The fourth story from Alt Hist Issue 7 gets a free extract on the site this week.
“Heff in Dearborn” by Michael Fertik is an unusual tale that brings together a figure from Greek mythology and the champion of modern factory assembly lines, Henry T. Ford. Hephaistos, ancient Greek god of the forge, now living in contemporary Los Angeles recounts a key incident in his life. The incident took place in early 20th century America, when Hephaistos, disguised as a man named Heff, met Henry Ford. It was the dawn of the automobile; cars were still being made by hand. Hephaistos and Ford race their hand made cars on the famous racing beach in Daytona. Hephaistos wins handily, embarrassing Ford. Ford, secretly suspecting his opponent’s real identity, decides to invent a new process, a new way of manufacture that will kill the old ways once and for all.
Michael recently hit the New York Times Bestseller list with his book The Reputation Economy: How to Optimize Your Digital Footprint in a World Where Your Reputation Is Your Most Valuable Asset.
You can buy the book on Amazon and at other good booksellers.
Heff in Dearborn
by Michael Fertik
Much of what you’ve read about me isn’t true. I am unvulgar, actually quite neat in my habits. I’ve never even been to Lemnos. I am not lame. I can do every yoga pose. I do not carry a “pocket forge”. What a dumb idea that would be. What idiot would carry a pocket forge? A pocket forge would be huge.
When I moved to SoCal a few years ago, I had to start calling myself by a different name. Introducing yourself as “Heff” in LA makes people think that you suffer from delusions of grandeur.
But I was Heff in Detroit. I met Henry Ford on the beach at Daytona in Florida. He raced his Pirate and I was in my own handmade chariot. There were other guys. Ford bombed past most everyone except me, because I knew how beach sand affected wheel speed, and I had some other advantages, besides.
Ford was a hater. He lived big, everybody knows that. He liked machines, money, cars, women, planes, plantations, politics, and Nazis. He liked efficiency. That’s the Wikipedia version. They know he didn’t like Moses’ people. But that was only part of it. He was filled to the brim with hate for everything he couldn’t own or humiliate.
I remember meeting him. So much of my life since then has been an echo of that encounter that I couldn’t help it.
I’d just beaten the pants off him on the Daytona beach. He’d left the field behind in his noisy, spewing wake as he took off for the finish line, right out of the gate. I hung back to watch him go, admiring the lines and acceleration of his car. He drove his Pirate, curved like a hip and shaking like a boulder hurtling down a hill. The workmanship was fine. Whoever designed the car understood the poetry of symmetry and the essential virtue of echoing an object’s purpose in its contour, that how it looks is the spirit in which it will perform. It is enjoyable to see the divine inspiration appearing in people’s work that way. There were details, too. Ford had taken the time to etch long, parallel grooves into the chassis to emphasize the speed of his car, and I perceived the idea of some flares shooting backwards on the surfaces toward the rear. The automobile was black—he was famous for that before he was famous for that—but he betrayed a feeling for flair in spots with sharp chrome and rounded glass. He even stood in the cabin at times as he rushed forward, like it was a motorcycle. He bared his teeth in what appeared like a smile.
I watched him race. Even though he was lengths ahead of the field, pulling away, he kept the accelerator down and looked back at us to see if anyone was catching up. He would lean ahead, as if to egg on his car. He was admirable. You don’t see true desperation and talent bundled together that often. He raced like a starving leopard. I thought about composing a few lines.
I waited until the three quarters mark, and then I stoked my chariot. Passing Ford wasn’t difficult, all things considered, but for the sake of drama and to encourage the hero and our competitors, I left it to the last stretch to overtake him. There was a great deal of backslapping, and everyone looked pleased, except for Ford, whose smile could have been chiseled from rough stone. After the champagne had died down, he came over to me and shook hands.
“Hello, I’m Henry Ford.” He crinked his head left to right to loosen something. Ford wasn’t very tall, and he was skinny as a wraith. He had close-cropped hair and blue eyes set in deep, arched sockets. His nose, while aquiline, was made for a skull 20% larger than his, as was his forehead. He was what Life Magazine would have called a fine looking man. When I met him he must have been about forty.
“Hello, I’m Heff! Ha ha ha!” I shook his hand vigorously and decided to take the course of the jolly friend. No use rubbing in the victory. “A good race! You have a fine automobile there! Ho ho!” I slapped his back and beamed conviviality at him.
To put it straightforwardly, my kind of emotional energy isn’t easy to resist. But it seemed to me he deflected it without effort. He wore a grin that would make it look to the fellows around that Number One and Runner Up were having a good motoring chat. But his eyes burned with hate. He hated my guts for passing him.
“Where did you get that rig? It’s an unusual design.”
“Oh, ha ha, just something I made myself.”
“Maybe you could show me how it works.”
“Hee hee, yes, you are a good sport and a card! I’ve heard, ha ha!” I tried in vain to keep it light. “I hear you are quite an inventor, too, and by the looks of your car, it’s true!”
“More of a tinkerer. I’m a farmer’s son, Heff. You?” There was a twinkle in his eye as he started to work something out. It made me uneasy.
“I’m a tinkerer, too.” I said, feeling clever about my minor dodge.
For some reason I wanted him to like me. I probably looked younger than he did, though not young enough to be his son, but father figures have always been a weakness for me.
He tapped my shoulder, more familiar now. “Well, now, anyway, a good race, and congratulations to the winner.” He turned around and led the fellows in a cheer. “Let’s get some food,” he said, and we walked toward the barbecue.
We ate brisket and corn at a picnic table some feet from the others. “You like working with tools? Enjoy working with your hands?” He smiled at me, and the glimmer in his eye grew bigger. “I’ve got a huge warehouse full of the greatest variety of tools a man’s ever seen. You might enjoy visiting.”
I had a feeling Ford knew who I was. Watching him pick his food birdlike as the sun set and colored the sea coral, observing the slight arch in his back and the vague triangle shape to his head, looking hard at his eyes, I wondered for a second if I recognized him, too. Is that you, Scamander, come to take your vengeance? Promo, is it you, come to take vengeance on my vengeance? Or Kratos, you piece of shit, come just to be nasty somewhere new?
It happens from time to time. I saw Typhon in Venice Beach three years ago. He was hideous, his stench emanated for blocks, and when I finally saw him, having followed the scent, he was committing the foulest acts on two young corpses he had no doubt freshly killed. He sensed me and looked up and immediately bristled. I posed for a fight. These instincts run deep. But like the rest of us, he was much diminished from his former self, and it seemed neither of us wanted to battle. I made as if I had been distracted by something to my left and out of his view, and I stepped away and reset my countenance so that we both might pretend he hadn’t recognized me, though it was clear he had. He was fearsome but nothing like before, an acorn compared to the oak. It is true I was afraid of him still, but more afraid, I think, for him, something so perfectly powerful and evil, reduced to a mangy shadow. Our fight would have no stanzas, just a wrestle and a brain-bashing either way, nothing to recount, and no matter the outcome, he would be even more miserable. I didn’t have the heart to win or lose. Since that day, I have avoided that section of Venice.
But it wasn’t that. Ford didn’t recognize me from before. He was Henry Ford, as advertised. Still, as we sat there talking, our plates only barely touched and the revels of our meet-mates gaining volume, as the flames from the night torches danced across our faces and cast long shadows into the dunes, I believed he knew who I was. Sometimes people who are gifted can tell.
“Yes, you’re right, I do like working with my hands. My machine—I built it ground up. Ha ha!” I tried laughing again but found myself losing my footing. “Where is your warehouse?”
“Michigan. Let me invite you to visit and see what we’re doing there. I would love your opinion.”
He told me about his company. They were building cars, obviously. It was early days. A few guys in a cavernous building cobbling together new automobiles, handcrafting style and moving parts and engines, working hard and watching the fruits of their inspiration spring to life. Exactly my style. Ford was animated. He knew engineering, design, physical properties, metals, rubbers, combustion, gears, fuels. He was building a team that would fulfill a vision of the future in which every person could drive around in a car. When he mentioned the other guys around the US and Europe who were trying to do similar things, you could see the hate reappear in a flash. He hated the competition. If he could snuff out their lives completely, he would. His passion was infectious. That, and his invitations to “come up to Michigan immediately, no delay” were persistent and flattering. It’s nice to be wanted. I had nothing else in particular I was doing, so why not?
That, again, and something else. As he talked, he looked straight in my eye, as if to say, “yes, I know you, and you know that I know you”. He never said anything, but I had a stronger and stronger impression, and there was something about continuing this cat and mouse game with a man of his caliber that appealed to me. How long could we keep up the charade? Was I going to learn that he had no idea all along? What would it be like to appear to take his lure and then beat him at his own game, as I had done on the beach that afternoon? This was a fun diversion, and in the course of it, I could fashion new tools, new machines, and new instruments with my hands and heat. I could direct teams of men in the ways of founding and developing a whole new tradition. There had of course been no discussion yet of my actually coming to work with Ford. It had all been about “visiting the warehouse in Michigan”. But we both knew where this was heading.
Six weeks later I was standing with about one hundred other fellows and Henry Ford up there in Dearborn inside the chilly warehouse. We stamped our feet to keep out the cold. The fellows stuffed their hands in their denim jacket pockets and pulled down their wool caps. Only Ford wore no hat at all.
“You’ve all gotten to know Heff this past while,” he said, “and I don’t have to tell you how likeable and useful he is.” Though I say so myself, he was getting at something true. I had done what I could to charm the men already working there, and they seemed to respond favorably. In that context, only two kinds of men can be found: those who want you to acknowledge their status as having been there first, and those who want your ideas to be right. In this case, it wasn’t so hard to do both, if only I gave the attention necessary to standing.
Ford continued. “He’s got some fine ideas on how to make our products better. I’m sure you’ve heard a few of those already.” There was a murmur around the gang, and one especially jovial fellow, a team captain named Cunningham, shouted “attaboy, Heff!” and the men murmured approval. Ford smiled and raised his hands overhead for quiet. “You’ve also probably heard his ideas for improving how to make our cars. He has some proposals for training and workmanship that can make our automobiles more quickly and even better looking!” He shouted the last part and got some praise back. Turning to me, “Well, Heff and I haven’t been working out just exactly how much faster we can make a car using his new ideas versus our existing ones. We’ve sorted it out that one fellow, working by himself, might just be able to go faster than the regular crew of five who build a car together.” The crowd shifted and said something quietly like “it’s not possible” and “well let’s try it”. I hadn’t ever said it to Ford that way, but what was I going to say then?
“I figure we should put this into action and invite Heff to stay with us a little while longer before leaving on his travels, so we can run a contest between our best team of five—Cunningham’s crew—and Heff to see who finishes first and what the final product looks like.”
There were some raised eyebrows and stamped feet, but pretty soon the good-hearted fellows said “sounds good” and “whaddya say” and “how ‘bout it, Heff?” Cunningham, who was well liked because he was very strong, very funny, and very generous, shouted “Alright, Heff, you’re on, you old Devil, we’ll beat you into shortpants!” The gang erupted with laughter, and I couldn’t help but smile and nod, and then the fellows clapped my back. All except for Ford, who put his hand on my shoulder and said just “good thing, good”. He wore that marble smile again. His eyes were ablaze with hate, hate spilling out into his deep, broad eye sockets, hate at something, maybe me, but I could not tell.
So it was that I faced off against Cunningham and his top four men to build a car faster and better.
It wasn’t hard to win. Even then, even now, it’s not a fair contest. I knew all the best ways to heat and hammer a piece of metal just so, so that only a few strikes would bend it correctly into the proper shape. I possessed special experience in working materials so that a single effort would both mold and beautify the object. In an instant I could grasp the import of any tool I handled. And I could stoke the heat of a furnace to precisely the correct temperature for each bolt, rivet, or handle I was building. Then there was the other thing. I was just faster, stronger, and more accurate than Cunningham’s boys. The biggest worry bead for me in this contest was to avoid winning it by so much as I could. It took nearly a week for a team to build a car. I had to pace myself so as not to embarrass anyone or arouse suspicion. Anyone with a long life can tell you that people will admire and praise what they see as excellence, until it becomes so superb that it is beyond their scope of comparison, at which point they must fear it, contemn it, or revere it. None of those outcomes would have been good. I could sense old Ford watching closely, gauging, observing, measuring, even timing me on his stopwatch as my fingers deftly maneuvered tongs and anvil, hammer and steel. What I could have easily completed in seventy hours took me almost five days, with stoppage along the way to show fatigue, frustration, and fear of losing. I would utter quips crediting my speed to process and the good luck of broad training across tools and heat levels. The fellows looked on in astonishment as I kept pace and then exceeded the Cunningham crew. At first they were excited for the early returns and encouraged us in good sport. Then I could hear them grow incredulous as it became clear that I was at least keeping up. “Could he really beat them?” they quietly murmured. They gathered at lunch and in the evenings to place small bets on who would finish the engine block first and then whether I would slow to a crawl when it came time to lift and fasten the larger pieces together. Then they grew hushed again as I fashioned my own simple and reusable pulley system. I made sure to reveal enough devices and how they worked so that the men would feel they could eventually manage what I was doing. As their confidence in the new processes grew, and as they became convinced that they could manage this themselves one day, they began to see me as a hero for their future and not a threat. They loved Cunningham, but they admired me. They felt somehow that I was there to improve their lives. Cunningham and his team felt the same. As we locked down piece after piece of the cars with joiners and welding, the fellows would cheer the final rivets and sparks. Cunningham’s crew would whoop for me, and I would strike my foot hard on the floor for theirs.
By the end it was clear I would win and that I was probably slowing down to be fair. The men only loved that more. In the reflection of the windshield glass, I spotted Ford drop his stopwatch with a smirk as he figured out what I was doing. I felt a shot of embarrassment.
I popped in the hood ornament and wiped it with a clean rag as the piece de resistance, and the fellows shouted “well done, Heff!” Despite the cold, we dripped sweat. Cunningham’s boys were a solid four hours behind. I bought a crate of pop and passed them around to the men as we sat and encouraged them to finish with style.
Beer and sandwiches appeared. We spent the afternoon retelling the race. I hadn’t had that much fun in years.
END OF FREE EXTRACT
Don’t forget to order your copy of Alt Hist Issue 7 to read the rest of this story and others.