Self-Improvement

Baby oil covered the wooden floor, a flood of Johnson's seeping out from behind the mudgreen canvas curtain. This hall, on the seen better-days grounds of Exposition Park in Springfield, usually hosts the sort of "family fun" that draws disposable income to amusement parks--four-piece combos that play "K-K-K-Katy" and "I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover." The roller coaster next door has been closed down, and a few kiddy rides, a haunted house, and a miniature golf course are about all that's left. But this pavillion with the corner soaked in baby oil is a moccs of sorts. For years and years, boys and men have come here to match muscles. Today, it's Mr. Teenage Massachusetts.

At the edges of the crowd--for 500 have come to watch--bodybuilders no longer teenage stand, moving in and out of the 90-degree sun and the dark, cooler, canvas covered hall. They all weat T-shirts bearing the name of their gym; they all wear their hair medium-length and lacquered; they all wear disinterested expressions or slight scowls; and they don't talk much to each other, or the short, breasty women beside them.

In the middle of the hall, on row after row of slatted wooden folding chairs, sit parents and brothers and sisters and friends and girlfriends. The fathers don't know much about bodybuilding, and, most contestants say, they took some time to get over the notion that muscle men either like to look in mirrors or are homosexuals. They played basketball in school, and it seemed like a lot more fun than this, but then, the kid really has been working hard. The mothers, by now all masters of high protein cooking, worry; they don't quite believe their sons that it won't all turn to flab someday; and they don't much like the other boys from the gym. The high school buddies are a little jealous, maybe, all of them thinking for a minute that they might want to give this a try, planning out what nights of the week they could lift, how much it would cost. Who knows what the girlfriends are thinking.

And up on stage: 17-, 18-year-old kids, in skimpy swim suits, rippling their muscles. They've come from the little curtained-off area, where they prepare. The warm-ups are simple, designed to pump blood into muscles so they will bulge angrily--curis with dumbbells, push-ups, chins. For many, it's their first contest, and they're not sure quite what to do, but they know the baby oil is key. Their handlers rub a thin film all over, not too much or they'll look greasy, but enough so the light will catch all the little hollows and ridges. One at a time they come out from the improvised dressing room, and their friends holler.

They stand there, barefoot on the stage, until the director sends them through the compulsories--they have to show each part, and so there are 15 calves bulging out at the crowd, 15 buttocks, now 15 backs, and now 15 chests. And then there is free posing; the boys move through routines they have choreographed, practiced, jealously guarded. There's the double-lat spread, lats being back muscles--from a wide V from your waist to your shoulders. There's the double biceps, that classic pose that every six-year-old hits during the stage where he's doing push-ups and fooling with dumbbells. And there's the "Most Muscular pose. Clasp your hands a little below your naval, force your chest and neck out, strain until every vein looks like a pencil and your face looks like it's not going to last very...much...longer, and that's the most muscular.

Burlington is one of those towns where almost every building is one-story and surrounded by parking lots. It's a drive-in town; what was once America's largest shopping mall, up the street a very busy McDonald's and Burger King, down the road those big discount houses with name-brand stereos, $179.99 for two weeks only. It's near Rte. 128, and the very smallest computer firms start out here, in the brick office parks put up in the 50s. When they leave, different businesses move in to the treeless complexes. One parking lot has a dance studio, a musical instrument store, and a gym.

The gym seems to be crowded most of the day and well into the evening. It's got rubber mats on the floor, the kind they put out at skating rinks to keep blades from scratching the linoleum, but here they serve to keep barbells from crashing through the floor. Inside, everything is sweaty, and but for the air-conditioning it would be sweatier still. I knew Bob in grade school, said "hi" when we passed in the hall in high school. He was a funny, pleasant guy, not really smart, thin and wiry, not big enough for most sports, but tough. Mostly he liked to horse around. Not anymore. Now he lives in the gym, with twice-a-day workouts, long exhausting regimens of pulling and pushing and lifting. Every few minutes he stops to check one muscle or another in the mirrors that line the gym. It's not narcissistic, he insists, it's necessary part of the sport. "I'm building my body; I have to know how I'm doing, what needs work."

Bulk is not Bob's strong point; at 5'4", he says he's just too small. Instead, he goes for definition, working his muscles to the point where every ridge, every valley stands out sharply, a jutting bas relief up and down his body. In the language of the sport, he's "cut-up" or "ripped." But for competition that isn't enough--he needs the grace required for his posing, the stamina to hold the painful, blood-pumping poses for seconds that stretch and stretch. So he doesn't miss workouts, not ever, though it means spending less time with his family and his girl. And when he's at the gym, he sneers a little inside at those who gossip and horse around when they could be doing flys and bench presses and straight leg raises and squats. By the time he's done, he has to drive home in the right hand lane, at ten miles an hour. "I'm so gone, it's like after sex," he says. "All I have the strength to do is smile." When he gets home, he can't lift his arms above his shoulders to wash his hair; he can only down ten to 12 ounces of chicken and crawl into bed.

He and his friends read the muscle magazines religiously. They are packed with pictures of the stars; read two or three issues, and you know everything about their lives, which are very uncomplicated. They all work in gyms all day, the best own gyms. Bob quotes from Arnold Schwarzenegger as if he were the chairman of bodybuilding--"Arnold says people who talk about bodybuilders being sissies are just jealous," "According to Arnold, there's no feeling as good in the entire world (wink)." And then he's back to work, because the competition is only a month away, and there's the pecs to work on, and the traps, and the thighs and the triceps. Oh, there's so much left to be done, and, as Bob points out, "The contests are won in the gym. It's a question of who's working the hardest. And if I'm not working, I know that out there somewhere there's someone else who is, and he'll beat me."

The whine of powerful engines could be heard inside the pavilion, where compulsories were still underway. A half-mile away, at the other end of this misbegotten amusement park, there was a steep hill, almost a cliff. Men and boys on motorcycles were climbing the hill, charging up its sandy face in five, maybe six, seconds. At the top, some men in leather jackets holding beers were timing. This, they informed me, was "hill climbing." It was, they added, good fun.

And it looked it. Though they said they did it every weekend ("You should see our home hill, out in Hadley. Four hundred feet, top to bottom, and only three guys have ever made it up."), they didn't seem to worry too much about competing. Everyone reached the top of this puny hill eventually, although a few fell once or twice. When they reached the lip of the peak, their bikes would jump into the air and they'd land on the back wheel, cackling. Stop for a beer, watch a few others come up, and then go right back down and start over again. "Do you practice this much?" I asked one man, who stood at the top in his cycle club colors. "Practice? Shit, man, this is for fun. Why would we practice?"

America may be catching up with even this sport of outcasts, though. In the middle of the field at the hill's bottom, there were a dozen campers. Next to one sat a middle-aged couple in lawn chairs, out there in the middle of the heat and the drone of the engines. After a while, their son returns, walking his motorcycle. "I won the 12-and-under," he says with a smile. His mother hugs him; his father beams and says, "He usually wins, you know." This family, which lives in New Hampshire, travels around New England to hill-climbing contests every weekend, so their son can compete. "Yep, he nearly always wins."

Back under the tent, the contest continues. They are gradually weeding boys out--their muscles are too flabby, or their pectorals are too small, or their routines need work. Those who are left are getting tired, striking pose after pose on a hot afternoon, worrying about who will win. The stakes aren't very high," and there'll be other contests, "but there's a lot of pride on the line," one father says. "These guys have worked real hard to improve themselves. They've got a lot of pride."