Be Careful What You Ask For: A Tale of Two Johns

I’d only been living in Oregon for a few months when someone invited me to drive a steel spike through her hand.

Okay, so those weren’t her exact words and it was a piece of paper, not her hand per se, but the inadvertent sentiment was the same.

She handed me the paper and said, “I need your John Henry on this.”

Ummm…no. I don’t think you do.

She meant, of course, to ask for my John Hancock, even though it would have been much easier to say “Please sign this.”

John Henry was an American folk hero, a railroad worker from the days of the first transcontinental railroad. He was famous for his strength and for challenging a steam drill to a contest. He won the battle, in that he finished the race first, but he lost the war, since the effort killed him.

John Hancock was a member of the first Continental Congress and the first to sign the Declaration of Independence, his signature at least twice as large as any of the others. He remained influential in politics and was instrumental in getting Massachusetts to ratify the U.S. Constitution.

So not the same guy.

This John confusion has happened to me more than once or twice. Curmudgeonly Husband says it happens to him too. He gets much more bent out of shape over it than I do (after all, he is the curmudgeonly one).

Now, I spent my childhood in Illinois and Southern California. CH misspent his in Connecticut. Neither one of us is inclined to misidentify John Henry. Yet here in Oregon, it happens, if not frequently, then often enough to be remarkable.

What might have caused this? Some pocket of disinformation, either accidental or intentional? I’ve seen a similar situation in my own family. The first time CH took Lovely Daughter to McDonald’s, for instance, he told her she had a choice between a hamburger, a cheeseburger, or possum feet. She ordered possum feet Happy Meals until she was four years old.

So in the interest of disambiguation, here are the differences between the two Johns:

John Henry – steel-drivin’ man.
John Hancock – deal-strivin’ man. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

John Henry – really big hammer.
John Hancock – really big signature.

Be careful which one you ask for or the results could be unfortunate.