“Memories” by Robert Thurman


I came into this world in 1947, Austria. My upbringing was typical of the time and place, although perhaps my parents were stricter than others because my father was the local chief of police. Whenever I disobeyed my parents, the consequence was always the same. I was forced to drop my trousers and lean over the arm of the love seat in the sitting room, where light and warmth from the fireplace played over my bare skin. My father retrieved his police baton, a formidable weapon with “Land of Mountains, Land by the River” carved in the dark wood. Beneath the words was a wavy line meant to represent both the mountains and river. My mother knitted in her rocking chair by the window with the curtains, blood-red, drawn. She looked up every so often to see my welts rise and mutter in her thick, pudding breath, “Nein, nein, nein,” thinking back to whatever minor offense I had committed.

The number of times my father struck me corresponded with how many years old I was. I was thirteen the last time I received this punishment and the circumstance I remember clearly. I had purchased a small nickel-plated toothpick case from a shop in Graz, the city bordering the village of my youth, and the case featured a design of a western pin-up girl, bare breasted. I prized the object and often fit the toothpicks in the gap between my two front teeth. To my horror the case was discovered in the laundry by my mother one spring day. I had forgotten to take it out of my pocket and stow it beneath my mattress, where I also kept a folding knife and a peppermint stick that I had been sucking for weeks before bed. The toothpick case floated in the wash tub, the nickel flashed––a double offense for the brazen image of the girl and also the toothpicks. Hot pain spread down my legs as my father brought down the baton, once, twice, thirteen times. When my father finally lowered the baton and stepped back, breathing heavily, my mother rose from the rocking chair and hit my backside with her knitting needles as if I was a lame horse.

Then they retired for the evening and left me alone, humiliated. I stumbled in front of the fireplace, trousers dragging around my ankles, tears streaming down my face and neck, and thought of my beloved pin-up girl. There was a pool of molten nickel in the fireplace where she had been melted. I worked my member until I came onto the flames, wishing that the pin-up girl was more than just a bought image. I wanted to run away with her, cross the river, climb the mountains, and make love on the other side. The German word for this feeling is “fernweh.” The English equivalent, which would be something like “wanderlust,” does not compare.


I wanted desperately to be away from my parents and began to separate myself at fourteen through weight-lifting. The idea was to get pumped so that my father and his world would become very, very small. In the beginning, I equipped the basement of our house with a set of weights and there, in the dark, I began my metamorphosis. I found their Nazi party arm bands in a wooden crate. They did not talk about the war, but I knew what it meant. I pumped harder. I pumped faster. As the baby fat dissolved and muscle took shape, my father began to avoid me. If we passed each other in the house, he gave me a wide berth and would not look me in the eye. In these moments I was smiling on the inside, although I could not show it.

I moved out of the basement and into professional facilities. I saw men training for titles and knew these titles opened up the world. “I am going to move out of here,” I told myself. “I am going to be somebody.” I could have filled a dozen bathtubs with my sweat. I began competing and found myself on the winner’s podium. So many eyes on my body. Me, somebody. My fellow competitors and I shared the same addiction for blood rushing to the muscles after lifting, that sudden warmth, and before great stretches of mirrors we planted our feet and flexed, admiring the torn fibers of muscle that looked like fingers rising beneath the skin. You cannot imagine the beauty. You do not have to. There is no reason to imagine when you can find photographs or film of the time. We ripped ourselves apart and grew back stronger. In lines we practiced our poses, the air cut with our musk.

The pain I accepted. It did not, however, have control over me. I addressed it with closed eyes, nostrils flared, feet stamped wide apart: “You can move through me, but you cannot make a home of me. You can put me in bed tonight, exhausted, but you cannot stifle my animal love. You can make me feel like a burning heart on two legs and for that I am grateful.” Pain became just another piece of furniture in my life thanks to the discipline I cultivated. It is a sport that shapes the mind as much as the body and my parents could not deny the overwhelming change in me.

My father never touched me again, not after the thirteen licks of the police baton, except to shake my hand before I left Austria for America in 1968. I was twenty-one and had just won my first Mr. Universe title. I would go on to win Mr. Olympia seven times. I would break into show business. I would get an education. Most importantly, I would make my name known far beyond the little village in Austria where I had been born and where my father was chief of police. I can still feel his handshake on the morning I left for America––weak. He was an ant so inconsequential that I did not bother to crush him.


I remember the first time I saw my face on the screen in the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. I didn’t go to the premier because I wasn’t well-known at the time. Rather, I went to a matinee showing of The Long Goodbye after a workout. It was better that way because I could enjoy the experience without the crowd to distract. I did not even bother to change out of my sweatshirt and shorts. As the previews played, I glanced around the grand theater, decadent with reds and golds, velvet and marble, a theater of Chinese design and yet, in the atmosphere of privilege, a place entirely American. I felt that it belonged to me, all of it, and on the silver screen I saw everything I had worked so hard to achieve, a body of perfect proportion.

I tried not to cry during the screening. What I have not said is that my father had died earlier that year. I did not mourn him. I have never mourned him. I was in fact relieved to be free of him and this relief ran through me in electric waves. As I watched my face on the screen, I knew that I had made something of myself and I alone was responsible for my successes. A man must be proud of himself before others can be proud of him. And on the way out of the theater, a pair of blond women recognized me. They said, “It’s you!” and I said, “It’s me.” Then we went into the bathroom together, the handicapped stall, and one of them kissed me deeply while the other took me deep into her mouth and I reminded myself, “I’m big, I’m so big, look at how big I am,” and the two blondes said, “Yes you are, you are a big boy, you really are.”

Marriage & Politics

At a tennis tournament in New York, I met the woman who I would marry and spend twenty-five years with, the niece of President John F. Kennedy. She wore a red dress and had her hair blow-dried in pleasant curls, although she wore no makeup. I later learned that she had been abandoned by her date right before a cocktail party in the clubhouse and had forgotten to fix her face. She stood pensively on the patio overlooking the manicured greenery. I asked, “Are you wearing nude lipstick?” and she said, “I’m not wearing any at all,” and we managed to laugh about it. We shook hands I remember and spent the rest of the night together. It was not her looks that made her appealing, because without makeup she always seemed to have a pinched expression, but rather the blood in her veins. Taking her was like reaching for a bird. A man with blind strength kills the bird in his hand. A man with true strength is firm but relaxed. He is in control but gives the illusion of mercy. This is how I was in the bedroom.

Four of the times I came into my wife, children were made and born. I wanted them to be free and happy in a way that I had not been as a child. As a boy, I knew what it was like to feel helpless, immobile, and weak. That was a state I wished to leave behind forever. Once I began pumping up, I could not stop. It was Maria who initially brought up the idea of me running for Governor of California. It seemed the perfect way to combine our powers. She, being a Kennedy, had strong political connections and I, being a performer by trade, had the presence, passion, and charisma necessary to earn the trust of the people and maintain it.

Before my first inauguration, on January 13, 2003, I sat naked on the edge of the bed in the Presidential Suite of the L Street Hyatt. This was in Sacramento, across from the State Capitol. I looked at my suit draped over an armchair in the corner of the bedroom, imagining myself at the podium, addressing the servants of the people and the people themselves. I knew at that very moment that no one would be able to challenge my legacy. A little olive-skinned boy from Austria came all the way to America, shuffling with his pants around his ankles, and got himself elected in California, the place where people sent their dreams with the hope that their lives would follow. I was the only man fit to lead such a state, I knew, and on the morning of the inauguration, sitting naked on the edge of the bed, I was prouder of myself than I had ever been. What is the birth of a child compared to the fathering of a state?

I was so consumed with my thoughts that I didn’t hear Maria come out of the bathroom. Her hair was wound in a towel. She crawled over the bed on her hands and knees, rubbed my shoulders, and said, “You’re feeling soft these days. Don’t let it show.”

It was like taking a burning candle and blowing gently, praying the flame was weak enough to extinguish. I was not weak enough. I turned and looked at my wife, thinking, How dare you? This happiness I have worked so hard for and so greatly deserve. I smothered her flat on the bed and asked, “Soft like what?”

She said, “You’re hurting me.”

“Do you like it?”


“Do you think I like when you hurt me?”

She snorted and tried to twist away. Our children sometimes did this when they were tired of being tickled.

I asked, “Then why do you say these things to me?”

If it hadn’t been January, the doors to the balcony would have been open and the gauzy curtains would have blown into the room. It was January, however, and the doors were locked. The heat was running, which made the air very dry.

She said, “I can’t breathe.”

I said, “Soft like what, Maria?”


“Like what?”

She snapped. “Like cheese that’s been left out.”

I ripped the towel from her head and twisted it up, the way my mother had wrung out socks in the wash. Maria knew what was coming and leapt off the bed. With the twisted towel I popped her once on the lower back, right where the buttocks cleaved. She cried out and stumbled back into the bathroom, her steamy lair, where she remained until we had to leave for the swearing-in at the capitol. In front of the cameras and crowds, we held hands. I kissed her lips. The world drank us in. While Maria had been hiding in the bathroom, I opened up that twisted towel and saw a clump of her hair that had been ripped out.

Publicly, at the address, I said, “I am humbled, I am moved––I am honored beyond words to be your governor. To the thousands of you who came here today, I took this oath to serve you.”

After dinner that night, Maria said, “You would be nothing without me.”

I said, “I will crush you. I will set up the most beautiful picnic you have ever seen with a checkered cloth and a wicker basket. I will bring a miniature tea set and sugar cubes and finger sandwiches. You will scurry to the sweetest, best thing you can find and rub your dirty antenna all over it. Then I will bring my fist down and, trust me, Maria, you won’t even see it coming.”

She hissed, “Nazi boy.”

I put my hand around her throat. I said, “Careful.”

“How dare you,” she said, unable to pry my hand away with her pale, jeweled fingers. “I’m a Kennedy.”

Releasing her, I said, “And my name is Arnold.”

The marriage began to crumble, or had already crumbled, most likely because I married for ambition, not pure animal magnetism, and because Maria wanted more of the limelight for herself. As Governor, I spent half of the week working in Sacramento and the other half in the 10,000 square-foot family home in Los Angeles, where it was easy to put distance between myself and my wife. I often wandered the house and discovered rooms I had never seen before. There were guest bedrooms with telescopes, although what stars you could see through the smog, I am not sure, and there was a ballroom, billiard room, bowling alley, and sewing room. There was a room with an elderly man polishing my shoes under a ceiling fan. He wore a gold name tag that said POWELL and he said, “Can I help you, sir?” I kept moving. I discovered a media room, with a complete library of my movies on DVD.

A voice came from the doorway: “Excuse me, sir.”

The Maid

I looked up and saw a maid.

She asked, “Shall I do this room now or come back later?”

My wife was very far away, smoldering in some other corner of the house, and I could not resist the woman before me. She had nothing to offer in the way of politics but she was charming salt of the earth, and in the meat of her smooth body I found satisfaction. She was a little bird I took into my hand when no one was looking. I made love to her in the media room, with The Terminator playing on the flat-screen. When I lay naked on the shag carpet and she ran her feather-duster over my body, eyes fluttering, it felt like clouds rushing past.

In one of her eggs grew my fifth child, but it was thirteen years before the tabloids broke the news. They called him the “lovechild,” although he was not born out of love. I did not love the maid, but I did crack the chestnut of her body and appreciate our sudden, unexpected ritual of pleasure in the media room. Our intimacy lasted for a month and then she said, “No more, sir,” because she must have started to feel awkward around the rest of my family. Maria hated me for the scandal, which broke just as my second term as Governor ended, and divorced me for it. The maid, Mildred, took it very well. I applaud her. It is the peasants who hold up the giants of time. It is the giants of time who crowd-surf on the peasants. I feel their hands on my body, Mildred’s among them, lifting me closer to the sun.

And the boy. I did not even realize he was mine until the day I saw him standing at the top of the driveway, just below the maid’s apartment where he and his mother lived. I believe he was thirteen. Warm wind blew across California and shook the blushing faces of grapefruit that hung heavy in the trees. Maria and I were still married at this point, but I don’t think anyone suspected that the boy was mine or, if they did, the suspicions were kept quiet. The boy had a basketball in his hands, fully inflated, which he was trying to pop with all of his might. The boy had no clue that the impossible task was impossible and it became, therefore, entirely possible.

My Legacy

I am sixty-nine now. These are the things I think of––my childhood, my ascent, my family. I smoke a cigar at my desk and look past the smoke. I am no longer the Governor of California but I have not forgotten the issues that matter, fire being one among them.

While I was in office, five million acres of land were lost to wildfires. I was not blind to the truth of our changing climate and when a production company asked if I would go out with the team and have the experience documented by a film crew, I said yes. I spent time with those men in the mountains of northern California and came to understand the tremendous amount of work required, and it was their strength and discipline that reminded me of bodybuilding. They were not, however, vain in the slightest. They performed for the land itself and its inhabitants. When they performed well, there was no applause. On a good day, there was only the crackling of dying fires. On a bad day, the roar. They were giving back, which is what I have strived to do in the third act of my life.

I camped with them in the woods. One night, as we drank water from canteens and sat in recovery from the day’s labor, I said, “What is it like for your families?”

One said, “My wife hates to see me go.”

Another said, “My children pray for me every night.”

I thought of my ex-wife, Maria, and of my children––all of my children.

I said, “But you are doing important work.”

“Of course,” someone said. “But it takes a toll.”

I stood up and walked among them. “When a bell tolls,” I said, “what does a man do? He does not hide, he rises.” They hugged their knees to their chests and wiped their faces blackened with ash. This group that had earlier shown such fortitude in the burning pines had now withered. This was unacceptable to me. I told them that hard work was the only thing that mattered in life and failure was the bitter fruit of a rotten tree. I told them that they had to give everything and they must keep giving.

In my life I have given everything. I have never asked, “What do I want to be?” I have never asked, “What do I want to do?” I have always known and I have always risen, beginning with the first bell of my youth, a pure note singing from the bell tower in the village square. Me, a boy named Arnold, rising.

I squeezed the shoulder of the firefighter nearest to me and posed that very question. “Who do you want to be?” I asked. “I’ll tell you.”

He said, “Tell me.”

I said, “You want to be a champion.”

He smiled and put his hand on top of mine. That is how we all want to be remembered, champions in our own right, although it is true that I am a champion like the world has never seen. I am a burning heart on two legs and will be until the day I die.

Wynne Hungerford’s stories have appeared in EPOCHBlackbirdAmerican Literary ReviewIron Horse Literary ReviewThe Normal SchoolThe Boiler, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places. She received her MFA from the University of Florida.