My and Carl’s misadventures with home brewing our gunpowder was not the only explosive we tinkered with. There is a lore that must be or was at that time, passed down from a member of one generation of boys on the cusp of puberty to the next. From whom Carl learned the sundry ways to potentially atomize ourselves, I don’t know. It did seem though, that with each new dawn that summer between the fifth and sixth grades, Carl was eager to coerce me into some new peril that, once begun, could only conclude with my mother fiercely switching me with a newly denuded branch from our backyard’s Grancy Greybeard bush.
Carl’s house was on the corner of the block where the city was preparing to lay new sewer pipe along the edge of the paved street. The city’s backhoes had already dug a trench, and the pipes were piled end to end along the street. Together, we were barely able to pick up one end of a pipe, laying it over the top of another, pointing it up at about a 30-degree angle, which was perfect for two imaginative but shortsighted boys to sit astride and pretend to be Barbary pirates manning the pirate ship’s most awesome cannon.
After a while, soon enough, the idea of a cannon that didn’t fire a cannonball with a loud percussion struck us as—lame.
Carl seemed to always have ready access to two kinds of ammunition: shotgun shells, and .22 caliber bullets. The use of the shotgun ammo as cannon powder was a bit much even for Carl’s outsized ego, so we devised a way to fire our own proudly elaborated .22 caliber cannon, the latest “sewer model,” just in time for the approach of a British frigate laden with chests of Her Majesty’s gold.
The cannon’s firing mechanism was fiendishly simple and effective; placing a bullet in wadded-up sheets of a newspaper, setting it on fire with a match, and shoving the burning paper inside the pipe. Taking our respective positions, hope combined with nervous anticipation, as we watched the frigate sail across our firing line.
It usually took a few nerve-wracking moments before the shell exploded, and each time the cannon fired, we would whoop with delight and relief. Such was our enthrallment with our invention, which consistently turned the tide of battle our way that it never occurred to us that the bullet in the flaming newspaper was directly under our hindquarters as we sat on the cannon.
We had great success that afternoon knocking down the masts of other ships, our deadly accurate aim even sinking a few. The last cannonball, however, was stubborn and refused to fire. So, we waited—and waited—and as a targeted Spanish galleon sailed beyond the range of our cannon, we talked about a solution to the problem.
Carl sat on the cannon, in front of me of course, as he was senior in command. We had waited long enough for the quenching of the burning newspaper; no more paper fire, no cannonball launch—so we figured using our public school-educated brains. Such was the imprecise, but bold logic of every male child snatched from this world in the prime of his youth as he bravely waved his arms and exclaimed to his friends, “Hey, ya’ll, watch this!”
Carl, with no prompting from me, and I don’t recall any prior notice from him of the action he was about to take, suddenly leaned forward and looked directly but upside-downly into the barrel of the cannon. As soon as his face was full flush against its opening, the cannon roared. It startled me, but not until Carl turned around did I realize the dangerous folly of our play—he had a two-inch graze on the left side of his face!
How would I ever explain to Carl’s mother that her son, our pirate captain, perhaps had been mortally wounded in action in the Caribbean? And much worse than that—how horrible a switching would I, the first mate get from his mother?
We at least had the common sense to wave the white flag after the warning shot across our bow and call a halt to our adventures on the high seas.
Carl told his mother that he had scratched himself while playing with a metal spoke from a bicycle tire rim. This was a feasible lie and one his mother, always an easy mark, believed.
I, on the other hand, said nothing of the day’s trouble to my mother, as I knew it was a lie, which was a sin, and because all my lies to my mother, the incorruptible judge, despite my pleas of mercy eventually ended with me nervously shifting my feet while staring forlornly at one much-hated Grancy Greybeard bush.
G. Wayne Ashbee is a lawyer in Mobile, Alabama who went into semi-retirement and took a vow of poverty to write a manuscript inspired by true events. That manuscript is with an agent who claims she is seeking a publisher.
© 2019, G. Wayne Ashbee