Friends and acquaintances of Carl Gaines sent him home with a festive memorial service several weeks ago, but I’m still thinking about him. Carl and I shared the common bond of having grown up in Watts, California, about a mile from one another, in often very harsh and trying conditions. The experience taught us at an early age that it was often the strong that survived.
This is one reason that Carl became interested in bodybuilding just before escaping Los Angeles: to get a little more respect among his peers. Yet during the process, he fell in love with body-building, and began seeing it as a way of life and a profession.
Ultimately, Carl earned dozens of national and international bodybuilding trophies and awards. He did so as a member of the International Natural Bodybuilding Association. Arriving in Santa Barbara in 1987, and routinely working out at the various fitness centers, Carl realized that what helped him could also benefit others. He devoted himself to promoting not only physical fitness but spiritual fitness, often through the auspices of the YMCA. Working with children and adults, Carl preached the importance of a positive frame of mind to overcome obstacles or reach one’s goals, prayer and reliance on God, and abstinence from alcohol and drugs-including steroids.
My dear friend Carl so often sat with me and spoke of those experiences, trials, and tribulations that we had both endured: the turbulent years before and after the Watts Riots, including radical movements that took place in our communities, along with constant shouts of “Black Power.” We spoke of the good ol’ days when neighborhood gangs would settle disputes mostly with fists, as opposed to the vicious shootings and killings that sprang up in the mid ’70s. We reflected on the destructive changes brought on by PCP and rock cocaine, and those other “weapons of mass destruction,” which is what we called the Uzis and other automatic weapons that flowed through the streets of Watts. I wanted to share this so others can appreciate the perseverance and faith it took for Carl to achieve what he did.
We both arrived here battling our own demons of addiction, yet it took me more years than it took him to conquer them and get back to my creative self. Whenever I would talk to him during this period, he would always remind
me, “Stan, you’re in the wilderness; eat the locust and honey.” Then he would laugh as if he knew about something I was yet to discover.
I was celebrating my birthday on the evening of April 1 when a good friend of mine and Carl’s, Rick Robinson, called and informed me of Carl’s death. Carl had died the day before, but I felt like it was on my birthday. I went home and lay there, staring up at the ceiling, reflecting now on birth and death at the same time. I then asked, “Carl, how could you do this on my birthday?” I sensed that in his usual humorous manner he responded, “Well, it’s April Fool’s Day, ain’t it?”
As I reminisced about our friendship, it came to me what his “in the wilderness” responses to me meant: that it is our deep and dark uncertain times that so often refine, define, or burn away our impurities.
It’s a biblical reference, of course, to John the Baptist, who fed upon locusts and honey while he was in the wilderness. Although not much, it consisted of all the wonderful nutrients, vitamins, and enzymes that he needed to sustain himself. What came to me from this example was that when we are stripped down and brought to our lowest points, there are things we can feed upon that are so spiritually nourishing. The locust and honey may just represent the much-needed humility we derive from our trials. Thank you, Carl.
Many in attendance at Carl’s memorial service expressed shock at the fact that he died of a heart attack, considering that he was only 63 years old and the picture of health. I sensed that Carl’s final message was that we may have less time than we think, so it is essential to fill our moments with love and compassion.
At the end of the homecoming festivities, we released balloons and they all floated high into the sky, except for one that got trapped within a tree branch overhead. We all stood there on the porch of the Alano Club, where we had celebrated Carl’s memorial, rooting for the wind to blow harder to free that balloon. As I was leaving, I looked back and could see that the balloon was rising skyward. I laughed to myself, thinking that it was Carl’s spirit hanging around until everyone had a chance to say farewell.
We are raising money to have plaques made in Carl’s honor and would appreciate any help. Contact Stanley Holder, PO Box 91811, S.B., CA 93190. Carl is so deserving of this.