Only weighing in at 145lbs, he could stop a plane from taking off with his hair, bite nails in half with his teeth, bend heavy iron bars with his fingers, break heavy chains by inflating his chest, defied cars to break away while he holds them with a rope, merry-go-rounds six people off his hair, drive heavy spikes through 2 inch planks with just his fist. Only a few of the things my hero, Joseph L. Greenstein, did throughout his life. Even into his 80’s. Doubt my word? Look him up. There’s film on him doing everything listed above and more.
Pretty darn good for an infant expected to die at any minute. The local doctors had a pool on his hour of death. They even asked his mother for his little body once he expired since he was so tiny and frail. As a child he really did walk through snow with rags on his feet. His father was a rabbi. The head of the poorest family in Suvalk, Poland. Every year was expected to be his last.
In 1903, the circus came to Joe’s town. Like most of the other kids he, too, snuck in. Circus roundabouts caught him and half beat the tiny waif to death. Found by the circus strongman, ‘Champion Volanko’, after he could stand up, Volanko made every circus worker say these words at the top of his lungs: “YOU DIRTY JEW, I’LL KILL YOU!” When the small boy flinched at the correct voice, Volanko grabbed the man by his lapels and hit him a blow so hard, the man’s jacket came off in his fist. When the circus left town, so did Joe. He became Volanko’s valet.
The first thing Volanko taught him was how to breathe correctly. “Joseph, breathing is the key to everything you’ll ever want to accomplish!” Volanko also told Joe to stop listening to doctors. Doctors were bloodsuckers and liars in his book. Next, food. “If you eat like a dog, you will live like one!” From then on and for the rest of his long life, it was grainy foods and plain hot tea. Opening up the back of his pocket watch, Volanko showed Joseph the fine gears and wheels. “Inside your body it’s the same. What would happen if I ground dirt into those workings? Your body is the same. Don’t put bad things into it!”.
Throughout the time Joe spent with Volanko, a mantra was driven into him. “Breathe deeply. Refuse to be weak. Refuse to be sick. Refuse to die. Think strong and you will be!” The very first morning on the road, Joe began the buckets of sand routine. Ten times with each arm. Only a little sand in the fire buckets, but it was a start. Every week, a bit more sand was put into the buckets. Along with the buckets came his time to read. Mostly Jewish prayer books and teachings. Volanko only pretended to be a wild Russian Cossack. He, too, was a Jew. He, too, had once been just like Joseph. He felt it was his turn to give some pay back as another long before had helped him.
After a few months on the road, the buckets now had a lot more sand. It was also time to teach Joe how to break chains with his chest. Not wanting to break the boy’s spirit, Volanko used a piece of string around Joe’s tiny chest. The boy couldn’t do it. Volanko had him pick a chain out of many hanging on a wagon wall to prove it wasn’t trick chain. Putting the chain around his chest, Volanko then took in as much air as he could hold then transferred the air to where the chain wrapped around him. The thick chain burst apart. Joseph never forgot it. From then on, he worked on busting the string. After the string, some cord, then, a small chain. He only got better.
Once he started to put on some muscle, it was time to learn how to wrestle. Volanko gave him some more advice. “To be a man is not just muscles. It’s strength of character. No matter how much sand is in your buckets, you have to build character by living life as a good person!”.
It’s now 1908. The circus has toured all the way to Poona, India. Everyone chewed the narcotic red betel nut, then spit the juice. Beggars of all sorts were everywhere. Armless and deformed they would follow after Joseph crying for charity. He always tried to give them something. If only a kind word. Something to acknowledge their existence. Volanko nodded his head to himself. Joseph had a kind heart.
In Poona, wrestling was king. You wrestled with only a breech cloth. After watching the locals, Joe was introduced to, ‘Gama, the lion of the Punjab’. He was the Poona champion. He was also Volanko’s best friend. Joseph asked Gama how he became champion. “I would wrestle a tree in my backyard, twice a day!” Gama had read about the Spartan boys in ancient Greece. When they got a bit too full of themselves, the Spartan soldiers training them would make them strip naked then, ‘Fuck the tree boys’. Smashing into the big oak in rows, they had to push with all their might to try and shove the tree out of the ground by its roots. If you were caught slacking, you were whipped until you fell. Some never did fall. They were whipped to death and fell over dead. Too proud to give in.
Along with wrestling everyday, Joe also studied Yoga. He also started fasting one day a week. He never wavered. Even keeping it up into his 80’s. Taking on all sizes, Joe learned to endure. To ignore pain. He also started to win. After another year and a half Volanko left Joseph on the side of the road not 100 feet from where they had first met. He never saw Volanko again. As the wagon rolled away Volanko shouted back, “NEVER FORGET WHO YOU ARE!”
Now 16, Joe was back with his family. Not even settled in, Joe watched a Russian soldier kill an old Jewish man with his saber for fun. Joseph followed him into the woods, fought with him, then killed the Russian soldier with his own broken sword hilt. No one in his village ever mentioned it. The soldiers body was never found.
At 18, Joseph married Rachael Leah. A table cloth and two candlesticks was her dowery. Joseph was now responsible for their success. He informed Rachael he was going to America. To Texas to be more exact. Only married 8 weeks, he took ship to Houston. On board the steamer ‘The Frankfurt’, he found work peeling potatoes. Not much in pay, but he ate well.
Finding a job loading and pushing a peddlers wagon, Joseph discovered wrestling was also huge in Houston. The rules in America were a bit different though. After shaking hands, as long as you didn’t leave an opponent deaf, blind or sterile, you we’re good to go. Soon he found work with the Southern Pacific Railroad. While eating lunch one day he met the heavy weight champion of the world, Jack Johnson. Noticing Joe was Polish from his accent, Johnson told Joe a story about a Polish fighter he once fought. “Boy, I’ll never fight that Choyski again. He could hit. He once hit Jim Jefferies so hard his lips were plastered into his teeth. The ring attendants had to cut them away with a knife!” Johnson told Joe to keep wrestling. He was only going to get better. The words boosted Joe’s spirits. Soon with his saved pay and money from wrestling, he sent money for Leah to join him. He also was to be a father soon.
After many adventures, Joe settles in to a nice little gas station business with a small house in the rear. Heading for a nearby hardware store, one of his more famous incidents occurred. Already well-known for his handling of hecklers, one such incident put him on the front page of no less then 7 newspapers.
NEW YORK JOURNAL: ‘Mighty Atom proves power to crowd’. In less then two minutes, Joe had tossed five men through plate glass windows, knocked cold, flattened a dozen more and taken a stab wound during the fracass.
NEW YORK WORLD TELEGRAM: “When the police arrived one officer stated to the newspaper reporter that the Mighty Atom didn’t need no help!” The officer added, “We saved the crowd from him!”
Not long after this incident, Joe was in the German part of New York on business. He stopped in his tracks when he saw a large banner over a storefront that said “NO DOGS OR JEWS ALLOWED.” He asked a passerby, “What in the hell is that?” He was informed that it was the Nazi headquarters and that a big ‘Bund’ was taking place. Going across the street to a paint store, he rented an 18 foot ladder, then stopped at a sporting goods store for a ‘Hank Greenburg’ baseball bat. Now up the ladder, Joe tore down the banner then waited on the sidewalk for whatever was going to unfold.
As the building emptied, Joe took up his bat and played some Nazi baseball. As he told the judge in court later, “It wasn’t really a fight, your honor. It was a pleasure!” Joe took on the entire Bunt. He put 18 in the hospital. He came out of it with a black eye. Hauled into court on a charge of aggravated assault, mass mayhem and so forth, a surprisingly cheerful Joseph Greenstein stood before the bench. The white haired judge could scarce believe his eyes at the tiny man in front of him with just a small mouse under his eye, then, past him at the crowd of badly beaten men filling the courtroom with arms and legs in casts and missing teeth.
Not able to believe it, the judge turned to the police officer and said, “This little guy did all this damage?” The officer responded, “Well, your honor, deese here guys is just the ones that could gets out of the hospital for court!” The judge asked Joe if he had anything to say. “Well, your honor, every swing was like a home run!” The officer leaned and whispered in the judges ear, “These here guys is Nazis your honor. They comes after him, see?” The judge banged his gavel, “Not guilty, case dismissed!”
I could go on for hours. Do yourself a favor. Research this man. He’s one of my favorite people of all time.
Now, the time he was over 80 and would walk the alleys at night hoping street thugs would jump him. Those are some great stories!