Paul Kelso’s Memories of His York Big 12 Set

My Big 12 set arrived in 1953, when I was a junior in high school. It had all the gadgets: Iron Shoes, with straps similar to those found on roller skates of the day, kettlebell handles, wrist roller, neck harness, long bar, 2 dumbbell bars with chromed (or, at least, I think tinned) sleeves to put in between the plates for your hand grip. I don’t recall a long sleeve for the big bar. Four 25 lb. plates were included and an assortment of smaller, of course. You could make a 'Swingbell.' Remember that idea? Collars for all bars were drilled for a bolt and I even got a wrench with the set to use for tightening them. The wrench was immediately lost or purloined by my father for his tool box. I swiped his pliers.

Ah, my long suffering father. Being a ranch boy who survived the Great Depression, he was neither convinced that lifting would help me nor that I wouldn’t be better off getting a part-time laborer’s job. He was also imbued with the then-current belief of coaches and most athletes that weight training would make a person “muscle bound,” cause heart problems, or convert me to wearing silk underwear.

But, as there wasn’t a mine, mill or hayfield anywhere near our house in suburban Dallas, Dad gave in and bought me the York set. I forget the price, perhaps $39, and my father wasn’t real happy with THAT, either. He was sure I would dink around with the weights for a week or two and lose interest, and he could convert the plates into fishing boat anchors.

To his surprise, the back yard was soon filled with muscle heads and aspiring wrestlers, amateur and pro, and half the old wooden two car garage taken over to house a primitive gym against the coming winter. My pals brought over some of their bars and plates and we cobbled up a squat rack of 4 x 4’s, laid a pipe across the rafters for chinning, built a platform from 4 x 8 plywood sheets once used for a model railroad layout, and thought we were set. But NO.

1953 York Big 12 Set Ad
First things first. One fellow showed up with a three by five metal sheet, maybe stainless, with one side a mirror finish. Where and how to hang it became the game. All other progress stopped til that was solved. Some things are important.

There were some downsides. The kettle bell handles were tried a few times and then set aside. The Iron Shoes were tried for extensions and leg curls, but not consistently. Strapping them on and then getting in position for leg curls was a hassle. Also, we had no bench. One could not in those years go to any corner discount house and buy a weight bench for two reasons: 1.) The Bench Press did not yet have universal popularity as organized powerlifting was ten years in the future, and, 2.), What discount store? Woolworth's 5 & 10? So we used a surplus US Army wooden ammunition box.

My musician older brother wanted no part of our efforts, but he approved. When I would train out in the backyard (working on my tan) I would occasionally lose a snatch or other overhead lift. Dropping from over seven feet, the 25 lb. plates would sink in the Bermuda grass about five inches, leaving ruts that caught lawn mower wheels, infuriating my father. I had permanent grass cutting duty from then on. My brother smirked.

This backyard iron rodeo went on for a couple years. In the spring of 1955, I entered several AAU weightlifting contests at the old Dallas YMCA. One cold March evening I was training inside the old home garage which was constructed of 4 x 4s, 2 x 4s and 6s, and thin 1/2" x 12" horizontal siding.

You can guess what happened. The makeshift platform gave under foot while I had 220 lbs. overhead, I lost the bar forward, tried to run under it, and made a hole in the side of the garage roughly the shape of a barbell with a 190 lb. boy attached. It was a scene out of a Tom & Jerry cartoon where the bulldog throws Tom through the wall, leaving a cat-shaped black hole. My brother observed that I was only fifty-five percent murdalized. My father was not amused, but later he did come to my meets, much to my surprise.

That was the last of the garage gym. I trained at the YMCA or the SMU field house from then on. My friends went off to colleges here and there, as did I, and I joined the Army in December of 1955. My Dad moved my Big 12 set over to the basement of the Baptist church we went to, but I still have the books and courses shipped with it. It was a grand time. I am still in contact with a few of my old pals. We wish we could do it all again.

Paul Kelso

Paul Kelso

Paul Kelso's Memories of His York Big 12 Set