I feel certain I’ve blogged about this before but I can’t find it so I’ll just re-tell the tale again from memory.

My Dad once made a cannon – from scratch. When you’re a kid of about 12 years old, that’s the coolest thing that’s ever going to happen to you.

It all started when he got his Atlas metal lathe. He taught himself how to turn down all sort of metal things and was generally looking around for a project to test his skills. As it happens, I had just been looking at a book that had pictures of old British warships from the late 1700’s and thought it would be cool to make a cannon. I showed him a diagram of an old deck gun and he was off. He already had a pretty impressive workshop in the back yard and his job was such that he got home about 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoons so he had lots of time in the evenings to work on things.

I was not around for all of this but I helped whenever I could. He began by looking around for material that he could machine into the proper size and shape. We decided on a desktop sized one with a barrel of about six inches in length and about 1.25” in diameter at the base. This was all totally arbitrary but it looked good on paper. He didn’t have any metal that he could machine that was of that size so he decided to melt some and cast a blank into the right size. He could only melt low temperature stuff so it was either aluminum or brass; he chose brass. He had recently also gotten a small propane-powered forge and so he made up a mold, gathered up a handful of old plumbing parts and other brass detritus and cast himself a blank.

We also had a lot of walnut lumber laying around. He delivered the mail out in the country and noticed a walnut tree that had died or gotten knocked down in a storm. He got the permission of the owner to take it out with help from his buddies; they hauled it to a sawmill, had it cut into lumber, and divided it up amongst themselves. He built things from that stockpile for years. For this project he build the gun carriage out of some of this walnut.

He slowly turned down the blank and drilled it out to make the barrel. In the end, it was a very nice looking model. I was extremely proud of it and him. It was definitely the coolest thing around in my estimation. Nobody else’s Dad ever did anything other than go fishing occasionally or, in rare instances, kill a deer. This was way outside anybody else’s league. Then I asked:

“Do you think it would really shoot?”

At that point, he was off again. In retrospect, this is probably the last thing anybody should ever do. But we did it.

Another thing we did together was skeet shooting. To save a bit of money, we reloaded our shells and so we had a small tin of shotgun shell gunpowder. He used some of this to experiment with shooting our cannon.

As I recall (and this is obscured by about 40 years of time so my memories may not be completely accurate), he first put in a small charge (roughly half a standard shotgun shell load) and stuffed a piece of rag into the muzzle on top of it. He then pulled the bullet out of a .22 shell and poured that smaller-grained powder into the touchhole. He then put a long fireplace match on a stick and lit it from a distance. I seem to recall that he put the cannon just outside his shop door and we got inside behind the wall while he lit it and he then ducked back inside until we heard something happen.

The first couple of shots just fizzled – the powder went off but just kind of tossed the wadding a foot or so. He slowly ramped the situation up by tamping it harder and harder until it went off with a POP and tossed the wadding 10 feet or so. Finally, he rolled a ball bearing down the muzzle on top of the wadding. We had moved it out into the yard by that time and aimed the cannon at an oak tree just in case. He lit the touch hole and sprinted for the shop door where I was hiding behind the wall. It took about three seconds for the touchhole powder to burn down to the main charge.

It went off with a huge BOOM much like a shotgun would. We looked out and saw nothing. The cannon had disappeared. At first, he was worried that the entire thing had exploded like a pipe bomb but we went outside and saw it about 15 feet back. The carriage was on little wooden wheels and the recoil had rolled it back and up the hill a bit. Everything was intact.

I was thrilled. I jumped up and down with the enormous coolness of it all.

He walked downrange and inspected the tree. There was a hole there and with his pocketknife, he plumbed the depths and discovered that the ball had imbedded itself about an inch into the old oak tree.

Again, I will write this down and be official: we should never have done this. It was a potential pipe bomb. But that’s all behind us now and we achieved a shining success. Well, HE did. I was basically a spectator but the reader can imagine how awesome it was to be a part of this at your father’s elbow like that.

In the subsequent couple of years, we fired it maybe three more times – just to show it to my older brothers when they came home for a visit. The cannon was retired as only marginally safe to the bookshelf. Before Dad passed away I asked him for it and he gave it to me. It sits in my house now as one of my most treasured possessions.

Life is not a competition – or if it is, then the competition is only with yourself. But I still don’t feel that I’ve done anything in my life that measures up to this even though I have a Ph.D. in physics and have done my own share of building things and doing projects with my kids. If Dad were here, he’d probably tell a different story and would claim that this little project was no more impressive than any of my own accomplishments. I guess it’s all about the impressions you make or the experiences you share or something like that.

But he built a cannon. From raw materials: a tree and some scrap metal. That is just astronomically awesome. And he was fun to be around.

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When we were living in California, Melissa worked for a company that gave all the employees a gift at Christmas (as opposed to giving them a cash bonus).  At some level, that kind of sucked but at least they tried and they usually gave some pretty nice things.  For example, one year we were given a gift certificate for one night in the Fairmont Hotel which was pretty fun.  But one year, we got a gumball machine. Most of the people at her office had the same reaction: “Uh… a gumball machine?”

But I was thrilled; gumball machines are pretty cool and it was fun to have. I must admit that when the other employees tell you how last year they got a sweet bonus check, it tends to disappoint.  Still… gumball machine!

Very quickly I decided that a gumball machine is OK but if I made it into a lamp, it would be both cool and useful.  I had Evan’s room in mind and I set to work immediately.  I’m not sure where that bit of inspiration came from but I’m sure it wasn’t original – I have created many things but they were always inspired by the project of someone else.  It was quickly transformed into a nice lamp and I was suitably proud. 

I poured in the gumballs that came with it (which came in a paper milk carton type thing) and they barely covered the mechanism at the bottom.  It takes a huge amount of gumballs to fill such a machine and after buying all they had at Target, I had it about half full which seemed like enough so I called it done.  These days I would probably call a vending machine business and arrange to buy a barrel full but we had small children in those days and we both worked so many such things went undone.

When you own your own gumball machine, you can set them to not require any coins to get the gum out.  This seems like a good idea if you’re an adult and have even a little self control but Evan was a toddler and self control was not yet developed so I arranged for it to require coins.  In fact, I don’t really remember ever telling or showing him that they were gum at all.  He never knew that they were edible and so never even thought of getting one out.  This worked out perfectly from a parenting point of view.

Until the neighbor kid moved in.

It was a blessing to have some little boys just down the street for Evan to play with but as soon as your children start playing with other kids, they start learning things that you didn’t teach them and you can never control what they learn.  Parents know what I’m talking about:  some of those “colorful metaphors” (as Mr. Spock said in one of the Star Trek movies). But they also taught Evan that the lamp in his room was also a gumball machine and those colorful things inside were very tasty.  The fact that I had never told Evan about this (We may not have even taught him about chewing gum at all at that time) made him look like an idiot to the other kids but I didn’t care since it saved me many hours of getting gum out of the carpets.

They came down the hall one afternoon whereupon Evan said the toddler-speak equivalent of: “Did you know that my lamp is full of gum and all we have to do it turn the knob and get all we want?   All we need is some money.”

This is where I did what parents frequently do – channel The Grinch and I thought up a lie and thought it up quick.  I told him that it was broken – yes it was full of gum but we couldn’t get it out.

Apparently the older kid from down the street had heard that sort of reasoning before.  That or perhaps he was a budding little scientist but apparently, he decided it was worthwhile to put it to the test.  They apparently scavenged Evan’s room and discovered a cache of pennies.  I don’t remember if Evan had a piggy bank or not but they came up with the loot somewhere.  All I do remember is them both coming down the hallway towards me with their cheeks bulging and multicolored drool dripping down their chins.  Evan was really excited; he couldn’t wait to tell me that the machine wasn’t really broken.

Well, it isn’t any mystery that obfuscation is not parenting at all and will eventually fall to an assault by logic.  I don’t know if the kid down the street was especially smart or just didn’t believe anything an adult said but I then had to actually do some real parenting and make some rules about if and when gum could be chewed and as such I still have an animosity towards that kid even though it’s really my fault for not seeing that coming.   I can’t remember his name.  I only remember that his mother had a British accent. 

I guess I had spent all my brain cells on converting the gumball machine into a lamp.

The recent spate of Christmas parties made me hark back to the parties we used to have as a kid.  One of them was always the party at my grandma’s.  She lived with her son (my uncle) in an old Victorian style house which I always remember as being cold for these parties.  The one or two rooms we used for the parties would be warmed up – the rest of the house was cold.  We knew this because such a house is fun to play around in and explore so we were frequently out of the party rooms. 

One such excursion found us in my uncle’s bedroom.  He was an antique dealer aside from his day job and the home was his shop.  As such, the whole place was like a museum and was a very cool place to wander around in.  As the years went on and I got older, I discovered that he was a closet cigarette smoker.  Grandma never went upstairs and the cigarettes never made it downstairs so he could indulge his habit at will as long as he was upstairs.  I’m not sure why a man in his 50’s would feel like he had to hide his smoking habit from everyone but there it was.  That was back in the day when most men smoked anyway so the mystery is even greater.   In any event, we snuck upstairs one night while the adults were finishing dessert and into his bedroom. 

I believe it was me and one or two boy cousins.  One of them was the son of my uncle who owned a convenience store outside the city limits and who could sell fireworks during the holidays.  One small thing he sold was an almost unnoticed item called “cigarette loads”.  It was a small tin about the size of a Carmex lip balm tin and containing a number of small spike-like things that you could shove into the end of an unlit cigarette.  When the smoker lit up, the end of his cigarette would explode in a shower of tobacco.  My cousin happened to have some of these with him. 

We snuck into the bedroom and looked around.  I saw the cigarettes on the dresser and a wave of devilry washed over me.  I was not usually like that but this seemed like such a golden opportunity.  I hurriedly begged my cousin for his cigarette loads.  He and the other cousin looked delighted as they figured out my plan.  I quickly loaded one and even found a paperclip to push it further down the cigarette – perhaps halfway.  Then we left with a storm of giggling.  I promptly forgot about it – that’s not the sort of thing you ever expect to work or be present for.  We went downstairs for the opening of presents.

As I say, I forgot about it.  Imagine my shock when a few days later my mom pulled me aside and asked me if I knew anything about somebody sneaking up to my uncle’s bedroom and doing anything.  Like any boy (and probably any little kid at all), I lied and said “no” but asked for more information.  She said that he had called her (and presumably the other family members) and reported that after the party one of his cigarettes had exploded.  The thought of him up there by himself sneaking a smoke and having the thing explode in his face and very likely scaring the wits out of him seemed the funniest thing in the world to me.  Actually, it still does; he was not a likable man in general.   

I was the picture of innocence as I feigned surprise.  I claimed to know nothing about it and the matter was dropped.  But I’ve been laughing ever since.  He passed away a number of years ago so I guess I’m in the clear by now.  I worked for him a couple of years after that as a clerk in a store that he managed and he was an evil person to work for – I never felt a smidgen of guilt for loading his cigarette.