The Legend of John Henry (Revised)



The news came by wire in the morning.  The foreman gathered the crew immediately to make the announcement.  I could read in his face that this was not happy news.
“You’re all being laid off, effective Monday,” said Jack.  There was no point in mincing words.  The silence was deafening.
John was the first to speak.  “But… we’re ahead of schedule.  We’ve been working twelve-hour shifts for the past month.  Why?”
Jack’s face reflected the pain and disappointment of his men.  This was the worst part of his job.  “It’s a new machine,” he sighed.  “It’ll be here next week.  They say it can do the work of a hundred strong men on the line.”
In truth, this came as no surprise to us.  We had all heard of these infernal, soulless things putting good men out of work on other lines.  We knew this was coming.  None of us knew what we were meant to do when it happened to us.
None, that is, but for John.  John was a mountain of a man, famous for the power of his hammer, which most men could barely lift.  But John’s strength wasn’t just in his biceps.  He was also a wise man, and he knew that his physical strength alone would not carry him through life.

That evening at supper, the mood was somber.  We ate our stew and talked quietly about our various plans.
“I heard they still need steel drivers in Charleston.  That’s where we’ll go,” said one man.
“How long before they get a steam hammer there?  A few months?  Besides, we can’t all go there.  There won’t be enough work for us,” replied John quickly.  Everyone could see he has been pondering this question for some time.
It was then that Polly Ann, John’s wife, stood to address the crowd.  She was a woman whose presence was always felt and who always had words to speak.
“I’ve had enough of all this pitiful crying!  You work like beasts, and when they’re done with you, they toss you aside like so much scrap metal.  I say, when that machine shows up here, we put those hammers to good use and smash the damned thing to bits!”
At these words, the men were fired with passion.  Polly Ann’s proposition made good sense.  We had run out of options, and the injustice was too intolerable.  But John was quiet.  He knew this would solve nothing, but there was nothing he could say to the fear and anger that was thick in the mass of men.

The men worked solemnly through the rest of the week.  The following Monday, a sound was heard to be approaching on the rails.  As it grew louder, we all gathered to witness the arrival of a black metal monster.  It steamed to a halt just before the group of angry men.  The men began hurling obscenities and rocks at the beast.
“Be still!” commanded a voice from high inside the machine.  It was the voice of Mr. Wheeler, the engineer.  We were shocked to hear a human voice emanate from within the steel, and our hate was tempered.
“You are angry.  I understand you,” continued Mr. Wheeler.  “This is why I offer you a fair contest.  Will you hear me?”
John stepped forward from the crowd.  “We are listening,” he said, skeptically.
“This engine is powerful, but it can break down.  It is not perfect.  Select your strongest steel driver.  If he can finish driving this line before it does, then I’ll pack it up.”  Mr. Wheeler clearly had some experience dealing with angry mobs before.
It seemed a like fair challenge.  Certainly, no good could come of destroying this machine, and somewhere in our hearts, we all knew this.
“We need to think it over,” John spoke for us all.  Mr. Wheeler agreed to let us have the evening to consider.

“John can beat that contraption!  He was born to do this,” Polly Ann told the men.
“Or to die trying…” mused John.  He knew that even if he could do it, his exploit would not solve the real problem.  The world no longer needed us.  Our work was done.
“I have a different idea,” continued John.  “But we’ll need some money to make it work.  Bill, do you have any money saved?”
Bill was visibly surprised by this question.  “Just a bit,” he said.  “I was thinking of getting me one of them fancy new hats… before that thing showed up.  What’s it to you?”
“I’ve been saving my money for a long time,” explained John.  “I’ve got about 27 dollars saved up now.  Here is what I think we ought to do.”
John explained his plan carefully to the men.  Some of them were listening attentively, while others looked incredulous, even scandalized.
“You’re crazy!” shouted Bill.  “It’s a pipe dream.  We’ll never beat the boss at his game.”
“It’s the only way forward.”  John spoke with the assurance of that reason provides.  “I’ve met the boss.  He isn’t our enemy.  He only wants to see this line finished.”
“Bullshit!  We are nothing but slaves –”
At this word, John’s usual good nature left him.  “Shut your mouth, friend!  Are you a slave?  I was.  My master used to own me.  Now, I own myself.  I am a free man.”
Seeing John in this state was a shock to all of us.  Bill apologized softly, and was silent.
John’s proposal was complicated, a lot more complicated than smashing that black monster into scrap metal, but it made a certain kind of sense to me.  I took the time to explain it to those who didn’t quite understand it.  By the time the sun went down, we had all come to an agreement.

The next morning, Mr. Wheeler found the work site deserted.  Assuming we had all deserted our posts rather than face the machine, he fired up his steam hammer.  He was just about to begin work when he felt a rumbling from the east.  The rumbling grew into a roar that drowned out even the sound of his own engine.  Another machine, much like his own, but somewhat larger, was coming down the line.  On it rode John, accompanied by Mr. Rockwell, the regional work manager.

The new steam hammer came to a stop with the hissing sound of escaping steam.  This fire-breathing giant was a shining black testament to human ingenuity.  John’s heart swelled with pride as he beheld the magnificent bulk of its form.  This was no monster.  This was our salvation.

Mr. Rockwell wasted no time in reassigning Mr. Wheeler to a new location, explaining simply, “This new machine will get the job done faster here.”

It seems that John had been busy for quite some time.  He knew a man who would rent him this steam hammer by the month.  He knew a man who would supply the fuel.  He also had friends who had agreed to lend him some money when he needed it.  That, combined with our pool of money, had been enough to close the deal.  All that was needed was for Mr. Rockwell to agree, which he had done that morning.

With the money that Mr. Rockwell paid for the work, John was able to pay back his friends in short order, with interest.  A few of the men worked to operate and maintain the steam hammer, while others went separate ways, but all of them continued to benefit from being part owners of the enterprise.  None of them ever worked a single twelve-hour shift after that day.  At the end of every month, John would take great pleasure in dividing up the money that Mr. Rockwell paid among us.

As months became years, John earned enough money to buy the steam hammer, and then others.  He and most of the other men became prosperous, and the rail roads they built moved people and things from coast to coast.

One night, as John and Polly Ann were reviewing the accounts, Polly Ann looked pensive, as if astounded by their good fortune.
“Are you happy the way things turned out?” asked John.
“Well, yes, but it sure would have been good to see you beat that steam hammer!”
John smiled the broad, honest smile that had won her heart years ago.  “You’re right,” he said, “That’d make a mighty fine story, but I’d rather be alive to tell this one.”


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