Wake Up Happy
WHAT I LEARNED FROM HERSCHEL WALKER
Help can—and will—come from the most unexpected places. Be open to everything around you.
MANNHEIM, GERMANY, was an awesome place to grow up. It wasn’t a giant city like Berlin or Munich, but it was a big enough town and there was enough going on that we never got cabin fever. There was always something to do.
When I was thirteen years old, my favorite activity was to chase after my brothers and their friends. Wherever they went, I wanted to go too. My brothers, Victor, Chris, and Gene Junior, were fifteen, seventeen, and twenty-one, and I worshipped them. I had two older sisters as well, but it was all about my brothers to me. And then there was
our extended family. Because we were all so far away from home on an American base, friends became family quickly. Mothers—many of whom had neither the work visas nor the language skills applicable to the countries in which they were based and therefore had time on their hands—felt licensed to grab you by the collar and question you as if you were a soldier gone AWOL, now facing disciplinary action:
Where’s your homework?
What are you doing?
Where are you going?
Where’s my kid?
Who’s dating whom?
Did I see your brother kissing my daughter? You know that girl is only fourteen; you better tell Gary that if he doesn’t want Tanisha’s father to have a talk with your father, he better act like he knows.
This was Germany in the 1980s, so it was all Smurfs and gummi bears at the Base Exchange, the shop near my father’s office that stocked everything we might need. But nothing you could buy in a store could compete with my mother and her Cake Boss–level baking. My mother and her friends made all of the classic deep dishes from home: cherry pies, mixed berry pies, caramel apple walnut pies. Then there were the cakes. Every mother I knew kept a yellow cake with chocolate icing on a glass cake stand in her kitchen in case her husband brought someone home for dinner, or an unexpected late afternoon coffee break, an unannounced guest, say a high-ranking officer or a visiting American dignitary.
But that was just the standard. Like I said, these women had time on their hands. So in addition to the yellow cakes they whipped up
from boxes of Duncan Hines procured at the Base Exchange, there was the more exotic fare: black chocolate lava cake or Earl Grey tea cake, not to mention all the German specialties. People always talk about the French and their bakeries. I’ve been to France more than a few times, but having grown up in Germany, I have to set the record straight for you: you can’t tell the Germans a thing about making cakes. Forget about Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, Black Forest Cake. That’s nothing but a mess of chocolate, cherries, and whipped cream. Let’s talk about some Bienenstich, Bee Sting Cake, a beautiful yellow cake confection with caramelized almonds and a buttercream filling. Don’t even get me started on the Berliner, which are like jelly donuts—if jelly donuts were made in heaven, by angels. And then there’s Spaghettieis, which is a bowl of German ice cream that has been put through some special spaetzle press so that the vanilla ice cream looks like a bowl of spaghetti, after which it’s covered with a strawberry sauce, which is cooked to look just like tomato sauce, and then the sauce is covered with shaved coconut, which mimics Parmesan cheese. Proof positive that German ingenuity does not apply just to cars, people.
As you can tell, I spent more than a little time eating when I was a kid. My mother could cook, and she is, to this day, the picture of Southern comfort, easy grace, and hospitality. I’d get home from school and she’d wrap me in a giant bear hug.
“Afternoon, baby, how was your day?” she’d ask.
At thirteen, a lot of boys don’t want to sit down and chitchat with their mothers. But I’d walk in the house, and the kitchen would smell like a bakery, and there was my mom—standing there like a female Willy Wonka—offering me the golden ticket of goodies every single day of the week.
She’d cut me a big piece of just-baked streusel and pour me a cold glass of milk, and you bet I’d sit down for thirty minutes and tell that woman anything she wanted to know. I’d tell her about how Mrs. Polans was a nice teacher, but Algebra 1 was so freakin’ hard, I didn’t know how I’d make it to Algebra 2. Or about how Mr. Adlersflügel, who taught our German class, cut himself shaving each and every day. He’d come to class with little pieces of toilet paper all over his face. My mother would laugh so hard at my impression of Mr. Adlersflügel, done in animated, exaggerated German. “Oh, bless his heart!” she’d say. “He must be single, because no woman would let him walk out of the house like that.” My mother didn’t have a mean bone in her body, but she loved to hear funny stories about our teachers and the other families on base, and I loved to make her laugh. Louise Strahan’s laugh is just like her baking: all butter and sugar, with just the tiniest dash of salt.
My friends and I did our best to increase awareness about the game of American style football. We would play with whoever expressed an interest. And when we tired of football, we would go to a friend’s house and play Atari. But what I really loved to do was hang out with my brothers.
One afternoon I was following the older kids. My brothers and their friends kept calling back to me, “Bob! Bob! Keep up, Bob!” I didn’t think anything of it. My brothers always called me Bob. Sure, it was an odd nickname, given that my name is Michael. But not any odder than what my friends were called by their big brothers.
That day, as I was huffing and puffing my way up that twelve-foot fence, my brother’s friend Anthony came up behind me.
He said, “You know why they call you Bob, right?”
I shrugged. Who knew why my brothers did any of the things they did?
He turned to me sympathetically. “Bob stands for Booty on Back,” he said. “They call you that because you’re fat.”
When he told me what “Bob” really meant, a name that my brothers had been calling me for years, I was stunned.
I close my eyes and I can see myself, plummeting four feet down to the ground slowly, so slowly that I have the time to ask myself the question again and again:
Am I fat?
Am I fat?
Am I fat?
I hit the grass with a thud, and while I can feel the bruises coming up on my back, my neck, my arms, feel the cuts and scrapes on my bare legs, I’m hurting far more on the inside than on the outside.
Anthony looks down at me. He is still hanging on to the fence. “Hey, man,” he shouts. “You okay?”
I nod yes. Then I say it as loud as I can. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
Once I see Ant has cleared the fence and gone running toward the field, I dust myself off, and with real, hot tears on my face, I take off in the other direction—toward home and my mom.
Louise Strahan has many gifts, but lying is not one of them. If Germany had ever been invaded during our time abroad, and the security of our base and the nation relied on her powers of subterfuge, we would’ve all been sunk.
“It’s a simple question, Mama,” I asked. “Am I fat?”
My mother looked as hurt as I felt as she tried to dodge the truth. “Oh no, baby,” she cooed. “You are not fat. You are husky.”
I rolled my eyes.
She then gave me a hug and cut me a piece of freshly baked pecan pie. (I know it’s illogical that I’d follow the most devastating insult of my young life with dessert, but come on. I was thirteen. I was not about to say no to pie.) As I sat at the table, my mind worked on the problem. My father always said, “Show me the baby, not the labor. Tell me about the solution, not the problem.” But to come up with the solution, I needed to define the problem. There were fat kids at school. We all knew who they were. But my friends never called me fat. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see a big boy. So how was I going to fix it when I couldn’t even see it?
That night, when my dad came home from work, I asked him if I could talk to him in his bedroom, privately. My dad is not my mother. My dad will tell you the truth, even if it hurts.
“Dad,” I asked. “Do you know why my brothers call me Bob?”
My dad nodded his head yes.
I took a deep breath in and forged ahead, just to get my mind fully up to speed with what was going on.
“Dad, am I fat?” I asked.
My dad didn’t look pleased to tell me, but he did anyway. “Yes, son. You could lose some weight.”
I was crushed. “What am I going to do?”
My dad shrugged. “Eat less. Exercise more.”
“Okay,” I said.
Then my dad did what he does so well: he gave me the little bit of extra insight that helped me figure out how to get the job done.
“It’s a simple formula,” he said. “But it’s not an easy one. You’re going to have to eat a whole lot less. And you are going to have to exercise a whole lot more.”
I started watching what I was eating. That’s not the easiest thing for a thirteen-year-old growing boy to do. But the fact is, I’d been going to town, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My mother’s food was so delicious, I would typically go back for seconds and thirds even though I knew I was full. Now, instead of having two plates of my mom’s broccoli-and-rice casserole, I’d have just one. Same thing with dessert—just one helping, and I aimed to make it a small one. Being older, my brothers Victor and Chris hardly made it home for dinner most nights. So there was only my mom, my dad, and me home most of the time. It pained my mother to see me eat less. She’d get an expression on her face like a dog lover watching a stray being kicked on the street. It seemed to her a form of child abuse not to fill my plate to the top and then refill it again.
Sometimes she just couldn’t help herself: “Baby, Mama’s got butter cake for dessert. And ice cream. Let me cut you a nice big piece, you’ve hardly been eating at all.”
Luckily my father was always there to step in. “Louise,” he’d say lovingly but sternly. “You see what he’s trying to do. Just let the boy be.”
Because I was a kid and my metabolism was through the roof, I began to lose weight quickly—even with regular samplings of my mother’s desserts. But the thing that made the biggest difference was the exercise. I’d purchased a Jane Fonda workout tape—yes, tape, on VHS—and every day after school, I’d pop it in.
I know it might be hard to imagine me, six-foot-five former pro-ball player, on the floor of his parents’ living room, sweating it out
with Jane Fonda. But you have to remember. This was 1985, and Jane Fonda was at the forefront of a fitness revolution. I saw the commercials for her tapes on television and what seemed clear was that they worked.
The first day that I brought the tape home and popped it into the VCR, my mother stood at the doorway of the living room, cheering me on. “Go ahead, baby, you work that booty off,” she said, with a smile.
I was glad my mom wasn’t going to supervise my workouts or join in, because this is the thing: the Jane Fonda workout videos were unexpectedly hot. Not since I’d seen Jennifer Beals in Flashdance when I was twelve had I seen so many good-looking women walking around in nothing but leotards, leg warmers, and the occasional off-the-shoulder sweatshirt.
The music is vintage eighties pop: lots of keyboards, synthesizers, and drum machines. And the way the video starts out, it’s almost as if the women are in a club—a club where they walk around in their leotards or, as in the case of the blonde who is front and center, a sports bra, a skimpy leotard, and a white visor—to keep the sun out of her eyes (indoors nonetheless). After they greet each other, they start throwing their legs up on the ballet barre. There are two guys and about fifteen girls—which seemed like the kind of odds I liked.
I’ve always been a guy who doesn’t just listen to music. I get into the lyrics. And the lyrics of the opening song to the Jane Fonda workout tape seemed to speak directly to me.
There’s so much more to you than meets the eye.
There’s so much more in you, you’re going to try.
From the beginning, I found the workout challenging, but the distraction of the pretty girls helped me get through it. Because my brothers had teased me about my bubble butt, I paid special attention to the glute exercises. If Jane said do twenty leg lifts, I did fifty. If she started with fifteen fire hydrant kicks, then I’d pause the tape and do an extra twenty-five. I was literally trying to work my butt off. It worked. I started at the beginning of the school year, and by Christmas I was trimmer and fitter than I’d ever been.
That year, the Dallas Cowboys signed a player named Herschel Walker. I hadn’t grown up in Texas, but the Cowboys were a big part of our household because my parents are Texans through and through. Unlike a lot of pro athletes, Herschel never bragged about the hours he logged in the weight room. Instead, he had always been—since he was a kid my age—into exercises that used his own body weight. I was amazed to learn that at the age of twelve, Herschel had weighed only one hundred pounds and was just five feet, three inches tall. He’d had the exact opposite problem from mine. Instead of being “Bob,” he’d been the puny guy that nobody ever picked for sports. Creating his own routine of push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and quick sprints, he’d built his body up into a muscle machine. By the time he’d reached ninth grade, he was a high school football all-star and weighed in at an impressive 185 pounds—all muscle with impossible-to-beat speed.
Herschel didn’t have a video like Jane, but he had a book called Herschel Walker’s Basic Training. I’d lost enough weight that my brothers stopped calling me “Bob,” but I didn’t want to stop. Herschel’s book seemed like the perfect next step. I saved up and bought that too. I began to get serious about building muscle.
One of the things that Herschel talked about in his book was how, as a kid, he would do push-ups and sit-ups during the commercials on television. So in addition to doing the Jane Fonda workout three days a week after school as soon as I got home, I added in Herschel’s moves during the commercial breaks of my favorite shows.
My father had always been an active dad. When I was six years old, he was one of the commanders of the 82nd Airborne Division, the paratroopers at Fort Bragg. He’d let me come with him on training runs with the troop. If I ran the whole way, I’d get a big bottle of Gatorade at the end. My dad would have to force my brothers to run, but I just loved following behind the troops as they sweated it out in the sun, singing “I don’t know what you’ve been told . . . But 82nd Airborne came to rock and roll.” I might as well have had a sign around my neck that said, “Will run for Gatorade.” But it was more than that; it was a way for me and my dad to be together, to be active, and to work out.
As much as I loved our time running together, between the ages of nine and thirteen I stopped playing organized sports and began to spend more time eating and sitting around watching television. Hence the weight gain that led to the “Bob” nickname. Now, with Jane Fonda and Herschel Walker in my corner, my father saw how serious I was about getting into shape and he started working out with me every day. My dad is a reader. He’ll buy a computer, and before he even opens the box, he will sit and read the manual cover to cover. He wants to know all there is to know on any given subject. A decade before any of us had ever used the term Google, my father would research a subject exhaustively.
So when my workouts became his latest project, my father spent weeks doing the research to make sure he best understood how to
train a teenage boy like me. He read every muscle and fitness magazine he could lay his hands on. He created specific weight training programs that I would follow and he would log. On the weekends, we would jog together for miles. It was on those runs that I got to know who my dad really was.
I also learned that help can and will come from the most unexpected places and people. When I was a boy, it was Jane Fonda and a football great, Herschel Walker, long before I ever had an inkling I’d one day play the game professionally myself. Consequently, I make a point of not making assumptions about people and staying open to the possibility that alliances might come in the most unlikely packages.