The Passing of Tom Emmett

[excerpted from John M. Browning, American Gunmaker, by John Browning and Curt Gentry. © 1964 by the Browning Co. and Curt Gentry.]

The Brownings depended on Tom Emmett for all odd jobs, either at the store or in their homes. He professed no specialized skill but would tackle any job and get it done. On this day he was up on a stepladder near the ceiling of the shop, by the line shaft, taking measurements. His job kept him near the shaft for so short a time that he did not ask to have the power shut off. Nobody paid any attention to what he was doing, except John. He remarked to Ed, “Tom shouldn’t be working up there with the power on.” Ed looked over his shoulder and said, “Oh, he’ll be through in a minute, and I need the lathe.” It happened just then, while John was looking straight at Tom.

Emmett had his coat off and his vest unbuttoned. Intent on his work, trying to reach too far with his ruler, he draped an edge of his vest on the whirling shaft. There was a space of only about eighteen inches between shaft and ceiling, and he went whirling through head-first, in a horrible blur of sound and motion. John yelled at the top of his voice, “Shut off the power!” and started running toward Tom, from whom he was separated by the length of the room. One of the brothers ran for the nearest doctor.

The shaft stopped. Tom, no longer in the grip of centrifugal force, unwound toward the floor and landed with a jolt on his feet. Since he had gone through head-first, his heavy felt hat was rammed down over his eyes. That, a suit of red underwear, and shoes completed his attire. His shredded apparel flapped on the shaft. He staggered to and fro. Every hand in the place reached out to help, but he bumped into a bench, clutched a vise, and remained upright. He had to hold on with both hands; even so, his tendency to stagger nearly pulled him loose. Someone thoughtfully pulled his hat off for him.

The doctor arrived in a matter of minutes, and a space was cleared on a workbench. Everybody contributed a coat to be spread for cover, and Tom was lifted up bodily and stretched out for the doctor’s examination. As that man, having heard the tale quickly told, went over Tom inch by inch, he grew more and more incredulous. Now and then, he glanced up at the clean spot on the ceiling, shook his head, and muttered. He prodded and twisted muscles and joints, asking from time to time, “That hurt, Tom?” And Tom would say, “No, nothing to speak of.” “And that?” “Well, maybe a little, not much.” Up and down, and around the ribs, and up again to the neck. The doctor gave particular attention to Tom’s back. “That hurt?” after a series of prods. “Well,” Tom said, “that’s kinda funny. Had a little backache when I got up this morning. Did a lot of lifting yesterday. But it seems to be gone now.”

Finally, the doctor said, mystified, with almost a trace of disgust, “Not even a skinned knuckle.” He glanced again at the clean spot on the ceiling. “How many times did Tom spin through there?”

“Must have been at least fifty times,” someone guessed.

“I don’t believe it!”

“Oh, yes I did, Doc!” Tom protested. “Yes, I did.”

Smoke as it would, the little engine never succeeded in covering the traces of Tom’s passing. The spot gradually darkened with the years, but as long as the shop stood, it was distinct against the black that surrounded it. Tom had given the spot such a high polish that the grime did not easily adhere to it.