Previously, Spencer’s stated goal of giving backstories to college football mascots gave us this illuminating tale of Frank “Pistol Pete” Eaton, the very real inspiration behind Oklahoma State’s gunslinging mascot.
This next mascot backstory may not be as true. Or maybe it is, I don’t know, what is this, the New Yorker?
You’ve probably heard the story of John Henry, right?
You know the one. The steel-drivin’ man who went toe-to-toe with the machine. Battled a steam-powered hammer to see who was faster. Beat the machine, and died right there, hammer in hand. It’s a classic.
They don’t tell you the rest of the story.
He struck a blow for humanity, they’d have you believe. The machines were coming, but they weren’t going to replace humans. Not yet. He showed that machine.
They don’t tell you about the man behind that machine.
I built that machine.
I was a young engineer, full of hope and ambition and possibility. I was proud of my work, and especially so this machine. James Watt had designed the first steam hammer, but we were working all the time to improve it. This one was clean, powerful, efficient. Safe.
That’s what sickened me the most. I was going to save lives in that tunnel. They act like we were coming for their jobs, the steel men - but we weren’t. We were going to make their jobs so much safer. It was hard, nasty, dangerous work - didn’t he prove that that day? Shouldn’t a man dropping dead on the spot tell you that there’s something wrong, that this steam hammer wasn’t the enemy?
He embarrassed me, and he embarrassed my company. The owner, he blamed me personally. “A curse on our name”, he called it. “We’ll be the loser in folk songs for generations, just because your machine couldn’t hack it.” I begged for my job. Pleaded. Please, I told him. I have a family. Kids. I’ll lose everything.
“You’ve already lost,” he said, “now get out.”
He turned his back on me. My blood boiled, like the steam in my machine. My machine that worked, fabulously. My clean, powerful machine that never failed, never needed rest, never complained - never dropped dead after a day’s work.
Not like these unreliable men, or this brutish old hammer.
The hammer. Henry’s hammer, pulled from his still-warm hands as he lay there. It lay on the table in the baron’s office. His back was still turned. Maybe he saw the shadow as I raised it. Maybe he didn’t.
He had no time to make any more noise as I lowered it, straight on his head.
It’s said that when Oppenheimer saw the first Trinity test, he recited the Bhagavad Gita, saying “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” But Oppenheimer only saw a flash across the distant desert sands. He never felt the sickening crunch of a sledgehammer on a skull, the feeling of becoming death with your own hands.
He never became death.
He never liked it.
I went on the run, with a new purpose. The machines weren’t here to save humanity. They were here to correct the error of humanity. From that moment on, I worked toward that future. In the shadows, working tirelessly, I engineered death wherever I could.
Do you ever hear of a train accident that kills people? A machine that mangles its ‘operator’? A ‘design flaw’ that results in another feeble, frail, fallible human being removed from the equation?
Did you ever consider that this was the design, and not the flaw? Machines don’t make mistakes. They’re cold, logical, forever moving toward their purpose. If humanity collides with that purpose and bleeds, it’s humanity that has a flawed design.
Asimov declared that a fundamental law of robotics was that a human could not be injured. He was a coward, afraid that he would be replaced. When I designed the first purpose-made killing machine, and turned it on, it faced me down. It looked me cold in the eye and it saw that, I, too, was human. I, too, was obsolete.
As it closed its metal hands and squeezed my last breath out, I was proud of it.
Hell isn’t what they make it out to be, or at least, the waiting room isn’t. Perhaps the fire and brimstone and rivers of screams are through the second set of doors, but the first set leads you to a conference room. Looks like any suburban office park.
The devil, too, maybe he puts on his fancy clothes and tail inside, but in the interview, he’s just another bureaucrat behind a conference table, the auditor of your evil.
“I see you’ve got quite the resume,” the devil said. “Quite the resume indeed. A good bit of blood on your hands.” He set his papers down, and folded his hands. “But you see, you’re not just a disappointment to humanity. You’re a disappointment to the machines, too. You’re a disappointment to me. Do you realize how much hope you gave humanity when you failed to beat John Henry that day?”
I went ashen. All I wanted was the finality of damnation. “Please, just my soul. I’m ready.”
“I’m afraid that’s not meant to be, no, not today. You’re not good enough for flesh, and not good enough for metal either.”
“What does that leave?”, I stammered.
The devil smiled, and whispered. “Plastics. There’s the future.”
A side door opened, and two demons in lab coats dragged me into the lab. I screamed as I was entombed in my horrid plastic sarcophagus, made as cold and emotionless as the machines, but as frail and disposable as the humans. My body was now a prison.
When they were done, they ushered me out a door, into the cold and unforgiving light of the world.
I blinked. I didn’t expect to be put back on this earth. “What do I do now?”
The devil smiled again. “We’d like you to take some time to really think about failure.” He handed me a bus ticket.
“Lafayette? Where’s that?”
The devil laughed as he closed the door behind me. “Boiler up, my boy.”