“Hammers” by Gregg Williard

Once our town was famous for its hammers. When hammer production went to China, the factory closed and unemployment, alcoholism and suicides soared. The town daily’s editorial page, Brass Tacks, did a series on the crisis. It said, “Our town has forgotten the words of a wise man: ‘If your only tool is a hammer, every problem in life looks like a nail.’ Our problem is not just another nail. Nor is it a tack, pushpin, brad, spike, peg, fence post or chisel.” Fresh new ideas, it exhorted, were needed now or “the town will suffer the oblivion of a counter-sunk nail.”

The town took action. They brought in an economic consultant and inspirational speaker named Mr. Sheppard. He addressed the City Council and the Chamber of Commerce with rolled-up sleeves and a loosened tie. “My friends,” he began, “in Uganda there is a famous story of a blacksmith named Walukaga. One day Walukaga was summoned to the royal palace. The all-powerful king commanded him to make for his pleasure a living man of metal.”   

The room was silent. He swiveled his head in a slow sweep of the room, then answered questions we did not ask.  “No, not a metal suit with a man inside, and no, not an automata or robot. And again no, not a remote-controlled cybernetic appliance, or a synthetically-enhanced organism, if such things could have been imagined back then. No, my friends, what the king demanded was a living, breathing, fornicating, defecating man of metal, and failure to deliver meant death.”   

We were Midwestern people, disinclined to complaint or emotional display. Our mouths were good, tight smiles and our eyes leveled to the here and now. The vista of frigid grins we must have presented did not have a discernible effect on Mr. Sheppard, whose portrayal of Walukaga struck disturbing notes of screeching desperation. “What am I gonna’ do?! What am I gonna’ do?” He ricocheted from podium to PowerPoint, going on much longer than seemed necessary to make his point. In later discussions we talked about this aspect of the presentation, and agreed it was comparable to the experience of watching old Jerry Lewis movies, pinned to our seats in what some called Appalled Fascination. Irritated Boredom. Embarrassed-For-Him Horror.

After an eternity Mr. Sheppard regained the storyteller’s detachment. “Walukaga thought and thought, but no answer came. He could not make a man of metal. It was impossible!” He paused. There was a collective cringe anticipating the return of Walukaga, but the omnipotent storyteller went on. “Obviously, he was doomed. In despair he wandered the countryside to spend his last day on earth in the hills. The next day he would have to go to the king without the man of metal, and leave the king, without a head. Or arms. Or legs. Or testicles.“ It was things like this – extraneous, even gratuitous details like legs, testicles, etc. (not to mention the tendency to go on too long and strenuously when playing the desperate Walukaga), that caused some of us in the back rows and near the aisles to leave early. Those of us who stayed were rewarded with a fresh perspective on our problems, and how to address them. 

Mr. Sheppard continued. “Walukaga sat with his head in his hands and moaned. As evening came he spied a shabby beggar coming down the road.” Mr. Sheppard showed us the shabby beggar coming down the road. “As he approached, Walukaga was shocked to see that it was an old school friend of his who had fallen on poverty, sickness and insanity. Walukaga gave him what money he had, and the pair sat on a rock together, watching the sun set. In his lonely despair Walukaga confided to his old friend, and was shocked to hear him offer the following advice: ‘Tomorrow go to the king and say that, in order to do as commanded, he must supply you with six large bags of charcoal made from burned eyelashes and six barrels filled with human tears.’ Walukaga was mystified, but the next day he did as his friend suggested. The king listened, then clapped his hands twice to summon his servants. ‘Go to the village and gather these things,’ he commanded, and the servants scurried off with terrified expressions. 

Mr. Sheppard showed the terrified expressions. “Then the king told Walukaga, ‘Return in ten days and you will be given these things you have requested.’ Ten days passed, then fifteen, then twenty. Finally, on the twenty-sixth day he was again summoned to the palace. The king said, ‘There are not enough eyelashes or tears in the entire kingdom to give you what you need.’ As instructed by his friend, Walukaga responded, ‘If the great king cannot fulfill this simple task, how can I, a simple blacksmith, do as you have commanded and make a man of metal?’

The king’s stern expression softened and he began to laugh. He awarded Walukaga’s ingenuity with a new blacksmithing shop, anvil and forge. Walukaga returned to his village a hero. He found his old friend and made him his personal assistant, and in this way went on to live a long and prosperous life. He had many more adventures, but we will leave the legendary blacksmith with this lesson, and the moral of the story: when faced with an unsolvable problem, ask a madman.”

Mr. Sheppard smiled and opened his arms to the dribbling applause. “Thank you, thank you.” Mr. Sheppard urged the applause to stop. Since it was barely there to begin with, the room quickly went dead. “Are there any questions?”   

An alder named Phil Breef raised his hand and stood. His eyes jittered over the audience. “I think I speak for many of us when I say that, while you’ve certainly told us an engaging story, I’m just not sure how it applies to our situation here. The town has been decimated by the factory closing. It was our primary employer. Our only employer, actually. I’m afraid we need more than a madman to get us out of this.” There were murmurs of assent. A member of the Chamber of Commerce named Mack Sheets was out of his chair before Phil Breef had dropped into his. “Mr. Sheppard, we were under the impression that there would be some specific economic proposals today. At least recommendations on what we can do to revitalize our town, create jobs…”    

Mr. Sheppard’s lean pale face lit up with a smile. “Of course.”   

He went to the laptop on the low table and began a Powerpoint presentation. It showed a clipart drawing of a hammer above a nail. The nail was magically balanced on its tip on a board of wood. A thick blue arrow arced down from the face – the striking surface – of the hammer to the head of the nail. Then in all caps letters a word followed the curve of the arrow: JOBS!

The hammer descended on the nail and sunk it into the wood. Each time the action was repeated the nail went a little farther in, and the word grew larger:


“This was before,” intoned Mr. Sheppard. He advanced to the next image. The hammer had disappeared, leaving behind a horizontal plane littered with bent, unhammered nails. “And this is now.” Over the speakers came the sound of a moaning desert wind. A cartoon tumbleweed bounced in three hops across the plain. Mr. Sheppard shook his head at the screen. His face was grim. He said with a bitter hiss, “And this is why.” He stabbed the remote. One by one round yellow heads appeared across the top of the screen, leering down at the wasteland of nails. The faces were crude cartoon stereotypes of Chinamen, with buckteeth, single long braids, Fu Manchu beards and coolie hats, drawn in the manner of racist, xenophobic drawings from the turn of the 21st century. Mr. Sheppard pressed the remote again, and a recording of raucous, shrieking laughter and sing-song, foreign invective – or what sounded like invective – filled the hall. The heads tilted back and forth to convey the throes of hilarity. “You see,” Mr. Sheppard said above the din, “they are laughing at you.” He advanced the image. Hammers appeared in the Chinamen’s hands, moving up and down in threatening bobs. 

The laughter grew shriller. The day outside looked like a grudge against spring. Soggy leaves smacked the window glass, stuck for a moment, then twirled away. Many of us saw our hopes for the town fly away on these sodden leaves, and made for the door in despair. Everyone froze when a shop steward from the Metal Workers Union named Ed Holmes yelled out to Mr. Sheppard, “What is this? What is this racist crap? Turn it off and get the hell out of here!”


Mr. Sheppard paled, fumbling the Powerpoint off. Many of us stood, shaky with outrage. Mr. Sheppard’s eyes glistened and he backed away in tears, burying his face in his hands. We were, as stated previously, good Midwestern people, who took no pleasure in another’s anguish and humiliation, particularly in public. Stooped with regret Ed Holmes hurried to Mr. Sheppard’s side and put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Hey man, it’s ok. It was just kind of inappropriate. The Chinese faces, you know?”

Mr. Sheppard ‘s hands opened like shutters. He was grinning. He jumped back with surprising agility to crow, “Oh, yeah!  I’m sorry! That’s right! The Chinese aren’t the problem, are they? That’s right, we are the problem! Why, we have lost our way! We have to get back to our traditional values. Yeah, that’s right! Traditional values! God, Country, Family! We’ve got to embrace our faith, our pride and faith in American ingenuity, and hammer our wives – um, I mean love and honor our families…” 

Most of us stared dumbfounded as the projector came on once more, flipping to a desktop menu. The cursor jerked to a video file. It opened to an old, kitschy painting of Calvary, with Jesus on the cross, flanked by the other crucified. A foregrounded hand gripping a large, mallet-like hammer appeared, its striking face pointed toward Christ. There were many exasperated groans of “Ah c’mon!” and “You gotta’ be kiddin’!” and “This is over the top!” We began to breathe the sweet ozone of community, the thrill of merging with a nascent mob. Then on the screen another fat blue arrow arched down from the hammer with the words “AMERICAN TECHNICAL PROWESS+DIVERSIFICATION+RELIGIOUS FAITH=,” which were answered by a brisk tumble of blood red bullet points:

  • Hammers with powerful electromagnets!
  • Produces magnetic fields that confer pain-relief to the worker and handyman suffering arthritis in hands and wrists!
  • Strong enough to unhammer nails!
  • And pull nails that free Christ from the cross!
  • Making pulled nails “resurrected” or “born again” nails!

(Here we saw animated nails wiggle out of the stigmata like cartoon worms from an apple, allowing Christ to flop down off the cross into the waiting hands of his disciples).

Then the screen showed only the hammer, bristling with dozens of “unhammered” or “born again” nails. From the speakers a baritone voice said, “This is the only hammer you’ll ever need! And you’ll never buy another nail again!” In the video an actor in overalls turned a switch in the bottom of his hammer, then passed it over a row of wooden tables, chairs and night stands. The furniture shook. Wood creaked and groaned. Nails sprang out of the wood and flew to the hammer’s magnetic head. One by one, the items of furniture fell to pieces on the floor. 

Many of us just shook our heads. A few others – including Ed Holmes, Mack Sheets and Phil Breef – got out of their chairs and slowly encircled Mr. Sheppard. Their hands were clenched and their faces dark. Phil Breef said, “We want our money back, Sheppard.” 

Mr. Sheppard bared his teeth. He reached behind him, and produced two hammers with bits of bloody-something caked in the claws. “You want it? Come and get it,” he hissed. “I know what to do with my hammers. The question is, do you?” He waved a hammer at the screen. “Maybe you had better back off and see the rest of the show.” He turned slowly in the shrinking circle, training the hammers on the men as if they were guns. The rest of us called the men back with “C’mon guys, we don’t want any trouble” and “He’s not worth it” and “We’ll get our money back” and “Hey, he’s nuts, all right? Forget it. Stand down.” Ed Holmes, Phil Breef, Mack Sheets and the others returned slowly to their seats. Many of us felt we’d been yanked back from the brink of something very attractive, and terrible.    

Mr. Sheppard’s face relaxed and returned to its normal color. He set the hammers on the podium and sat down on the edge of the dais, dangling his feet as he talked. “Are we done with our hissy fit? Yes? Good. So, obviously the solution is not to hate the Chinese or go back to good old American know-how or technical innovation or turning to your faith in our savior Jesus Christ amen. I mean, a hammer is a frigging hammer, am I right? And Jesus? For the time being he is just going to stay done dead, OK? So where does that leave us?” No one spoke. Mr. Sheppard looked over the group, thinned considerably by the rigors of his talk so far. “You were mad as hell and ready to kill. Good. Don’t lose that rage. But don’t waste it on the Chinese, or me.”

“Who do we use it against?” Ed Holmes didn’t sound mad anymore. Just tired and without hope. Mr. Sheppard’s answer was so soft we almost didn’t hear it. “You use it against yourselves.”

“What…what the hell does that mean?” Mack Sheets sounded like a split reed.

“It means destroying your old way of thinking about hammers. About yourselves and hammers. About everything and hammers. Listen to me! You have got to ask yourselves, what do you have that the Chinese don’t have, will never have?”

“We have unions!” Ed Holmes said. “And don’t think we are going to give them up just to be more competitive with the Chinese!” He thrust his fist into the air. Mr. Sheppard rolled his eyes. “I’m not talking about unions.” Ed Holmes’ fist dropped. Mr. Sheppard continued. “Look. The Chinese have the cheap labor, sure, and wimpy-ass environmental laws that let their factories do whatever, without penalties or limits. They’ve got protectionist trade policies that keep their hammers cheaper than ours. They’ve got some spanking new foundries and production techniques. But there’s one thing you have that they will never have. And that is the idea of the hammer.” You could have heard a pin – or a nail – drop. “Of course,” Mr. Sheppard continued, “it doesn’t make one bit of difference if none of you understand what you’ve got, and develop it.” Some of us felt prodded into riled agitation again. There were shouts of “This is what we paid you for, Sheppard!” and “Get to the point, asshole!” and “C’mon! What in god’s name is the ‘idea of the hammer?’”

Mr. Sheppard jumped to his feet and returned to the video projector. “All right, all right. I’ll tell you. But pay attention boys and girls. There will be a quiz on this material.” He alone giggled at his levity. He turned on the projector again to an aerial view of a town square. Our town square: the familiar hodge-podge of empty storefronts, empty lots, a McDonald’s, a Goodwill, an adult book and video store, several bars, two Chinese take-outs and, in the center , the abandoned hammer factory, graffitied, boarded-up and forlorn. The only place with any sign of life was the unemployment office.

“This is now,” he said, then advanced to the next image. “And this is what could be.”

The video morphed into a computer-imaged reinvention of our town. Mr. Sheppard’s curser jumped from one highlight to another like the planchette of a Ouija board. The main boulevard constituted the handle. It terminated in the town square, laid out in the shape of an enormous hammer head and claw. Mr. Sheppard said, “Let’s take a closer look, shall we?” and pressed the remote again. The computer simulation descended to a motorist’s point of view, entering the town from the “handle.” Up ahead, the town’s skylight danced with a multitude of neon hammers dropping tirelessly on neon nails. At the end of the road was the rebuilt factory, now a pedestal for a gigantic hammer. “At 400 feet,” said Mr. Sheppard, “it will be the tallest hammer in the world!” Beside it the courthouse sported an enormous judge’s gavel that marked the moment each judgment was rendered within by a rap to the marble floor below. 

We slowed and stopped, taking in the colorful array of new and attractive shops: there was a nightclub/bar called “Get Hammered!,” a book/video store named “Hammer” (offering the world’s largest collection of Mike Hammer books, movies, TV shows, radio recordings and memorabilia), another video store called “Hammer Horrors” (with a complete selection of horror movies from Britain’s Hammer Studios), the Hammer Museum (recreated as a virtual 3-D tour of the original museum in Haines, Alaska), the “Steel-Drive-In -Man’s Eatery” (famous for the “Hammerich,” a foot-tall club sandwich with 16 varieties of ham, “spiked” with a secret sauce and held together with a stainless-steel spike driven down through its center by shirtless, sledgehammer-wielding John Henry impersonators), “Hammerhead World” (an aquarium stocked exclusively with 20 varieties of hammerhead shark), the “Hammer-Fantasy-Fancier” (selling hammer-themed toys, games and models, including Thor’s Hammer (“Mjolnir”) and the Emulsion Powered Laser-Designator “Hammer of Dawn” from the Gears of War gaming series).

On the sidewalks were crowds of hammerhead shark-masked vendors; singers (“If I had a Hammer,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” etc.); hammer-taping Van Halen-style guitarists; performers hammering steel drums, gamelons, xylophones and vibraphones; carnival sideshow acts (“Watch the human 2X4 hammer nails into his face!”) and racks of T-shirts emblazoned with hammer symbols, logos and insignias (the hammer and sickle, Arm and Hammer, Hammer Bowling Balls, etc.). On the street corners were many hammer monuments and memorial sculptures (several John Henrys, plus 60s action star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, and disgraced Congressman Tom “The Hammer” DeLay).

At the unfinished end of the square Mr. Sheppard pointed out armies of singing road builders breaking up stones for gravel using authentic “macadamizing” hammers, and, in the fields beyond, many spirited hammer-throwing and “speed-hammering” contests. There were even a number of year-round passion plays where, for a small fee, one could reenact the crucifixion as a Roman foot soldier hammering a lifelike bleeding Christ mannequin to the cross, or as a disciple using the claw end to yank out the nails and take him down, depending on the customer’s predilections.

There was a healthy range of opinions to Mr. Sheppard’s plan. Despite some doubts many were impressed by the boldness and originality of his vision, a few of us even embracing the plan with excited comments like, “Hey, when do we break ground?” and “Can you believe the job market this could open up?” and “This’ll put us back on the map for sure!” and “I like it! I really like it!”

Noticeably less enthused were the original troika of critics: Ed Holmes, Mack Sheets and Phil Breef, now joined by a CPA and funeral home director named Pete DeVoors. They huddled together, conferring in low, tense voices. Phil Breef raised his hand. “Mr. Sheppard? That was a very nice show, but maybe some of us don’t want to see our town turned into a theme park. And even if we did, who is going to pay for all of this development? Since the melt down we’ve all suffered disastrous losses. With this plan of yours we’d all be bankrupt before we put one shovel in the ground…”  

“…or hammered one nail?” Mr. Sheppard said. “Well, Phil – may I call you Phil?”  

“How do you know..?”   

“Phil, that’s the beauty of this plan. It’s not only about hammers. It comes from a kind of hammer.”

“But the factory!” Phil protested.   

Mr. Sheppard smiled. “I understand your concern, Phil. But I don’t mean coming from the sale of manufactured, physical hammers. I’m talking about different kinds of tools. Predictive tools, a different kind of hammer. It’s called a ‘Candlestick Hammer.’ Along with the ‘Harami,’ the ‘Doji,’ the ‘Dark Cloud Cover’ and a host of other pricing algorithms I can hammer out new derivatives strategies…”   

Phil Breef stood again, visibly struggling for control. “Wait…wait a second. Just wait…! You’re not…are you talking about investing what little we have left in the market?! Are you out of your…”    

Mr. Sheppard purred, “Phil, I realize in today’s volatile market…”   

Phil Breef paled. His mouth moved but no words came out. He made a low snarling sound and bolted at Mr. Sheppard. Mac Sheets held him back and shouted, “It’s not volatile, Sheppard! It’s dead!” Words and phrases like, “Wall Street?” and “He’s talking about derivatives?!” and “Selling sub-prime mortgage packages!” and “Bernie Madoff!” and “Ponzi!” raced through the hall like a torched incendiary. Mr. Sheppard watched from atop the dais, hands on hips and shaking his head, waiting patiently for the excitement to die down.    

But it did not die down. Shock turned to anger, anger to rage. Many other questions and comments filled the air: who decided the Chinese must make our hammers? Who decided the “idea of the hammer” was more real than the hammer itself? For most of us, Wall Street and corporations were a faceless evil. But in a moment of uncanny clarity and calm, even inner peace, we seemed to turn as one entity (or animal, really), and see for once a face, and a name: Mr. Sheppard. 

No one knows who brought in the hammers, but suddenly we all seemed to have one. Some of us had two. Some of us had sledgehammers or blacksmithing hammers, (the Twist, the Dog Head, The Long Cross), or the plastic Dead Blow Hammer, or the previously mentioned Macadamizing Hammer (with its distinctive round head for breaking rocks into gravel), or the classic Low-Curve Claw Head, forged of extra-strong, extra absorbent carbon-alloy and made in the U.S.A.    

We heard only a small “hey” from Mr. Sheppard as the audience closed around him, then a brief, wet crack of bone, followed by nothing more than the meaty dull thunk of hammer to flesh. Most of us never got close enough to deliver the fatal blows, if “fatal” can be ascribed to Mr. Sheppard’s wounds, or, rather, damage. Emerging from the crowd, Phil Breef, Ed Holmes, Mack Sheets and Pete De Voors (the first to hammer Mr. Sheppard) asked for a sheet to cover the body, then moistened paper towels from the men’s room to rub away the blood splatters covering their own glasses, faces, arms, hands, shirts and slacks. They explained to us that what we had done together was not murder because Mr. Sheppard was not human. Requesting more moistened paper towels for a stubborn splatter on his tie, Pete De Voors confirmed the news. “I’ve seen a lot of dead bodies,” he said, “and this was not a human one.” Ed Holmes nodded and took another moistened paper towel to his shirt. He asked us to recall the peculiar Ugandan story that Mr. Sheppard had told them. “Remember the king’s command to the blacksmith, Walla…”    

One of us supplied the name: “Walukaga.”

Ed Holmes snapped his fingers. “Right. Remember the king’s command? ‘Make me a living man of metal, blacksmith.’ Then the solution came from Waloo…”    


“Walukaga’s insane friend, who told him to ask for impossible to get materials, and the king had to admit he couldn’t do it.”    

We waited.   

“Don’t you see?” Ed Holmes said. “Mr. Sheppard was the living man of metal – or, more accurately, a living synthetic, a man-machine hybrid. Walukaga could not have built such a thing in his time, but now we can!”    

Mack Sheets added, “I think he was trying to show us something.”  

One of us asked, “What?”

Mack Sheets frowned with concentration for several moments. “I think it’s something like, Mr. Sheppard is the madman, and all of us are Walukaga. And the current economic crisis is the king, the king’s challenge, saying, ‘You’ve got to do something impossible – like save our town, turn the recession around,’ and we are the scared Walukaga, saying, ‘What am I gonna’ do? What am I gonna’ do?’” There was a ripple of appreciative laughter for Mack Sheets’ impersonation of Mr. Sheppard. Another of us said, “But that doesn’t make sense. You said Mr. Sheppard was the living man of metal. Now you are saying he is the madman, too? And if he is, or was, a real living man of metal – I mean Mr. Sheppard – does that mean we just killed – I mean deactivated – the solution to our problem?”   

There was an excited flurry of argument, with many comments like, “Maybe we made a big mistake,” and “Hey, he’s got a point!” and “Could the madman and the man of metal be the same person?” and “Why didn’t Walukaga just give the king the madman?” and “What was Mr. Sheppard trying to teach us?”   

Phil Breef raised his hand. “Hold it, everybody! Pipe down! It all makes sense! The metal man and the mad man were the same person. Both of them were Mr. Sheppard. But, like in the story, the mad man had to show Walukaga how to trick the king into giving up on the idea of a living man of metal, so the secret of the living man of metal would not fall into the hands of the king! But once Walukaga realized that the mad man really was the living man of metal, (the human-machine hybrid that was Mr. Sheppard), Mr. Sheppard had to trick ‘Walukaga’ (all of us) into destroying him, so the secret of his creation would remain safe!” 

A buzz of competing voices rose with comments like,“He sacrificed himself so we wouldn’t be burdened with the secret?” and “He wanted to die!” and “We were supposed to kill him?” Then another voice jumped out from the others with “But that’s not in the story Mr. Sheppard told us! He said that the mad man became Walukaga’s new blacksmithing partner!”

Phil Breef shot back, “Don’t be so literal! Walukaga probably destroyed the mad man after they became partners running the new blacksmithing shop!” 

We pondered the implications of his interpretation while Mack Sheets, Ed Holmes, Pete De Voors and Phil Breef attended discretely to the “body.” Strangely, no one is certain what happened to it, though some of us claim to know, with stories like “It’s buried under the floor of the old factory!” or “His components and software are what made the new factory possible!” 

Later at the trial Mack Sheets, Ed Holmes, Phil Breef and Pete De Voors all took responsibility for the fatal blow. Forensics revealed that, while many hammers pulped the “body,” “death” (or deactivation) probably came from a single, claw-first blow to the face from an American-made carpenter’s hammer wielded by Mack Sheets. His acquittal on grounds of self-defense and justifiable homicide was based on unanimous testimony that Mr. Sheppard was an unbalanced homicidal maniac, holding the group hostage with a semi-automatic weapon, making incoherent demands for a “hammer heaven on earth.”

Whatever the truth, it is indisputable that Mr. Sheppard’s brief time in our town changed everything forever. Now our factory prospers with an entirely new technology and line of robotics, though what many visitors come to see first is the memorial display of Mack Sheets’ hammer: the hammer that ended and started it all.