Entering the “Your Story” competition put on by Writer’s Digest each month hasn’t yet led me to publishing fame and fortune, but it has given me the opportunity to write a couple of short fiction pieces that I can share with you through this blog.
I can hear your collective “Hooray!” emanating from all over the Internet.
First there was “Why Fight It?”; now comes “The Strongman,” which, as part of the competition, was required to start with the bolded sentence.
Writing from the perspective of a 60-year-old man, on the other hand, was purely my 31-year-old brain hopping the tracks a bit.
It was on a bright, starry night that the traveling circus rolled into town. I was around eight years old, and I remember wondering if there was a strongman lurking somewhere inside one of the train cars clicking by my bedroom window. I really hoped so. The two times I had gone to the circus before, it hadn’t amounted to much more than a clown convention, and I hated clowns—not because I had some sort of clichéd fear of them but because I just didn’t see the point. I could get whack-jobs in wigs and bad makeup at my family’s Thanksgiving dinners.
But a strongman would be a different story. The strongest guy I had ever seen at that point was my dad. In my eyes, he was Paul Bunyan sans the mutated piece of livestock, and he was only a mechanic; his professional life didn’t revolve around being a hulking mass of humanity. Who knew what the strongman might be able to do when he set his mind to it or, better yet, was provoked by the crowd.
I was a real sensitive kid.
Why was freakish strength so intriguing to me? Not sure. Like for a lot of boys, it just was. And it’s not something you outgrow. I suppose that’s why I TiVo reruns of strongman competitions on ESPN2 and marvel at the ability of some guy from Iceland to dead lift a trailer full of barrels.
The only difference between now and then is that in 1959, entertainment wasn’t nearly so tailored to individual tastes. When our one TV channel did come in, it was guaranteed to be showing something unintentionally ridiculous. That’s not 60-year-old me saying that; we knew it while we were watching it. How couldn’t we? Anyone who refers to this time as the golden age of television clearly never had to sit through an episode of Johnny Ringo.
Intentionally ridiculous programming, on the other hand—the kind that brings us bizarre contests such as those designed to determine the world’s strongest man—was still years away, meaning the acts we actually wanted lived only in our imaginations and under the big top of legit circuses.
Whether this one would be legit, however, remained to be seen, and I wasn’t about to part with the quarter I’d have to pay to get in without reasonable assurance that I’d be able to tell all my friends that I’d watched a mustachioed guy in tights bench-press a Chrysler. My eight-year-old brain didn’t define the stakes in quite those terms, of course; I just didn’t want to spend three more hours with clowns.
Fortunately, the next day, I tagged along with my dad when he went to the hardware store, and the owner unwittingly gave me the opening I needed.
“You boys headed to the parade?” Mr. Carothers asked dad as he rang up the bill. Before dad could respond “I work 80 hours a week and was really hoping just to buy these bolts and then go home and enjoy my one afternoon off,” I had already looked up at him, my eyebrows hopefully raised in expectation.
“Parade?” dad said, accurately translating my body language, albeit with some begrudging subtext that I didn’t intend. “What parade?”
“Oh, well, that circus that just came into town—they’re putting on a parade over on Main Street at 2:00 just so the kids can get a look at what’s in the show.”
To his credit, dad didn’t make me beg or plead, even though I’m sure the last thing he wanted to do that day was sit out in 90-degree heat, waiting for the appearance of what would turn out to be a lone elephant who crapped about every 10 feet while its visibly intoxicated trainer struggled to match its lumbering pace. And seeing that I had spent the entire ride to the store going on and on about the circus and the strongman and those damn clowns, he could’ve had a good time coming up with chores for me to do in exchange for attending the parade.
Instead, he simply smiled what was undoubtedly a tired smile and looked down at me.
“Sounds like fun,” he said.
And it was, despite the fact we saw no one weightlifting with a domestic automobile. I just don’t remember that being a big deal that day.