Photograph by Melanie Einzig

The On the Media blog has an interesting article by PJ Vogt. He writes that he considers the above image to be one of the most memorable photos shot on the morning of Sept. 11.

I agree. The incongruity of the mundane with the horrific is riveting. The photograph also contradicts our memories of that day. Every image we’ve seen of that day, both on the day itself and in the decade since, has been of the destruction and devastation. And then there’s this photo, which contradicts all of those memories. How do we reconcile this image with those others? How do we fit this into our brain? It doesn’t match the narrative we thought we knew.

I had a second reaction, though. I’ve seen this before. Not this exact image, but all the elements. In fact, I remember reading about it back in the 1970s, in an old book in the school library.

Humorist Robert Benchley predicted this image almost 80 years ago, in an article titled “Johnny-on-the-Spot”. I’ve scanned the article and posted it below, for your edification. The book I pulled it out of is The Benchley Roundup, first published in 1954. I’m not sure when the article itself was originally published, but I’m guessing late 1920s or sometime in the 1930s.

The article is dead-on. I’ve seen lots of photos over the years of significant events, and there’s often some guy somewhere in the foreground or on the side seemingly oblivious to the momentous activity just 30 feet away. (You might find Benchley’s derby fixation strange, but everybody used to wear hats in those days. I guess in Benchley’s experience, it was always a derby.)

If you want to read more Robert Benchley, you’ll have to haunt used book stores. Project Gutenberg has one measly book online. (You can thank Disney and their lapdog tree-skier Sonny Bono, who got copyright extended until doomsday to protect the profits from Mickey Mouse.)

So now, enjoy the prescience of Robert Benchley:

Here's Johnny!

Here's Johnny!

Here's Johnny!

Note the uncanny prediction of collapsing buildings!

5 Responses to “Johnny-on-the-Spot”

  1. Lindsay Says:

    I’ve never seen that picture on 9/11 before…someone got their package on time. If it were a less horrific day it would be a good ad picture for UPS!

    My husband is definitely one of those men in the derby, as the author says. I can’t believe some of the things that to me are obvious, that he is oblivious to. One time we were on a walk and I noticed a fire coming out of an apartment building…smoke billowing, but no fire trucks or people were around. I stopped dead in my tracks and got out my phone to call 911. He just kept walking…he finally noticed I wasn’t walking with him and he turned around to ask why I had stopped.

    Later on he told me that when he’s going somewhere or when he’s working, it’s like he has blinders on he is so focused on the task at hand. I’m probably the opposite where I’m easily distracted, but I suppose each has it’s pros and cons.

  2. Sue Blue Says:

    Spot on. Saw this very thing in one of the numerous videos of the Reno air show crash. Guy sitting down, sipping a soda and looking off into the distance at some other planes while all hell breaks loose down below. In the video, as people either start running away from, or toward, the mayhem, he calmly gets up and exits stage right, still not looking toward the accident, as if going to the concession stands or looking for a toilet. Maybe he was just being stoic, but it sure looked like he didn’t have a clue about what was going on.

  3. ericsan Says:

    It’s related to the invisible gorilla experiment, isn’t it.

  4. Tanja Says:

    This theme was explored in Brueghel’s painting “The Fall of Icarus” in 1558, and then later in Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts in 1938.

    About suffering they were never wrong,
    The Old Masters; how well, they understood
    Its human position; how it takes place
    While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
    How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
    For the miraculous birth, there always must be
    Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
    On a pond at the edge of the wood:
    They never forgot
    That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
    Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
    Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
    Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
    In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
    Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
    Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
    But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
    As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
    Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
    Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
    had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

  5. nazani14 Says:

    This is just a guy doing his job, working to beat a deadline. Think how many people in the buildings surrounding the World Trade Center did not even have the option of leaving their work stations to look out the window.

    In this cartoon the guy with the receding chin reminds me of Mitch McConnell without glasses.