Agents Of Change

PrintPrintEmailEmail

For want of nails, kingdoms are won and lost. We all know that. The shoe slips, the horse stumbles, the army dissolves in retreat. But who designed the nails? Who hammered the nails? Who invented the nail-making machinery? Who figured out how to market the nails in neat plastic blister packs hung from standardized wire racks in hardware stores? • The house of history, that clever balloon frame of statistics and biographies in which we shelter our sense of tradition, of progress, of values gained and lost, is nailed together with anonymity. Too often we look at history instead as a half-timbered castellated structure, focusing on the carved keystones above the doors bearing the faces of Napoleon or Lincoln, Voltaire or Descartes, Michelangelo or Machiavelli. History tends to neglect the nails, the nuts and bolts of daily life. But in the last few years, the captains and kings have, if not departed, been joined in the history books by butchers and bakers and nail makers. • As the lens of contemporary media creates instant history, with more and more focus on the individual and “human interest,” it replaces fame with celebrity. The last forty years have been a time when individuality itself has become more problematic, in which questions of individual rights and responsibilities have come to the fore, when the issue of “conformity” has been eclipsed by doing your own thing and the Me decade. And history has seemed to gel too quickly. Not for us the reflective distance of Gibbon or Parkman. Kids come home from school announcing they are “doing a unit on the sixties.” One class of these units is decades—the fictions into which we package years and subsume details. The fifties are trapped in a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air permanently wired to a drive-in theater speaker with Rebel Without a Cause on the screen. The sixties remain lost in the mud and flowers of Woodstock and Vietnam. • Also lost in the fast cutting and the sound bites are those nails, the nuts and bolts of ordinary life. One can look at the making of nails—real nails, not metaphorical ones—as Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations looked at the making of pins through the division of labor, to understand fundamental changes in an economy. One can see the paradoxes of Thomas Jefferson’s world view summed up the nail-making operation his slaves ran on Mulberry Row at Monticello, and the impact of Jacob Perkins’s nail-making machines in making possible George Snow’s creation of the American balloon-frame house and how those houses in turn made possible the model towns of John Nolen, America’s most prolific and least known town planner, and the suburbs William Levitt built, using special machines to make nails on the site.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Time travel, like physical travel, turns on such details. That’s why the Back to the Future films seem inherently more humane than, say, the writings of Edward Bellamy and possess a charm that lifts them above their genre. The wonders we encounter in them are designer underwear, panty hose, and boom boxes.

 

To look at the nails is to see how history can make unwitting heroes of such people as—to take an extreme example—Hub Reese, a Tennessee mule merchant. In the early 1980s, when the United States sent Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghan rebels, it found there was no way to move them through the country’s rough mountains. It turned to Reese, who loaded C-5 transports full of Tennessee’s finest muleflesh.

Carried on the backs of Reese’s mules, the Stingers proved so effective that Soviet fighter and helicopter pilots soon refused to fly, crippling the operations of Soviet ground forces. The Soviet army pulled back to the cities and finally out of the country altogether. The result was a flow of bodies back to the U.S.S.R., along with wounded and disaffected veterans, and a lost sense of invulnerability. And these Vietnam-like effects surely were a factor in the end of the U.S.S.R. Which is to say, the Stinger was a nail in the coffin of the Soviet Empire, and Reese was one of the unsung nailers.

Ordinary life is shaped for the most part by ordinary people. From its beginnings and over the last forty years this magazine has tried to highlight the human side of history, as reflected, for instance, in a soldier’s diary or his letters home to his sweetheart as much as in the general staff’s orders. To reaffirm this tradition, we’ve sampled some of the great nail makers of the history of our time—people you’ve likely never heard of but who in one way or another, directly or indirectly, by intention or accident, changed the way you lead your daily life.