My historical novels Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, Herodias (Long) Hicks Gardner Porter, colonial New England, travels, and whatever else seizes my fancy...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Doing Pushups for the Army

Arm wrestling, anyone?
I wrote this story back in 2006, peddled it unsuccessfully to a few magazines, and then shoved it in a folder and forgot about it. Offering my story to you seems a good way to blow the dust off my blog. Without further ado:



Doing Pushups for the Army

Ten minutes ago, I was a fifty-one-year-old woman enjoying New York’s State Fair. Now, I was preparing to do pushups for the Army. That was the plan, but inwardly I feared disgracing myself before a jeering mob. As I hit the dirt – this is the Army, ladies, so it was toesies, not kneesies – I wondered, “How did a nice girl like me get in a position like this?”

In retrospect, my plight was predictable. As a born tomboy, dolls rarely interested me. I ran and climbed trees with the boys. Anything I was allowed to do, and many things that adults considered too dangerous were within my ability.

On to junior high school, where I was the smallest girl in gym class. Volleyball and gymnastics were a snap, but one sport was beyond my ability – basketball. I could steal a ball and move it down the court, but lacked strength to throw it into the basket. It was embarrassing to wait for someone else to get there, then pass the ball to her. For the first time in my life, I felt weak.

In college I followed a life-long ambition - archeology. My first dig was at a New England field school. There, I learned to dig a proper square, removing dirt inch by inch to study how soil layers and artifacts were deposited. I happily burrowed into an eighteenth-century cellar hole, though the “hole” was now a depression covered with trees and crawling with poison ivy. Decades ago, someone had filled in the cellar with a bulldozer.

The cellar’s walls were lined with rock slabs, stacked by some long-ago Connecticut Yankee farmer. When the bulldozer filled the cellar, the wall’s top tiers were shoved into the hole. No way could I lift the biggest stones. When I freed one, I’d call a coworker to help get it out of my square. Asking for his aid wasn’t too distressing, since he looked like Michelangelo’s “David.”

As the days passed, the rocks I could move got bigger, and soon I was lifting well over my own weight. The next summer, I shoveled sand at a South Carolina fort. My senior year saw me hoisting rock again at a Declaration of Independence signer’s home. I had a body like Serena Williams, and loved to “make a muscle” and watch people’s eyes pop.

A knee injury ended my archeology career, but I’ve stayed active. Hiking, yoga, canoeing and gardening have maintained my muscle, though it’s somewhat obscured by middle age.

Back to the Army recruiters’ booth. A sign invited men and women between eighteen and forty to do pushups for two minutes. A man who could perform fifty, or a woman who did twenty-five would get a T-shirt. Six recruiters challenged a few onlookers to give it a try, but weren’t getting any takers. I asked the lone female recruiter, “What’s with the forty-year age limit?”

“Think you can do it?”

“Maybe,” was my answer. “Do I get a shirt?”

T-shirts were meant for potential recruits, and at fifty-one, I was too old for the military. She said I’d get a CD case if I did twenty-five, or bottled water just for trying. Then she dared me to put my money where my mouth was. My fifty-eight-year-old partner, Richard, wasn’t about to miss the fun. As we filled out releases absolving the Army of blame if one of us popped a gasket, we drew a skeptical crowd. Even better for the Army, several potential recruits signed up, itching to outdo us geezers.

A twenty-something guy went first, but surrendered after only fifteen pushups. Doubt gnawed at me. I figured I was good for ten, but could I really do twenty-five toesies? After all, a lot of years have passed since I’d done that many pushups. As my silver-haired partner and I assumed the position, I tried not to picture my rear end, swathed in comfortable khakis, facing the spectators. “Go,” I heard, and began my ordeal.

It was easier than I’d feared, and I did ten rock-hard pushups as the female recruiter cheered me on. At four, she said, “Remember to breathe.” Great advice, since I was so pumped-up that I’d forgotten. At seven, she commented respectfully, “You’re doing really good.” I thought so, too.

I took a break at ten. When I continued, my shoulders and arms groaned, 'Hey lady, what the heck are you doing?'  I wasn’t ready to surrender. At thirteen, my back began to sag, my wrists were screaming, and the shoulder-ache was turning into little blowtorch flames.

After fifteen, I announced, “That’s enough for me.” Richard, a Vietnam-era Army veteran, quit at twenty. That sounds like a piddly number, but if you haven’t been doing them on a regular basis and you are over forty, try it and see how far you get. 'My' recruiter gave us bottles of water, saying, “You did good.” We strolled off to enjoy the rest of the fair, and nursed creaky shoulders for a few days.

It was later reported that some younger female dynamo was able to do ninety-five pushups. I wish I’d been able to do the full twenty-five, but I’m still proud to have struck a blow for middle-aged grrrrl power. Not even the Army can declare me too old to test myself! It’s still fun surprising people who don’t believe that a woman my age can haul furniture, sacks of compost, or do perfect toesies pushups. And, now that I’m not sore any more, you wanna arm wrestle?

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