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World’s Greatest Inventors, Chapter 11: George Hackenschmidt. Wait, Who?

We all know Tommie Edison’s name. Alexander Graham Bell is pretty widely known, although less so since they took his name off the phone company. Everybody in the internet age knows who Nikola Tesla was, although most couldn’t tell you what he is really notable for. There are lots of guys who remain household names many decades after they shuffled off this mortal coil, because their name is still on the company masthead. A guy named Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber. John Deere made plows, and his company still does, 125+ years after his death. Samuel Morse won’t be forgotten soon, because the code he invented is still in use. But what about George Hackenschmidt? Have you guys forgotten about him?

Of course you haven’t, because you can’t forget what you never knew. Admit it, you’ve never heard of George. But as far as inventing things in common use, he’s right up there with Frank Bunker Gilbreth. Because Hackenschmidt invented the bench press exercise.

Pretty much everyone knows what a bench press is. Pretty much no one knows where it came from.

George was an Estonian (Russian Empire) wrestler born in 1878, back when (warning: spoiler) wrestling wasn’t entirely fake. Wrestling was considered a primo sport, with traditions going back to the original Olympics. George was always into physical fitness, but his first competitive sport was cycling, of all things. He was a blacksmith’s apprentice that raced for prizes on his days off. Then one day, a wrestler and strongman named Georg Lurich came to town with a kind of circus, and challenged any and all local comers to beat him. Hackenschmidt tried it, and lost, but liked the idea. He went into training in St. Petersburg, and eventually became a wrestler and strongman like Lurich. He won lots of formal weightlifting and wrestling competitions. Sometimes he’d wrestle five opponents during one evening, and beat them all.

Hackenschmidt might be obscure now, but he was a worldwide phenomenon in his day. He once wrestled at Comiskey Park, in front of 30,000 spectators for a gate of $87,000. That’s nearly three million in today’s money. He lost, by the way.

Hackenschmidt was was considered quite handsome, and was something of a clothes horse. He wasn’t a dullard either. He was educated and sophisticated, and was reported to speak seven languages. Teddy Roosevelt once remarked that “If I wasn’t president of the United States, I would like to be George Hackenschmidt.”

I just find it funny that George Hackenschmidt invented the bench press. I mean someone had to invent it, I guess. Someone invented the wheel, for instance, but we don’t know his name. Maybe if his name wasn’t Hackenschmidt, lying on your back and lifting a barbell off your chest over and over would be named after him, and he’d be a household word, like kleenex or something. But it was not to be. “Lie down and give me 20 hackenschmidts” just doesn’t roll off the tongue. Life isn’t fair sometimes.

What It Was, (And Should Be) Was Football

(Originally offered in 2006. The school banned the fluffernutters and the football and everything past a pulse not long after. Geaux Saints)

When we went out to vote on November 7th, my wife and I had to drive by our son’s elementary school. We were mildly amused to spy him, out for recess, playing football in the schoolyard with his classmates.

We parked across the street and watched for a few precious minutes. Since we were not a butterfly, or a jet contrail, or a candy wrapper, or a penny, he didn’t notice us there, so we got to see him in that rarest of settings: “somewhere else,” without his parents or guardians present.

The football activity was hilarious. It alternatingly resembled an algae bloom and an ayatollah’s funeral– first a kind of milling around in an amorphous blob, then a kind of wild melee over a leathery old totem. We watched them drift back and forth for a pleasant minute, with the odd missile launch of the forward pass rocketing rudderless out of the scrum and landing any old place but that most rarified of targets: a teammate.

It was wry to consider that playing tag is verboten at his school. I’m not joking.

The school is getting comical in this regard. They were terrified of the food the little ones were eating, so they tinkered endlessly with the school lunch menu to make it so healthy that no one purchased it anymore. Now everybody eats fluffernutters they bring themselves.

They built an elaborate and very expensive handicapped playground. That’s a kind and thoughtful gesture. But it is merely a gesture, as there are no handicapped children to enjoy it. There just aren’t that many children of any kind in a little town like ours.

And no tag. Someone could get hurt. Someone could be left out. Someone could sue is the real reason, and the powers that be always point that out right up front.

Tag isn’t allowed, so one of the kids brings a football, and they play that. Football isn’t banned, only because no one thought of it yet. The absurdity of allowing mobs of pre-teens to chase one another if one is holding a ball, but not if their hands are empty, seems to be lost on the school administration. At least for now. And I, for one, am glad of it.

I’m not as worried about my son being injured playing football as I am in contemplating the little straitjacket world he’s being fitted for. Those children decided on the rules, supplied their equipment –a ball– and played their game without any adult supervision; and I saw a lot less kvetching among them than at any organized sporting event they participate in. I’m leery of them being told that someone will always tell them exactly what to do, and simultaneously unerringly protect them not only from harm, but hurt feelings. One aspect of that tandem of supervision is repugnant, and the other unlikely.

I’m living in a strange world where people for whom I have no regard draw finely calculated and ultimately meaningless distinctions about everything down to the scope of activities allowed for pedophiles to roam the earth, at the same time they ban children playing tag in the schoolyard. Such distinctions are meaningless because anyone who is prepared to commit a great offense is not concerned about the rules governing small ones.

I dread the day, which is on the horizon now, not over it, when I’m forced to tell my children that the only sensible course of action is to ignore the rules, as there are so many of them that they become gibberish. And what the hell, the rules only seem to apply to those who wish to live worthwhile lives anyway –who never needed them in the first place.

The Inches We Need Are All Around Us

When an old Italian man wearing capri pants tells you to do something, you do it.

There’s an endless loop of Vince Lombardi playing in my head when I work. Try it; it gets results:

Tag: sports

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