You know those long-time friends of your mom or dad who end up being called “uncle” or “aunt” because of the deep bond they shared and the frequency of their visits? To John, that was Bill Thomas. Before John was even a twinkle in his father’s eye until about the time he was a toddler, Bill had served in the same Army unit with Stephen, John’s father. John had heard many things about Bill while growing up. Bill, in fact, had held and played with John many times as an infant and as a toddler, but John had no recollection of those days. Eventually, the two soldier’s career paths separated them, but they kept in touch throughout their entire military career.
Now, with the two retired soldiers living again in the same city, John was almost fifteen when Bill stepped through the front door, shaking hands with and then giving a large bear hug to his old man, picking him up off the ground. On this day, John was being included in a “men only” outing: coffee, an early morning shooting trip, more coffee, a gun show or walk through a sporting goods store to check out gear and firearms, lunch, a shot of good whisky back at the house. The whisky, of course, was reserve for Bill and John’s father but nonetheless it was a tradition that went far back with the two men.
Bill reminded John of a more muscular version of the actor Sam Elliot sans the trademark mustache, with a head of hair no longer than a quarter-inch all around. He went to church regularly, except for the various hunting seasons and through the years John came to realize that despite Bill’s deep convictions about the Living God, he went to church more for his wife than for his own personal needs or convictions. The former soldier was more at home and in communion with God in nature and among friends – all clad in jeans and t-shirts – than sitting in a service for two hours every Sunday in a suit. Bill didn’t take any bullshit from anyone. Period. He had a stare that could pierce right to a man’s center. At the same time, he was a very approachable and courteous man, when he spoke it was calm, even-toned, direct.
Through observing his father and Bill, John began to learn and appreciate the role of traditions. For example, a particular hunting season tradition they held was a shot of whisky and a cigar for every kill. It was called their, “Victory Dance” and it went like this: During their return from the field to camp, they would enjoy the first of their cigars. After they put away their firearms at camp, a shot was toasted to their success while prepping dinner over the fire. They would talk on a wide range of topics: their time in the service (and oh, the stories they could tell about each other and of each other!), classic literature, writings that had influenced the minds of America’s founding fathers, the “hot” actresses of Hollywood. Nothing was barred from discussion. John had witnessed this particular hunting season tradition many times. When he was first initiated into the ritual, he was seventeen and they limited him to a single, ice-cold Guinness and a smaller Swisher cigar. The limit was for a good reason, as a talkative young man, the two older men had an interesting time getting a word in once that first beer had loosened young John up. He did get a handle on proper etiquette around the camp fire rather quickly, listening and sharing more than dominating the conversation, sipping and savoring his beer over drinking it quickly, enjoying the juxtaposition of the warm fire on his face with the cool night air on his neck, the warmth of the cigar in one hand and the cold beer the other, the brightness of the flames with the clear, dark night above. When John transitioned into a young man, moving out of his father’s house and venturing into the world, he had only been able to partake of that tradition a few times.
Traditions, rituals and rites of passage might seem antiquated, crude, “macho” by the uninitiated and uninvited. It is no surprise that these traditions, and many like them are misunderstood, they are being viewed from the outside. The meaning went much deeper for those on the inside. It wasn’t about the alcohol, or the cigar. There is the mutual respect given. There is the ability to handle things with responsibility. For young men like John, there is the passage from the age of boyhood and acceptance into the tribe of capable and dangerous men. The inclusion into manhood, above and beyond the macho. This passage didn’t start and end with the ritual of the drink and smoke. The passage and the ritual had started long ago, little by little, by his father. It came from doing chores together, spending time together, talking straight, working hard and playing hard. Interacting with other men. Both tangible and intangible lessons he was being given as he was instructed and included in the world of men. Again, learning and gaining the ability to handle things with responsibility and reaping the benefits of the confidence that comes with it.
John would hear his father and Bill, many times both individually and collectively, speak to him about the passage into manhood. John remembered Bill saying,“While the feminine is an important and valued influence needed in a man’s life, manhood can’t be passed on and bestowed by the feminine world. Just like the masculine is an important and valued influence needed in a woman’s life, womanhood couldn’t be passed on and conferred by the masculine world.”
And then John’s father would say, “To put it another way, it’s like the mythology of vampires and werewolves. (during this time, vampires and werewolves were a hot item among young people) You can only become a vampire by other vampires and you can only become a werewolf by other werewolves. Werewolves can’t make vampires and vampires can’t make werewolves.”
When John had asked Bill for advice on getting his personal training program back together, he was reminiscing on these events and traditions of his past. It was of no surprise that Bill was eager to help get the young buck back into fighting trim. John had wanted to take up his old fight training, get stronger and have more wind, he wasn’t too interested in aesthetics. John understood that aesthetics would come with training, but strength and endurance was first priority. That’s all he knew and for the most part, that’s all Bill needed to know.
Now, as John he headed to the gym to train with a friend who had asked for his help, he began to reminisce on those first days of training with Bill the prior year. Bill had asked John to come down to his place on a Saturday morning. Half of Bill’s three car garage had been converted years ago into his own personal training area. A few barbels, a squat rack, a couple stacks of different weighted plates, a couple different sized heavy bags, John recognized the larger, six-foot heavy bag as mainly a Muay Thai bag, a jump rope, some chalk and a few other miscellaneous pieces of gear. Bill always led and taught by example. They hit squats first with Bill educating John on the mechanics of a proper, deep squat. Bill had already warmed up prior to John’s arrival and wanted to show John what he would be capable of with dedication and proper form. The instruction bit was over, time to lead by example. He loaded two 45lb plates on each side of the standard olympic bar, which weighs in at 45lbs by itself, the total coming to 225lbs – a respectable squat amount for anyone – and Bill properly executed five perfect form, deep squats. His cadence was solid the entire set. John could tell that 225 wasn’t Bill’s one rep max. The only thing unusual about Bill was the redness in his face as he executed a breathing technique that John would later come to know as the Valsalva technique. Bill might have been John’s elder by a good twenty-plus years, but he lifted like a damn beast. Bill stepped forward towards the far side of the rack, racked the bar and took a breath. As a grown man, John stood at about the same height as Uncle Bill, but Bill had always seemed bigger. Maybe it was just the way Bill carried himself coupled with how John looked up to him.
“The combatives side of things is going to be easy, kid. With all the things your dad and I showed you, I’m sure that we can get you back in the game. You’ll be lethal as all get-out, hell, the old man and I might just have to shoot you in your ass to keep you humble.” The older man said as he stepped out of the squat rack.
Bill appraised John for a few seconds, John tried not to smile at the compliment. Bill continued, “We’re about the same body type and size now, but do you know what the difference is between you and me is, John, if bad times are coming?”
“Well, you’ve trained for-practically-ever. You served, of course. You’ve had bullets flying over your head. Both you and Dad did, I know that.” John said as he helped with the removal of the plates from the bar.
“No, that’s not it. I’m not talking about some degrading, ‘I’m a badass and you’re not’ type stuff. I don’t need to “put you in your place”. I mean yes, knowing how to deal with stress like that can make a difference and I won’t get started on the tangible benefits of violence of action. No, the difference right now is in the fitness level. It is the reason for you coming to me. Your physical fitness or lack thereof is going to be either an asset or a liability if shit goes sideways on us. Trust me. Whether it be another great depression or a civil war, it doesn’t matter. The fitter and stronger you are, the harder it will be to kill you either by sickness or from an attacker.”
John let the words sink in, Bill continued.
“You want strength and explosiveness, right?”
“Yes, and endurance.”
“Endurance will come. You want to be able to throw a fucker through a wall if he comes at your wife or kids, right?”
“Well then, we are going to work the compound lifts, specifically Squats, Deadlifts, and the Overhead Press to start with.”
“What about the bench press?” John asked, honestly, but ignorantly.
“Well, little brother, we’ll get to that eventually. We’ll start with the regular ole Press because I’ve seen many a men put up some impressive numbers on the bench but they can’t press a damn bar overhead to save their life. The Press is actually more translatable to power than the Bench is. For instance, with the Bench you are basically laying down braced against something, in this case a bench. With the Press you are standing up and pressing the weight above you without having something to brace against, like a bench. But we’ll get to the Bench in good time. It is still a good marker for strength.”
“You’re the coach, Bill.”
“We’ll also be working on getting your wind up: sprints, running a mile or two and doing some ruck walks. But we need to balance it in a way where it doesn’t interfere with your strength training. After we get you to a certain point in the lifts, we’ll work on body calisthenics and then hybrid them together. Now…we need to get you warmed up, so let’s get to work.”