Meet John Henry
The leaf blower controversy in Aspen brought up the age-old debate over mechanization. For some, technology is an unassailable boon. To others, like an old friend of mine, it is a path to indolence.I want to tell you about a man who lived without reliance on machines of ease and comfort. I want to tell you about John Henry, a man who defied the labor-saving devices on which soft, fleshy suburbanites have become dependent.John lived in a neighborhood near you. He was bronzed and rippling with muscle – not phony health-club muscle, but real, utilitarian muscles honed from work. He smiled the knowing smile of a man who was self-assured to the point of being brazen with his brawn.He stood in his perfectly raked gravel driveway, which was littered by nary a leaf nor blade of grass. Behind him was a lawn as perfectly textured as a billiards table, right down to the sidewalk edge trim.”John,” I said, “you look like a man capable of any task, eager to apply your vast physical powers to any challenge. Is it true that you work solely with hand tools?” He replied in a deep voice that boomed from bellows-sized lungs. “I laugh at hard work. I scoff at fellows too frail for it. I’m John Henry, and I’ll take on any challenge.Well, a challenge was made and a bet was laid. The next weekend John would go up against a professional landscaper. The bet stipulated that the men would landscape adjoining lawns of the biggest estates in Starwood. The professional landscaper arrived on the appointed day with his huge diesel truck and a trailer hauling the biggest gas-powered mower ever seen on bluegrass turf. John showed up on a bicycle towing a trailer loaded with two manual push mowers.John and the landscaper squared off for the duel, and someone punched the stopwatch. The mower roared off in a cloud of exhaust, leaving a broad swath of cut grass. John sprinted away, his whirring hand mowers spewing grass in double spouts.After an hour the landscaper seemed to be pulling ahead, but suddenly his gas tank ran dry, and he needed a refill. The price of gas being what it is, the landscaper had to apply for a bank loan to top off the mower, and by the time he was up and running, John had finished.Next came weed trimming. The landscaper revved up his gas-powered Turbo Weed Eater while John honed the blade of his scythe with a stone. The clock started and the landscaper took an early lead, laying down weeds in thick rows. John swished his blade back and forth like a pendulum, sweat glistening on his powerful abs.After 40 minutes, it appeared the landscaper would win when suddenly he ran out of fuel. The price of gas being what it is, the landscaper was forced to mortgage his home for a fill-up, and by the time he had signed the papers, John had leveled every weed.Then came the final event: raking and sweeping. The landscaper pulled the starter cord on a gas-powered leaf blower powerful enough to strip the green leaves from a red oak in July. John just stood there, glistening with sweat, armed only with a rake and a push broom.By now a crowd had gathered, and there was a hush as the clock started. John swept into action, raking with one arm and sweeping with the other. The landscaper revved up his leaf blower and, under an enormous cloud of dust, began blowing all the leaves onto John’s side of the lawn.John worked faster and faster, his arms churning like twin windmills. The landscaper directed his blower toward John and the big man’s efforts doubled until the men were neck-and-neck. Just then, the leaf blower ran out of fuel and all was silent. The price of gas being what it is, the landscaper considered selling his first born child for a gallon of two-cycle. But at that moment something in John broke, and he fell to the ground in a swoon of exhaustion, never to rise again.They say John Henry died of a broken heart from laboring against the dread machines. His epitaph reads: “Here lies a man of strong body and powerful spirit who could maintain his yard without noise, pollution, global warming, dependence on foreign oil, a second mortgage, or the sale of an offspring.”Paul Andersen thinks America is overmechanized. His column appears on Mondays.
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