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Thursday, July 16, 2009

The strongest guy I ever met

This is another in the series of essays from five years ago. Looking at it now, Brian sounds a little too good to be true. But every one who knew him said the essay captured him perfectly, so, believable or not, here he is. (His name has been changed as well.)

All men fantasize about what it would be like to be stronger than they are. As a sportswriter once said about Ken Norton, "I'd like to borrow his body for a week, 'cause there are five guys I'd like to beat the stuffing out of and about ten women I'm dying to make love to." To that end we exercise, lift, and so on. But we all run up against our genetic limitations, usually sooner than we expect. Biology is destiny, and the only sure way to be extremely strong is to inherit the right genes.

The strongest guy I've ever met is Brian Smith. He stands 6' 6" and weighs 245 pounds. He is thick (but not fat) through the torso, through the legs, and through the forearms. His hands are big and meaty, the surest giveaway of natural power. To shake his hand is to feel like a ten year old. His voice is extraordinarily deep; when he answers the phone for someone else, whoever called will often ask, "Who was that, God?" To stand next to him is to feel that one has barely reached puberty.

Milo of Croton, the legendary Greek Olympic champion of old, supposedly grew strong by lifting a calf every day of his life, even as it grew into a bull. Whenever I read about him, I imagine him looking something like Brian.

Yet Brian’s appearance remains this side of freakish because he is well proportioned. If you saw him from a distance, with no reference points nearby, you wouldn't guess he was so big. There is no suggestion of acromegaly in his features, in fact most women say he is very handsome. He looks a little like Clark Kent, only bigger. But what really distinguishes him is not his size but his strength. I've met others of his approximate dimensions, but none were nearly as strong.

Brian never lifted weights as he was growing, when it would have made the most difference. Yet his arms are as big as most men’s legs, and he is lean. After college he lifted, not with any great passion or sense of purpose, only with the vague idea that he ought to stay in shape. To cite the amounts he lifts would be misleading: for example, the most he's ever benched is 325 pounds. There are plenty of men who can do more, but they are not nearly as strong as Brian. Ignore for the moment the effect that being 6' 6" has on your lifting ability (it is harder to lift a lot of weight when your arms are longer since more leverage is required, which is why so many Olympic champions in the lower weight categories look vaguely dwarfish.) Most men attain their maximum bench press by hoisting the bar up from its supports, then suddenly letting it drop, then suddenly bouncing it off their chests in one explosive movement, at the same time straining with their legs until their buttocks are about six inches off the bench. Brian, who seems indifferent to the numbers he racks up, takes the bar off its supports, studies it for a moment, slowly and deliberately lowers it to his chest, then just as slowly and deliberately presses it back up, without using his legs at all. If he wanted to, he could work his way up to an impressive number on the bench; but the fellows who can bench 400 couldn't possibly work their way up to his kind of strength.

One summer, Brian was at a party where a large lobster pot filled with water had to be moved from one side of a yard to the other. Water is very heavy, so four men each took one handle and slowly lugged it across the lawn. After a while it needed to be taken back (it was still filled with water); Brian did so single-handedly, with no discernable effort. That is usable strength, the type which is almost impossible to acquire in the gym. If he were 5' 9" with the same proportions, he would still be freakishly strong.

Once when Brian was in college, a couple of buddies -- one of whom weighed 190 and the other of whom weighed 205 -- started teasing him and wouldn’t let up. Brian, fed up, picked up one under each arm, carried them across the room, and deposited each in a separate trash can. This is something else very few gym rats could do, no matter how impressive their bench press.

Brian's sport was basketball. He was the all-Ivy center at Dartmouth for three years, but wasn't quite fast or tall enough to make it in the NBA. His primary asset -- strength -- was somewhat wasted in basketball. He could have been a world class wrestler, football player, rower, shot putter, or discus thrower. But, like most of us, he got fixated as a youngster on the sport he ended up doing, and continued as long as he was achieving some success in that. One can only imagine the frustration of his high school's football coach who would regularly see this powerful giant with no desire to play football. (There's something to be said for the old East German system of testing a youngster at age ten, then steering him towards whichever sport he's best suited for.)

For years after college Brian continued to play basketball, often at the famous playground at West Fourth Street in New York. This court attracted a tough crowd, but they accepted Brian. I once asked him how many black guys had said to him something to the effect of, "Most white guys are sort of weak, but you, you make us look weak!" Brian just laughed in a way that indicated that this had happened often. Most of the guys in Brian's wedding party were basketball players, many as tall, or even taller, than Brian. But none gave the impression of oak tree-like solidity that he did. Perhaps for this reason, I've never heard once anyone describe the 6' 6" Brian as "tall." He is invariably described as "huge," or "massive," or somesuch.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has been pretty much synonymous with most people’s idea of a strong man for the past two decades. He stands 6’ 2” and weighs 220. He has, or at least had, beautiful muscles, yet you can tell that they’re not particularly useful. When you watch him run or fight in his action movies, there is a certain robotic, jerky quality about his movement. When Brian moves on a basketball court, he does so fluidly. This is the difference between an athlete and a bodybuilder. A bodybuilder can appear intimidating, and can look good in the movies while shooting a submachine gun with his shirt hanging in artful tatters around him, but he moves as if he is just wearing his muscles, rather than really using them. (When it comes to any sort of real athletic endeavor, the posers tend to be exposed as poseurs.) An athlete is one with his muscles; you can usually tell just from watching someone walk whether he is a real athlete.

At age 40, on a whim, Brian finally took up a sport which took advantage of his strength: ergometer rowing. After a total of three months of training, he went to the Crash B's (the world championships of the sport), and rowed the 2000 meter "course" in 6:14.4, to get third place out of one hundred and ten competitors in the 40-49 heavyweight division, five seconds behind the first place winner. He was competing against lifelong rowers, men who had rowed on their college eight and had kept up with the sport ever since, many of whom were as tall as Brian. In March of 2004, after a total of a year and three months of training, he went a 6:03.9, losing by a mere tenth of a second to a Pole who had been a member of his Olympic team. (The world record for men 40-49 is a 5:57.4.)

One of the great things about being around a cool person is that they can often make you feel cool yourself. Extremely strong people have the opposite effect. I'm 5'11" and 165, a depressingly average specimen. I've run at Brian and rammed into him while he's just standing there; if he braces himself, I can't budge him. He can put his hand around my shoulder (the entire shoulder, not just the trapezius), squeeze, and reduce me to writhing helplessness.

Unfortunately, this is not an inspirational tale, in the sense that it should inspire us to go out and accomplish mighty feats of strength ourselves. The message here is, just give up. Brian's strength is not something we mortals can aspire to. Cliches like, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog" sound particularly empty in his presence. (No matter how ferocious a dog, it's not going to best a grizzly bear.)

I once told Brian's wife, Joy-Denise, that we were all going to have dinner that night with a world champion freestyle wrestler who had also been an Olympic medalist at 220 pounds in 1988. Joy-Denise responded, "Oh? Could he take Brian?" in a tone of voice that plainly indicated this fellow couldn't possibly be any match for her husband. In fact, Brian could no more have outwrestled this fellow than he could have outplayed Michael Jordan. But Joy-Denise can be forgiven her error, because Brian is naturally far stronger than either of them. (The world champion wrestler, by the way, later said that Brian would have made a great wrestler.) Coincidence has brought me, at various times in my life, to within six or seven feet of three heavyweight boxing champions: Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, and Riddick Bowe. None imparted the impression of massive strength that Brian does.

In a sense, anyone who has lived inside a body like Brian's must develop a complex somewhat similar to the one that extremely beautiful girls get. Such girls fret that men are usually interested in them only for their looks, and don't really care that much about who they really are. They develop these complexes for good reason -- because men do in fact regard them that way. Their personalities are essentially ignored, and, naturally enough, they find this insulting. When people first meet Brian, they invariably relate to him as a physical specimen first; his personality comes in only a distant second. So he faces the same dilemma that a beautiful woman does. (If you're wondering how much sympathy either of them deserve, ask yourself the following: how often do women get plastic surgery to make themselves uglier, and how often do men take estrogen in an effort to become weaker?)

Brian happens to be very smart, with perhaps the best memory I've ever come across, but very few people recognize this while their minds are in "Wow is he big" mode. (Question: if Einstein had been 6' 6" and 245 pounds, would he have come up with the Theory of Relativity or might he have been too distracted by more mundane physical matters?)

I met Brian when we both worked on the same trading desk on Wall Street, where he was forced to suffer the expected indignities. Some of the traders' favorite nicknames for him were "Lurch" (as in the Adams Family butler) and "Chewy" (as in Chewbacca, the character in Star Wars who resembled a sasquatch). My personal favorite was to comment to people who were meeting him for the first time, "This is some physical specimen, eh?" When they would nod appreciatively, I'd add, "All he's missing are those two steel bolts coming out of the sides of his neck." Another line that would usually get a laugh was that Brian used to work at Chippendales, and that his theme song was "Monster Mash." Sometimes I would pretend to be angry with him, walk up to him and bump chests, as if to intimidate him, then snarl, "Get out of my face!" This would inevitably look ridiculous to onlookers.

Very tall guys often react peevishly when anyone comments on their height. But Brian reacts to all these jokes with a tolerant smile, no matter how many times he's heard them. And because he is a nice guy, his size and strength seem to dominate him, rather than the other way around; he seems almost embarrassed by them. A different sort of person could have easily developed into a showoff. But it doesn't seem to even occur to Brian to exploit his strength, or play games with it. He could jokingly pretend to be angry at other guys and act as if he is getting ready to fight them. He could probably lift up the end of a small car, saying, "Gee, I wonder what's underneath here." But he does none of these things, even when asked. Once at a divisional meeting, the boss asked Brian to stand next to another tall fellow, just to see who was taller. Brian wouldn't get up. (It takes a certain restraint to act like a beta male when occupying the body of an alpha squared.)

The reason for his restraint is good character. Brian has all the standard signs: he is unfailingly courteous and modest. He regularly visits his parents. He keeps in touch with old friends. He has never been involved in a lawsuit, either as plaintiff or defendant. He doesn't smoke or take drugs. He drinks only beer (never more than three), and his behavior never changes because of the liquor (i.e., no other "real" personality emerges under the influence). And he is part of that slim minority of men who would never dream of cheating on their wives. (The resemblance to Clark Kent is more than superficial.)

I've never even seen Brian lose his temper; the closest he's come is once when his boss played a joke on him and told him he failed his official brokerage exam; Brian got up and walked out, but even then, he was mad only at himself. He looks like a professional wrestler but acts like the boy next door. If all this sounds too good to be true, all I can say after knowing him for over twenty years is, I have yet to see the mask slip.

Good character is imparted mostly from one's parents; but being that big and strong allows a man, at a certain level, to be calmer and more magnanimous. The average guy spends his life proving his machismo over and over again. But if you look like 245 pounds of testosterone on the hoof, you simply have less to prove. This allows you to step aside and let another guy be the star, or do the boasting. I've heard Brian lavish praise on other guys for athletic achievements which would be child's play for him. I've heard him compliment guys for being slapped together when in fact they look like positively spindly next to him. (This may be boring to read about, but it is pleasant to be around.)

Guys like being friends with Brian for those reasons, but many also seem to simply get a kick out of being around someone so strong. There are probably good evolutionary reasons for this. In the caveman days, it was useful to have a friend nearby who could help you kill a mastodon, or slay your enemies. In other words, a friend like this could help your own genetic viability. Evolution has selected those who were friends with such a person more recently as well. During the Middle Ages and before (as depicted in "Troy"), instead of having thousands of mortalities on each side, the outcome of the battle would sometimes depend on who would win a fight to the death between each army’s champion. Whichever army's warrior won would be deemed to have won the battle, and the other side would dutifully retreat. Soldiers inevitably took great pride in the indomitability of their champions, and would exult in their strength and valor. Maybe that's why many males seem to glory in another man's extreme strength.

On Wall Street, the phrase "the kind of guy you'd want on your side in a bar fight" is overused (and the people who use it are never in bar fights). I've heard it misapplied to Brian (who would never get in a fight) in an echo of our ancient past.

Brian and I shared a couple of bullying bosses in common, guys who would pick on anyone who was below them in the corporate hierarchy. (It was all done under the guise of improving departmental performance, but their bullying natures were unmistakable.) Yet neither guy – each physically imposing -- ever picked on Brian. They knew he would never beat them up since that would have cost him his job. Nonetheless, their behavior was instinctively rooted in the certainty that had he wanted to, he could easily have done so.

My son Johnny had a different reaction to Brian when he first saw him. I opened the door to our apartment, and there stood Brian. Johnny, one year old at the time, took one look at Brian and simply fell back on his diapers. (His balance was perfectly good; he didn't fall by accident.) This was a natural, evolutionarily programmed response on Johnny's part. When he heard the deep, rumbling voice and saw Brian filling up the doorway, he immediately sensed that he was in the presence of a large, dangerous predator. This made Johnny prey, and, like all prey, he wanted to be inconspicuous, so he made himself smaller by sitting down.

I once went for a run at UCLA's Drake Stadium and had a similar experience. The track was deserted that day, but when I came around a bend near the edge of the stands I was suddenly confronted with a giant, and I felt an instant jolt of fear. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be Wilt Chamberlin, and the fear dissipated. But that jolt of adrenalin was undoubtedly a result of millions of years of evolution conditioning us to avoid larger predators.

Women react differently to Brian as well. Most women will simply say that he's handsome, and seems really nice. Almost all seem attracted to him, though few mention his size and strength as a contributing factor. But one can't help but suspect that they're also reacting to his obviously superior genetic material, and the chance to impart that strength to their own offspring.

Life is, at a certain level, all about making ourselves attractive to the opposite sex. We want to look young, because people sense that younger people have more fertile years ahead of them. We want to be rich, because people know that if you have more resources you can support more offspring. And we want to be strong, because it shows that we are capable of providing for and protecting our families.

I originally set Brian up with his wife on a blind date. Several women acquaintances have since expressed chagrin that they were not the ones to be set up. A friend once told me that if he ever commented on or even noticed another woman in his wife's presence, she would invariably respond, "So, how's Brian these days?" Women sometimes stare at Brian as if slightly hypnotized. These women are simply expressing a natural desire to hit the DNA jackpot.

Once Brian and I went to a track on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to work out. It was a hot day, and we ran with our shirts off; we would sprint halfway around the 400 meter track and walk the other half. There were a group of Puerto Rican women there, and at one point they all started gesticulating and giggling and calling out to Brian in Spanish. I couldn't understand their words, but the gist of what they were saying needed no translation. It was the closest I've ever seen to a reversal of the classic situation where a group of construction workers harass a pretty girl walking down the street. I later asked Brian, "Did you see that?!" He said he hadn't (which would actually have been impossible).

Yet for all the ostensible evolutionary advantages to being huge, giants in mythology are never treated well. They are portrayed as ogres in fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk. Or as Cyclops. Or as Goliath. (As Wilt Chamberlin once said, "Nobody roots for Goliath.") And what personal qualities do we associate with these creatures? Mostly, meanness and slow-wittedness.

Giants in the movies also fare poorly: acromegalics are often recruited to play the bad guys. Witness the fellow Paul Newman (as Butch Cassidy) beat in that knife fight. Or "Jaws" from a couple of the Roger Moore Bond films. Or various fighters Jean Claude Van Damme has had to vanquish in martial arts tournaments. (As yet there is no official support group to combat this particular prejudice.)

Curiously, Brian himself is absolutely fascinated by guys bigger than he is. I've heard him marvel at the dimensions of Shaq and Andre the Giant. He has all the facts about Robert Wadlow (the world's tallest man, now deceased) at his fingertips. He undoubtedly feels a certain kinship, maybe even sympathy, for them. Perhaps he likes to think about them because they make him feel small, a feeling he gets only rarely.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote a short story (in “Welcome to the Monkey House”) about a young half-black boy who grows up in an orphanage in Germany, and who -- towards the end of World War Two -- sees a black man for the first time. He hugs the US soldier and is heartbroken when he has to let go (as is the soldier). I told Brian that his trip to the world ergometer championships reminded me a little of that story, in that he had spent his entire life alone, a giant in a world of Lilliputians, and that when he saw the other giants at the Crash B's, it must have been reassuring for him to find that he was not the only member of his species.

It’s nice to have that one little bit of pity to mix in with the ninety-nine parts of envy.

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