A Story to Tell

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Each of us has a story to tell, whether we're fourteen or forty, eighteen or eighty. Many are complicated and not one is simple. Some are packed, not one is empty. Every one is worth telling, but few are heard. Our stories are our own.

Do you have a favorite tale from your often-vague life story, one that stirs you and retains its drama and emotion, its colors, scents and sounds?

Of course you do, if you think for a second. You're not sure anyone wants to hear it, yet you recall it and relive it from time to time. I too have such a favorite recollection from my dizzy life. Ordinary is its most outstanding feature.

Life is largely composed of ordinary stories and somebody's got to tell them.

If you stood on the corner of 4th and Broadway in Santa Monica fifty-some years ago, looked north toward Wilshire Boulevard in the early morning and spotted a big young dude with blond hair lumbering in your general direction, chances are it was me. If this guy had East Coast stamped on his forehead and carried a motley gym bag and was clueless, you should bet on it.


"Hey mista...ya know weah da dungeon is?"

You win...that was me. Who else would be searching for a dark, smelly subterranean dungeon at the crack of dawn within a short walk of the alluring Pacific Palisades? Who else sounded like a Jersey hood on the run? It was June of 1963 when I arrived at LAX seeking muscle and might.

George Eifferman, later to become a good friend, picked me up at the budding LA airport, dropped me off at my temporary warehouse digs (couch is in the back...it's getting late...see ya bright and early) and gave me the low-down on the Muscle Beach Gym. He called it the Dungeon, said it was four blocks away and the door was always open. I was to make myself at home.

Just as he described it, the door was one of a set of two: sky blue, very tall and dragged when I pulled on it. I was in, and there I stayed until the gym moved in '66.

You stepped in, dragged the door shut in chilly weather or at the night's end and immediately descended fourteen broad steps, turned right and descended another eight in the opposite direction. You've arrived: A basement, no windows, little light, less cheer, tons of weight and gobs of atmosphere. Ready? About-face, walk ten feet, turn ninety degrees left and walk fifteen paces to the locker room, a.k.a. the Trap.

Deteriorating twelve by twelve reddish-brown floor tiles shift and scrunch occasionally beneath your feet.

It was two weeks before I dared enter that dank inner sanctum. It required hardening of the heart, a gathering of courage, much risk and a little madness to step fully into the grimy trap. It took another week to chance the shower, and this only after observing my new friend, Mike Bondura (ex-Navy), penetrate the murky cubicle morning after morning and emerge alive, well and clean.

Forty-watt light bulbs have their advantages: failing to cast generous light and reveal the details of one's surroundings.

The place was large and a proper choice of locations after the city councilmen and women required the original beach version of Muscle Beach to relocate the broad-shouldered nuisance "somewhere else, not upon our white sands for all to see." It was also dim and grim.

White gone gray covered the crumbling plaster walls, and half a dozen strategically placed pillars the size of Roman columns held up the place. Other than three or four scattered sixty-watt incandescents, the only light that illuminated the Dungeon, was a four-by-twenty-foot stretch of block-glass skylight inserted in the Broadway Avenue sidewalk above the far wall. That light was silver-white and harsh and abundant, but only when the California sun was high in the sky.

Beneath the skylight were two twelve-by-twelve lifting platforms, grains of Muscle Beach sand still scrunched between layers of hard rubber. Drop a marble and it would roll to the center, where heavy iron was regularly and mercilessly dumped for decades. The designated lifting areas no longer gathered crowds of admiring onlookers. Rather, you could sit upon a reclaimed section of discarded, over-stuffed movie-theater seats arranged at the subterranean platform's edge and doze off.

No one would notice, no one would care.

Pausing at the keyboard (computer, not piano) during my recollections, I plotted the length of the Dungeon, counting thirty easy paces, or seventy-five feet, in my mind's eye. Who's gonna argue a foot or two or ten? And the width amounted to twenty-five paces, maybe sixty feet. The ample height of fifteen feet floor to ceiling forgave the Dungeon its dungeon-ness, accenting the sense of space—room to reach, to stretch, to expand, to groan and grow.

The temperature was always sixty-eight degrees, no matter what time of day or year. And the smell was as consistent: foul with moldy mustiness and the tang of sweat, but well mixed with oxygen and clean ocean air. Sensory adjustments were painless and quick; you could see, breathe and feel, and in silence most anytime.

Joy is found in strange places.

Opposite the front door and clinging to the wall at a forty-five-degree angle was a second staircase that opened to the rear parking lot. A narrow, thin-stepped contraption, it sagged in the middle and threatened to collapse should it be disturbed. Those who chose this dilapidated structure to enter (or escape) used it only once, knowing they had pushed their luck. Beneath the ill-stacked stairway was a small mystery room behind a crooked, time-stained yellow door.

Alone one morning, which was often the case, I managed to stir up some endorphins with a volley of press-behind-necks supersetted with side-arm laterals. I pulled a slug of water from the corroded water fountain near the entry to this ominous mystery room. Feeling pumped and dangerous, I yanked the door open to expose broken wood furnishings, cracked ceramic toilet fixtures, lightless lampshades and framed pictures of someone's long-silent family—all covered in deathlike dust, damp, moldy and thick as cotton. Spiders and rats (and spirits, I'm sure) retreated in startled wisps. Imprisoned for decades, the dust and stink and blackness fought to escape its confines. I shut the door with lightning swiftness, not my place to release voiceless yet hysterical captives from the past.

Most of the gym's equipment was handmade and clustered in one quarter of the cavernous basement. Overhead stood five stories of old hotel and rented rooms and aging occupants in total ignorance of the activities below. We could lift and win and lose and die and no one would care, especially those tipping shots of cheap booze in the saloon above the squat rack. Diluted whiskey and warm beer dripped from the soggy overhead plaster to form a puddle beneath the nasty oversized rack.

One slip too many and you're an alcoholic.

I loved the dumbbells (tens to 150s) that sat on splintery two by tens supported by milk crates—this was back when milk crates were milk crates. They comprised plates from every manufacturer collected by every musclehead in Southern California, and they were welded together in handy heaps resembling...well...dumbbells. They rattled and pinched and made a monkey of you one day and a strongman in time, if you persisted.

The benches were bulky and perilous and less attractive, and were pieced together by the same guys who welded the dumbbells...and repaired the leaky pipes, hung the front door and decorated the mystery room.

There must have been a sale on sky-blue paint at the local hardware sometime around moving day. The only color in the gym was the blue of the benches and the red splotch of their oilcloth coverings. Two movable flat benches, two bench presses, one incline bench, one steep-incline bench, one preacher curl and one beer-soaked squat rack—what more could an authentic musclehead ask for, besides a pump and burn and a weekly unemployment check?

Other bare necessities included a chinning bar and a set of dipping bars made of galvanized pipe and covered with layers of chalk, an overhead pulley setup for free-swinging plate-loaded cable pulldowns, and a long cable and pulley for seated lat rows -- these, the most primitive and effective back-builders in the world.

Oh, and one mobile hunk of mirror broken from a larger hunk served anyone who needed to see himself.

There was the homey touch: a couch in a serene area where no equipment but a crudely crafted Roman chair and a scored tumbling mat bursting at the seams were tastefully arranged—ambiance and modern art. The couch was of the stained and contagious variety you'd hastily circumvent in any frightening alley. At the inside edge of the left front leg my training partner and I hid our chalk. Only we knew it was there.

That's about it. The rest of the place was strewn with Olympic bars of varying degrees of curvature and malfunction and plates that never bent or broke.

Impression, imperfection and improvising were the Dungeon's foremost muscle building features.

Not to mention Zabo, Dick Dubois, Armand Tanny, Gene Shuey, Sam Martin, Peanuts West, Hugo Labra, Joe Gold, Artie Zeller, Chuck Collras, Chet Yorton, George Eifferman, Reg Lewis, Dick Sweet, Zeus and Thor...

Time to head for the modern gym to inflate and ignite, pump and burn, soar and fly.



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