JOHN HENRY'S TRACKS
(2009 Hybrid Essay Contest Winner)
John Henry was a mighty man,
Born with a ten-pound hammer in his hand.
Some dirt-diggers in the Holy Land claimed to have found the bones of Jesus and his family. Jesus' son, too. We'll probably never know for sure if those were the holy bones or not. That kind of news could prove ungentle to dreamers. Like finding the remains of Amelia Earhart under her front porch steps, or the skeleton of a baby bird beneath its nest. We would hope for a wider arc to the hero's journey than bones at the starting point. It could be called bad news if Jesus, the alleged foreman of Heaven, left bones behind. News that says nobody's going very far.
But it wouldn't be the whole truth. There is somewhere to go.
We can go sell our plasma for fifty American dollars a week.
The journey to the Biolife Plasma Center in Marquette, Michigan came easy for me. I just had to follow an abandoned train track for a few blocks. The track met the edge of the woods along the shore of Lake Superior; rabbit, chipmunk and deer crisscrossed it as beasties would any ready made trail, for there were no tracks left on that line. The rattle of my mountain bike startled ducks from the shallow waters of the ditch alongside. In winter, the flat, open space doubled as a cross country ski trail. You might say everything ran on that track except for rails.
The region, too poor to have a reason to run its trains, pulled up many of its train tracks, and commerce that way moved at the speed of wild grass. The poverty of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is probably why the plasma company came to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. That and the local college students, the reliably poor. As any farmer with a bad back could tell you, the easiest of tall crops to harvest is one that stoops to meet the hand of the harvester.
At the plasma center, technicians tap into the natural resource of your veins. The process takes, at most, a couple hours, and you're paid for it. It's easy money, and couldn't come much easier; all you have to do is exist. The plasma company calls itself a "donation center”, but really it is a selling center. Poor people coming to sell the one possession they unquestionably own: the materials of their being. Take away those materials and the world would have no more poor.
Our folk songs say that John Henry could drive steel harder and faster than any man. The job of a steel driver was to pound holes in rock by hammering a long metal drill held and rotated by another man known as a shaker. Dynamite was then dropped into those holes—tunnels blasted into mountain stone. Steel driving was done for the mean benefit of the train companies laying track across the nation. In other versions of the song, steel driving was intermixed with pounding spike into the rail lines.
One day a salesman brought a new steam-driven drill to the line. John Henry, fearing for his job and for the jobs of his fellow rail workers, challenged the machine to a contest. John Henry declared to his captain:
Lord, a man aint nothin' but a man
But before I let that steam-drill beat me down
I'm gonna die with a hammer in my hand
John Henry won. But after beating the machine, he suffered a heart attack and died. That's to say, he could do no more work for the train company.
Like Jesus, no one can prove the John Henry of legend. Some stories say he was an ex-slave working for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway during the Reconstruction days of the South, following the Civil War. People disagree on where, and if, the events of the song took place. One man thinks the contest of hammers happened in Talcott, West Virgina. But everybody knows that you've got to bite the coins that come out of Talcott.
About twenty years ago, a man in my hometown got caught in one of the big machines of the mining company. A rock crusher, if I remember right. He was the father of a classmate. I ought to have attended the funeral, but didn't. In those high school days I was discovering the books of the American Transcendentalists: Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau. "Transcendentalism” was a big word to me at the time. The idea of it is that you can ride your porch swing to the truth of all flowers. The notion sounds sound to me, still. But, being young, I felt as if I had inherited a mansion up in the blue air; as if everything wrong were, with an idea, suddenly right.
The daughter of the killed miner, my classmate, needed some consoling, but I was too shy, too awkward at social graces, to be one of the people to give it. I had no consoling to give. Her father was a good man of Finnish descent; he left behind a large family. The family had a new lesson to learn about the worst of all possible outcomes. As for me, I had my books which said spirit dances with matter.
Much of my life has passed since those books. Those Yankee writers of old are truer to me now than when I was young, and it's likely that I need them more now. But an idea isn't much true unless we are willing to wear its dirt. A frog of ugly sits at the center of true, and his appetite is Void.
Rather than the gift of a mansion in the sky, transcendence now seems to me a lifetime of lonely carpentry. Carpentry on a house nobody can see. And that house won't shelter from the rain, but make us wetter. Those who ply this trade might not finish even the front steps before the cold evening comes on, before the closing whistle blows. Maybe no one completes the house called Idealism— built, as it is, on the foundation that is the suffering of the world. The hammer is usually abandoned with much work left to do; it hums only a little while with the vibrations of the last nail driven, until stillness takes it.
Had the good miner's death happened today, I would've gone to the funeral. The fact about our portion of transcendence is that some of us get flattened in rock crushers. The fact is that there is blood on the machine.
And in the machine.
Sometimes the crashing waves of Lake Superior, powered by strong winds, sounded like a train through my apartment window. But, in the city of Marquette, the only real locomotion taking place was the centrifugal force of the Autoapheresis-C machine (made by the Baxter corporation) separating plasma from blood. The word "apheresis” is Greek for "take away”.
In an introduction to the work song Take this Hammer, folk singer Leadbelly explains the shouts of hah! that pepper the verses, "Every time the men say 'hah!', the hammer falls.”
Take this hammer
And carry it to the captain
Take this hammer
And carry it to the captain
You tell him I'm gone
You tell him I'm gone
Gone to donate plasma. This is how it works. You are made comfortable on a long, curved couch of smooth leather— a kind of psychiatrist's couch where nobody cares about your mind.
At your side is the machine, the Autoapheresis-C. It looks harmless enough, a white box of plastic on wheels with dangling tubing. It is sanitary as a saint's glove.
A friendly worker, clad in hospital scrubs, sterilizes your arm with a cool swab and slides a needle in your vein. You are connected to the Autoapheresis-C.
First the collection phase. Your blood, sucked up a tube to a little spinning chamber of clear plastic, slips out of you with the speed of a snake on the run, staining the tube's transparency as it goes. Some of your inside is now outside.
A chemical thinner is added to keep the blood from clotting. The spinning separates the plasma from your blood, as substances of differing densities are wont to do in a centrifuge.
The plasma drips into the collection bag. The plasma is yellow, like foggy urine (for women taking the birth control pill, it's a pale green, like swamp water). You watch your plasma gather in the bag, a few drips at a time.
Second, the return phase. Your red blood cells are returned to you through the same tube in which they were collected. Some of the outside is now your inside. Steps one and two are repeated.
It's like that. Throughout the donation process, the Autoapheresis-C communicates by beeping. It tells the technicians when there are problems, such as low vein pressure. The donation center is riddled with these beeping sounds, like the metallic-bright chirping of birds on a machine planet. Once enough plasma been harvested, the machine beeps to signify the end of the donation process—the brassy, four-note heralding of a king—da-da-da-DAH!— a worker comes with a heat gun and cauterizes the collection bag severed and sealed.
The Autoapheresis-C then pumps a saline solution into your bloodstream to aid in rehydration.
When this is done, the needle is pulled from your arm. You are no longer connected to the Autoaphoresis-C. Consider yourself siphoned. Your donated bag of plasma is labeled, put on a tray with other bags, turned to ice in a freezer.
Once or twice a week, the plasma-ice cargo is loaded in volume onto a truck and delivered to medical companies. Businesses whose executives are themselves likely too wealthy to need to donate plasma.
After donating, I returned home on the same train track I arrived by, a tight gauze wrap over the new hole in my arm, and new American dollars in my wallet.
If he asks you
Was I running
If he asks you
Was I running
You tell him I was flying
You tell him I was flying!
—Leadbelly, "Take this Hammer"
A donor doesn't have much to do while the Autoapheresis-C frets at its machinations, but there is one task to perform. The donor is asked to pay attention to a strip of traffic lights on the side of the Autoapheresis-C; it tells how well the collection phase is going, how fast the blood is flowing.
Red means not well.
Yellow means could be better.
Green means all is well.
The donor is asked to make a fist and pump it if the colors fall from green to yellow or red. This increases blood flow.
It can't be a surprise, that in this society we are informed by lights when to stop and go.
According to a reporter on National Public Radio, long into the rebuilding of New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, even the simple act of driving a car was fraught with risk. Without working stoplights, four-way stops were a matter of guessing three other drivers' minds. But maybe this is true not just for a flood-ruined city. Maybe there are no traffic lights blinking anywhere with the kind certainty good citizens would like. Maybe the hesitance of a New Orleans driver at a four-way stop shows how it always is for the poor, who are asked to pledge allegiance to a gamble.
When surge water from Hurricane Katrina overloaded the levees of New Orleans, it took the lives of the excluded. People with nothing having it taken away. During those early crisis days, the nation with its flag flying on the moon couldn't deliver a bottle of water to a woman standing on her rooftop.
Where was government? The corpses of the poor spiraled down the flood streets, while those with the American dollars to pay for their escape told their survivor stories from neighboring states. The plumb-line division between the rich and poor—as divided as dry is from wet— tells what kind of country America has become, is becoming.
John Henry's liddle mother
Was all dressed in red,
She jumped in bed, covered up her head,
Said I didn't know my boy was dead,
Said I didn't know my boy was dead.
This is not to say that the poor are without means of providing for themselves. At the plasma center in Marquette, a donor is allowed to give plasma twice a week. The first time you donate, you get twenty American dollars. But if you come back within two days (it can't be the next day, the body needs time to generate more plasma), you get thirty. Maybe the poor can't "pull themselves up by their bootstraps”, as the phrase goes—cheap bootstraps break— but they can bleed their boots for American money.
Corporate executives now earn four-hundred and fifty times what the average worker earns. Translated to plasma money: whereas the average plasma donor can earn up to $50 for two donations a week, a C.E.O. would be right to expect $22,500 for their two days at the plasma center, though their plasma drips the same.
I would as soon trust a corporate-driven democracy to care for the needs of its poor as I would trust in the pity of venom. Considering the fever of the profit motive in our nation, and seeing how slow the government was to react in New Orleans, the surest way to save that city would have been to contract-out the first responders—allow companies to charge poor people for their rescue. This would be done, no doubt, on credit—a kind of indentured servitude for being allowed to live. Profit-seeking sometimes moves with a speed kin enough to justice. But maybe it's not a government's task to come between the poor and their right to die unaided.
Government will be our rock, is the promise of all the regulation we accept into our lives, but at the time it is needed most, government occasionally gets a headache and blurred vision, has to go lie down. It might need a few days to get itself together. Fail to pay your income tax and you will feel the full focus of government, in the shine of badge and the shine of gun, as if you were the most important person within its borders; begin to drown, on the streets of your hometown, and government reaches at you with ghost hands in the tardy dark, and you are one among too many.
This offends the idea of sound contract. Citizens are not allowed to fail their government, but they are allowed to be failed by it. That's a devil's deal. But poverty itself, best defined as a lack of options, is a devil's deal. John Henry, as an ex-slave, was free not to work on the railroad line if he chose not to, but he couldn't choose not to, because he was directed by the overseer of having no other choice. Call it freedom, if you like. That brand of freedom is spit on a handshake without the handshake.
Where is government? Not in stormy New Orleans. Over fifteen-hundred lives lost to the flood. Government may be somewhere, but not in stormy New Orleans. In stormy New Orleans, government was gone, gone, gone.
They took John Henry to the White House,
And buried him in the san',
And every locomotive come roarin' by,
Says there lays that steel drivin' man,
Says there lays that steel drivin' man.
I once scheduled a plasma donation too early in the morning. My heart rate was beneath the company's minimum requirement. I was feeling peaceful at the time; one of those unshakable good moods. The girl in charge of my screening said she would give me a chance to test again after I had a few minutes to wake up. This was encouraging news. While waiting, I walked to the restroom and did jumping jacks, push ups. I imagined chaotic, violent scenes, adventure scenarios requiring fight or flight responses. I made my mind a nightmare, and this worked swimmingly. My heart rate rose and I was allowed to donate that day.
I raised my heart rate on behalf of the machine, the Autoapheresis-C, but John Henry's heart rate rose against his machine, the steam-drill. I let a needle pierce me for American dollars, which required my reclining on a leather couch; he drove a kind of needle into rock for principle, which required his death by exhaustion.
I readily admit that I lost my contest with the Autoapheresis-C, because I never contested it.
For us moderns, the contest to keep up with the machines is a daily event. It could be said that technology has raised our heart rates by allowing us weaker hearts; we now do less work but we are less at rest. Machines have made us more immobile in our busyness. Sitting in one place has become our hard day's work, not because the labor is difficult, but because it is hard to give up the freedoms of the body, the joy of movement for which our muscles and skeletons were built. We walk faster than we used to, but not as far. We do many things at one time, we are more specialized, but we are barely defined; the lines that outline us flicker unclear.
In the early days of the steam-driven locomotive, trains moved at around twenty-five mile-per-hour. Slow enough to stop along their routes for fishermen, and berry pickers, and hunters, to exit into the wild and follow their hearts' pleasure into ambling afternoons. It made no matter where they got off the train, they could always hop back on when it made its return trip.
In our time—as bullet trains scream speeds of over three-hundred and fifty miles per hour—the train doesn't stop for ripe berries.
Are we better people for having a faster train? The sheen of technology tells us so. We are better people if moving faster is better. But the life choices within the minds of passengers throughout time always move at the same rate, that is, at the speed of timeless. A caveman, the first of gentlemen, might have moved slower (the pace of slouching is nothing to brag about, for sure) but if his choices were truer, he may have outpaced the astronauts. It might be that his integrity broke the sound barrier, even as his slogging feet begrudged the bog. That is to say, he traveled as far as a man could with the least technology. He walked so far he became us. And the easier we make our travel, the less we hear in his walking blues something of our own.
Now it's all new. The new trains are made to hover upon a magnetic field. At speed, they don't even touch the ground that they cross. If John Henry were to swing a metallic hammer on a magnetized track, he'd only swing it once.
Some say the year in which John Henry beat the steam-drill was 1872. There wouldn't be much point in John Henry challenging a drill to a contest now. Steam-drills have made way for industrial lasers. To compete in our day, John Henry would have to swing hammer faster than a ray of light could burn, which, currently, is approximately one hundred feet of rock an hour. Against such a machine there is no competing. Whereas it once took the strongest man around to fight against the machine, in our time only a man weak in his reasoning thinks it can be fought. This is progress.
The steam drill started at half past six,
John Henry started the same time.
John Henry struck bottom at half past eight,
And the steam drill didn't bottom till nine,
Oh, the steam drill didn't bottom till nine.
A mild controversy slipped into the media about an internet search engine's satellite images of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or the lack thereof. The images continued to show a New Orleans before the devastation occurred. Some people alleged that not to show New Orleans in all its ruin was an attempt to hide the truth.
The satellite images of the category three hurricane as it crossed to the American coastline are stunning. With technology, we now have the power to watch an entire city drown.
What a satellite sees, I can't say, though many are the images which tell what it records. This star's-eye view is no doubt an upper-rung moment in our species' long ladder climb out of monkey. So very high, our machines. But there remains the question of what we do with the view.
Recently, an observatory was nearly destroyed in a California wildfire. We humans have a telescope that sees back into Time and shows us the fiery beginning of the Universe, but that great magnifier overshoots and overlooks the flames threatening—in present time— at its own observatory door, and so is lacking in the bi-focal. The weakest lens would have shown the encroaching fire clearer than one so very good. What is the Big Bang to me while my toes are roasting? As if simply to see is everything.
It means something, that John Henry named his hammer Lucy. His labor, his tools, were close enough to his heart to remain in his hand.
John Henry's woman, Lucy—
Dress she wore was blue;
Eyes like stars an' teeth lak-a marble stone,
An' John Henry named his hammah "Lucy”, too,--
John Henry named his hammah "Lucy” too.
I wonder if the makers of satellites name them "Lucy”. It wouldn't mean much for me to name a satellite "Lucy”, as my hands have never touched one. But a satellite knows me, if it wishes. I don't think I could see a satellite in orbit as well as it could show me my own face. If I happen to notice a satellite passing in the night sky, it might be technology, it might be a shooting star, it might be a messenger of the gods of old. No matter what that object in the sky is, it's the same as a train in the distance to me—one I am late in catching.
The tools we use today can go adrift in our hands. They don't always extend us, as a hammer does. They sometimes disappear from us.
Mississippi John Hurt said that John Henry could drive spike faster than any man because he swung two hammers, one for each hand. But John Henry's hammers are up there—high—spinning in near-zero gravity; the question is, who down here has the strength to grab them back?
John Henry went to the tunnel
And they put him in lead to drive,
The rock was so tall and John Henry so small
That he laid down his hammah and he cried,
That he laid down his hammah and he cried.
Sometimes during donation the Autoapheresis-C would make a peculiar beep, an alarm, and the machine came to a halt. A worker would come to my station, press a button, and reassure me that it was "just an air bubble” that had found its way into my extracted blood. The Autoapheresis-C would then destroy the bubble and return to its churn-work on my blood. If the machine didn't catch it—if an air bubble was put back into my bloodstream, and reached my heart—I could be donating all my plasma, in one sitting, to the undertaker. This "just an air bubble” popped up as much three times in a single visit. At such moments, my life depended upon the Autoapheresis-C not making an error.
Sure the risk was small. But so was my reason for being there. Had I died, it would have been for nothing.
Not for nothing, Biolife Plasma Services would have you believe. On their radio advertisement, the plasma company calls for heroes on a regular basis. Help save a life today, they say. And it's true. Without a doubt, donating plasma is for the greater good. It saves lives. Plasma can't be duplicated in a laboratory. When plasma is needed, nothing but plasma will do.
And yet Biolife is a business that requires the existence of poverty in order to turn a profit. It trades in the bodies of the poor to achieve its earnings. If you doubt this, ask yourself why there are no plasma donation centers located on gated streets with hilltop mansions.
In the defense of the buying and selling of vital body fluids, compensating donors would be unnecessary if enough people donated out of the kindness of their hearts. The fault, then, is not in the greed of the needle, but in the stinginess of the vein. Outright kindness, however, rarely marries well with profit.
It is true, without the incentive of American dollars, I would not have donated plasma nearly so often, maybe not at all. I made a lot of American dollars at the Biolife Plasma Center. What, you ask, did I use my plasma money for?
Scar tissue is likely for long-term donors. One man donated his plasma so often he had a hole in his arm that wouldn't seal. You could say what the poor also sell is the integrity of their skin. I have a divot on my arm, from being pierced so often with the needle. The mark shows no sign of disappearing, even years after I stopped donating. I am branded.
Plasmapheresis may be mostly harmless, as the company would tell you, but the body isn't made to assembly-line-out its parts. To donate plasma is to temporarily weaken your immune system, so what the poor are also selling is a little bit of resistance to disease. For some donors, strains upon the body are more immediate. One woman collapsed in a local Wal-Mart soon after her visit to Biolife Plasma Services.
I saw a woman faint while donating. In the aisle across from me, a college girl, merry enough, in sneakers and sweatpants. Suddenly her eyes rolled, she blinked, she slumped over— way over—nearly fell off her seat. Technicians rushed to her aid. The on-duty nurse was called.
"Wake up, John Henry! John Henry, wake up!...John Henry, wake up!” they said in something just short of a shout, patting her cheek (though I doubt, in my poor memory, that her name was "John”).
She woke up. She wasn't out very long. Groggily, she asked what happened, then vomited into the trashcan.
To those upper-middle-class moms and dads who gleefully sell their plasma, or the retired who gleefully sell their plasma, or college students who gleefully sell their plasma— who use the American dollars earned to meet car payments, or build a Christmas savings, or buy beer and a pizza—I have only these words: November doesn't rain on a fish.
To those whose life may have been saved by the plasma from out of my very own bloodstream, I'm glad for you, abstractly—but I didn't do it for you. Well, what on Earth did you do it for, if not for me? you ask.
John Henry was on the mountain,
The mountain was so high,
He called to his pretty liddle wife,
Said Ah kin almos' touch the sky,
Said Ah kin almos' touch the sky.
WEALTH ENDED DEMOCRACY
That's what my sign said, as I joined the crowd of protestors outside the Superior Dome in 2004. We rallied against President George W. Bush making a rare stop at the Upper Peninsula on his re-election campaign. He slid into town on schedule like a goose on a slant of mud. He came to make his goddamn argument. I'm not sure what we were protesting, exactly—except him, his war, his policies, his rise to office, and probably his shoes.
We protestors were put in what was called a "free-speech zone”—a section cordoned off with police tape, as assigned by the very authorities we were demonstrating against. It wasn't really a free-speech zone, but a go-stand-in-that-corner zone. Local prison guards were on the scene to assist with crowd control.
Still, we weren't much removed. We stood face to face with the people waiting in line to see the President speak.
A man in the Presidential line saw my sign and scoffed. He looked robust, kempt, in his late twenties. His black hair was styled reasonably short, as my brown hair fell unreasonably long.
"How has wealth ended democracy?” he asked.
I had no fast answer. The words of my sign were three, easy to write in permanent marker (though they still came out crooked). My answer to him was a smile and a shrug. I had no real argument with him.
This was my first protest, after all. I only expected to stand. I didn't expect to be button-holed on my stance.
But he was right to ask. I should've been able to say what I felt, or I shouldn't have been there. This didn't make my sign untrue. But it made me a questionable holder of a sign.
Nearby in the crowd, a girl who seemed about ten years old was protesting, too. She was much more vocal than I was (meaning, she actually said something)—sometimes yelling slogans at the people standing in the Presidential queue. Her voice had gone hoarse with shouting.
Her parents, standing a step behind her, looked like professional protestors. They had what could be called that protestor-savvy. They were proud of their munchkin, it seemed, sometimes joining in, following her lead.
No blood for oil! she shouted.
No blood for oil! her parents shouted, too.
Interesting, I thought. Apparently protest can be inherited, like a grandmother's ring.
Other children were demonstrating, too. Children, opposed to the death of Iraqis and American soldiers overseas, though death, to a child, is likely no more real than the drawing of a derailed train.
The longer I listened to her hammering out phrases of outrage, the more it seemed to me that she should not have been there, either. At least, been there in that way. She was like me, voicing an opinion she probably could not explain, if pressed. Though not a fair comparison (she was short, and I was not)—there ought to be truth within the protestor to equal the cause.
John Henry was equal to his chosen cause. He was so equal, he matched it with his life. John Henry didn't win the contest of hammers because he was right. John Henry won the contest of hammers because he was true.
Someone might have asked the wee protestor, "What really matters to you in this world?”
And if her answer was honest, it might be, "I don't know yet.”
Maybe, given the time to think, free from the bias of her parents, the girl might have chosen to stand in line to see the President. Her freedom to do so would be worthy of defense.
I left the protest that day less sure of the free-speech ground I had been assigned to stand on. This is not to say that one should have to be perfected before fighting injustice. But, when the battle comes, if one is only half-present, it is little different than not being there.
This extends. Sources tell me that it is bad to not care about the downtrodden.
Downtrodden. Say that word and prisoners bake you a custard. Heaven's rickety gates creeeaaaak open with all the glamour of a Vaudeville backstage shooting, when you say that word. Downtrodden, downtrodden. There's nothing that shouldn't be done for the downtrodden. Gather all the buttercups in the world in one be-glimmer-dazzled petal pile, and leave a note atop it that says These are for the downtrodden. An astronaut launching from Earth, on the verge of achieving escape velocity atop a towering cone of fire and smoke should— stop— mid-air—and come back to the ground and...care for the downtrodden. It means nothing to be uptrodden. Forget it. Uptrodden will get you no favors around here. If you find yourself uptrodden, then you'd better have wet tears in your eyes for the downtrodden, or you are lower than you might be, and not nearly low enough.
Why should we care for the poor? Because the poor, like baby birds, cheep cheep loudly for the good worms? You are cheap, cheap for not giving us some! Poverty has always carried a begging bowl, and there appears to be no natural law that says the rich should fill it. In Nature, baby birds that fall out of the nest are often left to die. And sometimes their stronger siblings block them from food, to the point of starvation.
If I choose to let you die from want, brother, sister, I wonder who would stop me? The cattle-whip of platitudes that tells me wealth is wrong, and makes me shrug and shrink when it's snapped overhead by anyone who happens to pick it up? Snap it at me, if you wish. Even a mean law to make me feed you would not stop my mean heart, which rolls all over the downtrodden like a flaming boulder, and treads them down more.
Now the straw boss came to John Henry
He cried, "This tunnel is caving in!”
John Henry just laughed at the straw boss and said,
"That's nothing but my hammer sucking wind,
That ain't nothing but my hammer sucking wind.”
If I were a John Henry, I wouldn't have let that Autoapheresis-C machine suck me up. I wouldn't have sold my plasma for American dollars. Maybe, on a good day, I would've given it to my brothers and sisters for free. If I were a John Henry, I would've driven steel against the Autoapheresis-C, and spat at the American-dollars-idea to push selling my body as an option in my poverty.
But I'm not a John Henry. That work continues. I'm trying to lay enough track within myself to make an uninterrupted line possible between the two coasts of my loves and hates, but there's no telling how far that steel will reach, what mountains block the crossing. Maybe there isn't as much time to finish as I had hoped. Maybe, for delays, that track will never be complete.
As he was dying, John Henry said:
"Captain, I've hammered my insides in two,
Lord, I've hammered my insides in two.”
We sing John Henry's song, and keep singing it, because he was a hero. John Henry died defending an idea in his brothers' and sisters' name. And what of that? I imagine the crowd that watched John Henry drive steel that day, watched him win over that machine, watched him lay his hammer down and collapse in the dust—I imagine they hung their heads in sorrow, for a time—a good, long time...and then went to the bar for a cold beer. The steam-drill he conquered was likely ready for work the next day, if not the next moment. The company still had track to put down. And the poor returned to the routine of their poor lives. In versions of the song, John Henry's lover Polly Ann picks up his hammer after he falls, and she then drives steel like a man— but we are left to infer why. Though my heart would like to believe she swung that hammer for love of her fallen man, love is a track where every train runs on time, and I can't make such a schedule. It might be safer to say that she did it because she needed groceries. Heroes of tomorrow, take note: if you make your heart explode for invisible principles, the results may be invisible.
So was that railroad track worth John Henry's dying? In the song, John Henry knew full well, even as a child, that "this hammer'll be the death of me.” To him, fighting the machine was a battle worth all his effort, and all his effort meant his dying. Maybe what is needed in our society now is to stand like John Henry did. That's a heavy hammer to swing; heavier than fourteen pounds, for sure. Still, my hands tell me that a good idea is a hammer worth swinging. And any hammer worth swinging is the only one worth swinging, even if we are driving invisible spike.
I don't believe that John Henry died so the trains could run. Why hammer a golden spike into a railroad track that carries mainly coal? The fretting weighs more than the freight. It was probably more important to him that a human built the track than a train could chug the length of the continent. The aim of his labor was purer, prouder than steam power; more deeply driven. I think John Henry, born a steel driving man, was laying a different track entirely; an invisible one.
White man saw John Henry's
Steel a-goin' down;
White Man says,—"That man's a mighty man,
But he'll weaken when th' hardes' rock is foun',--
He'll weaken when th'hardes' rock is foun'.”
What if we lived in a world where religion, philosophy, government, technology, social justice, were not enough to get us through? As false as they were true? Not support, in their last, tested strains, but shackle? When our beliefs fail us, what would we have for a foundation upon which to stand and say here!—say, like John Henry, here and no more! What if there was no John Henry, never was and never could be—what would be left?
This is the hammer that killed John Henry
But it won't kill me, no, it won't kill me.
—Mississippi John Hurt, "Spike Driver Blues”
* Most of the John Henry lyrics were taken from this marvelous website source, and apparently gathered by a man named Guy Johnson: [link]
The essay started with music, as it ought. Bruce Springsteen's version of "John Henry” on the "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” is irrepressible, and seed a-plenty. He also did a cover of "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?”, rewriting some of the lyrics to address Katrina/New Orleans. Two lines moved me so much I almost put them in the essay, "Them who got got out of town/ Them who ain't got left to drown.” To go to Springsteen, though, is to necessitate a deeper look at folk and blues. Many of the songs quoted in the essay also played through my headphones during the writing process, repeated again and again, like a blues mantra. Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt. Johnny Cash had a take on "John Henry”. Woody Guthrie.
Here is a link to Mississippi Fred McDowell's "John Henry”: [link]
If you like this song, be sure to check out his song "Goin' Down to the River”: [link]
As to why I married the plasma center to the blues...I was looking for a kind of compare and contrast to highlight the ignobleness of donating plasma for fast cash (which is something that I did often). The very noble story of John Henry seemed fitted to this purpose, not only to help tell where we as a plasma-selling society are, but to tell something of what we may have lost. Lastly, I envisioned the structure of the essay as a kind of train, making stops at various themes along the way—brief stops—and then dismissing them, rolling, rolling on.