CHARLES ATLAS EST MORT.
I steal that line, in spirit, from Albert Camus the existential writer who might understand why it is that my son thought Charles Atlas was alive while I thought he was not only dead, but passe. I was only half right. He is merely dead.
But passe he is not.I find his brochure in my house, sent there at the request of my son who has written away for muscles. He is into the stage of life called the sending-away stage. When I was at the same stage, I sent away for all kinds of stuff, including, of course, stamps which came on approval -- a term I still do not understand. (It is the boyhood version of selling short.) And when I got older I sent away to the Book of the Month Club which is the ultimate in send-away, sort of a life sentence. Once in, you need a death certificate to get out.
My son wants muscles with which to bully the bullies and Charles Atlas promises him some. Mr. Atlas, who died in 1972, nevertheless continues to sign his brochure and his letters and show pictures of himself, including the famous one in the white bathing suit. Before he died, Chuck was quite a specimen, but missing from the brochure and all the letters and other material that came to the house was the old ad about the bully that kicked sand in the face of the 97-pound weakling. It is called "The Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac." It was written by Charles Roman, now president of Charles Atlas Ltd. and it is still used.
This was the quintessential Atlas pitch. The bully kicks sand and the weakling's girl mocks his refusal to fight by calling him a "little boy." The 97-pounder enrolls in the Atlas course and comes back to punch-out the bully and impress what looks like the same girl: "Oh, Mac! You are a real man after all." It was wonderful and it gave America a folktale about bullies and muscles and, especially, how women would desert you for being weak and be attracted to you if you had muscles.
But no more. Today, if you had the desire for revenge, you would not see Charles Atlas, you would see a shrink. You would be asked about your hostility and whether you were nursed as an infant and whether -- ponder this -- a woman who would desert you because you refused to fight is a woman worth caring about. There would be a great deal of talk about how you and the woman should talk over your problems and how her leaving you on the beach is just a symptom of some great dissatisfaction in the relationship -- possibly something to do with sex. As Freud said, who knows?
And what is this thing with muscles? What is this preoccupation with strength and the look of strength, in being tough and fighting or -- much more important -- being able to fight when the time comes. Are we all not past this? Hasn't the world moved on and haven't we been told by the Great Thinkers that it is precisely this sort of thinking that ruins everything, that got us into Vietnam and produces a rape at the rate of one every 2.3 minutes.
It is for this reason that my friends cannot believe that kids still send away for muscles. They are shocked. They are surprised. They think it is quaint because they have moved on, often at great expense ($50 an hour) from a concern over muscles or bosoms (you used to be able to send away for those, too) to other things. And they think, in the manner of people who will tell you that once everyone was into the movement and now everyone is into real estate, that the world is precisely their age and that the lessons they have learned have been learned universally -- by everyone and for all time.
But this is not the case. Little boys still want muscles and probably little girls still want big bosoms and we will go through the whole thing over and over and over again -- learning it all the hard way, learning, really, that you can't send away for the answers to your problems. We all have our own answers.
But this is something that adults know, but little boys do not. So they see a man in the back of a comic book and they write away to him and he promises them something that only they themselves can deliver. It is the one of the first lessons in life. It used to cost a nickel for postage and now it costs 18 cents, but at any price it's a bargain.
Charles Atlas est mort.
Long live Charles Atlas.