On the way home tonight, I walked past the restaurant that's about half a block from our building. Construction scaffolding stands in front of all the buildings along the row. Tonight, for about the third or fourth time in the last two months, I walked past a guy performing gymnastics on one of the scaffolding bars. It's been a few different men. Tonight's participant was about 35. Muscular. Goatee. Black sweatpants.
Like the others, he did his best Mary Lou Retton routine, swinging along a higher bar before gracefully dropping to a lower one. The judges all gave him 9.0, except for the Russian who handed out a 7.2, much to Al Trautwig's dismay. The guy tonight took a break from the low-wire theatrics to work on his pull-ups. He eased up and down, all the while making eye contact with pedestrians, especially a couple of females. Forget picking up women at a bar, online or in a church. Why woo with words when you can awe them with feats of strength on construction equipment? The gymnastics are impressive, though at this stage in his life where's he going with the skills? While male Olympic gymnasts are older than their 15-year-old female counterparts, he's way past his prime. Perhaps he could be used in a large-scale robbery, at a Vegas casino or a Boston bank, someplace with a laser-secured vault that requires a trustworthy man who's good with a gun and knows how to keep his mouth shut while sneaking into small spaces.
While I'm not entirely sure what this man gets out of his current exploits, I have no doubt that he won a Presidential Physical Fitness Award when he was 11 years old. Every school kid remembers taking the fitness test, striving for that mystical 85th percentile. The 85th percentile. A magical phrase. Percentiles held such power as a kid, whether it was in the Iowa Basics or the presidential fitness test. I envied the kids who achieved this award. A Medal of Honor wouldn't have impressed me as much at that age.
Sit-ups, pull-ups, distance run, sit-and-reach and the maddening shuttle run. Those were the events. Until about fifth grade, I dominated in nearly all of the events. Through fourth grade I was one of the fastest kids in our class, chasing down the slow-moving targets during tag. I managed a respectable number of chin-ups and always cruised through the sit-ups. Then something happened. I lost speed. I lost strength. My flexibility stopped improving and never got any better after that. I no longer had a shot at earning the president's praise for my physical fitness.
The shuttle run seemed like the most unfair event. Our little gym's floor tormented runners, as if an ice rink resided beneath the shoddy wood surface. It was impossible to stop to pick up the little bricks before turning around and speeding toward the other one. That's one excuse I used, anyway.
But chin-ups remained the most humiliating event, from the time I was 12 until the day I turned 18. In a shuttle run, no one can really see just how slow you are. You're talking tenths of a second. Sit-and-reach? Who cares? Everyone - except future cross country stars - hates the mile run. But chin-ups, they're you're out in the open, exposed, dangling from the bar, kicking, grunting, groaning, straining, fighting, weeping, quitting. How long would you hang there before finally giving up? A minute? Two? Occasionally I got away with one pull-up, by doing the jump-up-and-count-that-as-one-and-hope-the-teacher-doesn't-notice trick. The snickers echoed through the gym as your body swayed and your arms shook from the strain. You weren't just disappointing yourself and your parents. You were letting down the president. You were letting down your country. I remember one year they changed it so your palms were no longer facing you, making it even tougher.
An 11-year-old boy is supposed to be able to do six chin-ups. What's the point? What's this measuring? What's the shuttle run measuring, other than shoe traction? Why didn't the president make free throw shooting part of the challenge, or track the speed of a 12-year-old's tennis serve?
I didn't get any stronger in high school, at least not in categories that could be measured with a chart. I had the upper-body strength of a patient who's spent two months in a hospital bed. Only the muscular and light thrived, along with anyone in the wrestling program. An average kid with an average physique didn't stand a chance.
In high school we had a kid who could do like a dozen chin-ups, but on each one he slithered up to the bar, his long red hair wiggling back and forth. It remains the most unique style I've ever seen, not that I've witnessed many chin-up competitions since high school graduation. It was a snake technique and for all I know the president eventually banned it. At first we all laughed, but he quickly earned our respect, especially those of us who remained in the hanging group. Who the hell were we to laugh at anyone?
The fitness challenge isn't just for children. Adults can torture themselves, too. There's apparently an adult fitness competition, but it looks like chin-ups are not part of it. Sit-ups remain, and you can do push-ups to measure strength. Too bad about the chin-ups. It'd be a great way to relive some childhood memories. Find a construction site, round up some local teens who can gawk and verbally mock you, and put on an ill-fitting shirt that rides up as you hang helplessly in the air while your pale stomach dangles over your shorts.
Go for that 85th percentile. Do it for your health. Damn it, do it for your country.