A Cautionary Tale for Young Lovers:
What Charles Atlas Didn’t Tell Us
Wesley Billings had a problem. He was a skinny, idealistic high school kid who wanted what would appear to most people to be reasonable felicities of life. More than anything in the world, he wanted a best friend in whom he could confide and count on to be there for him, and he wanted a girl to love and share her life with him in matrimonial bliss. Wesley's problem was that he had no self-confidence, he was ordinary and self-effacing, and he considered himself to be the most boring kid in his class.
Thus he was a loner throughout his first three years of high school. Other boys seemed to have plenty of friends to hang out with and girls who either paid attention to them or dated them. There were cliques formed according to various kinds of peer pressure, but Wesley belonged to none of them. In terms of postmodern thinking, Wesley was the classic case of one who was marginalized by life and in need of empowerment.
What really puzzled Wesley was that the popular boys mistreated girls or bragged about them in the locker room as if they were of easy virtue. Wesley became angry when one of his classmates would demean a girl to other boys, and he vowed he would never do that. He declared to his dog Fafnir, “I am going to be a gentleman at all times and treat girls with the respect and kindness they deserve.”
If Fafnir could speak, he would have told Wesley that high school girls don’t give a hoot for respect and kindness. At that age, they want to be worshiped. They want the boys to be like Romeo in Shakespeare’s famous play. They dream of sitting in a balcony, looking down at a handsome lad who is determined to scale the wall to embrace them. Like Rapunzel imprisoned in the tower, they dream of letting down their hair as a rope for the lad to climb and rescue them. They dream of sitting beside the road waiting for the gallant young knight to come riding by on his horse and take them away from all this mundane existence. They dream of the brave space explorer who will take them out of Levittown and transport them to the farthest reaches of the night sky to gather star dust for their hair. Respect and kindness are strictly for the middle-aged people and the geezers.
One day, early in his senior year, Wesley found a friend, or rather the friend found him. Wesley was especially good at geometry, and this kid named Vincent Karloff, a handsome jock and the son of wealthy parents, approached Wesley at lunch time and asked him, “Can you help me with geometry? I'm flunking the class, and I don't know how I can improve my grade. Mr. Hypotenuse hates me and wants me to flunk because he caught me doing an imitation of him in the john, and I just can’t understand geometry. It's all Greek to me.”
Wesley was impressed that a popular kid like Vincent would approach him, let alone ask him for help. “Yes, I'll be glad to help you. We can study together, and I'll see what I can do.”
“Well, I sure hope you can save me. If my beans are burned in geometry, I will be denied admission to San Andreas Fault State University, and my father has made up his mind that I should attend his alma mater,” Vincent confessed.
The two lads began studying together, and by mid-semester Vincent had, with Wesley’s tutoring, brought his grade up to a B. More important, though, Vincent found Wesley to be an interesting person, likeable even if he didn’t have a high opinion of himself. They were both into fishing, APBA baseball, movies, and folk music. They became good friends and had many long discussions about the nature of time, the difference between truth and validity, the necessity of identifying logical fallacies in political speeches and advertising, and the possibility of ghosts and other supernatural beings.
Sooner or later they were bound to get around to discussing girls, and it was Wesley’s turn to ask for help.
One evening after watching Ann Blyth and Burt Lancaster in the movie Brute Force, Wesley was inspired by the scene where Lancaster declares his love for Ann:
Ann Blyth: “Why do you love me? I’m crippled. Most people don’t even give me a second look.”
Burt Lancaster: “I’m not people. I’m Joe Collins. One Man.”
Wesley and Vincent agreed that Lancaster had embodied the profound nobility of love. Wesley went on to say, “There are so many nice girls in our class, and I feel that I could love any one of them and be happy.” Then he asked, “But what is the secret? How do you approach a girl and begin to love her?”
Vincent shrugged and said, “I can't explain it. I suppose there are tricks you could use, but I just ask a girl for a date.”
Wesley shook his head sadly and opined, “Yes, that's easy for you because you are handsome and athletic and have savoir faire. I would bet every girl in the school has the hots for you. I'm the proverbial 97-pound weakling, the wimp, the returned empty, the classic example of the no-date nerd. I know exactly how Ann Blyth felt. Girls don't give me a second look, and, worse, to most of them I’m invisible.”
The bonds of friendship are truly miraculous. Genuine friendship is one of life’s most precious gifts. Wesley seemed so pathetic and sad that Vincent took pity and thought maybe he could persuade his shy friend to do something to help himself. He truly wanted to empower Wesley, but he didn’t know how. Grasping at straws, Vincent said, “Have you ever seen the Charles Atlas ads for body building in the magazines?”
Wesley brightened and said, “No, I haven't even heard of Charles Atlas. Who is he, a circus strong man, a movie star like Victor Mature in Demetrius and the Gladiators?
“No, he’s a man who has a perfect physical build. He looks like a Greek god. I’ll bring a book tomorrow and show you his ad.”
The ad told the story of a 97-pound weakling who takes his girl to the beach and a 200 pound bully knocks him down, kicks sand in his face, and steals his girl. The weakling goes home, throws a chair against the wall, and orders Charles Atlas’ dynamic tension body building program. The weakling works out religiously and is transformed into a 200 pound muscular specimen of manhood. He goes to the beach, knocks the 200 pound bully down, kicks sand in his face, and reclaims the girl.
“Give it a try. At least it’s something you can do,” Vincent said, patting his skinny friend on the back to encourage him.
The next day Vincent asked, “Well, have you sent off to Charles Atlas for help?”
Wesley shook his head and said, “No, but I have made an important decision. Last night I had a dream in which I obtained Charles Atlas’ booklet, and I worked and worked until I weighed 200 pounds. I looked so good that when I went to school the girls flocked around me and flirted with me. Finally, Sunny Tidings asked me if I would take her to the beach. She asked me! Can you believe that? Sunny asked me! I know it was only a dream, but I felt so good. As James Cagney said, ‘Top of the world, Ma! Top of the world!’”
Vincent was elated and happy for his friend. “Yes, I know the feeling. It just goes to show that dreams tell us something important, and that dream tells me that you can do something to help yourself. You’re on the right track.”
Wesley held up his hand like a policeman halting traffic so a mother duck and her ducklings could cross a busy street. “But my dream didn’t end there.”
“Well, what else happened?” Vincent asked, curious.
“I took Sunny to the beach and a 300 pound bully knocked me down, kicked sand in my face, and walked away with Sunny clinging to his arm.” .
Vincent knew a crisis when he saw one. “But that was only a dream turned nightmare. You can’t let that stop you. Go on with it. Stick it out,” Vincent urged.
“Vincent, you don’t understand me. The nightmare enabled me to make an important decision,” Wesley announced with confidence.
“Yeah, what did you decide?” Vincent asked.
“I decided that if God ever does give me a girl to love, I’m never taking her to the beach.”
Note: The Charles Atlas ad had tremendous appeal to 97-pouund weaklings throughout this great land of ours, giving them hope that one day they could take their girl to the beach without fearing they would be knocked down, have sand kicked in their face, and lose their girl to a 200 pound bully. What Charles Atlas didn’t tell us was that his body building secrets would also appeal to 200, 300, 400, and even 500 pound bullies.