The recent interest in bodybuilding has brought to mind my boyhood and my encounter with the patron saint of the art or obsession, Charles Atlas. As a scrawny kid of 11, living in a small upstate New York town, I was an enthusiastic reader of The Shadow, Doc Savage and the sports pulp magazines, most of which carried the Charles Atlas ads, but I never dreamed I'd ever meet the great man himself. How could that godlike being ever have been a 97-pound weakling? And what was this Dynamic Tension that changed his life?
You can imagine my delight when my mother brought home a brochure for Camp Atlas with my hero depicted on the cover. The camp was on a lake in the Catskills, and the brochure promised that Mr. Atlas would be in attendance all summer. My mother enrolled my brother and me for the full season.
Camp Atlas was much the same as any other camp. It had cabins, double-decker bunks, a mess hall, baseball fields, volleyball courts, a dock, boats, canoes. The campers all wore uniforms and called the counselors Uncle. The difference was Charles Atlas. And he was there all summer, as promised. So were his wife and son. His son's name was—are you ready for this?—Hercules. We called him Herk.
The first evening, we gathered in the mess hall to meet Charles Atlas. He appeared dressed in a leopard-skin loincloth. He was big and bronzed, with rippling muscles and wavy hair. The campers all went wild. "He's real!" the kid next to me said.
Atlas welcomed us in a quiet, friendly voice. He told us what he would like to accomplish with us during the summer, how he hoped that every camper would improve his physique. Then he gave a demonstration of his strength. First he tore a Manhattan phone book in half. Next he bent an iron bar into a horseshoe shape with his bare hands. Then he gripped a long iron bar in his teeth and had two men hang from it, one from each end, until it bent under their weight. Finally he lay on a bed of nails while the same two men stood on a board across his chest. We all cheered like crazy.
Atlas was a beautiful specimen compared to today's muscle men. No gruesome knots, no grotesque, overdeveloped pectorals, simply a man who had harmoniously developed his body. He was well deserving of the title "World's Most Perfectly Developed Man." His system of bodybuilding, Dynamic Tension, was what we now call isometrics, except that Atlas advocated pitting one set of muscles against another. He didn't approve of gadgets. He believed you were less likely to hurt yourself or "overdo it" when only your own strength was involved.
The encounter with Atlas that I best recall took place when my age group had a special-awards campfire, and he came to present the medals. Afterward, he sat in the midst of our group and called for questions.
"How did you ever get started?" one kid asked.
"Believe it or not," Atlas said, "I really was a 97-pound weakling. And very sickly. When I was 20, a doctor told me not to walk up even one flight of stairs because it might kill me." He paused. "But I knew I couldn't stand living that way, so I ran up three flights!"
"And then what happened?" another kid asked.
"Well, I'm still here!" We all laughed. "After that," he said, "I began to believe I could do anything if I wanted to badly enough. That's when I started eating right, exercising and developing my system."
I don't know where I got my nerve, but I asked, "Is Charles Atlas your real name?" I'd been reading about Greek mythology.
He looked me straight in the eye, and I felt like sinking into the ground. "My real name was Angelo Siciliano," he said. "I borrowed Atlas from the Greeks, and now my legal name is Charles S. Atlas."
Emboldened, I asked him if there was a special rate for his mail course for kids who had attended Camp Atlas. "I never thought about that," he said. "What's your name, son?" I told him. "Well, Jerry, after you get home, write me and remind me. I'll give you a 50% discount on the course." (After camp, I did write him. Sure enough, he answered, offering the entire series for $10, or half price. To save postage, Atlas sent all the lessons at once. I put them away, using one each week just as though they were coming through the mail.)
Because Hercules Atlas was my age, he often joined our group for sports and other activities. He was a quiet boy who seemed embarrassed by his name. We eyed him with a certain amount of awe, wondering if his father had endowed Herk with superhuman strength.
Charles Atlas led us in calisthenics every morning before breakfast. Later he would roam the mess hall, making sure we ate the foods that would help build our bodies. When one boy left his bread crust on the plate, Atlas picked it up and ate it. "It's the best part of the bread," he told the kid. I'm sure that was the last crust the boy ever left. By the end of the summer, most of us had developed a great affection for this fantastic man, admiring him as much for his kind manner as for his physique. But the next year, I was old enough to go to Boy Scout camp, so I never saw Camp Atlas again. Or any of my fellow campers—except one.
Many years later, when I was an ensign in the U.S. Coast Guard, preparing for the invasion of Normandy, we tied up next to a Navy LCI in Southampton harbor, England. One evening, returning from liberty, I started a conversation with a young ensign on the Navy ship. He invited me into the wardroom for coffee. "My name's Charles Atlas," he said. "Junior," he added, when I looked startled.
I looked at him carefully. Could it be...? Yes, there was a resemblance. "When you were younger, was your name Hercules?" I asked.
You'd have thought he'd seen a ghost. "How did you know?" he said.
"I was at Camp Atlas," I said. "A long time ago."
He looked at me closely. "Yes...Camp Atlas. Weren't you the kid who always wanted to play shortstop?"
I was. So we spent some time reminiscing about that summer. He told me he'd changed his name to Charles Jr. I didn't have to ask why. We hit it off well.
The next morning Herk, or Charles, was on deck to supervise the casting off of our mooring lines. As we stood out to sea, he waved goodby, and that was the last time I ever saw him. I've occasionally wondered how he and his ship made out in the invasion, and what he ended up doing after the war. (In fact, he teaches math at Lincoln Junior High in Santa Monica, Calif.)
Around Christmas 1972, I came across a newspaper account of the death of Charles Atlas. I found it hard to accept. To me, he would always look the way he did that summer, standing in front of the campers in his loincloth, performing feats of strength and making a bunch of little kids believe that each of us could grow up to be just like him.