Warning: This poem touches on some sensitive issues. Highlight to read the details, some of which are spoilers. It contains historic references to racism, classism, and possibly also mistreatment of people with special abilities -- the results of which are fatal. Plus some other angst like floundering through a task not really suited to one's skillset and dealing with loneliness. If these are touchy topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward. Also, this poem is written in two parts, one set in 1955 and the other in 2013, so keep an eye on the timing.
"With a Hammer in His Hand"
Whammy Lass was not a scholar,
but once she took up a task,
she didn't shy away from it
just because it happened to be
something she wasn't very good at.
She had plenty of projects in progress for the
Super Power Organizational & Operational Nexus.
The one that stumped her the most often was
searching for other people, past or present,
who might have superpowers.
One in particular sent a chill down her back --
not a news article, but instead a legend,
the tall tale about John Henry.
Whammy Lass spread the book on the bunk
and looked over at her friend Franz.
"I found one," she said quietly.
Franz read the entry and lifted an eyebrow.
"This is just a Märchen," he said. "You know
how stories grow in the telling. Even if
this John Henry was real, he was
probably just an ordinary man
with pretty good muscles."
Whammy Lass shook her head.
"That's not why I think he was
a strongman," she said.
"Look at the way he died."
"It says he worked himself to death,"
Franz said, tracing a finger along the page.
"Specifically, John Henry worked extra hard
and extra long, without stopping to eat or rest,
then died because his body gave out,"
said Whammy Lass. "It could happen."
"What makes you think of that
as such a strong clue?" Franz asked.
"Because it almost happened to me,"
said Whammy Lass. "During the War,
it wasn't always easy to get enough food
or sleep, for any of us, but I learned that
if I shorted myself too much, I'd get ...
light-headed and strange, just couldn't
keep going. Strength has to come
from somewhere, after all, and ..."
She trailed off, lost in memories.
Franz leaned over to put
a gentle hand on her knee.
"What happened?" he asked.
"If you want to tell me."
"There was a bunker,"
Whammy Lass said slowly.
"I busted it up. Felt like I was
punching walls all day. Next thing
I knew, I was waking up in a tent
with the medics fussing over me.
They said that I wasn't wounded,
just keeled over. So they warned me
to take more care, and after that,
I learned my lesson."
"I'm glad you survived,"
Franz said as he sat back.
"So am I," said Whammy Lass,
retrieving the book. "I think
we need to remember that
these powers come at a price.
Maybe we should look, not just for
exceptional accomplishments, but also
for signs of weaknesses alongside them."
"I think you're right," Franz said.
Granny Whammy sat in the loading bay
of the Onion City SPOON Base,
watching some of the young bucks
move crates from the trucks into
the various storage areas.
They were mostly strongmen,
a couple of speedsters, and
several more ironsides --
all of whom had insisted that
they could do it themselves
and didn't need her help.
So Granny Whammy let them
talk her into overseeing the project,
which meant she spent most of her time
browsing an old scrapbook, and occasionally
yelling at the workers whenever somebody
started to put a crate in the wrong place.
Pax cuddled up beside her
because he pretty much couldn't
sit beside anyone on a bench without
gradually drifting to touch shoulders,
and you either got used to that
or sat in a chair with arms.
"Why that one?" Pax asked,
pointing to a yellowed copy
of the John Henry legend.
"It's a folk tale, not news."
"See now, that's the story
that got me looking for soups
based on weaknesses as well as
strengths," Granny Whammy said,
a smile stretching her wrinkles.
"It wasn't John Henry's hammer
which caught my eye, but how he died.
That can happen to strongmen."
"So you think he was a real soup?"
Pax said. He tilted his head,
peering at the scrapbook.
"I think so," said Granny Whammy.
"I guess we'll never know for sure."
Stonewall paused as he walked past,
set down the crate he was carrying,
and came over to the two of them.
"Maybe so and maybe no," he said.
"Story goes, John Henry had a wife
called Pollyann, and not long after
he died, she gave birth to a son
named Henry John. Then his son
was called John, and his daughter
was Polly, and her daughter was
Annalee, and her son was Hank,
and his son was George." Then
Stonewall spread his rocky hands.
"George has four kids, and
one of them is me."
Granny Whammy rocked back
on the bench. "You don't say!"
"Well, it's just a family story, but
it's what I got," said Stonewall.
"Can't prove it's that John Henry,
but we do have an ancestor by that name
who did leave home to work on a railroad
and died there so he never came back."
"I would be very grateful for a copy of
that family history," said Granny Whammy.
"Sure, my oldest sister is into the genealogy.
I'll ask her to send it," said Stonewall. "Tell you
another thing -- I'm not the only soup in the family,
if you stretch out to all the distant relations.
We got mostly body gifts, couple of strongmen,
a great-aunt who was a speedster, and me."
He waved a hand at his sandstone body.
"You mean the Black Gazelle?"
said Granny Whammy, leafing through
her scrapbook to find the relevant entry.
"I didn't know you were related."
It was just a guess, but far enough back
to be great-aunt meant that there weren't
many possibilities to choose from.
Stonewall shuffled his feet. "Yeah, well ...
she's kind of the black sheep of the family,
took up with the Mob after she got banned
from sports for being a soup," he said.
"Italy's got plenty of speedsters, and
I guess they treated her well, but it's
still embarrassing to have a black cape
hung on the family tree, you know?
To us she was just plain old Aunt Wilma."
"Understood," said Granny Whammy.
Then her vidwatch chimed, indicating
that the crew had been working for an hour.
"Stonewall, tell everyone to start looking
for a stopping place. I'm about to call
Gino's East to order us a dozen pizzas."
"Aw, yeah," he said, then headed
back to his abandoned crate.
"You take good care of your people,"
Pax observed as he watched them work.
"Someone has to," Granny Whammy said,
the scrapbook page crinkling under her touch.
"After all, it takes people to make a hero.
Without anyone to do it for, or anyone to save,
a strongman is a just a man with big muscles.
Without people to take care of him, well,
a hero doesn't last very long, and that's why
John Henry died with a hammer in his hand.
His fool boss just used him up."
Her vidwatch cheeped and chirped
as she keyed in the call for pizza.
"That's why we follow you," Pax said softly.
"Because you love our weaknesses
as much as our strengths."
Granny Whammy's voice was maybe
shaking a little as she placed the order.
* * *
Stonewall (Aaron Jackson) -- Originally he was a black man with dark curly hair and brown eyes. Now he is about eight feet tall, and very bulky, three feet wide at the shoulders. His body is sandstone, primarily chocolate with swirls of caramel and red ochre. Unfortunately he has only two fingers and a thumb on each hand, which contributes to his poor dexterity. He smokes, and one of his habits is striking matches against his skin. ("Yeah, I know, I'm a shitty role model. Deal with it.")
Origin: A rock fell on him while he was exploring the southwest desert. He lay trapped beneath it for days, periodically trying different ways to get loose, without success. Slowly his body began to transform, taking on the characteristics of the nearby stone. As his size and shape changed, so did the balance of the boulder atop him, and eventually he managed to roll it off. By the time he made it back to civilization, he was a fully formed rock-man.
Uniform: Brown dexflan, similar to a weightlifting singlet.
Qualities: Master (+6) Strength, Good (+2) Campfire Tales, Good (+2) Loyalty, Good (+2) Survival Skills
Poor (-2) Dexterity
Powers: Good (+2) Invulnerability, Good (+2) Super-Armor, Good (+2) Super-Endurance
Motivation: To keep people safe.
* * *
Tall tales comprise one branch of storytelling based on outlandish yarns. They actually do mix historic figures, culture heroes, and fabrications without necessarily specifying which is which. Märchen is a German word generally translated as "fairy tale" but it includes tall tales too.
John Henry has the distinction of being the only black man in the common canon of American tall tales. Some fascinating academic study has gone into trying to identify the roots of his story. Multiple versions of the song lyrics also exist, and you can listen to one version here. My suspicion, shared by some academics, is that John Henry's story is polygenetic and composite -- because the name, occupation, and death from exhaustion were all common among black men in that time period even across several different states. As I like to say, a legend is a story that's true more than once.
The performance we watched was Steel Hammer, an impressive dance/play collage which retold the story of John Henry in new ways. You can see a sample of it online. I enjoyed its apt costuming and adept body language. It stands out as one of the best multicultural works I've ever seen, because it told a black story and spotlighted black performers ... neither leaving out nor overemphasizing the white roles that are also essential to this tale. It's a rare glimpse of white performers in truly supportive roles to highlight black ones. It's rough in places, the seams show, and they're meant to: like a quilt. Catch it if you can.
Superpowers burn a lot of energy, which has to come from somewhere, such as calories or an external source. Consider that hummingbirds, which have super-speed in comparison to other creatures even though it's species-standard for them, must eat more than their own weight in food every day just to keep going. Among the strongest animals, grizzly bears eat mass quantities to store up fat for hibernation -- the equivalent of 10 huckleberry pies per day at the height of berry season. Human soups share a similar burden, and like hummingbirds, can keel over surprisingly fast from starvation.
Ironsides is Terramagne slang for anyone resistant to damage.
Wilma Rudolph, aka the Black Gazelle, was a famous black female sprinter. You can see how early the talent drain started in Terramagne, and how quick the underworld was to start soaking up people that the "nice folks" decided they didn't want for having superpowers. The Mob's adroit response is one part of why modern T-Italy has so many speedsters and strongmen, even if some of them today are going into law enforcement.
Gino's East is among Chicago's finest pizza places, and one of several known for using solid patties of sausage instead of chunks as a topping.