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Once upon a time

Traveling back to 1966 is no short journey and as I begin to write it seems I may have lost the way. I know this giant kid from Denmark or some far away place, who yearns for the good old days… as if they existed. He calls upon me occasionally to summon up those years in the mid-60s when muscle building was like a grand piano with stout, carved wooden legs, ivory keys, gold inlay and rich, magical tones -- no slick, assembly-line plastic cabinet with spun-chrome dials, synthesizers and massive Dolby Sound System to project exaggerated music. Henrik missed what he and a lot of folks refer to as "The Golden Era of Bodybuilding."

"They make me thirsty," said one guy. Another, adding a touch of the spirit, said, "They restoreth my soul." A popular writer of the days gone by tells us the days were "real, undiluted and raw; the un-torched first growth - pure." Put the filter of time on a moment, a day or an era, add slow motion plus your favorite sounds, apply shades of black and white with brilliant color and it's all legendary, pulsing and dramatic. Nostalgia is more precious than the present, more real, friendlier and informative. Today will be more important tomorrow… next year.

I know all about the 60s; I believe I was there. Henrik is a kid like you and me, a kid at heart who wants to know what the lifting scene was like back when I trained for the Mr. Universe Contest, 1966. I should have taken notes; it was a very busy year.

The year before I won Mr. America in the same venue, the Brooklyn Academy of Music. As I recall I was a lot younger in '65 than I was in '66. Living in California -- my third year since migrating from the east coast -- accelerated my growth like a shot of hormones. My lifelong friendship with the Muscle Beach peculios (nonconformists) deepened and I became engaged in the casting and eventual filming of "Don't Make Waves." Working in Hollywood with hollyweird people and training in The Dungeon with a bunch of bulging guys smelling of DMSO tilted and stretched my already contorted east coast persona.

Oddly, my training didn't change form from the prior year and my nutritional walk followed the same sound path. I had stumbled into what works for me; I discovered a vein of gold and just kept digging. At twenty-three I realized that working the basics hard and consistently was the direct route to reaching my potential. Granting myself a quarter for experimentation and variation and bulking up on high-protein, low-sugar food for six months in the fall and winter provided the stress-free anabolic environment we all need to grow: lots of first-class muscle-building, power food with no dieting struggle, lots of hard work with both feet on the ground rather than on a high-tension tight rope, no close and worrisome critical analysis, room for mushrooming buoyancy and faith.

And grow I did, not like a weed but slowly and surely. What I say here is important to the wandering muscle builder who is ever-seeking the perfect and right routine. Settled on my training scheme, confident and determined, I worked and worked without doubt and without vacillation. I didn't harass or plague myself with growth-inhibiting and time-wasting fear that I would not improve. The twenty-five percent training margin reserved for adjustment and spontaneity allowed me to think on my feet and maintain a sense of freedom in my labor of love. The folly of questioning my system would not numb my spirit and enthusiasm. I pressed on.

I didn't question my system and thereby numb my spirit and enthusiasm.

In the early spring of '66 a casting call echoed through the then-sparse muscle-building communities of southern California and a small herd of Popeyes and Tarzans made their way to the Hollywood studio. I was eventually cast as Harry Collard in the film version of Muscle Beach, "Don't Make Waves," and two weeks later I stood on a hillside in Malibu Canyon weighing 245 pounds beside Tony Curtis weighing much less. Filming had begun.

In early scenes - May of '66 -- my cohorts, Reg Lewis and Chet Yorton, and I trundled about on-camera in our off-season bulkiness. Filming had me up at 5 AM for an early morning one-hour blast at the gym, make-up by 6:30 and on the set in the MGM studio at seven or on location in Malibu at eight. The days with the crew and actors around the lights, camera and action were fascinating and privileged and tantalizing; even the behind-the-scenes boredom was exciting, Hollywood picture-making tedium. I basked. When the day ended, it was back to the Dungeon for some serious lifting, which became more serious as the filming ended and the Mr. Universe contest coincidentally neared. Mid-September was the blur of events.

The sun shined brightly through the summer and not every day was a workday nor was any day tough; "sit, stand, speak and roll over… once again, people, and cut… that's a take." Contest training didn't suffer and I ate mightily from my trusty Igloo. My commonness clung to me like wet underwear. Where the elite actors ate with aplomb from a daily-catered banquet, I joined the rascals I knew from Muscle Beach who comprised the extras, rapscallions playing poker with quarters in the shade.

I didn't gamble; I didn't take chances. Sometimes we'd bench press or do standing barbell curls with our backs against a pole for singles. Lunching on iron and steel was a sure thing. Throughout the summer and as the September date neared I slowly dropped my bodyweight -- wild guess, a pound a week -- aiming for 230. The heavy bodyweight gained in the winter gave me freedom and power to roam and kept my mind off the corralled details: veins, shape, definition and tone. Training and filming sufficiently distracted me, allowing the contest less priority and, therefore, less opportunity to defeat me.

One day I woke up and it was Thursday; the studio cleared my plans and I was on my way to the airport. Saturday was the Miss Americana, Mr. America, Mr. Universe and the second annual Mr. Olympia contests in The Brooklyn Opera House. I'd been there before in a former life.

I can't say my homework paid off. I did what I did the year before, only a little better, with more finesse and less numbness. I trained, ate, slept and worked and played. I wasn't sure I was going to win, I wasn't sure I was going to lose -- I was sure I was going to show up on time. The whole affair was less daunting than 1965, I held my breath for shorter periods of time and the win was as grand though I can't recall the details as I do with my first extraordinary experience.

The audience was thicker than a jungle and, like a jungle heaved with wildlife, screamed and leaped, squealed and snarled with ferocious excitement. Larry Scott, thick and powerful as a Clydesdale, graciously accepted (again) the Mr. Olympia crown and said goodbye to competition. Don Howorth, with his shoulders knocking over stagehands and microphones every time he turned left or right, won Mr. America. I remember Miss Americana was… she… well, actually, I can't remember her at all. I have no doubt she was a beauty but I must have been backstage pumping up, carbing up, oiling up, hiding… who knows? Bodies are everywhere.

The show ends in a triumphant blaze, emotions are emptied in a rush, the Emcee, almost suddenly, bids "good night and farewell" in an optimistic tone and it stops. The whole raucous, bountiful, resplendent extravaganza is unplugged. The lights dim and the union stagehands unceremoniously gather wires, platforms, props and background curtains. The entrails of the wondrous event are exposed and discarded before the whooping spectators as they retreat from a memory under construction.

Restless and wired fans uncoil, food places fill up and the commotion backstage is subdued. The producers, judges and volunteers exchange stories and phone numbers, make plans for a late dinner and next year. It's 1 AM. The competitors, the winners and losers, lick their wounds, drink the last of their water and wipe off patches of oil. A rare, in-shape group, which has expended all the energy of a small town, tugs at its reserves to pull itself up and drag itself home. I'm amidst the spent yet indefatigable group running on empty. We all live somewhere far away. I have a flight back to L.A. in the morning. Shooting resumes at MGM Studios on Monday at 10 AM.

"Howorth. Larry. Let's grab a cab."

Ahda… Ahda… ahdat's all, folks.

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