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The Jesse Ventura Story
By Jake Tapper
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Jake Tapper
All rights reserved.
Bernice Lenz was just a farm girl from Independence, Iowa, but she was also a woman of incredible inner strength. Whether surviving the Depression as one of a litter of kids subsisting on oatmeal more often than not, or by getting into and putting herself through nursing school, each time the headstrong Bernice surpassed an obstacle, she would find and gun for another. Born in 1918, Bernice graduated from nursing school at Milwaukee Lutheran Hospital in 1940, and immediately enlisted in the Army. She served in Europe and North Africa during World War II, and was commissioned as a first lieutenant.
George Janos, the grandson of Czechoslovakian immigrants, endured a tough childhood as well, in the coal towns of Pennsylvania. Born in 1908, he also enlisted in the Army — at the maximum age one could do so, thirty-six. He also served in North Africa during the war, slogging through seven major battles and four years of hell. He was a sergeant, part of the crew of a tank destroyer, fighting in the infantry under General George Patton.
Though they were both in Africa during the war, their stars didn't cross until they got to Minnesota. When the war ended, Bernice moved to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul to study at the University of Minnesota to become a nurse anesthetist. She was an educated woman, but that year, 1945, she met and fell in love with George, who had little more than an eighth-grade education.
He had the gruff manner of a sergeant, while she retained her stern officer's bearing. Tall and muscular, George was ruggedly handsome — he had broad features, a long chin, thick nose and lustrous brown hair. Bernice was more refined, prim, and somewhere in the neighborhood of pretty. Her smile bunched her cheeks together at the corners of her mouth, and people were always noticing her legs. George was ten years older than she. When he wanted to get under her skin, he would call his stubborn wife "the lieutenant." They were married in 1946.
Bernice and George moved to South Minneapolis, into a modest two-story home. It was a lower middle-class urban neighborhood, about 100% white, with nearly as high a percentage of Scandinavians. It was, in fact, called "Swede Town."
George got a job as a laborer for the city's streets department. His friends called him "Sneakers," or "Sneaks." Because of a traumatic incident during the war, he never, ever drove — he walked to and from work each day. Bernice worked at a number of hospitals, eventually becoming chief nurse anesthetist at North Memorial Medical Center. "She was quite stubborn," says Bill Ritter, who worked with Bernice at North Memorial Medical Center and knew her for thirty-four years. "She didn't let anything stand in her way."
They started a family almost immediately. In January, 1948, they had a baby boy, who they named Jan. On July 15, 1951, they had another boy — James George Janos, whom they called Jim. Twenty-five years later, he would go by an altogether different name — Jesse "The Body" Ventura — but in South Minneapolis back then, he was just Jim.
They were great kids, but very different in temperament. Jan was hard-working, quiet, reserved. His room was immaculate. He was intense and introspective.
However much he looked up to his brother, Jim was his opposite. He was a mischievous scamp, always getting into trouble. He was a slob and didn't work very hard in school. A jug-eared kid with a bowl haircut and brown hair, Jim was entirely devoted to his mom, though his natural playfulness would cause his parents some problems.
"I thank a higher being that my son wasn't me," Jim would later say, after becoming a father himself. "And I feel bad for my mom and dad, because I caused way more problems than my son has ever caused me." Bernice and George were strict and strong parents who demanded character from their children. When Jan and Jim stole seed packets from a local market, Bernice and George found out and scolded them pretty harshly. But however much they insisted that their children obey the rules, they never shorted them on love. "The boys were uppermost as far as she was concerned," says Ritter.
And they never shorted their kids on fun. Jim and Jan would fish for carp in the Mississippi River. Many Minnesotans have cabins by one of the state's many lakes, and the Janos family would retreat to theirs on weekends. Jan and Jim snuck into Minnehaha Academy football games.
Pro wrestling was a big deal in the Twin Cities back then, and the brothers would listen to bouts on the radio. They loved it. At Cooper Elementary School one day, at the age of eight or nine, Jim was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said a pro wrestler.
"That's a ridiculous idea, Jim. Go sit down," the teacher said.
But Jim loved the sport, knew the holds and moves and surprised his fellow grade-school opponents whenever his gym class would pair off and wrestle. An average student, the sleepy-eyed, slightly goofy-looking kid would come alive in athletics. He graduated from the ninth grade at Sanford Middle School in 1966.
Bernice ran the family. She did more than her share of the disciplining, and made sure that Jim and Jan were on time, polite, and as studious as she could inspire them to be. She mothered everyone who came in contact with her. If you saw her knitting socks or a sweater, and you commented on how nice her needlework was, next time you saw her odds were she had a sweater waiting for you. At North Memorial Hospital, her maternal instincts earned her the nickname "Ma."
She also handled the family's finances, balancing the checkbook and keeping track of the family's accounts. Memories of the Depression cast a long shadow — she never bought on credit, thought it was irresponsible. Mom was the source of allowance: Once they were old enough to drive, Jan and Jim would pop over to North Memorial to bum a few bucks from their mom.
George and Bernice weren't married as kids, and they didn't live as kids, either. Bernice worked full-time, and she and her husband, while enjoying a strong marriage, had lives independent of one another. George retired while Bernice was still working, and he spent much of his retirement at their lake cottage.
George Janos would lead the family in discussions about politics. Minnesotans are unusually political, and George's lack of formal education didn't hold him back from offering opinions and railing against politicians. "George was a really, really nice guy. You could sit down and talk to him for hours about anything but politics," says Ritter. "You never wanted to discuss politics with George, 'cause George just had nothing but disgust for politicians." He thought they were skunks. Richard Nixon was the worst of them, he thought — a tail-less rat.
Jim's dad "was fun to be around," recalls one of Jim's friends from high school, Steve "Nelse" Nelson. "He'd sound off a lot about politicians and how they were all crooked. ... You could hear him yelling about some politician after a news broadcast, how he was crooked."
"What's wrong with your dad?" Nelse asked once, hearing a commotion from the living room.
"Oh, he's spouting off about some politician," Jim replied. "You know George."
He had a real feel for the underdog, George Janos. "Probably in the back of his mind, Jim thinks he better not goof this up because he's going to have someone to answer to," Nelse says today.
Jim and Nelse attended Minneapolis Roosevelt High School on Twenty-eighth Avenue, home of the Teddys. It was a two-story brick building that took up a city block; its student body was urban, blue-collar, almost entirely white. "We didn't have desegregation yet," says Fred Meyer, principal of Roosevelt, who first arrived at the school in 1970. "So we had a very small number of students of color. ... It was mainly Scandinavian, with some German." Freeman "Mac" McInroy, the now-retired end coach for the football team, as well as a social studies teacher, says that around that time the football team had "four Andersons, five Hansons, and five or six Johnsons."
Jim, still an average student, continued to be far more interested in athletics and his social life than he was in his studies. Clean-shaven, lean and muscular, with a full head of brown hair like his dad and a developing cleft in his chin, Jim threw himself into his extrovert persona. A popular and occasionally rowdy kid, Jim walked the halls of Roosevelt with a mischievous glint in his eyes. He went to dances, hung with his buddies, rah-rahed at pep rallies, and pitched in with charity work at the YMCA across the street.
He liked attention. Sartorially, Jim had a flair for being a little different. He'd see an outfit or style on television or in a magazine and would run downtown to buy something like it.
"One year, he was wearing this real ridiculous shirt," Nelse recalls. "This Errol Flynn shirt with puffy sleeves, and it was flared.
"I said, 'Jim, I can't believe you're wearing this.'
"He said, 'What's wrong with it?' — He was baiting me. ... He enjoyed being the center of attention."
Though Jim was popular, he didn't really seem to have one clique of friends with whom he was especially close. He was more like the guy whom everybody was friends with, whom everybody wanted to pal around with. He seemed to have a good sense of self — he was one of those few kids in high school who seems to have it all together. A handsome dude whose build got more than a few looks — he was voted "Best Physique" in his yearbook — Jim dated a lot of girls, but there was never anyone special. Just a lot of running around and having fun.
Occasionally, it was clear that Jim might be more than just a beer-drinking, skirt-chasing, rabble-rousing high school jock. One time an unbelievably inane debate broke out — the kind of bureaucratic proposal that makes high school sometimes seem like purgatory. There was a movement to make one of the staircases "up" and the other "down." Since they were on opposite ends of the building, a lot of the students thought that seemed unreasonably time-consuming. Who thinks of these things? they said.
Jim was one of the students who took a leadership role in winning a majority of both sides to agree to a compromise: The stairways would remain open to both "up" and "down" traffic, but everybody would stay to the right. Problem solved.
A leader. His senior year, as captain of the swim team, he led the Teddys to a 6–3 record. He was the best swimmer on the team by far, the only one who competed in the state tournament that year. In the 1969 yearbook, Jim stands as clearly the largest guy in the team photo. Six-foot-two, 190 pounds, Jim was lean but had big and defined lats, biceps, and pecs. He had to for his swimming specialty, which was the exhausting butterfly stroke.
"He always seemed happy and goal-directed," says Gary Fortier, an assistant swim coach at the time. "He was Mr. Reliable." Whenever they needed anyone to fill in for another swimmer, Jim — the team star — would gladly volunteer for the task. "When we got in a bind we could always rely on him — he'd take care of it for us," Fortier says.
Though his grades were fairly underwhelming, there was one class that interested him: "Mac" McInroy's eleventh grade history class. "Contrary to what some people thought, he was a very sharp individual," Mac says. Jim was always an active participant in class discussions, always very opinionated about the issues of the day, very much his father's son.
Sometimes the debates would get so heated they'd almost get ugly. McInroy recalls Jim almost coming to blows with his fellow end on the football team, John Folta, over a local civic debate. The baseball diamonds and grass around the local lake — Nokomis — were regularly littered with beer cans. So a local alderman had been drafting legislation to fine anyone caught littering. Folta's dad owned a local bar, and Folta was worried that the bill would affect his father's business. But Jim was "a conservationist even way back then," according to Mac, and he got to arguing with Folta.
"We've got to protect things," Jim said, according to Mac. "We can't have it messed around."
But Folta disagreed. What was the big deal?
And, as was a pattern in Mr. McInroy's history class, Jim would seldom back off when challenged. It became heated.
"Finally, I said, 'Listen guys, if you don't like something, don't just sit there and' — excuse the French — 'bitch about it,'" Mac recalls. "'Get your name on a petition and do something about it.'"
Mac was always telling the kids that. America was a country where individuals could make a difference. If you didn't like something, you could propose an initiative, write a referendum, try to recall an elected official or a law. He would say it over, and over, and over again over the course of his thirty years of teaching at Roosevelt. Get involved. Run for office. Play a role. He never knew if anyone was listening.CHAPTER 2
JANOS THE DIRTY
The Janos boys were supposed to go to college. That was the plan, anyway.
But, influenced by a Richard Widmark movie called The Frogmen and, whimsically enough, an aquatic childhood toy, Jan had joined the Navy when he graduated in '66. He'd even signed up for the elite SEALs division.
During Jim's Christmas vacation, Jan returned to Minneapolis and made quite an impression on Nelse. Jan had gotten through SEALs training and already done a tour at Da Nang.
"He was well-tanned and muscled, and he had a shaved head," Nelse recalls.
"What the hell did you do, Jan?" Nelse asked.
Jan told Nelse all about the Navy, the SEALs, Hell Week. Nelse had been thinking about going to Mankato State, but didn't have the time, motivation, or money for school. Nelse thought he belonged in Vietnam.
That was the kind of neighborhood South Minneapolis was. Fairly untouched by the peace movement, Swede Town was suffused with "a lot of patriotism, regard for country and the good old U.S. of A," according to Roosevelt principal Meyer, who served in 'Nam himself. "The young men in the area were more apt to serve in the military than they were not to serve," Meyer says.
Nelse had been researching various military options, and the SEALs kept popping up as a possibility. SEALs sounded great — it was the best of the best, real manly stuff. But Jan tried to talk him out of it. He wanted Nelse — and Jim, for that matter — to go to college and have fun.
Teachers at Roosevelt were preaching the gospel according to Nixon: the U.S. belonged in Vietnam, they said, our boys needed to be in Vietnam to stop Communism. George Janos didn't buy it — he hated Nixon to begin with, and he suspected that somebody was just making money off the whole deal. Jim, influenced by the domino theory taught at school, disagreed. They had typically heated Janos dinner-table debates on the subject.
If either of his sons were going to join up, George wanted them to sign with either the Navy or the Air Force, so they could learn a trade. "[T]he Army or the Marine Corps would only teach us how to pound gravel with our feet," Jim would later recall.
Immediately after graduation, Jim had started working for the state highway department, repairing bridges. When his supervisor found out that Jim was only seventeen, he told him to hit the road and come back on his eighteenth birthday that July. He did and was re-hired.
In September, Nelse told Jim he was going to go down to the Navy recruiters.
"I want to do what your brother's doing," Nelse said.
Jim tried to talk him out of it. Hadn't he listened to what Jan had told him? But Nelse's mind was decided.
There'd been talk of Jim soon heading off to Northern Illinois for school on a swimming scholarship. That's what his dad wanted. That's what the family had decided. But later that day, Jim phoned up Nelse.
He'd come with him, Jim told Nelse. Just to hear what the recruiter had to say — nothing more. But when they had finished, on September 11, 1969, the Navy SEALs had two new recruits.
Jim went home and looked at himself in the mirror. "What the fuck did I do?" he asked himself.
"I didn't plan to enlist," Jim later recalled. "But they're like car salesmen. They're recruiters. That's their job. I got down there, signed on the line, and got the military ID."
There was a lot more to it than that, of course. Despite their day-and-night differences in personality, Jim looked up to his older brother Jan quite a bit. Even though Jan was shy and introverted — "the complete opposite of his brother," according to Nelse — he had an inner strength and confidence that Jim admired.
"In his own way he is stronger than I am," Jim once said. So Jim would follow Jan to Coronado, California, just south of San Diego, to try and become a SEAL.
Jim and Nelse had signed up under deferred enlistment, so they had a few months to raise some hell and relax before the tough days began. Jim returned to the highway department for a spell so he could earn just enough to survive until the day he was to report to boot camp. He didn't want to have a nickel on him when he arrived.
Excerpted from Body Slam by Jake Tapper. Copyright © 1999 Jake Tapper. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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