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Friday, November 16, 2012

The Barbell - By Andreas Sjölund

Originally posted on NaturalStrength.com on May 21, 2001

In my belongings there is a very special thing, a barbell. Not special because it's worth a lot of money, its not and it doesn’t look much, it ain’t shiny and chromed, in fact its a little rusty. It’s thick, impossible to grip around, hard to handle and not very well balanced at all. and you load it with weights that looks just like it, rough, thick and hard to handle. What makes this barbell speciall is the history behind it, a history I am going to share with you.

When my dad was a kid in the early 40s he lived in a small community based around the jobs provided by a power plant and a mine. These jobs places was like sugar to flies when it came to attracting rough, hard working and hard living men, my grandpa was one of those, hard working miners and therefore my dad was raised in a community that was honest but hard. Anyway, it was a society where people did not think much of pencil pushers and office clerks, a man worked with his body and hands and that was that.

There was a smith named Bergkvist living in this community, a huge man with a temper like a wolverine and a reputation to be very, very strong. Some of the stories about him just have to be lies but let me share a couple of them that there is actual proof happened, or at least some eye-witnesses are still alive. Many of the men were not married or had travelled from other locations to work and they lived in barracks, and developed a special culture. They often had "home made" strength competitions, besides finger-hook and arm-wrestling one event was to grip a steel bar between the fingers of one hand and draw against one and other.

Bergkvist was the man to beat, but no one ever made it, one came "close", he just refused to let go of the steel cylinder, he just hung in there, refusing to give in and the Bergkvist could not get him to let go...until HE LIFTED HIM UP, with one hand, and shook him, then he finally lost his grip and fell to the floor.

When my dad was really young he ran into Bergkvist, this was their first encounter. My dad said "I have heard that you can bend coins with your bare fingers (that was one of the stories told about this man) can you bend this "10-öring" (a small Swedish coin) for me? Bergkvist just looked at him, smiled and picked up a coin from his pocket and it went away somewhere inside his giant hand. And apparently he lost the grip and the coin flew through the air, hitting the wall in the other side of the room and got stuck in the wall. Not very deep, but deep enough to be hard for a kid to get it loose. My dad dug it out whit his pocket knife, he still has it, I’ve seen it and yes, it was bent alright, right in the middle.

Another story about Bergkvist takes place during the winter. The workers had been out all day and it was cold, real cold and they were dressed for it. Anyway, it was time for lunch and they walked in to the dining room when Bergkvist came in, ice in his beard, drunk as a sailor and in a very good mood. He walked up to one of the biggest men there, a huge guy that must have been over 130 kg, smiled and said something like "do they feed your kind to" and picked him up and shook him a bit. This is nothing special. Lifting 130 kilos, but when the men had eaten and were ready to return to work, the guy that got picked up, said that he could not work anymore. There was no way that he could move his arms and when he undressed all the clothes, and remember this was thick thick winter clothes. They could see the bruises on his arms, formed after Bergkvists fingers and it took over a week before he could even move his arms again.

Berkvist was known for was his bad temper. Especially when drinking, and he did that quite often, and in many ways the booze was his demon to fight. Anyway, one evening he had been out drinking and something had pissed him off and he got into a fight, apparently cleaning the place out. When he woke up, and came back to his senses he found himself sitting over a table and the owner of the place was yelling at him. He just looked at the guy screaming and shouting and asked "have I done all this?" (the place was pretty messed up) yes you have and you will pay or I will call the police. No need for that, I will pay for the damage I have caused, he said. Took up his keys, carved his name and address on the corner of a marble table, broke the corner loose and gave it to the owner and went home to get some rest.

These are just some of the stories told about Bergkvist but I hope this gives some idea of what kind of man we are talking about here. Anyway back to what I want to say. As a young teenager my dad worked at the local food store, delivering food and supplies to the families living in the community. And this is about one of the most fearsome stops he had to make during his delivering carrier. Bergkvist was not an easy man to deliver to. He always ordered around 40 beers, most of the times he did not pay for them, he just said "put them on my tab", and this tab was running long. Not many wanted to argue with him over it. But my dad was new on his job and his boss told him that he had to get paid or take the beers back. So when my dad got the standard answer "put it on my tab" he took the beers and walked out, and Bergkvist ran after screaming "what the hell are you doing lad, take your hands of my beers" my dad refused and Bergkvist glared at him for a while, took out his wallet and paid him.

I personally believe that this episode is very important for what happened later on. Dad continued to deliver his beers, and always got paid. Over the time Bergkvist started to talk to my dad and tease him for being weak, he used to look at my dads arms and say things like "poor kid, you must have suffered from polio". Dad knew he was joking, and at the same time he was impressed with Bergkvists strength and asked him how to get that strong. Hard work and lots of food was bergkvist answer.

This was the beginning, later on Bergkvist showed my dad a "gym" he had, with barbells, huge stones, and a chest-enlarger thing whit 6 thick springs. (dad got this one later on, when Berkvist had stretched it beyond all further use). My dad wrestled and wanted to be stronger so he talked and trained a bit with Bergkvist, always getting good advice and pointers in the right direction. And in time long dad had to train against guys in much heavier weightclasses to get anything out of the wrestling-workouts. One day, years after the first "beer incident" Bergkvist. had a gift for my dad, it was a home made barbell, whit thick heavy iron weights to ad. It laid on the ground, fully loaded and Bergkvist lifted it up, Dad says it looked like he just picked it up like a dropped towel or something like that, and Bergkvist raised it on straight arms and said..."when you can do this...then you are strong". And for the years to come my dad tried to lift it. And tried again and then again, and then tried some more. He worked out like crazy with that barbell, but never made it all the way, to the shoulders, but not the last little bit. Berkvist helped him out here and there with his workouts and they continued to be, well..I guess you have to call it friends.

When Dad turned 20 he started to work at the power plant and in the barracks the evening games were still the same and my dad discovered that he was one of the strongest guys around, he did not win all of the games and plays but he was strong enough to earn the respect from his elders and more experienced, and he very quickly became "one in the gang" something that normally take a few years. Then Dad finally understood, that the gift he got from Bergkvist that day was much more than a pile of iron. The day Bergkvist gave my dad the barbell he also gave him respect, strength, and self-knowledge and what an awesome gift that is.

Bergkvist lived alone, and wasn’t easy to get along with so I guess his solitude had its reasons. But there was one thing that he had and kept until the day and that was his reputation to be the strongest man anyone had ever seen.

And for the barbell...my dad gave it to me a couple of years ago, I actually can't say exactly how heavy it is, and to tell the truth I do not want to know, it feels like it will take the magic away. I have made some attempts to beat it, and every 6-12 months I load it up in the basement and glare at it for a few days before the attack. I have not been able to get it up over my head yet. All I know is that some day, I will."


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