It was the middle
of May, and out-side the Greater Scranton YMCA the air was a brutal combination
of humidity, flatulence from the nearby Interstate and, of course, the
effluvium of Greater Scranton itself. Inside the Y, though, the atmosphere was
more bracing. It smelled of booze and balm, of barrooms and locker rooms—which
was as it should have been upon the occasion of the second National American
Arm Wrestling Association Championships. If ever a sport developed out of
friendly, and not so friendly, barroom tests of strength, it is arm
this Saturday morning the meet was about to begin and the 156 male and 12
female contestants were warming up, each with his own words, each in his own
way. The smaller men paced quickly, applying analgesic balm and chattering
words of courage to themselves. The bigger men lounged around, applying
analgesic balm and taking little sips of courage from their Thermos jugs. One
of them, wearing a turban, was explaining to everyone within earshot that the
perfect drink for a long day of arm wrestling was a blend of protein powder,
soy flour, wheat germ, orange juice, fresh strawberries, almonds, bananas, raw
eggs and beer.
The warming up
continued. Spectators began to fill the auditorium, filing past the burly young
ticket taker. The scene seemed remarkably decorous, all things considered, when
the ticket taker stepped forward and barred the door. "Hold it, Pop,"
he said to a middle-aged man in horn-rimmed glasses. "It's two bucks to see
the show." To which the middle-aged man replied, with a pleasant, though
unblinking, smile, "It doesn't cost me a penny to see the show, Sonny. I am
the show." And before the ticket taker had a chance to do or say anything
for which he would without question have been sorry, someone shouted, "Hey,
it's Al! It's the champ! Al Turner's here!" and the middle-aged gent was
surrounded and bustled through the door into the auditorium by a group of
laughing men, of every age and size, all trying to talk at once.
The subject of
their joy and attention, Allen Turner, seems at first glance an unlikely hero
for any group of strength athletes. Born on Jan. 20, 1928, his age alone should
serve to disqualify him, and he doesn't radiate the kind of heavy-duty power
one associates with arm wrestling. It is puzzling—until you notice the hands.
Lord have mercy, what a pair of mitts! Great rough-cut mallets, they fan out
from his wrists with tendons the size of guywires and display a set of digits
that would look more at home on the feet of a Sasquatch.
matches that morning and afternoon, those hands fulfilled their promise. Al
Turner downed the arms of all comers in the 200-to-220 weight class to win his
eighth national title in 11 tries. So easy was it that often he would smile and
wink at the audience as his adversary strained. In the finals, after the signal
to begin, he held his arm rock steady in the beginning position for perhaps 20
seconds while shouting at his sweating young opponent (a good friend),
"C'mon, Randy, pull! Let's have it! Pull! C'mon!" before ending the
mismatch with a downward stroke of hand, wrist, arm, shoulder—and a smile.
"Even as a kid
I had a good arm," Turner says, gravel-voiced. "The first match I
remember was one I had when I was 14, against a friend of my father, a big guy
who weighed about 230 to my 135. He and my dad had come in from a drinking bout
and were playing across the kitchen table. The guy beat my dad, then laughed
and asked me if I'd like to try. So I did, and I dumped him. And then I dumped
him again. And from that day on I never lost a match until 1973, when I was
beaten in the finals of the nationals by Steve Stanaway."
During the 30
years between 1942 and 1972, when Turner entered his first arm-wrestling
tournament, he "pulled arms" thousands of times: against his
schoolmates, at first, against his buddies in the Marines, against an even
wider variety of contenders once he had left the service and returned home to
school days and his three years in the Corps, he had played for the fun and
satisfaction of it, but after coming home he had his first money match.
"The first time I pulled for money I was 22 years old," he says. "I
was working in a foundry, doing heavy work, and one of the guys there, he
weighed 260, wanted to see if he could take me. So we bet a buck and he paid me
with a silver dollar. My wife still has it."
And as Turner
became known for his strength, other matches for money came his way, some of
them arranged by his older brother Bob. "We had a heck of a time,"
Turner recalls, "traveling around, going to the clubs and taverns and
playing these guys. I remember once Bob came over to my place after work, all
charged up, telling me about this guy he had run into out of town somewhere who
kept bending these big railroad spikes and asking him to arm wrestle. Bob told
him, 'Look, Buddy, I don't want to play, but I've got a kid brother who can
take you.' Bob said the guy just laughed and bent another spike and said, 'Oh,
yeah? Maybe your kid brother'd like to go for two hundred bucks.' Well, when we
get to this tavern for the match, the first thing the big palooka does is to
double up another one of those spikes. 'To warm up,' he tells me. But when we
play, I blow him off the table, and as we're leaving Bob pulls a 10 off that
big roll of bills and tells the guy, 'Here. Go buy yourself some more spikes.'
After nine years
at the foundry, Turner took a job at a lumberyard in Brockton, where he worked
until a few weeks ago when he hired on in another lumberyard in Watertown. He
kept looking for money matches wherever he could find them. "During the
early years, I'd have two or three a month, sometimes more," he says.
"But by the late '60s, word had got around, and I went almost five years
without a match." Then, in 1972, things took a decisive turn.