Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen

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The Twenty-forth Annual AOBS Awards Dinner has come and gone. The voracious one-day Saturday event, which hungrily consumes a juicy arm and leg of Friday and Sunday as well, was clearly a success. The gang was all there, and then some. They shook hands, hugged and laughed, reflected and reminisced in the hallways and lobbies and lounges of the Marriott Hotel in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. Groups gathered, telling tales and slapping backs. Pieces of iron in shapes of horseshoes or spikes or rebar mysteriously appeared amid small circles of benders and were reshaped into hearts or coils or twisted art. Groans, oohs and ahs were exchanged generously.

Laree and I were politely approached by Pat Povilaitis one evening as we exited the hotel for a late dinner. Pat’s a thirty-some friend of a friend who bends and tears unimaginable things for fun, and offered to reshape a pair of horseshoes into matching hearts, personally, there on the spot. How could we say no? Not enough, Pat’s friend, Greg, bent a quarter in his teeth, which proudly sits on my desk next to a broken Ticonderoga #2 pencil. I broke the pencil.

The gang is comprised of old time strongmen and their wives and friends and fans and enthusiasts. And they’re all characters. The dinner was started by physical culturist Vic Boff as a birthday party honoring Sig Klein, an early NYC gym owner, a quarter of a century ago. It has become an annual tradition and grown in popularity, substance and significance over the years. To be honorably added to the honorable list of honorees is a true honor and I am truly honored.

Being thusly credited does not necessarily mean one is old. In fact, the event was the biggest collection of kids outside, perhaps, an overcrowded city high school, a rock concert or a Giant’s baseball game. Grey haired, balding, arthritic children wearing eyeglasses and occasionally carrying a cane gathered enthusiastically and peacefully. Hugs, praises, tough-guy handshakes and slaps on the back. No riots, rock throwing or arrests.

It’s that way, as you very well know, among guys and gals who associate with the iron and steel and muscles and might. Has something to do with osmosis and molecular activity, density and gravity, pursuit and persistence, sanity and insanity, hope, love and good will.

Laree and I arrived in our packed-to-the-rack aircraft at Newark International late Thursday night. Our luggage did not. Swell! We rented an aerodynamic hydrocarbon-powered eco-vehicle (Jeep SUV) and were off and into the east coast night. My co-pilot followed the GPS and I followed my nose and we arrived at our Saddle Brook digs some 30 minutes northwest two hours later. We laughed all the way, hunger, frustration and weariness our delightful companions.

No food, too late. Tuna and Bomber Blend locked safely in lost luggage. Nearest fast food in the Bahamas. A day of sitting, flying and driving has us limping, squinting and squealing. We crash before our luck runs out.

We eat breakfast in our room like wounded patients in rehab. Our luggage arrives and we act as if we’ve been reunited with long-lost friends. The carefully prepared items, our fancy going-to-the-grand-ball wardrobe, is tangled and knotted like the rags they are. The Homeland Security pest-control has been busy at work! The whitish powder in the tampered zip-lock baggy (Bomber Blend) has managed to emerge as a light dust everywhere and the innocuous cans of high protein tuna have been intensely scrutinized (I’m guessing). No bombs, no WMD, no assault rifles.

Restored, revitalized and rejuvenated, we take the elevator to the lobby where the fun begins. Laree and I are about as social as moon dwellers, but we are also willing to jump out of trees to access the ground. On three -- 1, 2 and 3 -- the elevator door opens and there’s Lou Mezzanotte, Laree’s old training cohort from Dynamo Barbell Club of Maryland, circa 1984, and IOL LTM (long time member). He has just arrived and is as hungry as a horse. We’re off to the local I-Hop for omelets, steaks and eggs. We also begin to practice our knack for recollecting and socializing.

Be nice, smile and agree.

Once the ice is broken, everyone falls in and the water is fine. The day unfolds like a flowering rosebush, thorns and blooms and fragrances everywhere. The lobby and hallways serve as accidental and spontaneous meeting places. Old acquaintances and new friends congregate in corners and alcoves. Late morning becomes early afternoon. It goes something like this:

A room with chairs seats 50 companionable guys and dolls who share memorabilia and experiences and stories. Another room is arranged with a mic and chalk board to assist Joe Abbenda, AAU Mr. America of the early ‘60s, with his inspiring seminar. Benders of steel, lifters of stones and men who defy the physics of gravity and molecular bonding perform acts before encouraging and awed audiences by the outdoor pool.

“Splish splash, I was bending a spike while balancing a round, 230-pound polished granite stone on the back of my neck.”

Laree and I miss lunch (sorry, we close at 2) and I go to our room for a can of albacore and a stiff shot of BB. My socializing mechanism is smoking and needs to be cooled and refueled. I return in 20 to find things accelerating and escalating. There’s the tall guy in black without any fat who has split countless tons of quarry rock with a sledgehammer for 50 years. Don’t mess with Slim. He has hammers for hands and appreciates respect. We’re buddies, Slim and me.

A young publisher, Del Reddy, greets me and hands me a copy of his recent-most work, Mr. Weightlifting. It’s the incredible story of heavyweight Olympic and World Champion, Norbert Schemansky. And it’s autographed to me. Wow! He’s a hero.

Joe Rollino is a wiry fellow who looks every minute of 75. He’s amiable, not shy, skits around the crowds like a firefly and is loved by everyone. He’s also 102 years old. That would be twice Laree’s age and 37 years older than me. He bends quarters in his teeth... Laree’s got one. Funny thing: When someone that old is alive and walking and talking, you want to grab him and shake him and hug him. So I did.

Dinner is on time, offering the standard fare of chicken or fish, and the guests sit at round tables of 10 or 12 in front of the straight length of table arranged for the officials and guests of honor. I sit between Fred Yale, my personal introductionist, and Mike Karchut, an amazing Olympic lifter of the ‘60s and ‘70s, also being honored. We three are cut from the same block and friendship is easy.

Artie Drecshler, weightlifting coach and author and special super-guy, leads the whole affair. John Davis is the inspiring posthumous honorarium. Various entertainments are presented throughout the dinner, including the awards. The people are wonderful, their conversations electrifying and the energy contagious.

I want the award, a distinguished walnut and brass plaque, and the stunning 12 x 18 painting of me by noteworthy artist Jim Sanders, but I don’t want to stand before the crowd and speak. I’ll wet my pants. Just pass them to me and I’ll smile broadly and be on my way. This is not acceptable, so I fashion a comfortable conversation that includes my early weightlifting beginnings, my dull and eventless life and my most current days... a little history in a nutshell. Ugh, but it’ll have to do.

I practice it, I envision, I imagine. I’m ready.

Fred Yale, swell guy, spends 10 minutes introducing me with professionalism and precision. Absolutely everything I was going to say, he says, and better. I’m wiped out, not a detail left, nothing. They carry me off in a basket.

The following day I bored Laree to death with a tour of my old Jersey haunts. Taking the George Washington Bridge, we did Manhattan from north to south and east to west by Jeep. We got lost and didn’t care, gazed at the lingering space where the Towers once stood, honked our horn in the heart of Times Square, ate ice cream in Secaucus and drank icy seltzer water on Riverside Drive.

We boarded an aircraft after five days and sat on the Newark Liberty tarmac for five hours waiting for thunderstorms to dissipate. They did, and we arrived in Dallas at 12 pm, where we spent the night on cots at Gate 35. Our 8 AM flight eventually departed and we arrived in San Jose a day late.

I worked out on time and everything is back to normal... almost... not nearly. They want us to return next year for the Twenty-fifth AOBS reunion. We’re honored.

Got wings? Fly. If not, forget it... the Bomber

Read Laree's recap of the AOBS 2007 dinner here.

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