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?