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LOOKING FOR A LIFT

Sept. 12, 1966
Sept. 12, 1966

Table of Contents
Sept. 12, 1966

Yesterday
Best Friend
The Men Who Fire
Golden Game
People
Baseball
Boating
Golf
Looking For A Lift
Baseball's Week
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

LOOKING FOR A LIFT

Watched moodily by the one friend who believes in him, Norbert Schemansky works out faithfully in a sleazy underground gym and ponders his years as the world's greatest weight lifter, an achievement that wins him neither glory nor a job to help support his family

The business card that Jack Katchmar lays on everyone within arm's length features a drawing of a man, his muscles prominent, holding a caduceus and standing on a universe. On one side of the card there is a quote from Erich Fromm: "Man's main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is." Plato also gets a call at the bottom: "What is honored in a country will be cultivated there." The legend on the card reads: "American Scientific Technical Research Organization, Inc." Jack says the card tells the story of Norbert Schemansky, who has never heard of Erich Fromm.

This is an article from the Sept. 12, 1966 issue Original Layout

Norbert Schemansky is a weight lifter the strongest man this country has ever produced. He is the only American to win medals in four different Olympics, one gold, one silver and two bronze. He has been U.S. champion nine times and the heavyweight champion of the world three times. In 1954, in an international poll, he was ranked the fifth greatest athlete in the world. Schemansky is 42 now, married, and has four children. He also has not earned $3,000 in the last eight years. Nobody knows why or asks why. Nobody knows his name. Nobody, that is, except Jack Katchmar, who is an authority on poverty, and is not known to many people, either.

Jack is president and research director of the organization named on the card, but he holds all the other titles, too. He is the organization. Everyone who has ever received a card eventually learns this, but no one worries about Jack's health. Jack does, but that is only because he does not really believe he is a treasurer without a treasury, a secretary without a phone and a field representative who does not have gas to put in his car. He also does not have any clients except Norbert Schemansky, who is really a friend and a peg on which Jack can hang his indignation at all the injustices ever committed, all of his dreams that were slaughtered in personnel offices. "I just never seem to fit in," says Jack. If one speaks, then, of Norbert Schemansky, one must also speak of Jack Katchmar.

"Honey," Jack says to his girl, Lois, "you got a dollar for gas?"

"Again, Jack?" says Lois, as Jack's eyes and head roll nervously.

"I know, but I left my wallet home."

"That's what you said the other day," says Lois. "And before that you said you had to get your teeth worked over. Six months it's been and you been dollarin' me to pieces."

"I don't want charity," says Jack, unconvincingly.

"No-o-o, not much. So why don't you get a job? You're 40 years old. Jack! You don't need a work permit. You got a fancy degree from Michigan State in—"

"Sociology," interrupts Jack. "And, besides, I got a job."

Lois says that she's heard all about Norbert and then turns to a visitor and says, while slipping Jack a dollar, "I think he's just beautiful." The two then leave for Lois' apartment, where she and Jack will argue over why she will not circulate his cards and documents at her office. Jack will also have dinner there: hamburgers and an after-dinner drink of Thunderbird wine.

The scene and the cuisine seldom vary, nor does the work following dinner. While Lois plays solitaire and listens to country music ("Never ever have a nickel in my jeans") Jack furiously scribbles his notes. He is, you see, the greatest note writer since Joe Gould, the late Greenwich Village wraith who spent a year measuring the heads of Indians in North Dakota and during his life filled hundreds of notebooks with a delusion called An Oral History of Our Time. Jack, who has been scribbling for a dozen years, does not wish to be compared with Joe Gould. "I have all my teeth," he says.

If an analogy must be made, Jack prefers his relationship with Norbert to be set beside that of Zola and Dreyfus, Darrow and Scopes. Put in other ways, he expresses his task as Katchmar defending the values of Greek civilization, Katchmar attacking the diminishment of real excellence and the human spirit. "Hell, Jack," says Lois, "nobody's listenin'." Lois places another card on the table, and Jack says she is the dumbest broad he has ever seen. He has his dollar.

Still, Jack is not totally dependent on Lois" subsidy. He receives a disability pension from the Government, and Norbert often says that Jack could not even get shot right he was wounded in the back in the Battle of the Bulge. Jack uses his pension to pay the rent on the "gym" in Detroit where Norbert trains, and the rest of the money goes for pencils, paper, magazines and a meal when Lois suddenly decides she is not so dumb. But it is Lois' dollars that put Jack in motion and enable him to circulate his treatise against a society of thin values that he feels has stomped all over Norbert—and Jack Katchmar.

The lobby of a hotel in Detroit. Sargent Shriver has just finished speaking and is walking with his aides toward the door. Suddenly Jack is by Shriver's side, and nobody knows who he is. But he looks, maybe, like he belongs there. He does appear a bit seedy, but you can never tell about these eccentric scholars. Jack (clearing his throat, and then in an official voice): Do you, Mr. Shriver, believe in excellence? (Shriver appears stunned, looks at Jack.)

Shriver (thinking Jack is a dumb reporter): Why, of course.

Jack (in D.A. style): Do you believe that excellence, the kind of excellence that makes the world know we are, well, made up of more than just Elvis Presleys, should be rewarded? (The procession through the lobby stops.)

Aide (curiously): May I ask what paper you represent?

Jack (ignoring aide, whips card plus elaborate presentation to Shriver): Have you ever heard of Norbert Schemansky?

Shriver: Who? (Starts reading section of presentation.)

Aide: What paper did you say?

Jack: No paper. I'm president of the American Scientific Technical Research Organization, Inc.

Aide (either impressed or confused): Ohhh, I see.

Shriver: Do you mean to tell me that this fellow here has done all of this and—

Jack (nodding head rapidly): Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

Shriver: And he lives in poverty, hasn't made $3,000 in the last eight years? (Firmly.) Well, something should be done about that. (Procession leaves lobby, and Jack, holding his frayed attaché case, watches. He is Stan Laurel with pie dripping down his face.)

A few days later Jack is in a reception line waiting to meet Mrs. Jeane Dixon, Washington spiritualist and prophesier. He finally arrives at the front of the line and extends his hand. He does this purposely and with persistence because, he says, Mrs. Dixon receives dramatic vibrations and information when her hand touches someone. She does not go for his hand, so he slips her a note.

"Norbert Schemansky," the note reads, "has served America for 20 years. He is more of a world-respected champion than Joe Louis, who made $4 million, and Floyd Patterson, who made $11 million, and Cassius Clay, all combined. Yet today he lives in unknown poverty. Why? Will God reward him or use him? How?"

Jack: Please answer this. It's important. (He goes for her hand again.)

Mrs. Dixon (pulling her hand away): Certainly, Mr. Katcher. You will hear from me.

Jack: Katchmar, Jack Katchmar. I'm head of the American Scien—

Mrs. Dixon: You'll hear from me, Mr. Katchman.

Later Jack receives his reply. It reads: "God wants you where He can USE you—but we are so self-centered that we want to be placed where WE want, and not where God wants us. It is HIS WILL—not OUR will—that must be done. Continue to use your talents, which you use everyday, for good; this is performing God's will in your life. Bless you, Mr. Katcher."

Jack is quite distraught over Mrs. Dixon's answer, but not for long. He returns to the gym, where he also sleeps, and begins scribbling. He also scribbles well in hotel lobbies and on street corners, but he is at his best in the gym. There, writing in the margins of books and magazines, on brown paper bags and backs of envelopes, his sadness, his protest explode:

"Schemansky, as a real hero, is important to America, because America was founded on ideals. An ideal is a standard of perfection for all men, a model of excellence. An image is an illusion, pseudo ideal. The hero reflects ideals. A hero is a human figure who has shown greatness in some achievements. He is a man of great deeds. A celebrity or punk hero reflects illusions. The hero created himself. The punk hero is created by publicity and mass media. The celebrity is a big name, the hero a big man.

"We must realize that man makes institutions, and man can change and create new institutions that recognize man as the center of life. We must abolish the AAU [Amateur Athletic Union]. It is America's institution of poverty."

Jack tries to go to sleep. It is 5 a.m., and the sun is coming up. It will not bother him. The gym is underground. The last enemy chased from his thoughts. Jack falls into sleep, at about the same time Norbert Schemansky always awakens in Dearborn, Mich.

Schemansky lives in a section of factory workers, of people still tied to the same roots that their fathers were. The houses have a synthetic pastoral charm, a tiny patch of neatly trimmed lawn, a new car every two years and, now, a color television set. But that Schemansky house in the middle of the block! That car, that lawn!

Schemansky sees this, too—his own meager possessions compared to those that belong to his neighbors—and in the morning the picture, spinning at him, is enlarged by the sense of what he has to do and what he has become.

The small rooms are gray and quiet in the morning. Hundreds of medals and trophies and cups, scratched and dusty, are scattered throughout the rooms. A bottle of wine that Norbert brought back from Paris 10 years ago stands on a television set. The wine, he says, is the only thing that seems real to him now. Moving his mountainous body through the rooms, he straightens a row of trophies that were knocked over and then from a corner retrieves a large and beautiful cup containing a pair of kid's tennis shoes. The evenings are dark and good, but Norbert's mornings bring a train of hundreds of forgotten faces and memories of 10,000 old indignities. They keep coming until all that he is, all that the night seems to hide, is exposed, until his whole life seems as strange and gossamer as a dream.

Hell, I could have made something of myself, could have been somebody.

The dream flows through him like a violent river, and then the children awaken upstairs; there are four of them, and they are real. Norbert whispers up the stairs and tells the children to be quiet, because their mother is still sleeping. Then he goes to the kitchen, his massive hands and arms moving gently in and out of the china closet, and he begins to prepare breakfast for the kids. He will also pack their school lunches, and in the evening he will prepare dinner. Yuri Vlasov, Russia's champion weight lifter, once said: "Norbert Schemansky is the greatest and strongest athlete I have ever seen."

Sometime during the day, after the dusting, Norbert will go into Detroit, where he is offered such jobs as fishing kids out of an indoor swimming pool ($1 an hour), cleaning latrines ($1 an hour) and the kind recently described by a brewery spokesman: "Sure, we can fit you into our public-relations program. What would you think of going around to bars with one of our salesmen? When you enter all you have to do is lift a keg or two over your head. Sort of entertainment for the customers." In May of 1962 Tass reported: "The story of Schemansky, who just recently established a new world record in the snatch with 362 pounds, a full kilogram over the Soviet bogatyr, Yuri Vlasov, reflects the attitude toward man in a capitalistic world."

The Tass report irritated Schemansky. Sure, it was just propaganda, he felt, but why should he be special? This country doesn't owe a weight lifter anything! "I've never wanted anything for nothing," he says now. "Just a decent job that will allow me to compete at the same time." But the jobs have never been decent—a champion always has to feel like a champion—and making it possible to go on competing has been an unending struggle. Yet he does compete, and exist, but only because of a few people. A neighborhood druggist will not take his money for prescriptions. The family doctor doesn't want his money either. And there is Jack. Jack takes the dues he collects from the 10 other weight lifters who train at the gym and slips the money to Norbert.

How can it be that a man who has won respect for himself and prestige for his country clings to the shadowy periphery of life, is a nonperson without status or function and one whose wife for most of the last 20 years has, in effect, supported his participation for the U.S. with an $80-a-week job? Is it because of those who, with outraged rhetoric and instant chauvinism, are always alert and yakking when America is embarrassed in world competition but are never to be found when the time comes to back up their cocktail-party passion for American excellence? Is it because of Norbert's long and bitter feud with the AAU? Is it because of the obscurity of weight lifting? Or is it because of Norbert Schemansky himself?

Immensely popular in Europe and the Near East—the Egyptian pyramid builders were probably the first lifters—weight lifting occupies an inferior position in this country; the national championships draw little more than a paragraph in most big-city papers. The public relations of the weight-lifting division of the AAU, possibly devoted to the aggrandizement of officialdom, is in part responsible. But, mainly, lifting offers no glamour, no color or escape to those who share the popular misconception about the sport. The fact is that for years the weight lifter has been associated in the public consciousness with the body-builder, that curious creature who can stare trancelike at his own pectoral muscles and become emotionally moved by just measuring his calf. Weight lifters are not fond of body-builders; they often call them "sweethearts." Body-builders refer to lifters as "clods" who cannot comprehend anything beyond a dumbbell.

But weight lifters are not easily categorized. Vlasov, for instance, is an intellectual, and his comrade, Leonid Zhabotsinski, is a bumpkin and a slob who always makes certain he accompanies lighter lifters to dinner because they have to watch their weight; when they leave he stays behind and mops up all of their potatoes. Schemansky has a 132 IQ and a fine sense of humor, and Light Heavyweight Champion Joe Pulio of Detroit spends most of his time trying to solve the mysteries of Zen. There is one U.S. lifter who wants to be a history professor. "I'm great on dates of events," he says. All lifters, however, are similar in this respect: they have misshapen, even grotesque, bodies, and they derive the same satisfactions from the sport.

What drives a man to compete seriously in weight lifting? Obviously, the act of lifting weight cannot spring a man from public anonymity, which is what spurs so many athletes early in their careers. Nor, as many theorize, can a case be made that lifters are psychologically disoriented. They do not worship strength and do not think they are superior human beings because they are among the physical elite. Rather, what motivates them, fulfills them, is the act itself. It is, to them, a beauteous assertion, simple and direct, of the human spirit. The lifter temporarily defeats that which is ultimately superior to him, the physical universe; the weight always remains the same, but the man does not. A guy can get hooked on lifting. Norbert Schemansky is hooked.

"If you quit lifting," says one who did, "you have to have something to take its place. That's why Norbert will never quit." The truth is that Norbert could not have found anything to replace lifting 25 years ago, even if he had wanted to.

The puniest of four brothers, Norbert had no future except the production line of an automobile plant. It was not enough for him, not enough just to make money, but he did not know what he could do about it. People do escape from their environments, but Norbert lacked the type of mind for such a solution. One has to know who he is, what he wants, before he can break away. Quite simply, Norbert had not given birth to himself until one day in a garage when he picked up an old barbell and found in it a beginning. He could break away now, he could become somebody, if only to himself.

"This weight lifting, it is hard?" asked his father, who could not understand why Norbert spent so much time in the gym.

"Yes, Pop, it's hard," said Norbert.

"Harder than work?"

"Yes, Pop, harder than work."

"Can you get paid for this thing?"

"No, I don't think so, Pop."

"You get paid for work, eh, and it isn't as hard?"

"Yes, Pop."

"So, why not work instead of doing this thing?"

"I don't know, Pop."

"Momma! Momma!" his father called.

"Come and talk to this boy, this...."

Norbert did work, of course, and he kept working when he got married—and he kept lifting. At night he would come home, have dinner and leave for the gym across town. Clutching dirty tennis shoes in a brown bag under his arm, he took three streetcars before reaching his destination. In 1948. while working in a factory owned by a celebrated sportsman, he needed time off to compete for the U.S. in the Olympics in London. He got the time off—without pay—and won a silver medal. In 1952, while working at the same factory, he requested time to compete in the Olympics at Helsinki. The word went upstairs, and the word came down: "Sure, he can have all the time he wants. Fire him." Schemansky went anyway, and beat the undefeated Russian world champion, Gregori Novak. He came home with a gold medal, caught a bus from the airport to downtown Dearborn and took a streetcar home. Only a porter at the airport greeted him. "Nice going, Mr. Schemansky," the porter said.

A month after the Olympics Norbert was interviewed on a local sports show. "Can the people of Detroit do anything for you?" the announcer asked. "Yeah," said Norbert. "I need a job." The announcer blanched.

The jobs, mainly menial labor, grew fewer and the family grew larger, but he could not let go of weight lifting. In 1954 he won the heavyweight championship of the world, but he spent most of the following two years in bed and in a brace. He had undergone two major back operations for ruptured discs, and doctors said he would never lift again. In 1960 he won a bronze medal in Rome; the Russians called it the greatest comeback in sports history. In 1962, 8,000 people watched Schemansky, 38, and Vlasov, 26, head to head in the "heavyweight match of the century" in Budapest. Schemansky beat Vlasov in the press and the snatch, but in the clean and jerk, the final lift, Schemansky's ankle collapsed. The Russian won 1,191-1,184. The crowd, standing and roaring for five minutes, would not allow Norbert to leave center stage.

In the 1964 Olympics at Tokyo, Schemansky became the first man to lift a total of 1,200 pounds. He also won a bronze medal. The following year, at 41, he captured another national championship, but it was apparent to him, finally, that an AAU official was right when he had told Norbert, "You could set four world records, and nobody would care. You wouldn't get the Sullivan Award. You talk too much." Through the years Schemansky could have played the game, kept his mouth shut, become a "Deltoid warmer" ("That's the muscle around the neck on which they always put their arms when you're going good"), and maybe now he would be known as a man of substance. But he flailed and goaded the AAU constantly.

A sampling:

"Don't eat, and go out there and see what you can do—that's the AAU philosophy."

"The first time you ever see anybody from the organization is when you're going overseas. A guy comes along and pins a little button on your lapel, and from then on they take credit for what you do."

"Have you ever seen a picture of a weight lifter? No, all you see in the papers are pictures of officials. Look for a photographer and you'll always find an official."

"At the national championships there are always more officials present than lifters. At an international event it's unbelievable. Don't believe this stuff about how they're doing this work for nothing. They do, but many of them use the organization to develop business contacts. That's worth more than pay."

"Right before I went to Rome an Italian restaurant wanted to throw a little party for me to raise, say, maybe only $200 to help my family while I was gone. The AAU heard about it, and said, 'Well, we can't allow this.' No party. Well, when I was going to Tokyo, a popular bar in Detroit, frequented by judges and politicians, decided they would like to throw a benefit for me. They did and raised $600. The AAU knew about it but didn't say anything. They don't like to mess with big shots."

The years of bitterness and economic struggle seemed to overwhelm Norbert recently in the national championships at York, Pa., the muscle capital of this country, where a man's forearm and neck can make heads turn in a bar or restaurant. "I don't know," said Joe Pulio. "This year, it seems, we look at Norbert and suddenly it all seems so hopeless. Here is a guy who is as big as Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio in his sport, and he can't even put bread on his table. Somebody should have done something, should have gone to bat for him. He gave, but they never gave back. Compete for whom? For what? For them?" He pointed to a large circle of officials who, with badges and ribbons festooning their coats, were standing and talking. "Those guys constitute one of the most inept and ridiculous institutions known to man."

Nevertheless, at York, despite his visible depression and the disillusion in his conversation with fans and other lifters, Schemansky was the attraction. Even though he was 42, they could not believe that he was through. Obviously, the officials of the AAU wanted desperately to believe that he was through. The official who was announcing kept referring to Norbert's age and to the fact that here was a champion who had had it; he was not being taken seriously anymore, not even as a critic. The day before, Schemansky had rapped the AAU in the press, and one official, laughing, said to him, "I don't care what you say as long as they spell my name right." Norbert finished third at York, but he was not disappointed. He knew he would not do well. The weight had not changed, but the man was changing—slowly and painfully.

The trip from York ended in Jack's gym early that evening. It is a dank, cluttered dungeon located on a sad-sick street, next door to a hotel that exists only because it offers drunks a 50¢ ride into a night of bad dreams. Some nights, when the drunks are restless, they stumble next door and down the steps to the door of the gym and, banging on the door, they shout, "Hey, Jack, we wanna lift some weights." Jack does not like this, because it disturbs his scribbling, and on this day, a Sunday, he was clearly upset; they had come at him in waves the night before.

"Hell, I'm going to have to move my business," said Jack. "The drunks around here all think they're weight lifters."

"Where you gonna move?" asked Norbert. "Down to the Sheraton Cadillac?"

"Well, how'd you do in York?" said Jack.

"Don't you know?"

"No, they didn't have a line in the papers this morning," said Jack.

"Third," said Norbert. "That's where I told you I'd finish. I had too much on my mind, the campaign and all."

"What's your campaign budget?" a visitor asked Norbert.

"Two hundred dollars this time," said Norbert, "but the last time I ran for the Michigan legislature my budget was only $100. I only lost by 800 votes."

"Your platform?"

"Just a slogan," he said. " 'Down with junks, drunks and punks.' That covers a lot of ground. I don't do any talking. I just go around at night pasting up signs. But in the morning they're torn down."

"Somebody's after us here in Michigan," said Jack.

"Sure, Jack," said Norbert.

"Well, it's true. You haven't even been nominated for the Michigan Hall of Fame."

"I'm not worried about that. I'm going to go to Mexico [the Olympics in 1968] and hook up with Vlasov again and take him this time. The AAU wants me out of the picture, but at 46 I'll still be in it."

Jack, inspired, suddenly sat down and began scribbling in the margins of a magazine. Norbert talked on, until Jack jumped up and said, "This is my first draft." Norbert read, "Dear Mr. President: Norbert Schemansky is the greatest symbol of excellence in the free world but, like Einstein in Nazi Germany, America has no use for him. We must start creating the job around the man. Mr. President, we are an independent, nonprofit social-research consultant firm. We were the first firm to create the job around the man 10 years ago. The results: We won two Olympic medals for America, and the Michigan AAU title seven years in a row. Mr. President, we are a small-business firm without funds, but we have done much for America. Furthermore...."

"Oh, forget it, Jack," said Norbert, tossing Jack's prose aside. "Nobody's listening."

They moved out of the gym and into the night. Jack, grumbling, said he was going for a walk. He was hungry, he said, and walking made him forget about it. Maybe later, he said, he would try to convince Lois that she truly was clever. Norbert said he had to get home immediately, because his wife had to go to work in the morning. Walking away, Jack waved his hands, and Norbert shook his head from side to side. The drunks in the hotel were quiet, perhaps tired from the night before.

PHOTOART SHAYJock and Lois on the way to an evening of solitaire, country music and some note-scribbling.PHOTOART SHAYWith some of the trophies of a lifetime of lifting—those still shiny and unsecured—Norbert stands proudly, flanked by his wife and children: Pam, Laura, Larry, Paula.PHOTOART SHAY