The last showdown of Man vs Machine - a first-person narrative.
The Legend of John Henry
(When man took on machine)
“Make shu’ you tell it right boy!” The ancient, tiny, coal-black man in the ratty woolen overcoat had a loud clear voice that made me jump when he appeared over my shoulder to give me this less-than-fatherly advice. I hadn’t even seen him get up, and when he shouted in my ear (he apparently thought I was just as hard of hearing as he was, despite the half hour or so of conversation we had already had) I raised up off of the wooden chair.
“I’ll write the whole thing, just the way you tell it to me”, I replied, knowing I’d have to repeat that sentence at a shout, which I did. Twice. Finally he got it all, apparently satisfied with my sincerity. He nodded imperially and sat down in a heap on the floor, his back against the wall, ignoring for the third time the chair right next to me. When I motioned to the chair (for the fourth time), he huffed at me “been sittin' on the ground since your great-granddaddy was a gleam in HIS daddy’s eye, boy, I don’t need no fancy sittin'-stool.” This was the third time he had repeated this response.
His eyes slowly glazed over and he looked right through me, back to a time when the train and the horse were pretty much the only way one got from place to place, when one didn’t walk.
“The man was born a slave, and lived that way more’n' half his life, ‘til after the War. Same as me, but I’se one of them that stole away on the Underground, almost two years afore the War. I was a rail man since I was thirteen year old, haulin' dirt, bringin' water, but mostly, I was a Shaker. You know what a Shaker is boy?” I confessed I didn’t. The black man just shook his head as if he’d been told the young man in front of him had never seen a car or a train.
“Young people’s gots no sense of how things were, nohow…You seen pictures of men layin’ railroad track, aincha?” I nodded. He snorted. “Well, do ya know hows they laid that track through mountains?”
“Blasted them, I guess.. With dynamite?”
“And before that?”
I paused. “Drilled?”
“Hammered, boy!” He fairly spat the words at me. “We drove through the belly of them mountains with hammers and spikes. Every inch of tunnels we drilled were with hammers and spikes and sweat and blood.
“And I was a SHAKER.” He puffed up to every inch his shriveled body would allow. “The big boys used the hammer, and every one of them had they own Shaker. I’d hold the spike in front of that fearsome hammer, and turn it, shakin' out the mountain from that bit, a few inches at a time. An’ we hadda do it fast and accurate, cause about a foot away from me a mountain of a man was swingin' a 14 pound sledgehammer as hard an’ fast as he could, right at mah hand. For 12, sometimes 14 hours a day.”
I must have looked pretty astounded, because the old man smiled a toothless grin that turned into a chuckle before he continued.
“But you don’t wanna hear nothin' bout no old Shaker. You askin' bout John Henry hisself. I first met him when he talked his way onto Boss MacGyvven’s team layin track for the old C ‘n’ O Railroad. He was given a job bringin' water and haulin' dirt to and from track lines, but big John Henry, he didn’t think this work was what he was put on God’s own earth for. ‘I’se a steel-drivin' man, Boss’, John Henry kept tellin' MacGyvven, but MacGyvven hadda mind to beat down John Henry by keepin' him doing boy’s work.
“One day, coupla weeks after he started, Boss MacGyvven hadda fire three men drivin' steel spikes into ties cause they was takin' too long to drive them spikes. Well, he fired one white man and beat the other two up and left 'em for dead cause they was Chinese coolies. John Henry was right up in the Boss’ ear then, tellin' him he was the man to drive them stakes in. Boss wasn’t havin' none of it, but he also wanted to show John Henry up, so he told him if’n he could drive the stakes in the ground faster’n the strikers he just let go, he could have the job. Catch was, he hadda drive in all three of those spikes faster than the three men could do.
“We was gatherin' around by now, and man we was havin' a laugh. Big dumb boy was bout to get his lesson learned. But John Henry just smiled and walked up to the spikes set lightly in the ground and picked up one of the nine pound hammers that the strikers use and chucked it about ten yards away. ‘Gimme a real hammer, Boss, and I’ll nail these coffin-sticks down’. Now bear in mind, boy, in order to hit the mark accurately, nobody used anything bigger than a nine pounder. Too hard to control anything else more than a stroke in a row. We laughed all the harder as I fetched him one of the 14 pounders that my steel-driver had used earlier that day in the tunnel. By this time mosta the boys were laughin' so hard we could hardly stand up. This green rube was bout to get taught some humility.
“The laughin' quit in one hell of a hurry though, round about the third swing a those tree-arms a his. One beat, one spike, and this was almost stone grade he was drivin' through. Nine inches driven into hardscrabble. He did those three spikes in half the time the white man and the coolies had done theirs, combined! An’ the man barely broke a sweat. He got the job on the spot.
“Wasn’t a week afore John Henry got moved up into the tunnels with us. Back then we was doing a series a small hills, but some decent tunnels anyhow, and Boss Macgyvven was one big Jim Crow bigot, and a jackass to boot, but a practical man. His teams were hammerin' the most rock, and layin the most track through those hills, and so makin' the most money for the Boss and his Bosses.
“Call it lunacy, call it showin' off, call it a hunch, but I volunteered to be John Henry’s Shaker from the first day he got his hammer. Most a the rest of the Shakers wanted nothin' to do with the crazy nigra who flipped that hammer about like it was a toothpick. We had seen some Shakers get carried off with broken hands, arms, or worse. And that was with somebody who was careful too. But I was top man in the tunnel, as Shakers go, and I wasn’t bout to let no freak ‘a nature scare me off.
“But I gotta tell ya boy, this freak ‘a nature was indeed a steel-driver. And I was his Shaker. We fit like a calf-skin glove to one another from the first drive. After a day we was drivin' further and cleaner than any other Driver/Shaker team in the company, and after a week we were doin' it faster and better than any two teams combined. He swung those steel band arms a his, and I twisted and shook that bit faster’n I ever had. Maybe better’n anybody ever did. We were anvil and steel, and folks would come out to actually watch us cut a hole in a mountain. Real, gentrified townsfolk. Mayors and rich men brought their wives and kids to see us work.
“We heard the rumors for almost a year afore the Boss told us about it: Some big business suits was peddlin' a machine for drillin'. A steam-driven drill that could do in an hour what 10 men couldn’t do in twice that. We had a good laugh about that, John Henry, me, and the rest of the boys. Until ‘bout a week after the Boss told us about it all official-like. He showed up with them suits at his elbow, with that infernal machine in tow behind 'em. It was all tubes and cylinders with a couple of steel arms that would pound and drill – damnedest thing I ever did see. Even had a grooved arm that would clean the drilled hole as it worked. We laughed all the harder cause we din’t believe this contraption would even start, much less drill a hole.
“Boss MacGyvven just grinned that grin he had when he was about to make some more money, and he had three of them suits set up that steel monster against the wall we was workin' on, complete with big steam engine behind it. By this time we were gathered in a big crowd behind this thing, gawkin' like little children at a county fair sideshow. Some crazy Shaker behind me was tryin' to get bets laid down how soon the contraption would blow up.” The little man began to chuckle, then cackle at the memory, before suddenly getting serious again..
“Well, we wised up ‘bout five minutes into the show. This damned tangle a’ steel was diggin' deep into the mountain. And it wasn’t stoppin'. We stood there with our mouths hangin’ open and not sayin' a word. This thing was chewin' up that wall of slate like it was sand.” There was a long pause then, as the old man breathed deep, and slowly shook his head before he went on.
“Well son, it weren’t goin' on more than a hour before they shut that contraption down and Boss turns to us with a big grin and says ‘boys, ya’ll be out of a job.’ And he just laughed 'til he doubled over.
“We all just stood there, eyes wide open and feelin' like we just been told our momma died. All 'cept John Henry. He weren’t havin' no part of it. ‘Ain’t no fangled machine been built than can drive more steel better’n me, Boss. And you KNOW it’s true.’
“Well, old Boss MacGyvven stopped his laughin' in one hell of a hurry, and narrowed his eyes at the man-mountain driver in front of him. He got real quiet, Boss did, and said, ‘Ain’t no way, boy. You’re a good driver, the best, in fact, but this here’s the way of the future. You boys are done, that’s the long and short of it.’ Then it was John Henry’s turn to get quiet, and he looked Boss right smack in the eye and said, ‘I’ll put my job and a hundred dollars against that machine.’ You coulda heard a snail sneeze just then, it was so quiet. John Henry was a legend Driver, and had won his share a’ side bets over years, but a hundred dollars was more money’n most of us would see in a month, mebbe more. But John Henry took that money out of his pocket right then and there. He said as he held it out to Boss, ‘If I win, we all keep our jobs.’ Boss grinned that grin again and said, ‘If the rest of you boys can find another hundred, ya’ll got yerselves a bet.’ I had my money out afore anybody else, and with some hemmin' and hawin', we were able to raise another hundred.
“It was set for the very next day, this contest ‘tween man and machine. The whole crew was all abuzz with excitement. Most a’ the drivers and shakers were still convinced the machine would win, after that show it had put on, even the ones who contributed to the bet. But this was their livelihood, so they hoped against hope and pinned their futures on the giant with the arms a’ steel.
“They gave us a clear face to work against, both us and the machine. We were to drive until one of us had cleared twenty feet, a distance most of the drivers and shakers shook their heads at when they heard it. It would take most of the day for a whole crew to do that much tunnellin’. I set up with my whole set of every chisel I owned, and in fact even took an extra ten from other shakers in our crew. We were set, and the machine was started up, with a whine and a chug and a roar.
“We started in our routine, with John Henry swingin' loose and free, like he din’t have a care in the world. That machine started slow, but when the steam got to rollin', it suddenly took off like a horse under a sharp spur. In an hour, we were already a foot behind. John Henry seemed to notice this all at once. He din’t take it kindly.
“He bellowed out for somebody to bring him both his fourteen pound hammers. Our fetchit boy looked at him like he was crazy 'til he turned and glared at the boy, without missing a beat. The boy lit out like he was on fire. In five minutes he was back dragging the two 14 pound sledgehammers behind him. They was almost as big as he was.
“After the boy set those behemoths at John Henry’s feet, he looked at me, still not missin' a beat and said, ‘Rufus, you feelin' brave today?’ An I barely took a breath before answerin' ‘you the Driver, I’se the Shaker. I can shake as fast as you can drive.’ He laughed a long, deep laugh and said, ‘Good, little man, cause I ain’t gonna let no hunk a metal beat a steel drivin' man in his own mountain.’ And with that, he leaned down and picked up BOTH a’ them hammers and commenced to layin those mammoth sledges across my chisels, in a windmill motion.
“Now bear in mind, boy, we had never driven like this before. Nobody ever had, far as anyone knew. I was flippin’ and shakin’ that dirt like I had never done before. Both outta a sense of pride, cause John Henry was workin' so hard, and outta sheer survival, cause if I didn’t keep up, I’da been a dead man where I stood, just from the sheer force a’ them hammers.
“Sweat was now pourin' down both of our faces, but mostly John Henry’s. By the time we got our rhythm down with those two hammers, we were probably two feet behind. But then something strange began to happen. We stopped the fallin’ behind, and slowly, very slowly, began to gain. It was another four hours afore we pulled even with that infernal machine, and my hands and arms was achin'. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what old John Henry was feeling, with those fourteen pounders tryin' to rip his shoulders outta the sockets with every swing.
“But John Henry was smilin’. Yep, that huge, black mountain of a man was grinnin’ like he’d just done a entire whorehouse. He could feel the momentum flowin’ out to us, and leavin’ the machine. Three more hours went by, and we were close to our twenty feet. Mah hands were bloody, but fortunately they were also numb, so’s I felt okay. I just hadda make sure I held onto the chisel. The big man was makin' those hammers fly.
“The machine was close too, and we knew it… all at once, John Henry doubled up his pace, nearly catchin' me off-guard, but I sensed where he was goin'. The surveyor hollered ‘Twenty and done!’, and lo and behold it was us that’d broke that last piece a’ stone. The machine was almost three foot behind us, almost choked to a stop from the dust and stone.”
The tiny black man again took a long pause, his eyes fixed on a long-ago tunnel in a long-forgotten mountainside. His voice sounded fragile and tired when he continued.
“We was so excited about winnin’, jumpin’ around an’ all, that it musta been ten minutes afore I saw John Henry. He was leanin' against the wall, propped up with his two fourteen pound hammers, eyes closed.
“I pounded him on the back and whooped an’ hollered some, but he didn’t move a muscle.”
The old man’s voice now broke while he continued. “He was stone dead. Right up against that mountain wall. He wouldn’t let the mountain beat him, an’ he wasn’t about to show it it had won. Sumbitch died standin’ up. Buried him in arm’s reach of that very mountain, a hammer’s length from the tracks. ”
The little man gathered himself together, tugged the lapels of the woolen overcoat straight where he sat, and continued quietly, with a silent dignity.
“We didn’t keep them jobs very long after that anyways, cause they kept makin' bigger and better machines, and John Henry was dead, and more speed and less pay made for more Boss-money. But for some reason it stayed important, that day that a Driver beat a machine. From that first day I twisted a chisel in a tunnel, I knew I was born to do that my whole life. It wasn’t work, it wasn’t play, it was the same as breathin' for me. Natural, a part of my existence, like eatin’ an’ sleepin. From the day John Henry died on, I worked. I found jobs, I made a livin', but I never found that kinda pride.
Damned machine won, and there ain’t been a day gone by I didn’t wish John Henry and I had switched places propped up ‘gainst that mountain that day.”