Lionel Tiger is the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University and co-research director of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.
The first important book of a young adolescent’s life may well be a military thriller or a romantic tale – perhaps even of adultery, or an adventurous high-school field trip. For me, I had my cherished novels by André Gide and James Joyce. But to be confessionally honest, I must nominate as my go-to stimulant the alarmingly banal 5BX Plan, from the Royal Canadian Air Force.
This, of course, was the manual of exercises that took 11 minutes a day and could be done at home. The booklet cost a savage 50 cents from the Government Printing Bureau in Ottawa in 1965. Quietly, insistently, it gained followers from earnest Canadians proud of their fliers but also comforted by a nationally certified path to health that could not be more modest and under control. It also produced a modest jolt to health seekers internationally, who otherwise could not find Ottawa on a map with big letters. The luminously gifted actor Helen Mirren recently celebrated her 74th birthday while regularly engaged in the quiet self-improvement routine of portable simplicity provided for Mr. and Ms. Kitchener Front Porch and their Air Force offspring.
This was a triumph of low-key Canadian effectiveness. What gym in the world could be more calmly to-the-point and more sensible about means and ends? It required no high-fashion stretch fabric from Milan, no pounding mix-tapes confected by hazy night-time stars, no lighting pageants redolent of Cirque du Soleil and no annual or monthly or weekly dues to compete with rent in financial severity. What a successful Canadian gesture. Consider the contrast with today, when there’s a gym on every street corner and every affluent apartment building houses a gym suitable for professional athletic teams marinated in sinister aggressive resolve.
But what effect had this on my own maturation as a sports hero and candidate for the Toronto Maple Leafs?
My central plight was not only that was I descended from sturdy but short immigrants. But I was even more diminutive among my significant and competitive peers because I refused to attend the second day of kindergarten at the King Edward VII School in Montreal.
The crisis arose because on the first day of school, all the children were made to sit in a raggedy circle and then throw a basketball into a wastebasket in the middle. Of the mob of kids, I was the only student who succeeded. The teacher then asked the whole class to clap for – she glanced at the roster – Lionel.
This was, of course, unbearable. It was, of course, unacceptable. When my mother could discern I was fiercely serious about my proposed boycott of kindergarten, she decided to take me to see Mr. Bigger the Principal. She revealed – and I proved smoothly – that I could read and write well beyond the kindergarten level and so I was elevated in a swift day to First Grade.
I was now not only the youngest child in class but, much worse, the smallest.
Hence my scholastic athletic career was implacably an irritating hardship, not a parade of trophies, banners, plaques and quiet self-confidence. Doing my best nonetheless, I selected badminton as a size-appropriate sport and satisfied myself I was adequately capable and vigorous. In high school, I continued with water polo, which was also size-friendly, but not exactly an Arcadian frolic in the park.
But throughout this travail, there was the redemptive triumph of the 5BX program. Every day yielded a successful game, played against my self and of which I was the winner.
And there was more, gratifyingly more. Not only did the Royal Canadian Air Force provide a daily way to measure personal competence, but it contained a spur to continuing self-improvement. And this was at the core of its national mission – to trim up and pep up and shape up the men and women who flew the planes. That was the goal: Aircrew level. Same 11 minutes a day but faster and harder – Aircrew! And I could accomplish this, size be damned.
To this day, when in airports I see a member of the RCAF in uniform and on the scene, or even one of their carefully svelte cousin Air Canada crew, calmly managing their big machines, I think: They shaped up to Aircrew status. These are not the indulgently near-retirement flabbies one sees around Arizona aerodromes. No, these are the taut Aircrew-level push-uppers, the calmly effective knee-benders in place, the royalty of sit-ups, the confident masters of the air who master their bodies.
Members of the calmest, most laconic elite. And for that 50 cents, I could join them. This was quite simple but quite amazing. The RCAF offered a manageable way to commit not to personal sub-dominance, but rather to quiet enjoyment of personal efficacy.
What a deft solution to the growing-up efforts of an earnest adolescent and then grown-up citizen.
Think big and place this in a sort of theological context. The RCAF exercise program is, in a historical sense, a surprisingly apt translation of broad quasi-religious or spiritual commitment to the redemptive and sociable self-improving so important in Canadian history. It fully supports national values of civil conduct. It fits and suits and supports a modest but tested style of operational Canadiana. It encompasses a version of public respectability supported by personal virtue. Becoming personally fit was not only a boost to social and sexual quality but also a quiet signal of responsible citizenship.
It was not a signal of competitive vanity but of good sense, not solely of self-involvement but of commitment to lives of useful measure. And, of course, especially, of good example to others, the young and fading alike. It is difficult to conjecture a more apt rendition of national value and virtue.
Again, what a contrast between that brief booklet and what has become a vast, colourful industry that has lured multitudes into a clattery pageant of memberships, facilities and yearly or monthly enrolments.
The booklet maintains a seemly distance from ever more presumptuous programs of personal physio-redemption ranging from the comedic Gwyneth Paltrow to the unfathomable climbers of lofty, drastic rock faces. It pays no-never-mind attention to the forever runners who subject themselves to demanding rules of private accomplishment announced by tense self-absorbed surrealists with especially costly sneakers.
But back to the dire matter of keeping our bodies Aircrew level and comfortably purring. Is there not also a broad sense of the civilian public in the quiet private work of toning up the body’s competence? Rather, as in: I exercise for you, for our community, for what is public as well as private.
So that should we ever have to we can stand on guard for thee?