Baboon Achievers: Trained Baboon Tracks Trains

It hit me the other day I’ve been writing under the long face of our friend Blevins (the hairy fellow on the masthead trail) for nearly five years and yet I am still  thoroughly ignorant about baboons, their achievements and their history.

This is exactly the feeling I had in fifth grade when I was expected to know the difference between several white-wigged forefathers and on test day it occurred to me that Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Dolly Parton looked pretty much the same from the neck up.

So on a whim fifteen minutes ago I decided to do a google search for famous baboons and immediately stumbled across the strange tale of Jack the Signalman.

Jack was said to be a companion to James “Jumper” Wide, a railroad man in Uitenhage, South Africa, who had the unfortunate habit of leaping from car to car on moving trains.  This is the sort of show-off activity you can be good at until the one day when you’re not, and then you never do it again because both your legs have been cut off at the knees.

Handicapped by his injuries but determined to return to work, Wide formed a productive partnership with an actual baboon, Jack, who eventually learned to do the signalman’s job and wound up employed by the railroad for a number of years,  paid in brandy or beer depending on which account you believe.

The notion that a baboon can hold a job will surprise no one who has worked alongside such a creature in their daily tasks.   The feeling that your strangely unstable co-worker might suddenly do something wildly inappropriate is familiar to everyone, I imagine.

But in this case the biological baboon of Uitenhage was much more reliable in his work than the emotional baboons of our modern cubicle-rich employment landscape.

The story claims that Jack was flawless in his performance of his  duties, regularly receiving a whistled signal from the engineer of an oncoming train and properly moving levers to send that train down the appropriate track.

Too amazing to be true?  Even self-identified skeptics are mollified.

After thinking about this for a moment, I realized that I would have a hard time being successful at such a job, given that I’m a daydreamer and my mind is known to wander a bit.  I’m afraid that in the role of signalman, my train of thought would eventually get derailed and without delay much larger calamities would ensue.

Fired and replaced by a baboon, for the greater safety of all.  Good thing I just imagined that so none of us had to live through it.

So here’s a salute to Jack the Signalman, a baboon-achiever!

 How are you at performing mindless tasks?  

38 thoughts on “Baboon Achievers: Trained Baboon Tracks Trains”

    1. One of my two cats jumps on my chest every single night, stands there for five minutes, then decides which sleeping preference suits him; my upper chest under the covers or stretching out between my lower legs. I’ll always wonder how he makes this nightly decision.


    2. This is why listening to a book on cd is perfect while I am “mindlessly” machine knitting for hours. If I have to stop and think about something, I can pause the book or go back and figure out when I stopped listening.

      I remember hearing a piece on NPR awhile back about how say, a tennis player will completely fall apart if they have to tell you how they do their backhand. There is a different part of your brain that takes care of that stuff than the part that figures stuff out.

      I like figuring stuff out, but sometimes it is nice to go on autopilot. Especially when you have a lot of the same thing to do in not so very much time.


  1. Sometimes when my job is just too complicated I look out my window at work and wish I could have the job of mowing the football practice field across the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also think about more mindless jobs when I’m completely stressed out. Then I watch Food Factory and see the gals who do nothing but wrap cabbage rolls all day long and I think maybe I wouldn’t be that good at that.


  2. If ‘mindless’ means boring, repetitive work, yeah, I can handle it for a while. If ‘mindless’ means inane work that ‘should not be questioned,’ I have a bit more of a hard time with that.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Good morning. I don’t usually like doing mindless tasks. However, I can and will do them if I think I should. I try to make mindless tasks more interesting by working at setting personal records for doing them quickly or efficiently. I might not became as good a Jack the baboon at doing a mindless task. However, I might come close to being as good as Jack. It would be great if I could get rewarded with beer or brandy.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. In elementary school I figured out, by accident, that if spaced-out during spelling tests, I got every word right. Now they trick was to intentionally do it mindlessly. “Zen” was never one of the spelling words.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I knew a man who was proud of the fact he worked at a boring job. Tom was fanatical about fishing. He worked in a highly mechanized paper mill because that mindless job allowed him to think about fishing all the time. At the end of his shift he was fresh as a puppy and eager to go fishing again.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Blevin’s Book Club Update now on BBC page:

    Next meeting is at Robin & Bill’s:
    Sunday, June 14
    2 p.m.
    100 Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
    The Alchemist (Paulo Coelhu)


  7. At this point I kind of like mindless jobs (i.e. doing dishes) if they don’t last too long. I usually turn on Radio Heartland, and it goes pretty fast. If I have something on my mind that needs working out, the radio stays off. I love yard work for that, too.

    I’m glad, though, that my factory job (summer after high school) is a thing of the past – 8 hours at a stretch of the same movement over and over… I don’t have that much thinking that needs to be done.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. When I was a freelance journalist I often had to drive long distances, usually in attractive landscapes that had few other cars to worry about hitting. The monotony of such driving can be pleasant. I would compose articles in my head. When I got to a typewriter, the story was mostly written and just had to be transferred from my mind to paper.


  9. I also would enjoy riding around on a bobcat equipped with a rolling snow brush and a cab and clear the sidewalks. Just driving and brushing. How restful!


  10. this came to mind just now:

    August from My Desk – Roland Flint

    It is hot today, dry enough for cutting grain,
    and I am drifting back to North Dakota
    where butterflies are all gone brown with wheat dust.

    And where some boy,
    red-faced, sweating, chafed,
    too young to be dying this way
    steers a laborious, self-propelled combine,
    and dreams of cities, and blizzards—
    and airplanes.

    With the white silk scarf of his sleeve
    he shines and shines his goggles,
    he checks his meters, checks his flaps,
    screams contact at his dreamless father,
    and, engines roaring,
    he pulls back the stick

    and hurtles into the sun.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. OT Liam update: I sometimes post little notes about my grandson when we are having a quiet day on the Trail. My daughter was surprised when Liam volunteered to accompany her to an office to pay some tax. In Portland many medical clinics and governmental offices are sited in stores in strip malls. When they got to the office Liam announced, “Well, I’m disappointed.” Molly asked why. “It’s the government, right?” said Liam. I was expecting a castle.”

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I have been teaching “mindfulness” to anxious and impulsive children. My favorite exercise is to give the child a small piece of chocolate and have the child take two whole minutes to eat it. It is hard to pay attention to a piece of chocolate for that length of time.

    Liked by 1 person

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