There was only one man who ever challenged Johan Vaaler, inventor of the paperclip, for greatness in the mind of the people of Norway. This is the story of the downfall of that man.
No day in Norway is like Paper Clip Day, May 29th, and no man like Johan Valer. The Clipper, some called him, like a sailor on the sea. Johan Vaaler. The name rolled off the tongue of the sailing Norwegians who, before him, had given their honest honorifics to proud men of the sea. Their sleepy village had drawn in fish and whale oil for centuries, and very little else.
But then the Clipper had come. His origins were shrouded in mystery. He had wound his tiny wire around every paper, as well every heart of every man, woman and child in the village. The world knew his invention, the tiny paper clip, and their village. And the day, a holiday for every man, woman and child in the village, was the greatest day of their lives, each year.
Not every year did the Clipper come to Sandvika for Paper Clip Day. Many years the locals were disappointed, though they always hoped. There were rumors each year, though. Some said he lived on a floating island above Norway and climbed down to the village on a ladder of paper clips. But if the wind was too strong the ladder would sway and this would keep him from coming to his people. Other said he was a genius who ate only bread and straw and spoke a language of his own invention that sounded like goats bleating, though no one could ever admit having spoken to him. But of course his mouth would become tired, sometimes, from speaking the goat language and some years such a man would need a rest.
And of course everyone knew none of it was true, or was half true, or three quarters anyway. Did he really invent the paperclip? Well, who knew. Certainly the eggheads had looked into it, with their books, their documents, but what did they know? No one trusted those people anyway. Myth remains more powerful than truth, even when it comes to paper clips. The people believed it, and that was what mattered. May 29th, 1905, was the day that the faith of the people saved paperclips for Norway forever and ever.
No one drank alcohol on Paper Clip Day until approximately 5:25 in the evening, and the celebration of 1905 was no exception. There would be the parade and the floats and then there would be giant paper clipped shaped drinking vessels full of exactly 300 milliliters each of beer and wine. Then they would drink until the sun came up and then the town's brass band would wake everyone up that morning with a parade through the streets.
So for this reason a few people in the crowd noticed the tiny, half shaven, dirty man who was sipping yellow cider on the side of the road, watching the festivities. But they paid him little attention. Miss Paper Clip 1904 was coming down the road on a buggy, smiling, waving, tossing paper clips to the children. The old men whistled. The young ladies swooned and gossiped over who would be Miss Paper Clip for this year.
The dirty man, whose name was William Middlebrook, was an angry American. Specifically, he was angry about paper clips. No Norwegian had ever been angry about paper clips before. William Middlebrook did not believe in the legend of the Clipper. Later men would sit in barber shops and say, see, this is why he was so angry. But today he was here to set the record straight.
Several children sensed the darkness in his heart. Generously they offered him their paper clips, trying to make the angry man happy. With a slow hand he held them up to the sky, unwound the clips, and gave them back to the children. There is no way to horrify a Norwegian faster than to murder their paper clip in this way. Several of the adults pulled their children back. “He is a mentally disturbed man,” they said to the small ones.
Then the crowd drew its breath for a moment and there was a ripple that echoed down the line of men and children staring down the street. It was the feeling of something happening, an excitement, as though the heavens had opened. Someone screamed, “It's him! It's him!” and everyone strained to look, craning their necks and standing on chairs, wishing they were just a head taller.
It was him! The packed bodies standing together allowed only a few to see. But there he was. Unmistakable. The man himself, on top of a float no one had known would be in the parade, pulled by two white horses straight out of the book of Revelation. “Vaaler!” a woman screamed. He was there, waving, but the noise was too deafening to hear clearly. He was dressed in fine linens, hands in the air, bringing peace to the people. “The greatest Paper Clip Day of all Paper Clip Days!” said another woman to her husband, who waved her away because he was crying with joy and ignored her.
How it was that William Middlebrook made his way to the float with Vaaler is unknown. Perhaps the crowd was so intoxicated with joy that they didn't notice the dirty, angry American moving towards their hero. Somehow he ascended, and then he was on the float, and then he had Vaaler by the neck.
“Someone's got Vaaler!” a woman screamed. Several women fainted. “Get him!” said a young man, who started to rush the float himself.
“Stay back!” said Middlebrook. He had a paper clip – a paper clip! - right at Vaaler's neck. “Stay back or I'll stab him right through!”
A hush fell over the people. “This man is a liar!” said Middlebrook. The people were enraptured. Every float stopped dead in its tracks. “This man is a liar! He never invented the paperclip. It's true! Admit it, you scoundrel, admit that it's true!” He pressed the unwound paper clip just at Valer's neck. “Admit that in 1892 you developed an inferior design, lacking the two full loops that we now know is crucial – crucial! - for appropriate paper sorting. Admit to the people your deception, your fame, your glory are based entirely on a lie!”
Someone pulled out a gun and shot at Middlebrook. The crack resonated through the crowd. The shot hit Middle directly in the abdomen. There was only further silence. Middlebrook twisted his mustache and lifted his dirty shirt. An armor of chain mail paper clips covered his body. “Impenetrable,” someone said. Middlebrook tossed the bullet back into the crowd.
For a moment Vaaler looked mortal. Could it be? thought the people. A cloud of darkness seemed to spread over Sandvika, over Norway, over the hearts of the men, women and children of the world. All of them had known it was a story that wasn't really quite true, after all. How could anyone from Sandvika have invented something so glorious?
And then, out of the sky. A familiar call, and three dips, as the great bird does, and a swooping rush of wind. A sight that every Norwegian knew.
“A white throated dipper!” said the children. The national bird of Norway. It came down at the evil Middlebrook with a heinous, violent fury. There was no mistaking the mind of this bird. It had come to defend the Clipper, to do what all the people wished to do.
Middlebrook lifted his arms helplessly but the effort was in vain. It mattered not that the bird, known to all Norwegian children to be a maximum size of 18 centimeters long, could have fit in a shoebox. At that moment it had the strength of all Norway, come to the defense of her nation, come to the defense of her paper clips. With her tiny claws she dug into the scalp of the dirty, day-drinking, paper clip murdering American. She gathered herself and with a mighty shove she pulled him into the air. Up, up and away. His nasty head hung swinging from her tiny claws. The people cheered. She was taking him West. Yes, West, back to the dirty, self serving country he had come from. Back to America where you still use staples for everything, all of the time.
The two of them, angry bird and squirming man, sailed off into the heavens together.
And Vaaler came down amongst the people. Yes, yes he had called the bird, someone said. It was only fitting that the heavens would come to defend one of their own, said another. Did you doubt?, one man said to another. He had been crying too but straightened up immediately. No, no of course not, he said, and unclenched his fists.
The people broke their own rules that day and began drinking at 6 PM.
That year they built the statue that still stands in Sandvika, which still stands to this day, the giant double-looped paper clip that greets every visitor to the city. And the children sometimes ask, is this the one the great Vaaler invented, and the fathers tell the children to ask their mothers, and the mothers tell them to ask their grandmothers, and the grandmothers tell them the story about the day an evil American with a mustache was dragged out to sea by a white throated dipper. It was what he deserved, they say, and that's the way they end that story without any more questions. Myth remains more powerful than truth, even when it comes to paper clips.