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Old-time strongmen bend nails, frying pans, horseshoes

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Patrick Povilaitis, part of a resurgence of "old time" strongmen, gives a new friend a lift while holding a stone padlock in his jaw. Povilaitis, a mechanical engineer, can also bend nails and frying pans with his bare hands. (Courtesy of Patrick Povailitis)

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Patrick Povilaitis, part of a resurgence of "old time" strongmen, lifts a hefty granite ball. Povilaitis, known for combinations of strength feats, holds stone weights in his lap while bending nails or tearing decks of cards with his hands. (Courtesy of Patrick Povailitis)

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Patrick Povilaitis, part of a resurgence of "old time" strongmen, tears a deck of cards while wearing handcuffs and suspending a 180-pound engine block from his head. Povilaitis, known for his combination strength feats, can also bend nails and frying pans with his bare hands. (Courtesy of Patrick Povilaitis)

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Patrick Povilaitis, part of a resurgence of "old time" strongmen, lifts a hefty barbell with his arms in the bores of a 180-pound engine block. Povilaitis, a mechanical engineer, can also bend nails and frying pans with his bare hands. (Courtesy of Patrick Povilaitis)

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Professional strongman Dennis Rogers illustrates his inspirational message with a feat of strength. Rogers, of Houston, Tex. and part of a resurgence of "old time" strongmen, also drives nails through skillets barehanded and breaks out of shackles. (Clint Fogie/Courtesy of Dennis Rogers)

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Professional strongman Dennis Rogers illustrates his inspirational message with feats of strength. Rogers, part of a resurgence of "old time" strongmen, breaks out of shackles and drives nails through skillets barehanded. (John Russo/Courtesy of Dennis Rogers)

As the crowd of three dozen onlookers waited with expectant awe, Pat "The Human Vise" Povilaitis--athletically built, goateed and sporting tattoos of barbed wire on his biceps--strode onto the floor among the weight machines at the Iron Sport Gym in Glenolden, Pa.

He held up a menacing-looking cougar trap for the crowd, then placed it atop an engine block about knee high in front of him and lowered his right hand into its spring-loaded metal jaws, which measured a foot from end to end.

"No one's going to try this at home, because it's so sickening that no one can even look at it," the gym owner and emcee for the event Steve Pulcinella told the crowd.

With his hand in the trap, Povilaitis' pressed a small rectangular trigger plate, and the jaws snapped shut on his right hand with a sickening crunch.

“Go, Pat!” the crowd hooted, as Povilaitis planted his knee on one end of the trap and wrenched it open with his free hand. Across his face was a proud grin, and across his trembling fingers was a series of shallow purple indentations where the trap had left its mark.

"It actually hurts like I can't describe," Povilaitis said. "If you took a hammer and hit your hand when it's cold out, squarely across the knuckles, that's the best I could describe it."

Proclaiming membership in an expanding fraternity of old-time strongmen, the soft-spoken Povilaitis, 40, is a mechanical engineer who lives with his wife, Janet, and toddler son in Oak Ridge, N.J. On odd nights and weekends, he uses his powerful hands to bend steel rods into U's, wrench apart horseshoes and roll up frying pans like they were newspapers. Last year he performed 40 such shows for Cub Scout troops, picnics, parties and a trade show for an Indiana seed company.

In this age of special effects and steroid-pumped athletes, strongmen across the country are dedicated to proving that hard work, not pharmaceuticals, is what’s required to attain super-strength. "We live in a time of extraordinary artifice, cheap illusion and cheap fame," said Ed Speilman, author of "The Mighty Atom," a biography of diminutive Coney Island strongman Joseph Greenstein. "They're seeking out something real, and it's not accomplished with drugs."

In Houston, strongman and evangelist Dennis Rogers, 50, was a teenage 4-foot-11-inch, 79-pound "special ed. outcast” who became an arm wrestling champ in the 1980s and quit a managerial job at Compaq in 1993 to go on tour.

"All I wanted was to fit in,” said Rogers, who resembles a shorter, goateed Mr. Clean, “but God inspired me to be a world champion strongman." Today, he performs 80 shows a year, has earned as much as $10,000 an hour and appears on TV with David Letterman and Oprah.

In Pottstown, Pa., Slim "The Hammer Man" Farman, 72, is the gruff godfather of strongmen. Farman developed unusually strong wrists through years spent hammering trap rock in a Pennsylvania quarry. In 1955, he saw Greenstein performing at a Gilbertsville, Pa., fair and rose to accept his challenge to bend a 60-penny nail in his fists.

Impressed with Farman’s strength, Greenstein took him under his wing, and for decades the two performed together at shows across the country, including at Madison Square Garden. Now, when strongman buddies drop by his house, Farman still performs his signature feat: lowering and raising 53-pound sledgehammers with wrist power alone.

In the strength world, however, these strongmen occupy an odd niche. They don't obsess over symmetrical pectorals like bodybuilders or strive to raise huge barbells like power lifters. They also don't compete against each other like the guys who carry giant logs or refrigerators around while racing each other in televised games.

Povilaitis' cougar trap feat came as a between-events act during a power-lifting competition in which several participants bench pressed more than 400 pounds. Next to them, Povilaitis, 6 feet tall and 170 pounds, appeared strikingly average. Indeed, his size tends to draw derisive remarks.

"I can't tell you how many times I show up at an event and guys are like, 'Where's the strongman?'" Povilaitis said. "After I'm done, they'll come up to me and say, 'Man, I'm sorry.'"

Povilaitis wins their respect mostly by performing combination feats that are complex and, well, bizarre. That evening, for instance, he fitted a harness on his head that had a thick strap that ran down his back. The strap was attached to a 25-pound weight. Povilaitis then asked the 305-pound emcee to step onto the weight behind him, and, as he bent his head and neck forward, Povilaitis lifted the emcee off the ground. At the same time, he bent a 15-inch steel rod, 2 inches in diameter, into the shape of a U.

"That was the most grueling thing I did all night," he said. "I was cut where the strap ran along my spine."

In performing their feats, the strongmen maintain that their mindset is more important than their muscles. Farman said that his mentor, Greenstein, who died in 1977 at age 84, had taught him to ignore that voice in his head, which he calls “the governor,” that says, "You can't."

“There is a gap between what you're physically able to do versus what you're normally able to do, where you're pulling as hard as you can," Farman said. "If you disengage that governor, you can go beyond the point.”

Povilaitis was a conventional gym-goer until 10 years ago, when someone handed him a gripper, a hand-strengthening device made from a heavy coil with handles at each end. He also became inspired by an article in a strength magazine about the mighty strongmen of the 1900s who could bend nails with their hands. Today, his three-hour Sunday workouts include bending horseshoes apart and lifting a succession of beach ball-size "Atlas" stones that weigh 230 to 340 pounds.

Not surprisingly, testing one's body this way subjects it to the risk of injury. Rogers was performing a stunt last year in which he takes a nail into his fist and slams it down through a flat metal griddle sitting on top of a license plate and 1 1/4-inch pine board.

This time, however, he supported the board with two barstools covered with rubber cushions. Instead of the nail going through the frying pan and the license plate and the board, it sprung back and went completely through his hand.

"I wanted to keep going and talk for another half-hour," he said, "but they insisted I go to the hospital."

Rogers, who has recovered, uses some of his feats to teach object lessons to his audiences about the power of faith. He might wrap his wrists in chains, then wrench free of them and use the feat to talk about breaking through personal barriers.

"The most important thing to me is the message," he said. "If I say I'll be at this church, speaking about perceptions, no one will come, because kids don't want to go to church. If I say I'll give a talk on perceptions and I will bend a crescent wrench and roll a frying pan and bend steel bars and wrap them in loops, I'll get a hold of people."

E-mail: jmg2167@columbia.edu