The other night, John Wooten stopped in at Numbers, the nightclub, to pick up a few girls. Seven, to be exact.
The load, including the plank they sat on, came to 1,058 pounds -- a new world record, according to Wooten, who is one of the few people keeping track of such records. This is because Wooten is the strongest man in the world.
Now, we are not talking about the iron-plate, ironclad world of weight lifting titles. Or body-building contests, or power-lifting competitions. No. We're talking independent contractors. This world's strongest man (and Wooten last year was sued by another claiming trademark infringement; the case was thrown out of court by a fellow The Boston Globe later called "the strongest judge in the world") is mostly a state of mind.
But this particular mind, to be sure, enables its barrel-chested, glad-handing, 37-year-old proprietor to -- among other feats over the past decade -- stop a turboprop airplane from taking off, pull a 60-ton train 10 1/2 feet, win a tug-of-war with an elephant, lay on a bed of nails with up to 2,300 pounds of concrete blocks piled on his chest, start his own vitamin company, even recover from the loss of a lung. And if things go right, Wooten says, he'll also carry a horse up a telephone pole (or the steps of the White House, depending on whether he hears from the president), a stunt he says he's practiced but not yet performed publicly.
"Tell your editor," he says.
"I'll do the stunt, if they give me the publicity."
"I'm sort of the Evel Knievel of the strength world," says Wooten, 6 feet and 280 pounds of boyish bravado, on the first stop of a tour of five U.S. cities, raising money through various stunts for a favorite charity, Children's Hospital in Boston, his home town. "Among weight lifters and body builders, I'm sort of a renegade, a maverick. I'm not considered a purist, because I don't pick up plates.
"But any red-blooded American kid is going to want to see you lift 1,000 pounds of human beings over a bunch of iron plates," he says.
"I am one of the very, very few old-fashioned 'strong men' left."
Wooten was always naturally strong, he says; it's the mind-control -- mastering what's known in some eastern disciplines as the "chi," the internal power, placing mind over muscle -- that gives him the extraordinary, momentary strength one generally needs to move trains, or to rise from a nail-and-concrete sandwich unbloodied (most times) and unbowed (always).
Wooten has been injured -- he's had several concussions, one from a concrete block that fell on his head, and a ruptured pectoral muscle that took him out of the feat biz for six months last year.
But then again, in 1975, Wooten lost most of his right lung after doctors found a tumor there -- and it was after this he began his strongest-man-in-the-world quest.
The scar from the lung operation runs across his back, from his shoulder to just under his arm. You notice it when he raises both arms in victory after being hoisted off the bed of nails, and you notice it when he shrugs.
He does both with equal enthusiasm.
"It's like an alcoholic struggling back, or someone trying to overcome a drug problem -- it's something you just have to really want to do," he says.
He was introduced to the trade by strong man Jack Walsh, a mentor he met in the mid-'70s and later competed against. "I feel I'm preserving a tradition," Wooten says, "keeping the art alive. Plus, of course, I do it for personal reasons -- for my own ego, for curiosity. Endorsements. TV appearances. I'm being honest with you."
Thus Wooten has appeared on "Real People" (for the plane-stopping feat, which lasted 27 seconds), and . . . well, let him tell you -- it's the routine he goes through whenever anybody asks for his credentials: "I've been on Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, 'Wide World of Sports,' Johnny Carson, 'Nightline,' 'PM Magazine,' 'World of People,' Regis Philbin, I've appeared in films -- 'Yes, Georgio' with Luciano Pavarotti, 'Hanky Panky' . . ."
Yes. Credentials of the '80s.
And thus Wooten crouched under an inch-thick plank suspended between oil drums Tuesday night on a dance floor in the nation's capital -- where he says he's thinking of relocating permanently, after the tour's over, if he doesn't decide on Los Angeles instead. And he grunted, grimaced and pushed off his arms, thighs and back to lift a half ton of women, including two trusted assistants dressed in spandex body suits and knee boots.
"We help him set up and stuff," says Lisa Inciardi of Laurel, in the bright red trusted-assistant suit.
"I think he's very good," says Sissi Lema, a Washingtonian by way of West Africa, who was among the liftees. Lema had been on Numbers' dance floor often before, she says. "But to dance."
"I thought at first it was scary," says 12-year-old Liz Lamond of Chevy Chase, whose mother, a friend of the club's owners, brought her daughter and 10-year-old son Walker to see the show in person after seeing it on the news; for the preliminary lifts, both children were up on the plank. "It turned out okay," Liz says.
"We don't usually spend school nights in a bar," says their mother, keeping her voice low.
During a break between the lift and his bed-of-nails stunt, Wooten talks -- with much movement of the hands -- about some other things he's considering putting his mind to. Such as:
*Football. "If I decide to live here, I really want to do it, try out for the Redskins. If Chicago can have the Refrigerator, Washington can have the guy who pulls the Refrigerator's plug . . ."
*Blisters. "I broke one on my foot this afternoon, and it's killing me," he says. (Earlier in the day, Wooten had pulled two trucks -- first a mere step-van, then an 18-wheeler -- up and down 19th Street, by way of a rope tied around his neck with a hangman's noose, mostly for the benefit of Channel 9). And he laughs. "Here I am laying on beds of nails, and a blister is driving me crazy."
*The tour. He's going to New Orleans next week, he says. Then Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles. He does much of his own publicity. The clubs where he performs usually pay his expenses in return for the attention; the money goes to the hospital fund. The coverage goes into the file -- a large chunk of which he's just sent to the "Guinness Book of World Records" people in London, who have thus far eluded him.
*The kids. Wooten, divorced, has two boys and a girl. They live in Boston. "Justin, the oldest, he's amazing. He's 7. He does chin-ups, leg springs . . . he's even pulled a Volkswagen Beetle around with a rope, out on the street. At 7 years old. He says to me, 'I want to be just like you, Dad.' " How does Dad feel about this? Wooten grins. "Well, I'm not sure," he says.
Eventually, Wooten lies down on a bed of genuinely sharp nails while two other trusted assistants pile several hundred pounds of concrete blocks on his chest.
A big guy with a sledgehammer smashes the blocks to pieces, one layer at a time -- all to the bone-crunching accompaniment of a Pointer Sisters tune called "Jump!" The crowd of about 50 -- not bad for a Tuesday night in the middle of White Flint season, but still sparse in a place that holds 600 -- loves it.
Hey, Wooten loves it.
"I'm a ham," he says. "Let's face it."