He was a quiet guy. The type of guy you pictured one day taking a gun out and going on a shooting rampage. He never spoke, just came to the gym in his dull, dingy attire and quietly lifted. From what I saw he was a forty something year old guy, who was overweight and worked out somewhat to keep in shape. Although he never bothered anyone I noticed that he was the butt of many insults and jokes in the gym, most the members had given him the name ‘Pigpen’ since no one seemed to know his real name and he never conversed with the members of the gym.
He was quite simply an enigma in the gym.
I was young, had been lifting for about 4 years or so, thought I knew everything, thought steroids were evil, but I was enthusiastic and trained harder than the average gym goer. Our gym, although well equipped, was at the heart a fitness club. Most the members were more concerned with their hair, and clothing, being coordinated for the gym social scene. Pigpen simply stuck out like sore thumb, I thought many times that he may know the things people said about him, it was obvious to me so I figured he must pick up on it. The members were cruel, a snicker here, a pinched nose there, all in jest of the quiet guy in his drab, baggy clothing. I didn’t see it as funny, more like insecure bullying, but Pigpen simply ignored it and kept on.
The owner was a friend of mine named Chris. He and I had worked together at another gym, he had been a competitive bodybuilder, but had since gone into the gym business and had a side business refurbishing homes. I usually spoke to Chris a couple times a week when I saw him, usually on the way out after I had finished my workout.
One such evening I was at the front desk talking with Chris and some of the front desk staff. Pigpen was walking by us to leave the gym, as he grasped the handle for the door, one of the staff made a coughing gesture and under his breath said “PIGPEN!”.
Pigpen didn’t ever flinch but I saw his eyes cut to his right, and I knew he definitely heard it, he walked out the door without even a hitch.
As the door shut, the girl at the front desk said to Chris “I don’t understand why you even let him workout here.” Chris looked at her with a glare and said calmly “As long as I am owner he will always be welcome here…do you understand?” she replied sheepishly “yes”. Chris wasn’t finished, and I could tell he was pissed, but he kept his cool and looked at the two of them and said “That guy has been through hell and back, you need to show some fucking respect. Just because your mommy and daddy pay your bills doesn’t give you the right to judge someone you cannot understand!”. They looked completely astonished, and embarrassed, and they should have been.
I asked Chris what Pigpens deal was. Chris told us that Pigpen had been a successful guy at one time in his life, good career, was a competitive bodybuilder and had pro-potential. So I asked “what happened?” Chris replied “Life.”. As Chris went on to explain he had been raised by his father, he had no other family, his mother had died when he was only a toddler. His father had developed a rare type of cancer, he had spent every penny he could trying to get medical care for his dad and keep him comfortable, in the end his father passed and he lost a good bit of money, his wife left him, and he had to quit competition.
He went through a struggle financially after that, and never really recovered, and then about five years ago he was in a car accident and he was nearly killed, he was in a coma for several months. The insurance settlement was enormous enough to help pay for his rehab and get him financially set for life, but not to the point where he was living on the high hog, just enough to live off.
We were all floored, I was speechless, I didn’t even know what to say. Chris looked at me and said “if you ever want to know something about bodybuilding…that’s the guy to ask”.
For several weeks after that, when I saw Pigpen at the gym, I really felt bad, I didn’t even know how to look at him anymore. People still poked fun at him, and it made me upset, but I just kept my head down and trained. Then one day, I was doing chest, and Pigpen was right there doing some seated dumbbell curls, he was only using 30’s, never made sense to me how the guy looked like he was big, overweight, but big shoulders and chest, he must have weight near 280-290.
So I saw Pigpen pull up his long sleeve to scratch his arm, guess the big fella had an itch, but what I saw was one of the biggest fucking forearms I have ever seen on a man, it was lumped with a system of hose veins. I was simply captivated by it.
So I walked up to Pigpen after his next set and said “Scuse me”. He turned slowly too look at me, almost as if there was something wrong with his neck, I felt nervous so I extended my hand and said “My name is Jay”.
He just looked at me, his face was almost expressionless. Chris had said he had gone through all that hard time, but he didn’t mention if he was still mentally all there.
Then he spoke. A gravely voice said “Craig…my name is Craig”. It was as if, he hadn’t been asked his name in so long that he had almost forgotten what it was-then he shook my hand with the most callous of hand I think I can ever remember shaking, he had a strong grip and his hands were as muscular as his forearm.
I asked him “How did you get your forearms so developed?” Craig told me he went to another gym to train heavy, that it was an old powerlifting gym and most of his forearm development had come from heavy deadlifts, rows, and shrugs. He asked me if I had ever done deadlifts, and I had but not on regularly, he looked at me and said “Gotta do deads kid”.
So you can understand as I was young and impressionable that the next back workout I hit deadlifts right away. I was weak at them, I thought 315 was going to break my back but I hung in there and pushed, or should I say, pulled.
I noticed Craig had been watching me while I was doing them.
After many months of practicing I got very good at them, I was up to 475 on deadlifts and my shoulders and traps were growing and people kept mentioning my forearms. I was so impressed by the results from one simple thing that I went to Craig frequently to get advice to him. His advice was always so simple, seemed like it was always too easy of an answer, but it was always solid advice. People in the gym still treated him like shit, but I was always cool to him, he had helped me out with great advice on many occasions and in the last year and a half I had gotten not only bigger but much stronger too, I was beginning to have the look of an actual bodybuilder. And it was mostly due to the enigmatic man who no one spoke to, except me.
Then one day as I was walking into the gym, Chris got my attention from his office, waiving his hand for me too come over.
So I came in, and Chris informed me that the powerlifting gym Craig went to closed. He asked me if I had spoken to Craig, I said I hadn’t seen him that day. He said “ok” and I went back into the gym to lift. I thought that Craig must be disappointed his other gym would be closed. I looked back to the front and I saw Craig talking with Chris, I couldn’t hear what they were saying but Chris kept nodding his head, they both walked to a locked set of double doors where old broken gym equipment was kept, after about 30 seconds they both came out and Craig had a chrome 50 lb bar for powerlifting. Craig walked up to me and said “Kid, you want to do some deads with me?” I responded “Hell Yeah!”.
We warmed up with 135 each, Craig had the chrome bar and I used a standard gym bar.
I didn’t know how long I would last with deads, the most I had done was 475 and that was one time, hadn’t touched it since, as of late 455 was about as much as I could do.
As we warmed up with 2 plates, I looked at Craig and the weights looked like toys he was picking up, for me they were already feeling somewhat heavier.
As I finished 405 I was feeling good, I had nailed 9 reps, which at the time was a good set for me, Craig was still just warming up.
Then Craig looks at me and says “C’mon, I need your help for a minute”. We walk back to the other side of the gym to the double doors, he goes in and I follow, in the storage room was a myriad of old stationary bikes, rusted bars, broken plates, and snapped cables.
I see Craig crouch down and pick up a large object, it looks like a 45 lb plate but it says 100lbs on it, he motions his head down to the place he picked it up and says “Get the other one.” I grab the rusty plate and its thick and heavy, difficult to carry but Ill be damned if I let Craig see me struggle with it, I carry it back to where our bars were and he puts one on each side of his bar.
He squats down in front of the bar, rolls it back and forth in his grip, then with a sudden surge peels the bar from the floor, I can hear the plates rattling and he bangs out 15 reps. I don’t know how much weight he had on the bar, but it had to be in excess of 600 lbs. I cant let him see me not go heavier so I grab a 25 and start to put it on the bar, but before I can bend down to slide it on Craig looks at me and says shaking his head from side to side “Kid” and he’s holding his hand up with 5 fingers showing. I look at him with a doubtful look and say “Five plates? seriously?” he simply nods in affirmation.
So I returned the 25 to the tree and grab a 45lb plate, the whole time thinking ‘no fucking way!’. So I get ready to do my set, I shake my head with doubt and I hear Craig say ‘Kid, don’t let that bar punk you”. Now, I don’t know what it was about the way he said it but I thought ‘hell no, I’m not going to let this fucker beat me down’ I grabbed the bar, I took a deep breath and cleared my mind, I pulled up and back and the bar came up and slowly ascended, it scraped my shins and I could feel it hit my knee caps but the shit was moving and I thought I might shit my pants. I stood straight up with the bar in hand, and then let the weight down with a crash. I was psyched, 495 was a new personal best, I looked at Craig and he was actually smiling, he nodded and said “very nice”.
Some people had taken notice of what we were doing, the fitness gym crowd wasn’t used to seeing big weights getting lifted like that. I saw Chris walking to us and he had a yellow rubber coated 100 lb powerlifting plate in his hands. He looked at Craig and said “look what I found”. Craig nodded and put the plate on the end of the bar, Chris looked at me and said “Jay there’s another one in my office, can you grab it?”. I nodded and went to his office and grabbed the bulky plate returning to them both and putting it on for Craig.
Chris looked at the bar, then turned to Craig and said “810”. Craig simply nodded. I couldn’t believe my eyes, I had never seen a bar with that much weight on it.
Craig stared at the bar, it was a cold stare, he was breathing deeply, and exhaling slowly, it was like some meditation, he was going somewhere else, somewhere deep in his mind that he had to draw upon for strength.
Onlookers had gathered, there must have been a dozen men and women looking on as Craig squatted down to grab hold of the bar.
I could feel my own heart beating in anticipation, then he methodically exploded up, his face turning a shade of red like I had never seen on him. His neck veins bulged out so far I thought they may burst. It was an awesome spectacle of raw power but the even more impressive feat was that he didn’t do it only one time, no, he repped it six times, with the finally coming with an explosive crash that must have registered on a Richter scale.
Craig remained prone for a moment his breathing more like panting, he slowly recovered and stood nodding his head. The he looked over to me and said “Your turn” pointing to my bar with 495 still loaded. I looked at him in disbelief and said “Again??”, he looked at me blankly and said “No, with more”.
I really didn’t think I could do any better than 495, that was a personal best for gods sake! So I grabbed a 25 lb plate and looked at Craig with my eyebrows raised as if to make sure it was enough weight to satisfy him, he nodded, and I put on two 25 lb plates, one per side.
At this point I was shitting my pants, no way I could do this, I would try it, but when I failed I would just have to fail.
Craig said something to me that I will never forget, he said to me with a calm like a parent to a child “Kid, that weight isn’t shit, there’s a lot worse things than that” I stood there for a moment contemplating his words, then it hit me. He was right, a weight is a simple small thing, life is an unfair, motherfucker and it will beat you down again and again, its unpredictable and unyielding, this bar full of iron is just a thing, its nothing compared to the difficulties of life.
I grabbed the bar, I could feel a lump in my throat, and my adrenaline was pumping hard. I took hold of the weight and tightened my grip and straps around the bar, becoming one with it. The onlookers watched but it was like that moment I was by myself, just me and that bar. Like a jolt of electricity I yanked the bar up, it started to move but stalled on my shins, Craig yelled “UUPPP!!!” I pulled I could feel my heels digging in and my traps stinging, it slowly started to move, centimeter by centimeter I pulled the bar up, it was as if it took 20 minutes and then I had it all the way there. I could see my face was blood red, and my veins in my neck were also pushing out. I dropped the weight and collapsed to my knee with it.
I could hear people talking but my ears were ringing, I recovered and stood up, as I looked around Craig was smiling again and looked at me saying “See?”.
Chris came up and patted me on the back. I was amazed I couldn’t believe I actually did that.
Now Craig got up, he walked over to the tree and grabbed two more 45’s. He slid one on each end of his bar, I looked at him like I was watching a man be led to the gas chamber. Chris looked at Craig calmly saying “900 pounds, just like the old days brother.” Craig grinned and nodded in acknowledgement.
Now there must have been thirty people back there watching, there were odd whispers, people asking others how much it is, and others simply astonished that this silent giant possessed such strength.
Craig kneeled down in front of that bar, it was like someone bowing down to an executioner.
Then he stood up. Was something wrong? He reached down and pulled up the bottom of his sweatshirt and pulled it up and off. What I saw was unbelievable. The man was a mass of slabs of muscle and covered in tattoos. Down the backs of his arms were words. On the right arm it read “I am nothing” and down the left “I feel nothing.” His traps were like two huge camel humps side by side on the back of his neck and he wasn’t ‘fat’ or ‘overweight’ no, he was just fucking huge. His body was like his hand, lumps of callous muscles from the years of pain and toil in his life and in the gym, it was simply unbelievable.
Craig adjusted his belt, and strapped back onto his bar. It was very quiet, and then I head Chris say “You got this shit Craig!” People started cheering him on, I could hear people saying “C’mon Craig”, “You got it bro!” It was amazing, all the while Craig was breathing very deep, very methodically, rolling the bar back and forth in his hands.
He stared into the mirror, I don’t know what he saw but his nostrils started to flare, and he looked like he was getting pissed, his eyes started to well up, almost like he may cry, and he stared blankly at a spot on the floor just in front of the bar. Wherever he was, he wasn’t with us, I imagine he was in that very dark place that his life had taken him drawing upon a well of emotions full of hate, anguish and pain.
It was as if he was channeling all of that into the bar, he was breathing harder, and he hadn’t even lifted the bar yet, he was shaking all over. I looked to his reflection in the mirror and said “this is nothing for you brother” he nodded and then growled “I GOT THIS SHIT!!”, then it was as if his entire body uncoiled driven by the hydraulics of his emotion, the bar bent, his traps were spotted with purple spots through the hew of red he cried out “FUUUCCKKKK YYOOUU!” and the weight stalled, I thought he may drop it, but his eyes closed and his face winced in anguish and the bar moved upwards, I don’t know it was the sweat from his face but I could have sworn tears came out of his eyes, and bar traveled further up until he had it midriff.
He stood there and he opened his eyes back up, they were bloodshot and tear filled and his pupils were so dilated that the blue of his eyes was gone and it was pure black, it reminded me of one of those videos of a great white shark taking a bite.
Then he and the bar dropped. At first I thought he may have passed out but he didn’t, he put his hand up to let us know he was ok. People started to fucking clap, I looked around at them and couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.
As he kneel down catching his breath, I walked up and crouched next to him, and said “That was the most spectacular thing I have ever seen in my life, nice lift bro.” He was still panting but he nodded, so I know he heard me.
Then one of the gym tards yelled out “DAMN PIGPEN GET OFF THE JUICE DUDE!!!” I swung around, I didn’t even think about what I was doing, some 30 some year old yuppie fuck with an underarmour tank top and a fucked up stick physique. I grabbed him by his arm as he tried to walk away, he swung around looking at me in surprise and I looked him in the eyes and I said “HIS FUCKING NAME IS CRAIG…C-R-A-I-G…CAN YOU SPELL ASSHOLE?!!”.
The idiot looked at me embarrassed and replied in a low tone “I’m sorry man, his name is Craig” then he looked at my hand still grasping into his flesh and I quickly let him go. I turned to look back at Craig and he was sitting on a bench and staring at me, he just looked at me and nodded, I nodded back.
Craig still went to the gym for about another year, I talked to him frequently there about training and bodybuilding, I often reminisced about the day we did deadlifts, at this point I was lifting 585 on deads, and all because of Craig’s tutelage.
After that year Craig disappeared, Chris told me he hadn’t seen him, but heard he moved to another state. Craig and I only spoke at the gym, he had no cell phone, I had never seen his place and I had never even had any clue where he lived.
But though I barely knew the guy, I considered him one of my closest friends.
The years went by and I trained hard entered my first show, even managed to make it to Nationals. I always wondered what happened to Craig, I wanted to talk to my old friend and get his advice like I had when I was just starting out, he always had the simple answers, so many of the training gurus tried to make things complicated, and Craig just had a sentence or two to say and was spot on with his advice.
Then one day after a workout I went home, there was a police car in front of my house. I walked up and there were two officers walking towards me, they asked me if I was Jay, I told them I was, they informed me Craig had passed. I asked how, they told me he died in his sleep. So I asked them why they were telling me this, and the one officer replied that Craig had no known family members still living and that his only will and testament stated that I was his next of kin.
I didn’t know what to say, they told me they were sorry for my loss, but I didn’t even really hear them. They got in their car and pulled away, I stood motionless in my yard, then I snapped out of the shock I was in and went inside, I called Chris to tell him and he was saddened by the news.
I sat down and reflected on my mentor of young, the guy that no one understood, the person who people made fun of and taunted and he had been one of the biggest impacts on my life. He was a man of very few words but his words had such a great impression on me. I felt very saddened like the world had just lost something very good, and didn’t even realize it.
The next day I was in a fog, I really had no clue how to act, my co-workers asked me if everything was ok I told them “My good friend passed away yesterday”.
Later that week as I came to grips with my friends death, I came home from work to find an mail envelope package on my doorstep.
I opened it up and it was a letter and several photos. I read the letter and it was handwritten in pencil on notebook paper.
If you are reading this, I have died. My life was hard, very hard. For a long time I felt empty and the gym was the only thing I had to remind me that I was still alive. The pain of working out and pushing myself reminded me every day that I was still alive. I have been keeping my eye on your competitive career, and have seen some of your shows. I’m proud of you kid.
I always wanted to thank you, but I’m not very good at conversation as you know. I wanted to thank you for the day we did deadlifts. That one day I felt like I was a human being again, I felt the best I have felt in my entire life. You were a great inspiration to me, at a time when I was losing hope.
Thanks for being my friend.
Your good bro.
By the time I finished reading the letter I was crying badly, I hadn’t cried in years, but I was weeping like a baby.
I looked at the photos from my shows, they were taken from the audience, Craig had been at my shows, and I hadn’t even known it. I guess he was keeping his eye on me making sure I was progressing not sitting back being lazy…I don’t know why exactly he was there, but he was there, and I’m glad that he got to see that.
Under the photos was a legal document, it was Craig’s will, I read through the legal jargon and towards the end it started to itemize all the belongings that Craig had left behind, and that since I was his only kin that I would be getting these possessions.
He left a sizeable amount of cash, a truck, his house, and his personal belongings in the house, but the last item on the list was the most priceless of all…one chrome fifty pound powerlifting bar.
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