The Bronx Batmen

Read more about this in Men Without Fear, available at Amazon.

John Jensen wasn’t the only gifted wrestler to come out of the NY Institute. Three other blind wrestlers from the school won Metropolitan AAU titles in the years from 1942 to 1948, and a couple nearly took national titles in 1944 and 1946, Their names were Jacob Twersky, Anthony Mattei, Gene Manfrini, and Fred Tarrant.

In 1944, the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind featured three wrestlers from ages 15 to 17 who would either win metropolitan titles or nearly win national titles. John Jensen, then 19, was their captain.

I call these athletes “batmen” because they were blind (some more blind than others) and so fought their battles in the darkness.

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The Captain

It wasn’t just in wrestling that John Jensen was something of a leader. In April 1943, he and his buddy Fred led a sit-down strike in assembly to protest restrictions to contact with girls and limits to weekend permits. There was no rioting or shouting, only silent “civil disobedience.” Principal Frampton lost his cool and suspended the 200 boys who followed John and Fred into the strike. They were all sent home. Fred went home with John to Mount Kisco. After 19 days of suspension, they were offered an opportunity to apologize in exchange for reentry. John and Fred did not apologize, so their suspensions were resumed, and they packed up and returned to Mount Kisco. After a couple weeks, the Institute’s board of directors inquired into the suspensions and chose to terminate the suspensions unconditionally. John and Fred returned to the Bronx, no strings attached. Fred reports that Principal Frampton was extra nice after the two returned to school. Fred also reports that John’s father was not happy about John losing school time. Fred assures me that Mr. Jensen did not lose his temper, but he was very serious about his son studying to become a doctor, and he made it clear that he was disappointed in his son.

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Mat Men

Johnny “J.J.” Jensen got into wrestling while attending the New York Institute for the Blind. He began to wrestle competitively at a time with the Institute’s wrestling coach began to promote his team of DadSparringblind kids and drive them around to tournaments.

J.J. was dedicated, and he was good—one of New York’s best. He was made the Institute’s team captain in his sophomore year (at age 17) [1]. He even won a Metropolitan AAU title [2]. I don’t have a record of that one, though one of his biggest defeats was featured in the NY Times. He got to the senior Metropolitan final in March 1944 and got beat by the national champion, Lawrence Cowell of the West Side Y.

John had been heard to say that wrestling was his religion, and he backed up that claim by putting wrestling before just about everything else.

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The Institute

John Jensen was almost entirely blind from age three and attended a specialized school, New York Institute for the Education of the Blind (NYIEB). This was a residential school in the Bronx. It is still operating, but not exclusively for the blind. “Johnny” entered first grade just after his eighth birthday and graduated high school at age twenty. This kind of lag, though not typical at the school, was not terribly uncommon. The school reports serving students as old as age 21.JohnJensen

“The Institute,” as it was familiarly called, was rich in courageous kids who would travel about New York City without canes, guide dogs, or even outstretched arms. Though John Jensen was spoiled and dysfunctional when he entered the institute, he matured into a very independent student. His buddy Fred Tarrant, who attended the Institute because he was too blind to read (though in his youth could see enough to ride a bike), reports that this was not merely common; it was enforced. Fred tells me that students at the Institute were shamed out of using canes. As if that weren’t severe enough, students who walked around with their arms flailing before them were reviled as “gropers.” Treatment like this, though arguably abusive, was perhaps not ineffective for those like John Jensen who were so proud as to make pride seem, well, like a mortal sin. This was one school for the “special” that didn’t baby its students.

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Gotham Hospitality

I had a grand time in the Big Apple touristin’ around with Brenna and checking out my dad’s old haunts, etc.

Brooklyn Bridge

Having a time on Brooklyn Bridge

Brenna and I got completely overwhelmed and overrun in Brooklyn during the Independence Day festivities, which was perhaps the most authentic NYC initiation I could hope for, fireworks be damned. We did have the pleasure of crossing the Brooklyn Bridge for some famous Brooklyn ice cream, and we also walked by the location of the building where my great-grandfather Niels Jensen lived and worked as a hotel “engineer” at the time of his death.

Brenna and I also had the honor of getting caught walking the “wrong way” in Central Park. The Met was amazing. The Empire State Building tour was hectic but worthwhile in some perversely inexplicable sense.

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Diabetes and Diphtheria

John Neil Jensen was born in Oneonta in Upstate New York in late summer, 1924, about a year after his sister Helen was born. A fire destroyed the family dairy when Johnny was still an infant, Helen a toddler. The Jensens returned to New York City where John Sr. got work driving a horse-drawn milk buggy and Jennie managed the tenement in Greenwich Village where the family resided.

John Sr. was working his way up at the dairy, and he was looking at a promotion to foreman when diabetes struck him down. It was at about that time that diphtheria struck the neighborhood and nearly killed the Jensen boy. Though Johnny—just three years of age—survived, his vision was severely damaged. He could only see blurs within about a foot of his face. Helen fared better, but without a breadwinner, the welfare agency threatened to take Johnny and Helen from their parents. Fortunately a Jewish family in the tenement covered for the Jensens until Mr. Jensen could recover and find a job. It appears that he was still recovering when the market crashed in October, 1929.

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Love on Times Square

Word has it my paternal grandparents met on Times Square on New Year’s Eve, 1922. They met, more precisely, at the Hotel Astor. John Jensen, a Danish immigrant, was likely working as a milkman. Jennie MacNeil, a Scotch-Canadian immigrant, may have been working in the hotel, perhaps in housekeeping.

Jensen was a real bastard, that is to say, born out of wedlock to two house servants. He’d been christened Rasmus Marius Jensen. His mother, Jensine Rasmussen, was unable to raise him but kept in touch with him throughout her life. The father, Niels Johan Jensen, had fled the scene when Rasmus was an infant and immigrated to New York. It’s said that the boy operated a farm on his own by age 12, and a dozen years later, during World War I, moved to America, changed his name, and met up with his dad in New York. He worked as a gardener, an estate caretaker, a streetcar driver, and a milkman.

Jane “Jennie” MacNeil had been born and raised on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The village where she was born had retained much of its Hebridean culture, right down to speaking and singing in Gaelic and practicing strict Roman Catholicism. The village has since been transformed into Nova Scotia Highland Village, a major cultural center. Jennie left Canada for New York in her late teens. She was something of a rebel, excommunicated by the Church at some point for fraternizing with Protestants. The Church eventually reinstated her.

John and Jennie married, bought a dairy farm upstate—near Oneonta, and had two children, a girl they named Helen and a boy they named John. Tragically, they lost the farm to a fire. After the fire, they returned to New York City and moved into a tenement in Greenwich Village, where more hardship would follow.

The Bull of 23rd Street

One evening in the heart of Manhattan’s Chelsea district, a pair of young sailors are letting loose—exceedingly loose. They come across another young man at an intersection. He’s touching a light post timidly as if caressing it, and this catches the eye of one of the drunken mariners. The sailor, offended by the stranger’s gesture and spurred on by “the spirit,” reaches out to grab the stranger’s shoulder without notice, and the man turns quick as a cat, slipping a hand under the sailor’s arm and up behind his head. The force of the move pushes the sailor into his buddy who falls back and down to the concrete. As the stranger follows through, he throws the first sailor down to the ground. The stranger pauses for a second as if listening. He doesn’t seem to see the sailors, though he certainly knows where they are. His face has that vacant, blind-man look, but he has no cane. He has no dog. He has no escort. He turns to cross the street. A taxi honks as the young man crosses the twin beams of its headlights. The sailors look at each other, and they clumsily regain their feet. Now they’re stunned as well as buzzed, not knowing they’ve just stumbled across one of the premiere wrestlers in the Empire State, heading home to Mount Kisco for the weekend after working out at the 23rd Street Y. Some call him Jensen. Some call him Johnny, or J.J., the Bull, or occasionally King Kong. They don’t call him Daredevil. This isn’t a comic book.

New York City

Our daughter Brenna has the honor of participating in a summer intensive on Broadway with the American Ballet Theater, and I have the honor of visiting her there. After joining my cousin Holly and her husband Rick for a Grateful Dead concert, I’ll get a week in the Big Apple to visit Brenna, explore places where my dad lived, and also work—as my employer (Yahoo) has an office on Times Square (in the old NY Times Building).

The Last Gypsy of the Brennica

Here, young stranger, a speckled egg
of Carpathian granite, blooming with crystal,
stolen in my youth from the womb
of a Moldavian stream, said the old Gypsy
when he handed the riverstone to me.

Mill it—down to flour.
Fertilize it with this old man’s ash,
carry the meal up to Ram Mountain
and cast it out there. Like the Roma,
let the rain wash it to the Odra and the Wisła,
let that blend of stone and man
leaven the two waters
with the ashes of my love
and the soul of my mountains.

Let it ride the Wisła east, the Odra west,
Down through Silesia, past Krakow’s poet-tomb;
May it seal the wounds of my people,
Prussian and Pole, Czech and Jew—
children of the two veins together;
our dark blood never spill again
even to where the twin rivers spill
upon the northern sea.

© 2015 Kaweah