In his 1969 hit “Polk Salad Annie,” singer songwriter Tony Joe White, who also penned the immortal (and more traditional) “Rainy Night in Georgia,” tossed off these kooky lines: “The only thing her brothers were fit for / was stealing watermelons out of my truck patch.” A truck patch, internet research reveals, is a small piece of ground marked out of a larger property, not unlike a garden, but dedicated to growing vegetables, or in this case, watermelons, for roadside sale from one’s vehicle. Ergo, “truck patch.” But during a recent deep listen to that offbeat classic of swamp-rock—if that’s a genre—the phrase that caught my attention was “fit for.” Fit for. Tony Joe’s lyrics started me ruminating on the concept of fitness.
During this past election cycle, we heard a great deal about fitness, with both the Democratic and Republican parties fielding candidates whose obvious weaknesses generated skepticism over their ability to serve, or their fitness for public office. I’ll concede that some prospects were better than others, but I’ve long since abandoned the idea that many men—or women—could ever wear the mantle of greatness.
And then in the heat of the campaign season came this depressing report from the U.S. Department of Defense: 77 percent of those of eligible age “would not qualify for military service without a waiver due to being overweight, using drugs, or having mental and physical health problems.” This, according to Military.com. Dumbfounding. Over three-quarters of our military-age population is unfit to serve.
Cognitive dissonance alert: How can this be, you might reasonably wonder, considering the scene after work and on weekends when legions of yoga-pants-ed limbs are heading for some institute of sweat culture to perform exertions in increasing degrees of difficulty. When I risk being run off the sidewalk by a jogger clipping along at an envious pace; where everywhere beefy young men seem to be toting athletic gear?
I might offer a personal response. Under the influence of the film Pumping Iron, my teenage buddies and I worked out with weights in which every set, each repetition, was executed as heavily as possible—gambling on injuries we didn’t suffer only because we were young—in imitation of the anabolic steroid-fueled stars of that superb documentary, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Brooklyn’s own Lou Ferrigno.
I was, and still am, more of a fan of Mickey Hargitay, the proto-Arnold, whose own exploits date from before the era of the film. A blockhead of jaw-dropping physical proportions, Mickey was married to Jayne Mansfield, and he’s Law and Order star Mariska Hargitay’s father. What’s there not to like? But really, what were these men fit for, besides strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage in teeny, tiny shorts?
My approach to soundness of body continued in a like manner until I reached my mid-40s. Sadly, I did not look like Mickey. I resembled a safe with shoes. This wasn’t suitability or appropriateness; I wasn’t performing a series of acts with an eye toward serving some greater, higher purpose. In other words, this wasn’t fitness. What I had achieved was vanity. I was way too old to be an Olympic powerlifter, and I had zero intentions of entering any (senior division) body-building competition, though it had occurred to me that I might be called upon by fate to carry somebody up a flight or two of subway stairs. Would I be capable of that?
Even during my current advanced years, I’ve been known to sneak what the writer Dennis Potter called a “white tube of delight,” that is, a cigarette or two, and the Lord knows I love my coffee. But I have been blessedly free from alcohol and other mind-altering substances for decades. As an erstwhile bartender, I believe there’s nothing wrong with taking a drink, provided it doesn’t consume your life the way it had mine.
It’s disconcerting, however, to step outside my door and be enveloped by the permanent marijuana miasma that has descended upon the City of New York, to be picking up its rancid odor at 8:30 in the morning, when some lost soul, often a young man of the yoga pants and athletic gear, has already given up on the day. Add to that those twin consternations of our contemporary age, depression and anxiety (much of it caused by . . . chronic marijuana use), plus the infinite number of hours logged in front of screens—and the Pentagon’s report that this generation is ill-suited to serve comes off not as Chicken Little hysteria, but a pillar of common sense.
Physical and mental fitness are tightly interwoven, and while I’ve been disappointed with the diminishing returns of the former, the latter is probably as good as it’s ever been. That’s one of the few benefits of getting older, although I do remain stubbornly quirky and somewhat difficult. I’m aware of that.
But in my gimlet-eyed view of the world, I belong to the swamp rockers and the political junkies, the gung-ho Marines and the power-lifters, even the potheads. And all of them are mine to look after. I’m here in this unceasing present to cultivate the proper motives and intentions, to be worthily disposed for service, to be fit. And fitness, not to put to fine a point on it, means that what they can’t do, I’ll try to do for them. Carrying them from the subway platform to the street, stirring up a restorative Old Fashioned, maybe one day planting a truck patch in Brooklyn.
And please leave my watermelons alone.