Sunday, February 14, 2016

First lady Michelle Obama eats a carrot as she and students make a salad from vegetables harvested from the White House garden in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
A fond look back at guys with bellies

Posted on June 14, 2014 at 7:03 p.m.

Michelle Obama has been battling picky kids, complaining school officials and Republican budget watchers for a while now over her nutrition guidelines for school lunches. She’s leading a charge against ever-growing bellies, and I think she’s right.

But today is Father’s Day. And a bit of nostalgia enters my thinking, and I remember guys with bellies.

My dad had a belly. At least by the time I knew him he did. He was 50 years old when I was born and by that time his frame was developing the girth that many men of that era had.

Rody, my father-in law, had one, too, as he neared retirement age. Rody would polish off a big meal and then head for the sofa where he loosened his belt, gave a sigh of contentment, and then was ready to dispense philosophical pronouncements born of life experiences.

Rody’s experiences spanned his lives as a young pool hustler in Fort Wayne, to a hotshot court reporter and political confidant of Judge Clarence McNabb, to a career railroad man with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Lois had a fascinating father, and I was a lucky guy to know him.

And there was Clem “Shorty” McGary. He stood about 5 feet 4 and seemed to be about that big around the middle. Shorty was my dad’s roustabout, or as dad called him, his “right hand man.”

My father had several careers. During one part of his life, he made weekly trips to Chicago auction houses. Shorty was always with him. And there were always stories. If I ever get around to writing that book I’ve been planning for the last decade, Shorty will be a featured character.

Before forklifts, there were men like Shorty. He’d plant his bulk against a crated bathtub, clamp his arms on the side, and then casually carry it to the warehouse aisle and set it on a dolly to be moved to a truck. Then with a twinkle in his eye, he’d pat his belly in pride.

Once upon time guys had pride in their bellies. It was a sign of importance, prosperity, and power. Bare-knuckle boxers, political bosses, and city league bowlers were large of middle.

Tough movie stars back then didn’t need six-pack abs and computer-generated feats to throw fear into their opponents. Consider bad guy Earnest Borgnine as Fatso Judson in “From Here To Eternity,” Rod Steiger in “Al Capone”, and the classic John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in the original “True Grit.”

What a scene! The lawman and the bad men. Adversaries astride their horses facing each other across a wide Western valley. Tension hangs heavy in the bright cloudless air.

Rooster faces his enemy Dirty Ned Pepper across the grassy plain. Rooster informs the outlaw that he’s going to take him in, dead or alive. Pepper, with his gunnies at his side, sneers and shouts, “That’s mighty bold talk for a one-eyed old fat man.”

Ahh, the moment. He shouldn’t have called him fat.

Rooster snarls, “Fill your hand, you sonuva … !” Then he clamps the reins in his teeth, and steering his horse with his knees, he charges across the valley with guns blazing from both hands.

It was a moment that made audiences cheer. I suppose it could have been done by a shirtless toned actor like Hugh Jackman, but it would have been devoid of its humanity. The odds-defying, damn-the risk spirit of that charge needed that old fat man with the reins in his teeth.

So yeah, I agree with Michelle. No question about it. It’s important to trim the waistlines and improve the health of our children.

But today is Father’s Day. And my thoughts slip backward in time. Nostalgia happens.

Former Elkhart furniture store owner Richard Leib has served on planning committees in several industries. An avid auto fan, he raced in the 1972 coast-to-coast Cannonball Run. He has written on a wide range of subjects.