For a self-professed ‘Skinny Guy,’ he sure swings a big stick
“You sure, kiddo?” Don McCreary says, offering me the ax. I’m sure. We’re standing at the open end of a U formed by three trailers that comprise his sun-baked Yolo homestead, and McCreary is holding, to be technical, an eight-pound splitting maul—the sledgehammer lumberjacks use, with a long wooden handle and an ax blade on one end. A wiry 60-year-old who refers to himself as “the Skinny Guy,” McCreary has cheerfully challenged me to lift this thing by the end of the handle, using only one arm. As I am currently enjoying pain-free use of my rotator cuff, I decline.
“Well, this always gets ’em,” he says.
With his left hand gripping the butt of the handle just below waist height, McCreary swings the ax blade up from soil to shoulder level in one smooth parry. With the sledgehammer now parallel to the ground, he doesn’t appear to strain. In fact, he’s chuckling. McCreary slowly folds his elbow and the blade completes its arc, until it is ever so gently kissing his nose, which is now crinkled by a clownish smile. Easy as pie.
“I’m sure I’m an oddball,” he says as the ax blade drops back down to his feet. It’s a deceptively difficult parlor trick that draws challengers like a carnival attraction. Try your luck against the world’s strongest skinny man! Better not covet that stuffed animal, though: McCreary’s on a 40-some-year winning streak.
“Last week I had a 300-pound fella try it, a real muscle man,” explains McCreary. “Nearly got his arm broke.”
Despite the sledgehammer shtick, McCreary is not really the boastful type. He’s an atypical breed, the kind of veteran cowpuncher and trapper with a homemade clay-pigeon launcher outside his trailer and a rapidly darkening New York Times crossword puzzle on his lap. His hands are weathered from a lifetime spent outdoors bucking hay and pounding rocks. One eye socket droops from being kicked by a horse and reconstructed with steel. Right now, he’s wearing a navy work shirt with the sleeves rolled up and blue jeans, both smeared with dirt. At 60, he plays a clean centerfield for his adult league baseball team, slapping opposite field singles off men less than half his age with metronomic regularity and serving as the team’s resident thesaurus.
As the sun drops behind the looming coast range, McCreary’s homestead is a sight.
“I’m not material,” McCreary says flatly as I survey the scene. “I certainly have always heeded that classic old aphorism, ‘It matters not what one makes, it only matters what one saves.'”
From the look of things, everything has been saved. Two trailers are for storage—gun parts, horseshoes and things—the third is for living. Rusting machine parts lie in slag heaps around the yard. Just beyond the shade of an elm rests what appears to be a pair of colonial-era barbells and Patrick Henry’s weight bench. McCreary’s ride is a 1973 Chevy pickup, bought new. A pair of rubberized boots rest in the crook of a tree behind him, five feet up.
At a recent state conference, McCreary says, he held forth for an hour and a half as colleague after colleague failed to so much as nudge the sledgehammer off the ground. The burlier they were, the more angry they became at their failure to accomplish such a seemingly simple act. Yet, as the “oldest, skinniest motherfucker there,” McCreary was pulling up two hammers at a time, one in each hand, like Paul Bunyan making vertical snow angels. Disbelief ran high.
“Just turn me sideways, stick out my tongue and I look like a snake,” says McCreary. “Skinny, skinny, skinny. That’s what makes the story all the better. If I look like Hulk Hogan, well, then, it won’t work. Why here’s some old 60-year-old motherfucker skinny as a goddamn snake and he can do this thing that essentially nobody else does.”
At one point, recounts McCreary, a skeptical bystander demanded that the Skinny Guy roll up his shirtsleeves. He did. Nothing but spindly arms.
“I can only conclude he thought I had some mechanical cheater thing on my arm underneath my sleeve or something,” says McCreary. “I mean, it was goofy.”
Then what’s the secret?
“Hell, I ain’t no magic guy,” says McCreary. “I’ve just beat with hammers essentially all my life since I was a kid. The end result is that I can do this dumb thing that essentially very few people can. And it’s a giggle.”