Hamline News

Heros in the Locker Room

locker heros article

Like many seniors, I regularly journey to a fitness center—not a particularly enjoyable ritual but one that helps preserve whatever health I have left. I’m trying to slow the ravages of time and forestall the Grim Reaper, lest he pay an early house call with a heart attack, cancer, or stroke and make me a burden to my wife. My motto is “Live as well as you can for as long as you can.”

But working out on a dozen machines, water-walking, and swimming can feel pointless, like Sisyphus pushing the same stone up a mountain again and again. More than sixty years ago, my physical work on a farm accomplished something. Back then, while sweating and grunting, I dreamed of growing a chest and arms that would attract giggling girls like bees to honey.

Alas, those days are long gone and reality has stubbornly settled in. Forget building muscle mass. Today, I’ll settle for a modest cardiovascular workout and some range of motion in my aching joints. Yet companies hyping Viagra and incontinence products portray us seniors with full heads of hair and thirty-four-inch waistlines. Who are these people and where are their warts, wrinkles, scars, and flab? Really, these companies should pay a visit to my locker room.

When I was a teenager, my grandfather said that nine out of ten people look better in their clothes. At the time, I thought he was just trying to dampen my raging hormones. But in the locker room at my gym, the proof is painfully before my eyes. Any beauty that remains is largely internal. We are not a pretty sight. If life is a battleground, then we naked seniors display the ugly proof. War, accidents, surgery, and gravity have made sport of our once-proud bodies.

We are life’s veterans, scarred by weapons of slow destruction. But we laugh at time’s ravages. Unbowed and unbroken in spirit—although our bodies certainly haven’t gotten the memo—we have no shame in the locker room. We are comfortable with what we have left. Joe’s lower leg lies somewhere on the battlefields of France, but he happily hobbles to the pool, removes his prosthetic foot and swims twenty laps like a seal. Tom’s deep-vein thrombosis has colored his legs almost black, and his spine looks like a cobblestone path, but off he goes to the treadmill. Adam’s football days have caught up to the cartilage in his shoulders and he can hardly raise his arms, but there he is on the recumbent bicycle. Sam’s arms look like two sticks wrapped in leather, and his splotchy head reminds me of badly bruised fruit, but into the locker room he comes, smiling and slowly pushing his walker ahead of him. Karl, leaning on his cane, limps in behind him and gratefully accepts someone’s offer to remove his socks. And then there is Tom, who six months ago suffered a massive stroke, but here he is today swinging his left arm and dragging his left leg behind him. Together, we happy few help each other and make it happen every day.

For some of us, undressing and putting on our workout clothes can take twenty pain-filled minutes. But who’s counting? Our locker-room banter ricochets off the walls—from the shallow to the serious. We trade jokes, predictions on politics and the weather, sorrow over Mike’s Alzheimer’s, and congratulations on a fiftieth wedding anniversary. Yes, we even still talk about sex. Some things never change in a guy’s locker room. For us, our locker room is a form of sanctuary, our “happy-hour” place, where there is confession, celebration, support, and renewal.

I used to think my life would be over before I got old. But my locker-room band of brothers model life’s beauty every day. I wonder, can my old friends and I offer something to the youth of today? We have lived through eighty Minnesota winters, a Great Depression, and several wars. Don’t we have some wisdom to share? Maybe our presence might soften the abrasiveness of our world. Perhaps we can teach our troubled and cynical teenagers that life goes on in spite of tragedy and suffering. Broken and slow may we be, we still have lots to offer. My locker-room experiences make me realize that we have uncounted and unrecognized heroes among us.

An essay by Walter Benjamin ’50, emeritus professor of religion, taught at Hamline from 1966-1994. The essay originally appeared on Newsweek Online. Benjamin is the author of The Magical Years: A Boyhood Revisited and War & Reflection.