I must have been about four years old when I first remember laying eyes on Uncle Billy. He seemed like a mountain of a man at the time. His right arm seemed bigger than my head. When he flexed it I remember seeing his shirt tighten around his bicep muslce. I thought it was going to rip apart at any moment. In the 1960’s kids had heros, and mine was my Mothers younger brother, Uncle Billy.
I loved my Dad and we always had a good time together, but he was a worker. He would spend large amounts of time working with his hands. He was plenty handy and had more work than needed to keep him busy and earn a good living.
My Uncle Billy was beyond life like. He was a physical Superman who, in my eyes, could do anything. He was about 6’ and weighed probably just under 200lbs. He was in the Marines and that to me was proof enough that he was a tough guy. When he would come back to his home town for visits it was always an exciting time, at least for me. My father would usually let me know by folding up a letter written by Uncle Billy. “Your Uncle Billy is coming to town this Friday and will be staying with us for four days.”
That’s all my adolescent ears had to hear. I was almost ten years old and I hadn’t seen him in about six months, which was the longest time I had ever waited for his visit. I couldn’t wait to show him my “muscle.” I had been working on it arm wrestling with the other boys in my class. I had also been doing Push-ups. On a good day I could even snag one or two Pull-ups from the top of the swing set. In reality they were more like half reps. However, at the time I felt like I was doing pretty good for not doing my usual, flopping around and dropping like a dead fish.
Friday was fast approaching and I couldn’t wait! Plenty of thoughts ran through my (almost) ten year old mind. I wanted Uncle Billy to see me in a whole different light. After all, I was a big guy now. I would turn ten years old in about a month. Ten year olds earned far more respect than say…eight or nine year olds. I was taller and bigger than ever! Looking back I was so skinny that a strong wind would probably have knocked me over.
The day finally arrived. I heard the doorbell ring and ran to the door as fast as my spindly legs could carry me. I opened the door and there he was, Uncle Billy! My Mom always said that he and I looked a lot alike. Same nose, mouth, eyes. I loved to hear that too. As I looked up at him he looked as good as ever. Only this time he seemed to have a lot more impressive uniform on. I was later to learn that he had become a Captain. That was a pretty high rank according to my father. He looked like a General to me.
After he unpacked and had a drink with my Dad he turned all his attention to me. I asked him how many Push-ups that he could do now. He smiled, got down on the floor and told me to count. He was doing them so fast that I was worried I was not going to be able to keep up my counting. one…two…three…four…five…six…seven…nine… oops. Hey…he seemed to be going so fast it was almost impossible to count those things.
He chimed in and helped me count. He didn’t even slow down until he hit 60 or so. He finished with an even 80 Push-ups. I was in awe! I was good for 8 and this man had just done ten times that many. I was convinced he could have gone on to perform at least one-hudnred. Who knows, I thought, maybe two-hundred! I quickly brought him out to the swing set because I wanted to show him how I could actually do a Pull-up, (or two if I was lucky). This is something that I was not able to do the last time he visited.
I quickly leaped up to the trapeze bar then wiggled my skinny body over to the side of the trapeze bar where I had room to show off. I pulled up once, went down for two and got it. Then I remember hearing something that I will never forget. I could hear Uncle Billy in the background cheering me on: “you can do another come on, you got it in you, just pull it out.” I thought to myself “I got it in me, I just have to pull it out, okay here goes.” I went down for three and struggled every inch of the way, but nailed it! Three Pull-ups! In reality they were all half reps, but since I didn’t know the difference I was ecstatic. I fell from the swing set and started screaming: “That’s a new record, I broke my record…I did it, I did it.” I must have looked like the worlds skinniest dork, jumping around like a little goof.
Uncle Billy grabbed me threw me up in the air, put me on his shoulders and said: “You must be the worlds champ for your age.” “Worlds champ” I thought. “Hey…you know I bet I am.” For a few days I actually thought I was. I even practiced giving my autograph out. Unfortunately, after I gave one to my mother, my dog and the neighbors cat that was about it…
After Uncle Billy had set me down from my championship ride on his shoulders he grabbed hold of the top of the swing set. I remember his big hands wrapping around the steel pipe. “You count for me now” he said. Before I was even aware of it he had ten Pull-ups completed. These didn’t look at all like mine, I was to find out later. He went all the way down and all the way up. He then did another ten just as fast as the first ten. He then did something I will never forget, he grabbed his right wrist with his left hand and did another three!
Wow…“you were only holding the bar with one hand” I shouted. “Yep” he said. Okay…that was a mind blower to someone like me. “How the heck did he do that?” I thought.
My mouth was so dry from all the screaming and excitement that I suggested we go in for a Kool Aid (that was the drink of the day at my house in the 1960’s). “I have a better idea” said Uncle Billy. “Why don’t we go down to the corner and have a milkshake.” Before he had the work “shake” out of his mouth I was heading to the side walk.
When we got to “Littlefields” which was half drug store and half old fashioned ice cream parlor, Uncle Billy bought us each a huge Chocolate shake. He then walked over to the magazine rack, which was located near the back of the store and pulled out a magazine called “Strength & Health.” I had never seen such a magazine before. All my father subscribed to was Popular Mechanics. Who cared about some mechanics that were popular? My Mom’s favorite was better Homes & Gardens. I never looked at that either. I didn’t care about having a better home and garden?
When Uncle Billy cracked open the magazine an entire new world was revealed to me. The photos in those magazines were incredible! Some of these guys had even bigger arms than Uncle Billy, I thought. “See this man” Uncle Billy said. “He is Mr. America.” “How do you have an entire country named after you?” Up to that point in time I had never realized that there was such a title. I somehow knew that you had to be a pretty strong and impressive guy to be called Mr. America. He bought that magazine for me and introduced me to something called Barbells. I will never forget that day for a couple of reasons.
As we walked back home from Littlefields Uncle Billy told me that he was going to go away soon and he probably wouldn’t be home for a while. He was going to a place called “Viet Nam.” “How far away is Viet Nam?” I asked. “And what are you going to do there?” “There is a war going on over there and I have to go over and help our country win” he said.
In reality I had watched the evening news with my father and knew of Viet Nam. I sort of knew what was going on, but didn’t really want to face it. I felt a little panic well up inside. I didn’t want him to go, people get killed in wars, and that’s something that I didn’t want to even think about.
Uncle Billy saw that I became very quiet during the rest of the walk home. When we arrived home he lifted me up and placed me on the hood of my fathers Chevy. “hey pal, you don’t have to worry about me, I’ll be fine. Just make sure that you keep training and always remember what I told you on that last Pull-up that you squeezed out for me. You got it in you, you just have to pull it out!” I wanted to tell him I loved him, but I thought you just didn’t say stuff like that to a Marine. I looked down not wanting my hero to see me cry. A few tears escaped anyway rolling down my cheeks and dropping on the hood of the tan chevy. He picked me up and gave me a big hug.
Uncle Billy left early one morning after his brief visit. I remember him waving to me from the yellow taxi that took him to the train station. Each night I would watch the evening news to see if I could see my Uncle Billy in a battle scene somewhere in Viet Nam. Natually, I never did.
About Two months later I walked into my house and my Mom was seated at the kitchen table crying. I knew what happened…I just knew. Uncle Billy had been killed in Viet Nam. I cried for three days straight.
After about two weeks I started training again, with a vengence. And I havn’t stopped since. Even now sometimes when I’m tired and I don’t feel like doing that last rep, or set I can hear Uncle Billy: “Come on I know you got it in you, you just have to pull it out” and like magic I keep going.
Thanks Uncle Billy, I’ll always love you.