A Half-Century In The Iron Game
by John Grimek
Although the 11-year old youngster was pugnacious and constantly looking for fights by challenging all whom he met, he was basically good-natured.
Though somewhat shorter for his age than his playmates, he was, nonetheless, proportionately stockier and stronger. Whenever a newcomer moved into the neighborhood, he would greet him with, “I think I can beat you. Let’s fight!” Size or weight didn’t matter. He sought to do battle then and there. After the fight, though, regardless of the outcome, they became and remained good friends and playmates.
The “tough guy” was always ready to prove his prowess. Whenever his friends were trying to lift or move an object, but failed to budge it, he would always come over and help.
If someone hit a ball farther than what he had done, he would practice until he could knock it out much farther. If someone ran faster or a greater distance, he would set out to beat it. Within him was the desire to outdo others, yet without any animosity . . . just for the fun of doing it.
During this time, the 11-year old greatly admired boxers, wrestlers and strongmen and longed to emulate them. But since he lacked the training knowledge, he concentrated on doing chins, pushups, handbalancing and running, which he felt would help to increase his muscle size and power.
During the school recess, he and his friends could always be found in the schoolyard doing chins on an old birch tree, as well as “skinning the cat,” or dislocates, as we now call them. He always tried to double the efforts of the others, without instigating competition.
Who was this pugnacious youngster? I hate to admit it, but it was me. I look back upon those days with some misgivings now, but that’s how I got started in the Iron Game a long, long time ago.
However, I didn’t actually begin weight training until I was closer to 18. It was during this time that an older brother enrolled for a training course with Earl Liederman, who offered chest expanders. Training with these, my brother began to sprout muscles all over and this really surprised me. Eventually he bought most of the courses offered by such trainers as Strongfort, Brietbart, Atlas, Titus, Schmidt and Milo Barbell.
I often watched him training and although it intrigued me, I was not permitted to exercise. In those days. weight training was taboo for anyone under 21. It supposedly stunted height, and inasmuch as I already was undersized, I wasn’t given the chance to train.
To keep me from using the weights in my brother’s absence, he chained everything together. Occasionally he forgot to chain the kettlebells, which when empty, weighed 30-pounds each. I was able to get them to my shoulders and do alternate presses, doing as many reps as I could. After a moment’s rest, I’d repeat the exercise until my arms were dead tired.
From this one exercise, plus chins and pushups, I began to acquire fairly good shoulder and arm development. My friends, whom I invited to train with me, were unable to even get one kettlebell to their shoulders, let alone press it overhead.
Like most youngsters, I was athletically active, but my favorite sport was baseball, either playing or watching. I played any position but I really enjoyed pitching and I practiced throwing fancy curves all day long. My batting was also pretty good and homers were not uncommon. Whenever my father needed me, all he’d have to do was ask where there was a ball game . . . I was sure to be there.
Bicycling and roller and ice skating were other pastimes I greatly enjoyed and indulged in, but behind all these activities was that inner desire to get bigger and stronger.
This desire to exercise and grow stronger never left once it imbedded itself within me. Whenever adults discussed power, my name always came up. Apparently I must have done something to impress them. If there was anything to be moved or lifted, I was called. But now as I reflect on the matter, I wonder if this was an attempt to test my strength or just to “use” me. The latter, I think, fits more accurately.
If anyone of our group got beaten up, it was always up to me to seek out his attacker and take it out of his hide . . . but very few of our group was ever attacked.
Yet, hardly a week passed that I didn’t have at least one battle with someone. However, there was one “urchin” whom no one ever challenged. He was a homeless youngster who ate and slept wherever he could. He had the reputation of a terror . . . the toughest around. He feared no youngster and very few adults and he would attack at the slightest provocation. Most people avoided him and treated him with respect . . . mainly out of fear.
I liked his individuality, however, and admired his reputation. One day m brother brought him to our house and fed him. I eyed him with awe, while still itching to get into a friendly fight or wrestling bout with him just to test his strength. Afterwards my brother brought him over several more times. I got to know him well and eventually got him to wrestle. Much to my surprise, I found I could hold him . . . although, like most others, I was still a little leery about tackling him outright.
It was a couple of years later that my brother left home, leaving behind him all his exercising paraphernalia. Finally, he gave me permission to use whatever equipment I wanted. Eager to begin, I failed to read the instructions correctly, and so I failed to comprehend them. It advised increasing the reps every third day. Since I thought training was to be done every day, I took the third-day increase literally, and after three or four weeks I began to drag. Since I was energetic, I went into the training for all I was worth, but that pep and vigor were soon depleted. Then I learned that you should train only every other day, or three times a week, so my enthusiasm returned.
Even when I was training every day, however, I was gaining slightly and my muscles sharpened up. I weighed about 130 pounds and stood 5’3” in height. My training quarters were in an attic that was too hot to train in during he summer and too cold in the winter. So, I rarely got in more than five or six months of training a year.
In spite of this abbreviated training, however, once I got straightened out and began training three times a week instead of seven days, my bodyweight and even my height increased. Each new summer season found me bigger and stronger, and people who know me would stop me on the street to ask what I was doing. When I answered, “exercising,” they gave me that funny look that could mean just about anything.
I enjoyed my newly found strength, and I began doing numerous, impromptu stunts everywhere. As my power reputation expanded, it reached the ears of the “tough terror” and whenever he heard anything that I had done, I was told he would only shrug his shoulders and simply say, “I can still take him anytime.”
Naturally, those who heard this challenge didn’t waste time rushing the report to me. As I grew stronger my pugnaciousness diminished. I fought only when I was pressed into action; otherwise I ignored any provocation and avoided fighting.
When I heard that the “terror” challenged me, though I sent work back to him that anytime he felt he was ready to take me on, I’d be waiting, day or night. His acceptance never reached me. I them began walking around the neighborhood where he supposedly hung out. I never saw him, nor could I learn where he was . . . in fact, I never heard of him after that. He led such a beastly life, frankly, he might have died . . . we’ll never know.
Anyway, I continued to do odd strength feats. One evening I grabbed the wheels of a model-T Ford, pack with people, and almost overturned it, until the owner yelled “bloody murder.”
I lifted telephone poles and railroad ties, the latter in a rough sort of one-arm press, and I often engaged about a dozen of my friends in a wrestling bout or battle. The idea of the battle was to get me down, or at least to see who could give me the hardest crack. This provided me with a lot of practice, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
I also began learning how to lift people, using either one or both hands. I supported heavy weights – a loaded barbell plus four or more persons hanging on . . . and some of these would initiate a swinging action. If you ever held a heavy weight that was in motion, you’ll know that it’s really something else!
Running and jumping were also favorites of mine. On the beach we played what we called a “one-inning game.” It was an advanced version of leapfrog. One man acted as the “down-man” and the others were to vault over him it two movements. Each participant is permitted a short run to a marked, “take-off” spot, form which he jumps as close to the “down-man” as possible. Then, from his landing spot, the leaper attempts to vault over the “down-man.” If he makes the vault the “down-man” moves to the spot where the successful vaulter landed, and the vaulter returns to the starting spot for another attempt.
As you can see, the more successes that are made, the more difficult it becomes to jump near the “down-man” and, hence, the more difficult the vault becomes.
This was my favorite beach game and only very rarely did I miss a vault and have to become the “down-man. My friends, however, worked out patterns to try and make me start as far away from the “down-man” as possible. The regular, heavy squats that I did, though, gave my legs so much spring that I could fly over the fellow, well over ten feet away.
I was easygoing by this time and I took nothing seriously. So I didn’t mind that I was the “one to get” in our little game. Also, at this time, everyone seemed to be interested in my development and the questions mostly plied to me where: “What are you doing” How did you get all those muscles?”
Earlier, friends used to taunt me about being a good runner and ball player as well as being strong and good at handbalancing but not being able to swim.
I admit I couldn’t swim, nor did I even learn to paddle around until shortly before I started training. I had developed a dreadful fear of water. My brother and his friends once threw me off the dock into deep water. I sputtered and almost drank up the river. When they finally pulled me out, I secretly vowed to myself that I would never venture near water again . . . and, for years, I didn’t. I watched and envied those who could swim, however, and the more I was teased about not being able to swim, the more determined I became to learn.
I finally went to the beach and played in the water up to my knees. Then I sat down and splashed. Each day I got a little bolder until finally I started dog-paddling.
Then one day when I was in the water, I accidentally bumped into a swimmer, who picked me up and threw me. I hit bottom but I paddled furiously until I reached shore. I was tired but elated . . . I could swim!
From the dog-paddle stroke, I adopted an overhand stroke. Within weeks I could swim fairly good but I still lacked confidence. By the following season I could swim anywhere and to any point, and I eventually won a couple of swimming ribbons contests that were featured over the holidays.
As some of you might guess, this was taking place during some of the depression years. Work, of course, was largely unobtainable but I took whatever I could get.
One such job was as a soda jerk. After spending a couple of weeks washing dishes and learning how to make the various sundaes, etc., the boss took delight in sending me out to tackle anyone who was obnoxious. I enjoyed this part of the job because normally when a person saw you were really out to get him, he took off. Sometimes, though, you had to lift a person up and shake him a little to convince that you weren’t fooling around.
One day, however, I was the one who got the surprise. I went after a fellow and expected him to run . . . and he did. But only to get a heavy club and when I went out the door I felt this club over my head. It really brought the stars out early for me. As I shook my head clear of cobwebs I discovered that he had run off. I searched for him for weeks but never did find him. After this incident, naturally, I took more precautions when going after anyone.
I also worked as a grocery clerk, butcher and delivery boy. I carried orders in a basket for a mile or more. Some were so heavy that once I got it atop my shoulder I couldn’t stop or let it down until I got to my destination. Later I got a bicycle and it was much easier. I pedaled up the steepest hills I could find, and on weekends I took the bike home and would ride it for exercise. I would cover 30 to 50 miles over the weekend, so it was no wonder that the tires wore out in no time.
An argument with my boss at the store caused me to leave and although he tried getting me back, I refused. Meanwhile, my father, who had a touch of lead poisoning, was forced to retire and he said he would only do so if they gave his job to me.
The foreman at the plant (a smelting foundry) didn’t like me, even though I never gave him any lip or sass. He threw all the dirtiest and hardest jobs at me, hoping that I would quit.
I was determined to stick it out. That winter, 1930, was particularly bitter but I never wore more than an undershirt and a sweater. I also walked the four miles to work, carrying my lunch under my arm . . . and that was something.
I could never get enough to eat. I packed such a big lunch that those who saw me asked if I was going away for a week. In fact, my father often questioned whether my working was an asset to the family income, as I practically ate up m wages in lunches. I was a big bread eater at the time, often eating a loaf or two at one sitting. During the time I worked in the grocery store I would often open a can of beans and eat them . . . or a can of sauerkraut which I ate with a loaf of dry bread. I would eat anything that could be eaten and ate and ate but I was never full.
At the foundry, of course, I worked harder so I needed more food. Often after a hard day’s work of eight or nine hours, I would go home and train, taking a reasonably heavy workout yet the next day I’d be rarin’ to go again. Although I got little protein in my diet, I still made gains . . . how, I don’t know, but I did. Muscle building foods were not available and I am certain if they had been, I would have made better gains.
At the foundry I was shifted from job to job. Anything that no one else would do, I was asked to do. One day I was to pour heavy metal – lead slugs for the government. Each weighed between 103 and 108 pounds. To complete the pouring all at one time, a big ladle had to be used. But a smaller ladle was used to fill the big one which itself weighed about 20 pounds. So, I had to handle well over 125 pounds all day long. By the days end, my arm felt beat, yet that night I had one of the best workouts I ever had and I think my left arm was much bigger than my right that night.
The tonnage poured that day exceeded several tons. During a slack period I showed some of the other workers that I could take a slug in each hand and do alternate presses with them. No one there could press one of them with both hands, so they were impressed.
As the slugs cooled I stacked them on the load car in a pyramid shape, which was then pulled by an electric car. I was unable to find the electric car and in disgust I started to pull the load by myself to the boxcar where it was to be unloaded.
As I pulled this load through the various departments, it caused quite a furor. Most workers were yelling that I would rupture myself or tear something, but I kept pulling the load without too much effort. When I reached the loading zone, however, the boxcar didn’t line up properly. So, I pushed the boxcar. The company had a special bar for this purpose but again I couldn’t locate it. I decided to do it with MY power. I braced my shoulder into the coupling and placed my feet of the ties and pushed. For seconds nothing happened except that my shoulder dug deeper into the coupling. Then I could feel my legs straightening and the car moving. By now I had to hold it back a little to keep it from going too far.
The foreman heard about my pulling these slugs through the building. He came rushing to see what I was up to. When he saw me pushing the boxcar he yelled, “What the hell are you doing!” I explained what I had done so I could load the car. He could say nothing. He just walked away, mumbling to himself.
After I unloaded the slugs I went back to pour more, getting more metal to recharge the empty pots. That day I handled tons of metal, more than anyone else up to that time had done and yet after supper that night I took my usual workout . . . and a good one!
Eventually I was laid off and during this time I began experimenting with training routines. For a time I trained three times every day. In the morning I went through a regular bodybuilding routine. After lunch I did what was called “lifting movements,”
and in the evenings I did heavy supports, something similar to what is now known as isometrics.
This went on for weeks, but once again due to my poor diet, I began dragging. Yet, I did continue to gain in strength. I finally went back to training every other day, and achieved better progress.
In my hometown, various strongmen (some truly great ones and some phonies) would exhibit at the marketplace and peddle their wares. I would stand by watching them, trying to learn how they bent spikes, broke chains, etc.
One Saturday, two men appeared within 20 feet of each other. One was a huge, massive man who called himself Sailor Jim White. He had an anchor chain hanging around his shoulders and told the crowd that he was going to break it. I really wanted to see that but after 40 minutes of spieling, he was still threatening to break it although he never made an attempt.
I then moved up the line to hear the smaller but more rugged-looking individual. He called himself the Mighty Atom. He too did some spieling, but he showed some action. He had a special 3/8 inch steel bar which he proposed to bend. Before that, though, he broke chains and , to everyone’s amazement, bit through a 20-penny nail.
I looked upon this feat with disbelief. I was sure he had some gadget in his mouth that cut the nail. Some of my friends had gathered around by now and were asking me what I thought of him. I had to admit he was capable of doing the other stunts, but biting nails seemed impossible.
He offered $25 to anyone who could bend the square bar he showed. My friends pointed to me - “he can do it!” they yelled. I shunned the idea. I didn’t want to try but the Mighty Atom threw me the bar. I tested it quickly and decided that I couldn’t bend it . . . and wouldn’t even try.
“Wait,” the Atom called back. “Here, put one of these on each end and try it.” Using the smaller pipes for leverage, I made a strong effort and the seemingly unwielding bar gave way. I bent it into a horseshoe and the Atom called back to me . . . “Now you see what a little knowledge can do.”
This was my first encounter with an actual strongman and I took a great liking to this extraordinary man . . The Mighty Atom – and we’ve been friends ever since. Today, in his mid-90’s, he’s still one of the greatest to be found anywhere . . . and he still does strength feats!
In 1936 I came to