The Strongest Man in the World liked to set his folding lawn chair out on the asphalt next to his gold Cadillac and stretch out in the sun with dark glasses on his nose and a two-litre carton of milk in one hand. He had a basement joint in the alley behind Broadway west of Main in Vancouver: a couple of big rooms for the printing press, the protein supplement mixing operation and the weightlifting equipment, which he designed and built himself, and a tiny living space in the back. He was a short, wide man with jet-black hair, which he treated regularly with Grecian Formula, and he didn’t care who knew it because he liked his hair to be black and that was all there was to it. He could hold a hundred and fifty pounds in one hand straight out from the shoulder, a feat unthinkable among my friends, who were intellectuals (our heavyweight was D.M. Fraser, a frail creature who weighed considerably less than a hundred and fifty pounds soaking wet with all his clothes on). The Strongest Man in the World had won the world heavyweight weightlifting championship in 1958 at Stockholm, where he was given a loan of training space and the services of a trainer by the Soviet team, there being no “official” Canadian team in the competition. Later he would be listed as a Communist sympathizer by the FBI, and banned for years from entering the United States.
His name was Doug Hepburn, and when he was relaxing in the sun he liked to say he’d seen life. “I’ve seen life,” he would say, with a sweep of the hand, “and nothing gets better than this.” He had been born with a club foot and crossed eyes and he had made himself into the Strongest Man in the World. After Stockholm there were some bad years and a slide into alcohol and drugs, but now (in the mid-1970s) he was sober and fit and doing business on his own terms. He owned a big 18–24 printing press and he paid a renegade press operator named Keith to print packaging materials for his protein products. Keith was a brilliant practitioner of the printing arts and we, who were publishing literary books in short runs, had followed him from print shop to print shop and then to Hepburn’s joint. We used to order book paper by the ton and get it shipped over to Hepburn’s, where it would sit in stacks among the big bags of protein powder and flavourings. Hepburn would mix up “product” with an outboard motor that he held in the big vat, propeller down. My brother and I were in there one day burning printing plates on the carbon-arc as Hepburn was getting ready to make a new batch. He got up on the stool with two big bags of powder and said, “Okay boys, what’ll it be—strawberry or vanilla?” He dumped one of the bags and great sweet clouds of pink dust exploded into the air and began drifting down over the plates, the negatives, the printing press. We took a carton of protein wafers back to the office and gave them to Fraser, who claimed to love them because they seemed like an efficient way of ingesting food without cutting into one’s drinking time. Hepburn’s mother was a quiet grandmotherly presence who appeared on days when a new batch of product was ready for packaging, and she would oversee a couple of teenaged girls at a long table in the back.
Hepburn was an amiable man; he liked to break into song in the crooning manner of Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby, and once he recorded a song about a husky dog (I even recall hearing it on the radio one Christmas, but that may be a false memory). Muscular young men used to show up at Hepburn’s to pick up consignments of product and pieces of lifting equipment, which they would carry off to the Broadway Gym. One of these guys once read the package on the product, and he came over to Hepburn and looked down (he was about two feet taller than Hepburn) and said: “Hey, Doug, does this stuff really work — you know, off the record?” Hepburn looked up at the guy and pointed a finger at him. “Now listen to me,” he said, “and this is on the record. You give me you — for one month — and I feed you spaghetti and my product — and I’ll turn you into a monster!” This was as excited as we ever saw him get.
The alley behind Hepburn’s joint offered a bleak enough prospect: asphalt and concrete, oil stains, loading bays and dumpsters. There wasn’t much space for the folding deck chair and sometimes he had to squeeze it right up against the Cadillac. But when you looked up high to the north you could see the mountains on the north shore and the blue sky and farther back in the distance the snow-capped twin peaks of the Lions. That was where he liked to look when he was relaxing. You could say he was a man who took the long view: he could see all the way into the background.