Skip Tucker: Wherein He Watches John Henry Drive Steel

Skip Tucker: Wherein He Watches John Henry Drive Steel

One blistering summer afternoon when I was 10, I saw John Henry drive steel. I kid you not.

From the shade of my front porch, a hundred yards from the Frisco railroad track, I watched him swing a nine-pound spike hammer, heard the cold steel ring.  He was as real as the song.

Moreso, because he was alive as you or me. That’s something you don’t see everyday. Most illustrations that accompany that poem/song show just what I saw. Picture him in your mind, see how close you get.

He was huge, of course, with shoulders wide as two axe handles and maybe a short piece of rope. He might have been in his late 20’s, early 30’s. He might have been old as the song itself, or the mountain John Henry died near, maybe old as work.

He looked as ebony, the strong black wood so thick it sinks in water. Happily, it is also drought-resistant, which is likely useful for a man in his position. His head was smooth as the wood itself and bare to the sun. He glistened.

Stripped to the waist, wearing canvas pants and big work boots, the man’s sweat formed a patina on that great body. When he swung the hammer, his muscles rolled and flexed like anaconda coils. His biceps were cannonballs.

I can’t say how tall he was. He looked big as a mountain, standing tall next to the little two-handled pushcar he and his shaker seesawed down the line.

They were replacing railroad spikes worried loose from crossties on the roadbed by the fearful mass and tons and speed of passing trains.

Most likely, they started at dawn from Amory, Miss., pumping 55 miles along the tracks, looking for loose spikes to the hamlet of Eldridge where I lived, 250 people on a good day.

My grandfather ran the depot, he worked for Frisco more than 50 years, and our extended family lived in a big old barn of a house built as a traveler’s rest in 1893. A passing train still lulls me to sleep. I saw lots of stuff from my front porch few saw and none will see again, but John Henry was the best.

The railroad had the electric hammer, much improved over the steam drill John Henry worked himself to death to beat. But it was unwieldy. Two men man on a handcar could pump down the track, find a thrown spike and replace it. If a train came along, they picked up the handcar and set it aside and John Henry set to work.

John Henry said to his shaker

Shaker why don’t you sing

I’m throwing nine pounds

From my hips on down

Listen to that cold steel ring

Just listen to that cold steel ring

John Henry said to his shaker

Shakerman you better pray

For if ever I miss this piece of steel

Tomorrow be your burial day

Tomorrow be your burial day

The shakerman requires scant description. The fact, of course, is that shaking is one thing the shaker dares not do. He has to be cold and still and faithful as the steel spike itself.

The spikehead is the size of a half-dollar, the peen on the spikestriker the size of a quarter. He didn’t miss and his shaker trusted him wholly, but I still wonder how many times a spikedriver had to swing that hammer to learn such precision?  

Randomly, I’d think it would be comparable to the number of times a golfer must swing a club before getting good enough to turn pro. Where, in 1956, had that mythic figure learned his trade.

Here’s what appeared to my wondering eyes:

I was sitting on our front porch swing, reading a book, when I heard the PING and looked. There he was, magnificent under a broiling sun. Hatless, shirtless, rolling the hammer as I watched in awe. He had the widest back in the world. His waist was small, and his sweatsheened muscles flashed in full definition, rolling as he rolled the hammer. Rolling it is what he did.

The art of the thing, for art it was, was that the shaker, gloveless for God’s sake, held the spike in place. The steeldriver, gloveless as well, bent to his waist and swung the hammer left from his body, torqued it around and over his immense back and brought it down over the top of his head.

PING!, and the spike was set and the shaker pulled back his hand. They didn’t sing. They worked.

Ping! Ping! Ping! Four strikes, maybe, incredible muscles flashing in the sun, and the spike was embedded in the tie.

I doubt that at the time there were a thousand in America who could do what he did. My cousin who worked thirty years for the Frisco says the spikedriver’s pay might’ve been fifty cents a day for that unique skill and that kind of strength, for that dying art. Three dollars, fifty cents a week.

Today, and I challenge all to Google it, there is a machine that looks like a giant anteater on tracks. At front is a massive snout and circular saw. It lumbers up to a railroad crosstie, be it creosoted wood or concrete. The snout digs a hole under the tie, the saw cuts it with a terrible screech. A boom swings round and pinchers on the ends take the halves of the tie and drop them in the bed behind. Then the boom picks up an entire crosstie off the back and seamlessly slides it into place. The whole operation doesn’t take a minute. It’s spectacular to watch.

But not spectacular as John Henry. He was a man out of time, storybook, song and myth and as real as the words themselves. And I watched him drive steel on a cloudless summer’s day under a bear of a sun so mean you could see shimmering waves of heat and smell the heat baking the ground.

I don’t recall how many I saw him drive. Two, maybe three. Five minutes. Then he and his buddy climbed back on the cart and pushed away down the track.

Out of sight but never forgotten.

I wish – how I wish – I had walked down there to speak with him. I’m sure he had water and a lunchpail, but I could easily have taken a pitcher of iced water or iced tea to them. And we usually had cake or cookies or pie on our table. They would’ve liked that, I reckon, and we’d have talked some, and I’d have even greater a memory.

But this one will do. It surely will.

(Next week: I just might go after a very rotten Apple.)

Skip Tucker was editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, then communications secretary for gubernatorial folks like George McMillan, Charlie Graddick and Jim Folsom. He ran Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse for in Montgomery for 15 years. He has published one novel, Pale Blue Light, a spy thriller set in The Civil War. He’s now a regular contributor for the Alabama Daily News at www.ALDailyNews.com