“Boy,” Jack barks to Jacob from his burgundy recliner. “How do you like the juice?”
“It’s OK,” Jacob says.
Jack rolls his eyes in disgust. “Do you know what that’s doing for your body?”
I quickly slug down the rest of my juice, lest my intelligence also be called into question.
“The crap people put into their bodies,” Jack laments. “Cakes and pies and ice cream.”
I ask if he’s frustrated that despite his devoting his life to preaching the gospel of fitness and low-fat foods, America’s obesity rates are higher than ever. A glass-half-full kind of guy, Jack refuses to take the bait.
“That’s life,” he says. “But look at all the people [I’ve] helped. People are working out more than ever. They’re eating better too. Just look at the juicer — more than 5 million of them have been sold.”
There’s no denying that Jack has left an indelible mark on our culture. Now his children are seeing to it that his message of physical fitness is passed on to future generations, through a cartoon called If Man Made It, which is loosely based on their father’s life. The title is a play on one of Jack’s LaLanneisms: If man made it (processed food, that is), you shouldn’t eat it.
“The cartoon is a way to try to reduce childhood obesity by promoting exercise,” says Danny LaLanne, who has been developing the project with his half brother, Jon. Now 62, Danny thinks back to his own childhood, when working out simply wasn’t a common practice for most people.
“No one exercised at the time,” he says. “The parents of my friends all blew cigarette smoke in their faces.” Meanwhile, his own father was challenging him and his friends to feats of strength. “My friends and I would try and compete with him, and he’d kill us. It was ridiculous,” remembers Danny. “This was at the time when he held the world record for push-ups, handstands and handstand push-ups, where you bend your arms until your nose touches the ground and then you straighten them up again.”
Handstand push-ups are no longer in Jack’s repertoire, but he still maintains an impressive workout regimen. Prior to his surgery in December, Jack worked out every day for two hours, lifting weights for one and a half hours and swimming laps for 30 minutes. Now, with doctor’s orders to take it easy, he has reduced his daily routine to water calisthenics in the resistance pool, plus squats and modified chin-ups. His refusal for inactivity is his way of giving Father Time the middle finger.
When questions about his surgery and his advancing age come up the first time, Jack handles them in his typical lighthearted, snarky style. “It hasn’t slowed me down a bit,” he insists. “I’m all over the place like horse manure.”
But later, when Jack is prodded on how it feels to be four years shy of a century, his face puckers like a kid forced to swallow cod liver oil. For a moment, his impenetrable facade cracks.
“Are we done yet?” he asks.
Elaine interjects, reminding Jack of his good fortune. “They don’t normally do that type of surgery on a 95-year-old,” she offers.
Jack tries to hush his wife. “Elaine, Elaine,” he says, clearly uncomfortable discussing his mortality.
“What?” Elaine asks. “She’s asking about your surgery.”
Jack pauses for a moment, quietly reflecting, and then answers. “Look, I’m doing everything I’m supposed to do,” he says plainly. “I took a wrong turn. I can’t walk as well as I used to. But I’m going to beat this thing.”
A split second later, reinvigorated, he’s back to his old self.
“I can’t die,” he quips. “It will ruin my image.”
KATHLEEN PARRISH is a freelance writer from Bethlehem, Pa. Her feats of strength include finding energy to train for half-marathons while she raises two teenage sons.