*This time, you say, you really mean it.
It’s the new year, and among the promises you’ve made to yourself–again–is that you’re going to get in better physical shape.
I know. I’m with you. Accordingly, on January 1st, my daily walk became a bit brisker. I haven’t touched the free weights yet, but I’ve looked in their direction. That’s a start.
However, the most profound move I’ve made toward getting back into shape is dusting off my Bullworker.
To the uninitiated, Bullworker might sound either like an assertive migrant cattle hand or a take-no-prisoners sex toy. In fact, it’s one of the greatest exercise devices, ever.
Invented in Germany by Gert F. Kolbel as a space-age alternative to conventional calisthenics and free weight programs, the Bullworker made its international debut in the 1960s during the golden era of personal fitness pioneered by names like Charles Atlas, Joe Weider and Jack LaLane.
The Bullworker is about isometrics. Imagine a steel bar–hollow, in order to accommodate another hollow steel bar inside it–about the length (and width) of an average man’s outstretched arm.
Inside the bar is a powerful spring, which, when compressed using hand grips at each end, or by pulling rubber-coated metal straps on each side of the bar, creates the tension that challenges your muscles. I’m at a loss to physically describe the thing, I just know it works.
I ordered mine in 1975 after finally succumbing to an ad in the original, pocket-sized TV Guide magazine that I’d grown up seeing. This was before the national proliferation of fitness centers. I was 20 years old, fresh from Oklahoma City, shacking up in West Hollywood with my very first girlfriend and seeking a “modern” way to work out without showing my scrawny body at the local Y.
True to its claims, within a couple weeks of following the Bullworker’s exercise program, my spindly 140 pound frame looked as if I’d been working out in a gym for a month.
I remember back then going to a hospital emergency room with the flu or something, and having a flirtatious nurse’s aid casually comment that no one with biceps like mine could possibly have much wrong with them. I can hear friends who knew me back then, reading this and asking, “When was this, Ivory?” Hey, it happened. I’ll bet a female nurse’s aid would have reacted the same way.
Admittedly, since then, I’ve exercised using the Bullworker in the same way most people exercise–with intermittent dedication. For almost 40 years my Bullworker has served me through good times and bad. It has survived girlfriends and me moving all over Los Angeles. It accompanied me across the International Dateline twice.
That many folks have never heard of the Bullworker hasn’t diminished a kind of Bullworker Brotherhood. Strangers will stand on the street raving to one another of its folkloric powers.
Marlene wasn’t among them. She didn’t believe in the Bullworker, mostly because she, an otherwise sweet and kind young woman, didn’t care much for me. And that’s because Nate, her live-in boyfriend, was my Boy, and as Marlene used to tell Nate, the time he spent with me, which wasn’t all that much, really, was time she could have been spending with Nate.
I met Nate, from Amarillo, Texas, at Los Angeles City College. Our commonality was radio broadcasting classes, a countrified mellow, 28-inch waistlines and a fanatical love of R&B and funk.
Nate would invite me over to listen to records. Marlene, largely as a courtesy, would sit with us a little while before retreating into their bedroom, periodically sticking her head out to request we keep it down. “How many ways can y’all talk about a guitar solo?” she’d ask. Or similar questions. Which was usually Marlene’s way of saying to me, “When are you taking your narrow ass home?”
When I turned Nate on to the Bullworker, Marlene acted as if I’d set him up with a mistress. “Why did you bring that over here?” she asked, while Nate was in the bathroom. “He’s never gonna use it.”
But he did, and ordered one of his own. Unlike me, whose work outs waned once the novelty wore off, Nate followed the accompanying exercise chart religiously, supplementing his efforts by stepping up his caloric intake.
He especially appreciated the idea that if he wanted, he could take the Bullworker along when his new job as a Stride Rite sales rep called for him to travel. Slowly, I witnessed skinny Nate getting bigger. Stronger. Marlene didn’t care. She mocked the Bullworker as a cheap gimmick.
All that changed in the wee hours of a particularly warm L.A. summer night. Windows usually locked were left cracked open, allowing a burglar to make his way into Nate and Marlene’s ground floor apartment.
The way Nate told it, at about three AM, the entire building was shaken out of its humid slumber by the bloodcurdling cries of a man screaming that he was being killed.
The building’s manager, first one out of his apartment, followed the sounds and found the sordid scene: in the hallway, just outside the open front door of Nate and Marlene’s apartment, a large man garbed in black sweats and black gloves, lay bloodied about the head, writhing in equal parts physical pain and sheer embarrassment.
And standing over him, threatening to give ’em some more, wasn’t Nate–he was out of town hustling toddler’s high-tops–but a seething Marlene, wearing Nate’s Dallas Cowboys jersey as a night shirt, and clutching as if it were Bizarro World’s version of a Louisville Slugger, Nate’s trusty Bullworker.
Upon hearing the intruder in the living room, Marlene got out of bed and, under the cloak of darkness, armed herself with whatever was handy. Just as the would-be thief was about to exit through her front door, in a fit of fear and anger, Marlene attacked. Once she started, she couldn’t stop.
The building manager, who kept his Saturday Night Special trained on the crook, told Nate he never knew a criminal could be HAPPY to see LAPD.
In the days that followed, Marlene could still be frosty with me. However, I never heard her utter another belittling word regarding the Bullworker.
I don’t know what became of Nate and Marlene. After leaving school, we drifted apart. And yet decades later, as I vow to keep yet another New Year’s promise to take care of myself, I reach for my rickety old Bullworker, looking to conjure Nate’s diligence…and the mighty Marlene’s unbridled verve. Apparently, the girl had a hell of a swing.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].