I was no Charles Atlas, but… (by Bob Ingraham)

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A Personal Experience written by Guest Writer for this site, Bob Ingraham.
This article was edited and updated on December 23, 2021.

When I joined the U.S. Navy in 1962, I was a healthy 19-year-old, standing 5 feet, 7.5 inches tall (1.7 metres) and weighing 127 pounds (57.6 kilograms). By any measure, I was a smallish man without the physique of a Charles Atlas. No muscle-bound beach bully would have been afraid to kick sand in my face.

Like most young men, I was concerned with my appearance. I’d even signed up for a weight-lifting class in my freshman college year, partly to meet the physical education requirements for my degree but also in the belief that girls might be more interested in me if they could actually see my biceps! But I didn’t look any different at the end of that class than I’d looked at the beginning, nor did I notice girls fighting for my attention.

When I joined the Navy several months later, the last thing on my mind was gaining weight or strength. I just badly needed a change. I was chafing under the constraints that came from being dependent on my parents, I was bored with my college classes, and my love life was going nowhere, at least not where I wanted it to go! Navy life, as advertised, seemed to offer a lot, as long as I was able to give up most of the pleasing attributes of civilian life:

• I had to give up my civvies for dark-blue denim dungarees, light-blue cotton shirts, white boxer shorts (“skivvies”), white T-shirts, socks, shoes, a classic white “Dixie Cup” sailor hat, jacket, peacoat, canvas leggings, and high-top combat boots. Those boots were frustrating: despite my best efforts with spit and Kiwi shoe polish, I never was able to spit-shine them to the high gloss that several of my fellow recruits mastered with apparent ease.

• I had to give up my tidy civilian flat-top haircut for a Navy brush cut. My first haircut in boot camp, a couple of days after my hometown barber had given me the shortest possible haircut, took no more than a couple of minutes and left me feeling like I’d been scalped.

• I had to give up the eight to 10 hours of sleep I was used to. In boot camp, I had to get used to six hours a night, assuming that Chief James O. Henley, our recruit company commander, thought we deserved it.

• I had to give up Mom’s Laundry Service for the nightly “opportunity” to scrub my own clothes, working outdoors on a concrete scrub table with a stiff brush, pails of cold water, and Wisk detergent.

• I had to give up some of my individuality for membership in a cohesive unit made up of diverse individuals of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, religions, and moralities. However, I enjoyed my first opportunity to serve in a leadership capacity when Chief Henley named me Education Petty Officer (EPO) for my company. My job was to teach the Uniform Code of Military Justice to my fellow recruits.

• And I had to give up Coke and Hire’s Root Beer and Orange Crush soft drinks and Hershey and Babe Ruth and Milky Way candy bars, all of them known as “pogey bait” in boot camp and none of them available to us recruits.

No more “pogey bait,” but good food and lots of exercise

I didn’t give up three square, nutritious meals a day, including dessert at lunch and supper. Navy food wasn’t exciting, but it was fresh, tasty if not gourmet, and we could always go back for seconds, which we often did because we needed those calories.

For three months, my fellow recruits and I quick-marched almost everywhere across the huge training centre, well above 120 paces per minute that fitness professionals recommend for developing aerobic strength.

Every day except Sundays we spent an hour on the “grinder,” the asphalt parade ground where we joined well over a thousand other recruits for many of the same calisthenics we’d done in school — squats, twists, running in place, bends, pushups, sit-ups, and crunches — and many other exercises using just one piece of equipment, our rifles.

Early in boot camp, we’d been issued the rifles that we would use throughout basic training, the British-designed M1917 Enfield, known more commonly as a .30-06 (pronounced thirty-aught-six). Most American troops in the First World War had used the same rifle. We couldn’t shoot them because their firing mechanisms had been disabled.

We carried our rifles everywhere with us. We had to keep them clean; if we didn’t, we had the pleasure of sleeping with them! It’s hard to cozy up to a rifle.

An unloaded Enfield rifle weighs 9 pounds 3 ounces (4.2 kilograms), about a pound (.45 kg) less than a medium-size bowling ball or a large container of liquid laundry detergent. On the grinder we used our rifles like fixed-weight barbells, doing squats, lunges, the military press, shrugs, biceps curls, reverse grip curls, twists, and bends. We also practised — and practised, and practised, for hours and hours — the manual of arms, the prescribed drill for handling a rifle under orders.

U.S. Navy recruits march on the “grinder” at the U.S. Naval Training Center in San Diego. Their rifles, M1917 Enfield rifles dating from the First World War, weigh 9 pounds 3 ounces (4.2 kilograms). This postcard was mailed from San Diego by a recruit who, like the author of this web page, also joined the Navy in October, 1962.

The manual of arms dates to the 1400s, when loading and firing early matchlock and flintlock firearms was a complex, lengthy, and dangerous process typically carried out in close order, standing in full view, while enemy soldiers were shooting at you. We no longer have to load guns by pouring black powder in their barrels, jamming wadding and a bullet down the barrel, and touching a slow match to the black powder or striking a flint to ignite it. But the manual of arms, after five centuries, still involves many of the same precise, timed movements of the rifle into several standard positions relative to the body of the soldier, sailor, or Marine performing them. Each position has its own name.

Every day except Sundays we worked hard to obey the following orders, growled at us by an officer or senior non-commissioned officer: Or…der… ARMS! Port… ARMS!, Pre…zent… ARMS! In-spec… tion… ARMS! Right Shoul…der… ARMS! Left Shoul…der… ARMS! Puh…rade… REST! With each order, we were to move our rifles quickly and precisely from one position to another, coordinating our movements with those of a thousand other sailors.

Centuries of changing firearms technology have made the manual of arms a curious military anachronism that has little to do with a soldier’s or sailor’s ability to shoot a rifle. Any fool can load and shoot a modern assault rifle with deadly effect, and any one rifleman today holds in his hands the firepower of a entire company of American Civil War soldiers. Nevertheless, the manual of arms is an important tool in developing unit cohesiveness and familiarity with the handling of firearms.

An unexpected bonus

All of that physical activity in boot camp — the constant marching, calisthenics with and without our rifles, and the manual of arms — came with a bonus that I didn’t anticipate. When I joined the Navy, I assumed that my weight was normal for my height, which it actually was. I’d never heard of Body Mass Index (BMI), and wouldn’t learn about it until retirement, when my wife, Susan Ingraham, started teaching fitness classes to seniors. Today, BMI is a commonly used method to determine whether adults are obese or not.

Either of two formulas, one for the metric system and the other for the imperial system, will indicate the same BMI for a given weight and height:

• Metric: BMI = (Weight in Kilograms / (Height in Meters x Height in Meters))

• Imperial: BMI = (Weight in Pounds / (Height in inches x Height in inches)) x 703

Using my height and weight when I joined the Navy, the BMI formulas returned a BMI of 19.6, near the bottom of the normal range — 18.5 to 24.9.

If I had weighed just six pounds (54.9 kilograms) less, my BMI would have been 18.67 and I would have been considered underweight; if I had weighed 171 pounds (77.6 kilograms), my BMI would have been 26.39, and I would have been considered and would have looked overweight.

Obviously, I wasn’t overweight, so I didn’t need to diet to lose weight, and I wasn’t underweight, so “bulking up” wasn’t on my mind when I sat down at meals. Nevertheless, by the end of boot camp I had bulked up a lot: I had gained 27 pounds (12.2 kilograms), 21% more than I weighed at the beginning of boot camp. My BMI was 23.8, near the top of the normal scale. And here’s the really good thing: nearly all of that weight was represented by muscle. I know it was muscle because I was a lot stronger than I had been. On the first day of boot camp, I could pick up and carry my heavy-canvas seabag, filled with all of my Navy issue clothing and toiletries, but I wouldn't have wanted to carry it very far! On the last day of boot camp, however, I easily carried two seabags on my shoulders, down open stairs from my second-storey barracks compartment to ground level.

My new and improved muscles didn’t noticeably change my appearance. I wasn’t “ripped” like guys whose main goal in life seems to be pumping iron at the gym. Nor had I developed my muscles as a result of a special diet or supplements or meditation or exotic mantras or rituals. Instead, six days a week for three months, I’d been obliged to engage in something I had never even considered — regular, planned exercise:

Aerobic exercises — calisthenics and quick marching here, there, and everywhere — increased the efficiency of my heart and lungs.

Dynamic strength training — lifting and moving my rifle by practicing the manual of arms, and engaging in exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups, and squats — enlarged and toned my muscles by forcing them to contract sufficiently to overcome resistance.

Static strength training (AKA isometrics) — holding my rifle still in any of the various positions of the manual of arms — developed my muscles by forcing them to tense but not contract for extended periods. Once I fell asleep in a class and was punished by having to stand upright for 15 minutes, holding a sheet of typing paper on my outstretched hands for the entire time. I had never known that a sheet of paper was so heavy!

Flexibility training — calisthenics and manual of arms practice — forced joints to increase their range of motion and muscles to increase their size and strength.

By the end of boot camp, I had changed. I had greater self-confidence than I had ever enjoyed. I had the pleasure of being a member of a highly motivated group of peers working toward a common goal. I enjoyed the respect of my company commander, who had proved himself to be a better father figure than my own father had been. And I was in better physical condition than I had ever been in my life.

Fit one day, not necessarily the next

While the Navy did a great job of developing my physique in boot camp, it did little to help me maintain my body. Following boot camp, I attended the Navy’s Hospital Corps School at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, where I developed the knowledge and skills that would allow me to provide basic medical care to sailors on ships or at shore installations. What I didn’t do was continue any sort of exercise routine, and once again, at least occasionally, I enjoyed the sugary treats that I had been denied in boot camp.

Following Hospital Corps School, I was transferred to the U.S. Navy hospital in Yokosuka, Japan, where my most strenuous exercise was long walks, lifting bottles of Japanese beer, wielding chop sticks in Japanese restaurants, and briefly studying Japanese archery.

In the two years and four months following boot camp, my muscles slowly morphed into fat.

I did maintain a measure of the self-confidence I developed in boot camp, but that began to be eroded by what some might call “the fortunes of war”: when my tour of duty in Yokosuka ended and I was transferred to a Marine Corps rifle battalion that was headed to South Vietnam and into the Vietnam War.

You would be wrong to assume that U.S. Marines more or less automatically become fit as a result of the training, but I didn’t even get a chance to train with the Marines. Before my battalion headed for South Vietnam, I had to have surgery for an inguinal hernia. I was placed on light duty and missed much of my battalion’s training, which would have helped me recover some of my lost musculature. Worse was to come.

On March 5, 1966, I was wounded when my company was ambushed by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers. A communist bullet shattered my femur. I was evacuated to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego where I spent more than three months in traction, which allowed my femur to heal close to its original length. Another four months in a heavy, immobilizing cast, followed by two months wearing a weight-bearing brace, made it nearly impossible to exercise, with the result that I lost much of the muscle mass of my right leg.

Author Bob Ingraham talks with actor Jackie Cooper during his hospitalization following a gunshot wound in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. His treatment for a gunshot wound which fractured his right femur included 111 days in traction with consequent loss of the muscle mass of his right leg. ~ U.S. Navy Photo

Servings of food at the hospital were generous, so I probably gained weight during treatment. I needed extensive physical rehabilitation, but the Navy (and society as a whole) hadn’t yet figured out the importance of “rehab,” so when I was finally discharged from the Navy, I’d had no rehab at all, and the muscles of my right leg, especially, had atrophied almost to the point of non-existence.

After the Navy

You’ll recall that one of my reasons for joining the Navy was that my love life was going nowhere, but within less than a month after I was discharged from hospital, that picture improved as a result of marriage.

Before I went to Vietnam with the Marines, I took leave to see my parents. During that week, I visited the home of a friend, Gary Overturf. He wasn’t home, but his youngest sister, Susan, was, and she was smitten not by my muscles, which weren’t evident, but apparently by me in my Marine uniform. We started corresponding, and were married less than a month after my discharge from hospital.

More than 50 years have passed since then. Even though I’ve been physically active throughout my marriage, I’ve never pushed myself and never have regained the muscle mass, endurance, and flexibility that I developed in boot camp. Too many Tim Horton’s apple fritters gradually piled on the calories and the kilograms (or pounds, if you’re an American), and in the 1990s I tipped the scales at 165 pounds. I was fat!

Shortly after Susan and I retired and moved to Vancouver, she became a fitness instructor and I began to attend some of her classes. We sold our car, and now walk as far and as often as we can. And we both began to pay greater attention to our eating habits. Today, we are both eating “smarter” than we have in years (no more overindulging in pogey bait and carbohydrates) and we are steadily losing unnecessary weight, which is especially important considering the deplorable condition of my knees due to arthritis and loss of cartilage, and Susan’s familial tendency towards cardiovascular illness and diabetes.

Today I weigh 64.9 kilograms (143 pounds), and I’m slightly shorter than I used to be, about 1.7 metres (5 feet 7 inches). My BMI? 22.4. The on-line BMI Calculator that I used to check my BMI congratulated me: “You have a normal body weight. Great job!”

I haven’t had a rifle in my hands for decades, but the lessons of boot camp, and particularly of the manual of arms, have stayed with me: Eat sensibly, and work those muscles. When I go for a walk on the Seawall, I can almost hear Chief Henley growl, “For’ard…March!”

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I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.

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