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Happy Birthday, Joe Rollino

I learned recently of the passing, at the age of 104, of the world's strongest man. His name was Joe Rollino. In his younger years, Rollino was a boxer who fought under the name, Kid Dundee. He was a decorated war veteran, and a longshoreman. Of his many distinctions, though, Rollino was best known for his Coney Island carnival career as a strongman.

That was a pound for pound title. Rollino could lift 635 pounds with one finger, and bend quarters with his teeth. But he measured only five feet five inches tall, and weighed just 150 pounds. Near the end of his life, Rollino was no longer a particularly famous man. But in Coney Island, where the sideshow acts are still the main attraction, he remained a legend.

His death marked the passing of an era. Historians say he was one of the last living links to the old strongman days in Coney Island. His name may have been forgotten outside of his colorful corner of Brooklyn. But up until his last days, Rollino never stopped being himself – the strongest version of himself, in fact, that he could be. He still worked out at a gym. He was a lifelong vegetarian, and a teetotaler. And he walked five miles a day, regardless of the weather. It was on his morning walk, as he crossed the Bay Ridge Parkway, that he was hit by a minivan and killed. He was just two months shy of his 105th birthday.

I didn't know Joe Rollino. But when I came across his life story, it captivated me. He was an iconic strongman, a man of rare physical attributes who performed for countless thousands, if not millions of spectators over his lifetime. In his heyday, he was friends with Harry Houdini and worked as a bodyguard for Greta Garbo. Well into his centenarian years, he did regular, vigorous exercise. And yet, he died alone on a dark winter morning, in the most mundane and seemingly avoidable of ways. He didn't use the crosswalk. The driver of the minivan was one of his neighbors. She had defective horn. Personally, I thought, if the world's strongest man can live that long – only to be run over on his morning constitutional by a neighbor driving a minivan – then life really is just a damn circus.

There's tragedy in the human condition. And strongmen are no exception. But Rollino's death also struck a nerve with me for personal reasons. When it comes to strongmen, I have my own story to tell. It's not a story about a famous sideshow career, or a remarkable life in the carnival. My story isn't even altogether real – at least when compared to the legendary status of a man like Joe Rollino. But it felt real enough to me at the time that I'll never forget it. And to this day, every strongman that I come across still reminds me of the one I used know.

Several years before my husband and I decided to leave New York City for the duller quietude of a midwestern college town, our older daughter had an intense emotional crisis. She was almost two and a half at the time – at the peak, developmentally, of her need to control her world, but still quite unable to master it. It was probably bad enough, from Emmy's perspective, that I was pregnant with her younger sister and so about to trade her in for a newer model. Then I hired a new babysitter, though it was obvious that they didn't quite connect. A friend of mine had referred her to me, and I was just too tired to keep looking. I had recently gone back to work, in a new part-time capacity, and I was spending several days a week away from home. Like many urban professionals, Mike also worked long days. For several years, we'd resolved our version of the work/life balance by splitting it mostly down the middle: he did the work, I did the life. But frequently in these months, we wondered whether we'd actually achieved any kind of balance at all. Did we really want to start looking for a bigger apartment? We wouldn't actually depart New York for another two years. But in retrospect, I think, we already sensed that it was the beginning of the end.

Whether any of these underlying emotional issues actually contributed to Emmy's crisis, I can't really say. They all fit quite neatly into the narrative that my maternal guilt later invented. But it was on one of those busy days in early winter that I sent Emmy off with the babysitter to dance class. The class was held in the basement of an upper west side synagogue – an historic building on the corner of 100th and West End. Since each child had to be checked in at the front desk before going downstairs, they often arrived late. On this particular day, though, Emmy never made it to class. Instead, someone set off the fire alarm, as part of a routine drill in the building, and forgot to warn the dancers and art teachers who rented out the basement.

As New Yorkers well know, everyday life in the city is fairly loud, fast-paced, and hectic. But when something happens that's out of the ordinary – whether it's a neighborhood parade or a water main break – the everyday norm can tip easily over into chaos. So it happened at the synagogue. My sitter and my daughter were just making their way down the stairs as the alarm went off. The ringing was extremely loud in the stairwell, my sitter said, and was followed by a sudden burst of commotion. People dashed up the stairs carrying their strollers and children. Teachers were running around the basement trying to find people and get them out. I'm not sure why the people coming upstairs never noticed that the people coming downstairs looked much more orderly and calm. But it's in the nature of chaos, I suppose, that even obvious things don't make sense.

My sitter got out of the building as quickly as she could. Although she was already carrying the stroller in one hand, she had to pick Emmy up and carry her out too, because she started crying and was too scared to walk. I don't think the sitter realized just how scared Emmy was until they got outside. After standing around on the sidewalk for several minutes with Emmy in an agitated state, she heard someone say it was just a drill. By that point, though, it made no difference. By the time they got home, and Emmy refused to walk through the front door near the smoke detector, it was pretty clear to all of us that we had a problem.

For the first few days, she talked a lot about the "scary bells." When she recalled them, she stared sometimes at the wall, like she was watching an alarm box ring in her mind's eye. She asked us to carry her through the hallways of our apartment, so she wouldn't get caught under one of our alarms alone. We considered taking the smoke detectors down, but didn't really want to take the risk. We understood that she was very disturbed. Emmy was unusually verbal for her age, so she could express a lot of her fears in words, even if those words didn't always add up to a coherent narrative. But at first, we thought her anxiety was easing. As it turned out, it was only just starting to churn.

In the daytime hours, her fears started to multiply. She asked me to unplug the clock radio on my nightstand. She wanted to know if we could turn off the doorbell. Otherwise, when people rang it she'd throw her hands up to her ears and cover them. Several times a day, she resisted getting into the elevator. Taking the stairs was not a viable option for us, since we lived on the twelfth floor. But I wished we could have, because the elevators in our building were such that if one of our plodding neighbors took just a little too long getting in, they'd set off the clanging door alarm. Meanwhile, Emmy's sleep became disturbed. Mike took to lying down next to her on the floor so he could soothe her back to sleep if she startled awake. Many nights, Mike just fell asleep there on the hardwood floor, holding her hand through the slats of the crib.

My response to Emmy's crisis was to pour relentlessly over parenting websites in search of a solution. I read every factoid on childhood phobias that attachment parent guru, Dr. Sears, listed on his page. I scrolled through all the snarky postings on urban baby that might possibly have been relevant. I read over so many obsessive discussion threads on the Berkeley Parents Network that I started to think it was time for me to consult a psychiatric professional. My own mother is such a professional, and she offered many helpful suggestions. But none of her psychological insights – gained through decades of therapeutic play with children much more troubled than ours – seemed to have any effect.

In the meantime, we tried to implement some of my internet research. The mainline suggestion: Reassure your daughter that her fears were normal, and would eventually pass. So when I was young, I told her, I was terrified of squirrels and couldn't walk down the sidewalk alone. When Mike was a kid, he was afraid of the painted lines at the bottom of the swimming pool. Now, we said with a tone of false levity, isn't that funny? Daddy grew up to be a very good swimmer. And mommy walks alone all the time! We tried this many times, and I was always careful to stay on message, worried that my enduring discomfort with squirrels – which lasted well into adulthood – might inadvertently come up. But I'm not sure Emmy was hearing a message anyway. If she was at all reassured by our stilted attempts at talk therapy, it wasn't apparent to us. We began to think her problem might be more existential than circumstantial. At some deeper level, maybe she understood what those alarm bells had been designed to prevent. As her young life became fraught with imminent danger, our world narrowed into a state of constant hyper vigilance.

At the peak of Emmy's phobia, I should say, we had moments that felt like normalcy. One night when my mom was cooking, for example, she inadvertently blackened some almonds. Emmy was just a few rooms away, taking a bath. In a panic, I opened all the windows and tried in vain to clear the smoke. When the hallway alarm started going off, I turned to my younger brother, Tony, and commanded him to make it stop. He leapt up on a chair and tried to pull off the smoke detector cover. When that didn't work, he ran over to our utility closet and pulled out a hammer. Within the space of several seconds, he had not only smashed the entire apparatus down from the ceiling, but had knocked several large chunks of our ceiling plaster down as well. Was that normalcy? Maybe not. But in the farcical state that was our collective madness at the time, at least it made us laugh. And just a few minutes later, Mike emerged from the other room to tell us that Emmy had heard a loud siren, but they'd decided it was coming from outside. Through all of that, she had barely taken notice.

It was around that time that Strongman came. Emmy had first seen him in a video weeks before, actually, before the "bad bells" happened. Barney the purple dinosaur was dressed up as the ringmaster of a circus, and a little blonde boy in a puffy muscle costume lifted him all the way off the ground. Every time she saw it, she delighted at the scene. Then one day after she saw it again, she drew her own picture of them. She looked at her renderings so proudly, that I asked her if we should tape them to her bedroom door. And for some reason – I guess because she seemed so enamored – I thought to suggest that maybe her pictures could help to protect her, to help keep the bad bells away.

Of the many things that internet doctors had taught me about parenting, one of them was that harnessing your children's magical thoughts for positive effect is not the same thing as lying to them. Not that I had a problem with lying. Watching your child turn into a nervous wreck and feeling – being – helpless to stop it was enough to turn almost anyone into an ethical relativist. I guess I said it because I just hoped it might bring her some comfort. Did I anticipate that Emmy would soon start talking to the picture on her door? No. Did it seem odd when she started talking to the strongman as an imaginary friend? Yes, it did. But looking back on all of it later – after Emmy had taken over his identity, and turned into a strongman herself – the imaginary friend bit didn't seem very peculiar at all.

At the beginning of the friendship, Emmy liked mostly to narrate Strongman's day. Strongman, she'd tell us, is hungry for breakfast. Or Strongman had to go into the other room to get ready, because he had to go to work. Strongman's behavior mirrored a lot of her own activities, but his schedule also shaped hers. We want to play right now, she'd say, but we can't. Strongman has to exercise his mighty muscles. Strongman kept himself in shape with the huge barbells he kept in her bedroom. He also did a lot of something that looked like calisthenics, with Emmy doing them right alongside. Much of the time, we discovered, Strongman's life was just as humdrum as ours. The imaginary friend of a two year old – even an exceptionally verbal one – did not turn out to have an exceptionally rich life.

In time, though, Strongman developed into something more than a friend. Emmy continued to speak about him constantly. But eventually, she started speaking about him as herself. Or herself, as him. Strongman doesn't work in the circus anymore, she said. He was tired of it, and wanted to do something else. That's why he lives here now with you (his parents). In Yew Nork. Yew Nork is how Emmy pronounced the name of the city. To this day, for some reason, that's how she still says it. But the point is that Strongman lived there too. She was still occasionally herself. But now on a regular basis, he was like her eccentric alter ego. At random times throughout the day – on the way to the grocery store, over lunch in our apartment, at bedtime before she drifted off to sleep – she'd stop what she was doing and become him. We could see that she had when she started to flex her arms, in demonstration of her unparalleled strength. That, and she refused to answer to her given name.

It was an odd thing to see that in the middle of the sidewalk day after day. But we didn't discourage it. We were frankly afraid to try. Emmy seemed incrementally happier the more she assumed Strongman's life. She appeared to be getting more comfortable in his skin. My sister brought Emmy a t-shirt when she visited that said Muscle Man on it, but she had no interest in wearing it, I think because she felt it was obvious. Her real friends – kids at school, and others in the neighborhood – had no problem accepting her new identity when she introduced herself as him. Kids are resilient, and extremely open-minded. Most of the time, I felt that if her imagination could distract her from the more neurotic workings of her brain, then I was willing at least to let it play out.

Strongman's life wasn't thrilling, but it did take some interesting turns. Occasionally, for example, he had play dates with another imaginary friend, whose name was Verde. We never spoke with him (Strongman only ever seemed to think of him on a whim), but we thought he must be an old friend from the circus. I took him to be a Frenchman, much like Emmy's actual uncle. On one occasion, Strongman also made an emergency visit to the hospital. At first I thought he might have been injured in training. As it turned out, he was having a baby. I'd been preparing to do the same thing all week, and soon I actually did. Unlike me, however, Strongman didn't return with a baby. She told the sitter that the hospital had decided to keep it, so he just came back home.

Though he wasn't particularly maternal, Strongman had many qualities that we absolutely loved. Not surprisingly, he had great physical presence. Emmy would move her arms around passionately when she described him, and told us things that were on his mind. She'd bounce enthusiastically around the room, almost as if she were dancing. It looked to me like the physical expression of her active imagination. I think Strongman empowered her. She felt corporally strong as she imagined herself lifting up heavy barbells. But she also felt courageous. Because Strongman, you might have guessed, also wasn't afraid of bells. She told me once, when I asked her about it, that he didn't mind loud sounds. He was used to it from the circus, where no one was scared of anything.

Strongman didn't cure Emmy of her phobia overnight. She spent a lot of time each day – though not all of it – thinking of herself as him. For several weeks, he worked his way through her psychic space, and our family life. At first, he enabled her just to cope. She stopped hesitating all the time before getting into the elevators. She stopped staring up at walls. She started sleeping more again. Then, as the fire drill receded back in her memory and her baby sister became less of an amorphous threat, she became less fixated on the dangerous world around her. She definitely relied on Strongman to get her past those fears. But after a few months, she just didn't need him anymore. A little while later – as the weather started warming up, and the actual circus came back to town – he was practically all but forgotten.

It would be an understatement for me to say, about our time with Strongman, that I sometimes doubted him. Given my own tendencies, I wasn't surprised that Emmy spent so much time in her own head. We always hope our kids will be spared our own, unappealing personal traits, but I encouraged her imagination along in part because I knew pretty well what phobic anxiety felt like. Because of that, I felt a lot less guilt, frustration, and worry after Strongman showed up. Even so, when your toddler tells you that she's the strongest man in the world, talks to you in the third person, and stops answering to her baptismal name, you can't be sure that it's all going to work out. I had many moments in the midst of it all, in which I wondered if Emmy hadn't actually gone from bad to a great deal worse.

In the end, though, I came to believe in the creative power that Strongman lent her. Parenting can be hard. But it's not easy to be a kid either. In the best of circumstances, childhood is a mysterious journey. Sometimes that journey is delightfully enchanting, but it can also be confusing, overwhelming, and unspeakably painful. For little kids who haven't yet reached the age of reason, who can't yet perceive the bright line between actual and pretend, and whose curiosity about the world is matched only by their futile quest to control it, an ordinary mishap can easily become a major calamity. And yet, that's what makes their imaginations so potentially productive and powerful. Children can imagine their way into some very burdensome emotional problems. But as I witnessed, they can also become the tiniest inventors of their own epic solutions.

Strongman will always be unforgettable to me, because he did help Emmy transcend her crisis. As it turned out, he wasn't the only imaginary friend that Emmy ever had. That first summer after we moved away, we were all homesick. Emmy, in particular, missed her friends and playmates. We didn't know many people, and we had to fill a lot of unstructured time by ourselves. Since we didn't yet have a house, all of our earthly treasures were packed away in boxes and sitting in a storage unit on the other side of town. For over two months, we barely had any toys.

For a short time that summer, Emmy got a new imaginary friend. She went by the rather comical name of Jazzy Snortskin. Jazzy could be a lot of fun, but she was not a conventional child. In certain ways, she wasn't even domesticated. Jazzy lived in the trees, like a creature of the woods. She sometimes entered the house to play, but she would never ride in the car. Jazzy rode alone on the roof. I used to imagine her while I was driving, sitting up there like a rooftop hood ornament – the wind pinning back her hair, and her two hands holding fast to the bike rack. Apart from the few details that Emmy shared about Jazzy, I didn't know too much else about her. Except that Emmy made up a kind of theme song about her, in which she screamed Jazzy's name over and over at the top of her lungs, like a heavy metal band. It sounded rebellious, and more than a little angry.

It didn't surprise me that at the age of four, Emmy invented a new playmate to help her acclimate to our new environment. She evidently needed this wood nymph to help her transition from the city to the more natural environment. It had been more than a year since she'd shed her identity as Strongman once and for all. She never stopped being a cautious, sometimes nervous kid. To this day, she pauses at elevator doors. She still covers her ears when she hears a loud noise – even preemptively, when she thinks an alarm might go off. She strongly dislikes anything automated – like a bathroom hand dryer or an airport toilet – simply because she feels they might activate too early and surprise her. These fears can be inconvenient. But they're all discreet and manageable. They're not that out of the ordinary. They certainly don't consume her.

At the beginning of the story, I said that strongmen everywhere still remind me of the one I used to know. Perhaps I should have said the one I still do know. Because in the end, I don't think Emmy really discarded Strongman, so much as she internalized him. Once he had helped to build her back up – to a point where her small ego felt strong enough again to cope with everyday life in a messy, noisy world – Strongman was assimilated. She may not remember him, but I do. And I'm certain that he became a lasting part of her. Emmy was almost exactly 100 years younger than Joe Rollino. Pound for pound, she was much less of a strongman. But all strongmen, I think, are more than just the sum of their mighty muscles. Aren't all of them really a living testament to the strength of the human will?

"Keep the circus going inside you," David Niven once famously said, "keep it going, don't take anything too seriously, it'll all work out in the end." Happy Birthday, Joe Rollino.