Today I lifted weights by myself in a strange gym, my first workout without the prodding and emotional support of my trainer and other gym members who know me.

Doesn't sound like much of an accomplishment, about like walking down the street? Though I survived with my dignity and other things reasonably intact, it was more like walking through a field of sand spurs with spring feet.

First I had to choose a gym. Though I'm in my hometown, I didn't have the slightest idea how to find a comfortable place. I left the first fancy fitness center when the "hostess" tried to sell me their own brand of cologne before selling me a day membership.

I couldn't get through the lobby of the second place. A large group of "Samba Saturday" class members were dancing through there on the way to a seminar entitled "Human Sexuality and Aerobics."

Next I drove to a couple of "serious gyms," so called because everyone in them looks so intense and chiseled. The gyms themselves look like something from an old Brando movie. A person could get beat up in a place like those. I drove on.

Discouraged, I stopped at the Ace Hardware close to my mother's home to collect another bedding tray of bright red salvia for her. Here, chance in the person of a very friendly guy named Jimmy Beasley solved my problem.

Jimmy is as serious about weight lifting as he is friendly. Since he had both the body and the personality I admired, I asked where he worked out. Cagle's.

That would be the gym for me.

"Friendly" may fit Jimmy perfectly, but when I pulled up in front of Cagle's, I wasn't sure the adjective fit his gym, a low gray building with one shuttered window squatted in a small gravel lot. The single door faced the world from behind mirrored glass.

A big, deep-red Harley Davidson motorcycle leaned rather arrogantly by the door, its fat wheels digging ruts in the gravel.

Two deserted shanty houses right out of The Grapes of Wrath sat across the narrow paved alley. A large, red and white sign on the more run-down of the derelict structures said "THIS PROPERTY NOT FOR SALE OR LEASE BY OWNER," a nearly laughable sign if you don't know the neighborhood. The gym and the houses are a minute's fast walk from the Cobb County Courthouse and are the last pieces of property not yet gobbled up by law firms whose partners like to walk to work.

I was in my mother's car, a silver Lincoln about the size of my insecurities at the moment. It didn't make the right statement, something which struck me as a truck holding two massive, barrel-shaped and non-smiling men parked on my left.

You don't just sit in a silver Lincoln in front of a serious gym as barrel-shaped and non-smiling people look at you, especially if your only companion is a tray of pretty flowers, unless you're doing something. I quickly shifted the tray of salvia, shuffled through my mother's mail and slipped a magazine from its cover as the two barrel types walked by my window. We saw the cover at the same time, Gourmet. I could have been playing with dolls.

I thought briefly of explaining: "Flowers? Hell, I stomp gardens, myself." Instead I just forced the car door open and headed to the gym. It was a very long walk.

I think fast when I'm nervous. As the gym door shut behind me, I planned the response that I thought would make me sound calm when greeted, stuck out my hand to the guy standing behind the counter and without waiting for the question blurted, "I'm fine."

Charlie Thompson, the owner of Cagle's, endeared himself to me by making my gaffe seem normal. "Glad to hear it; I am, too." As he spoke, the reception area came into focus.

An old, Spanish-style Naugahyde sofa with the corners gnawed off leaned against the right office wall. Two high-school boys sprawled on it, paying more attention to Charlie's two tow-headed sons running across the green outdoor carpet than to me.

An older man in a Gucci sweat shirt walked from the dressing area and playfully kicked one of the young boys' feet as he walked by.

Charlie's wife knelt on the floor by several battered, black filing cabinets and waved to another young man as she called to her sons. Trophies, some on their sides, some dusty, were everywhere, conveying a pleasant nonchalance about winning.

The place and the people who drifted in and out had the feeling of our old cabin at Lake Sinclair, where the furniture was theft-proof (who would want it?) but perfect and comfortable for our needs, and the company was non-stop and happy.

Charlie Thompson, 33, as wholesome looking as a glass of milk, has been in the gym business, what he always wanted to do, since he graduated from the University of Georgia nine years ago. He refers to Cagle's as a "heavy weight" gym rather than a health club or fitness center.

Charlie looks like a body builder, one of those guys who spend their time sculpting their bodies and are judged in competition on the symmetry of their flesh, on their beauty. In my gym in the Bahamas, virtually everyone is a body builder (me, too).

Charlie's background, though, is in power lifting. The sport is similar to the Olympic weight events you've watched on television in that power lifters are judged solely on their ability to move weight. (Those that move the most weight win.)

But power lifters compete in different events. In the squat, the contestant rests the weights behind his neck on the shoulders and tries to squat, and then stand up.

In the dead lift, the contestant squats, grabs the bar and tries to lift the most weight from the floor while keeping his arms straight.

In the bench press, the contestant reclines on a bench and attempts to press the greatest weight to his chest and then return it to the starting position.

Since power lifters win with strength, not shape, they aren't afraid of fat, and many of them own a good bit of it. Charlie Thompson even says fat adds leverage and cushioning.

I don't doubt him, either. Cagle's Gym took first place in eight out of 11 events at the 1986 Georgia Power Lifting Championships. A weightlifting sport that accepts the rotund. Maybe I missed my calling.

I felt comfortable after talking with Charlie, and entered the weight room rather eagerly, feeling nervous only when I caught the eyes of the two barrel types. They watched me as I walked to a bench, set a bar on the rack above it, and slid weights on each end.

I tried to do all of this very professionally. I lay on the bench. Normally at this point, my trainer would hand me the bar, but my trainer was in the Bahamas. I would have to lift the bar and all that weight from the rack by myself, something I had never done before. A very unnerving thought.

Could I lift the weight? I placed my hands carefully on the bar for maximum torque, closed my eyes, prayed the prayer of the insecure -- "Oh God, don't let me make a fool of myself" -- and heaved mightily.

Terror gives great strength. The bar nearly flew from my hands, and a weight from the left side sailed through the air, thumping at the feet of the burly types.

The older one, who had glared the most at my mother's Gourmet, walked over to me. "Hey, buddy, how 'bout someone to spot you?" he said with a grin on his face. "You look kinda eager."

I did not argue with his offer, or his observation. But I did explain about the plants and that magazine.

You can't have those power lifters thinking we body builders are too effete.

Muscles and Health,

Remar Sutton

NEXT: The Inner Unveiling