful safety from real and imagined bullies. I could crawl into those flimsy pages and find more pleasant realities.
Much later I became a lighthearted fan of Lord Darth Vader, my type of monster because he wasn't really that bad. Even when Vader did away with someone, you couldn't help but like him just a little bit. At least he didn't use bad language or torture people physically.
Children understood this. They never felt terror when they saw him, but their skin probably tingled when he swept into a room, the very essence of storybook evil.
My own skin tingled from such memories and thoughts this morning when I first met David Prowse,the man who played Darth Vader in the three "Star Wars" movies and also weight-trained three-time film Superman Christopher Reeve.
My new-hunk coach.
I flew to London yesterday, after several months of planning, and will spend the next 10 days here learning from an expert the routines that supposedly make mortals into gods.
David Prowse is the sort of person we all yearn for when a dark and forbidding alley looms in front of us. He is manly and rugged, as you would expect from one who mingles with mythical characters.
His voice, a deep rumble, fits his frame. He is 6 feet 7 inches, 266 pounds and all muscle. His chest measures 52 inches, the height of many 10-year-olds. He can dead-lift nearly 700 pounds. His jaw juts mightily and his brow furrows deeply over thick, expressive Groucho Marx eyebrows.
At 50, David is very well known in England: a former British heavyweight lifting champion, an author ("Fitness Is Fun") and an actor in some memorable productions (the bodyguard in "A Clockwork Orange" and the executioner in the BBC production of "The Balcony").
However, David is best known in Great Britain as the Green Cross Code Man, a government-sponsored Superman-type character who appears constantly on television and in person to teach roadside safety. Thanks largely to children's enthusiastic response to the gentle hero's instruction, roadside accidents involving children have declined by 50%.
We first met in the office of his London gym on Marshalsea Road, not far from the London Bridge. The gym occupies the first three floors of a modest terrace house.
Plain, Low-Key Gym
The gym, too, is low-key--lots of pine paneling (like my gym on Grand Bahama), exposed pipes and various free-weight equipment that looks as though it was picked up here and there (it was).
The gym office is equally plain. Two Vader statues--one bought at a dime store, the other a porcelain mask--sit on a small filing cabinet. Both items are obscured by a toaster oven and electric teakettle. Piles of folders and books cover a small sofa, several shelves, another filing cabinet and most of the floor.
Just being with this guy was fascinating. But I had only one thing on my mind.
"David, what can you do to my body?"
David was sitting in front of the Vader statues. He eyed me very slowly.
"Would you mind taking off your clothes down to your skivvies?"
It is very hard for a person to undress in front of a nearly mythical person, but I did, self-consciously, crossing my arms in front of my chest. He took a tape measure and measured my wrists and chest and biceps and calf muscles, and though I had been lifting weights for nearly four months, I blushed at the thought of my muscle size. I needed to get my mind off this.
"David, did you measure Superman, I mean Christopher Reeve, like this? Nearly naked?"
"How big was he?"
"And what about you? Were you ever a weakling?"
"Oh, sure. My goal used to be to have 14-inch biceps. Mine were 12."
Good. My biceps were at least bigger than David's used to be. It didn't matter that David, at that size, was 16 years old and recovering from four years in a hospital. In moments of great insecurity, everything is relative.
He put down the tape measure, told me to dress and sat down. I asked the question again.
"Well, what can you do to my body?"
I told you his voice is deep, but it sounded even deeper and nearly spiritual this time. "Remar, I will personally guarantee that by the end of the year you will have a physique you never dreamed of."
I blushed. Then I quickly rummaged through my gym bag and pulled out my tape recorder. I shoved it toward him in a quick, jerky motion, as if speed would catch the echo of the words and make them reality.
"Would you mind saying that again?"
David Prowse wrapped his hands around the recorder--the same hands that held a light saber and helped sculpt the slender body of Christopher Reeve. He pulled it to him and repeated the promise.
When I replayed that tape later in my hotel room, the sound was a little muffled. Those big hands covered the mike a bit. Accidentally, I'm sure, but that's OK. Everybody knows heroes don't lie.
To a New Year's heart!