Grampie grabbed the musket in midair

A DEAR friend from undergraduate days corresponds sparingly, but his occasional letter is rich in reminders of matters lost in the corridors of time. His latest, telling me he regrets being unable to lunch (the idea was new to me), concludes thus: I must mow my lawn (passive periphrastic) I'm going to (active periphrastic) Accordingly, you will not be astonished that his closing is Vale. With no reference whatever to which, why do the professional golfers on television hit the ball and then stand back to watch where it goes? It seems to me they have done what they were about to do, and having done it are the victims of their own effort - however much they gaze they are not about to change the flight. I say as much to myself each week when I drop these contributions in the post; the deed is done. Nothing ``shall lure it back to cancel half a line.''

So the ball no questions asks of Ayes and Noes, and a golfer good enough to be on TV should know that he can turn on his heel and spare his eyesight without altering his situation. I learned this lesson in my youth from Grampie's Civil War musket.

My dad used to make periodic visits to the old farm to see how his father was making out; Grampie lived alone. The summer that I was about to be 6 in the fall he took me along, and Grampie and I hit things off just fine. That first evening, after we'd polished off a chicken stew and with-its, Grampie took his Civil War musket down from the pegs over the mantel and told me all about it. He had gone off to war at 18, and with almost no training and few instructions his regiment had been hustled into action at Fredericksburg. Grampie read to me from a history book about his Sixteenth Maine Regiment, a book that is now mine, and a passage he dwelt on goes thus:

The Sixteenth Maine is a new regiment and here fought its first battle. I felt some apprehensions lest the terrible fire from the enemy's concealed rifle pits would be too severe a trial for the men. But the gallant manner in which the regiment charged the enemy's position excited my surprise and admiration....

By that time Grampie had cut his initials into the wooden stock of his gun, to aid in picking his own from stacked arms, so he retained it all through the war and brought it home. It came to me in due time, and now my grandson has it. On the first day at Gettysburgh (spelled that way then) Grampie ``fired and fell back'' 18 times, and survived that most terrible tragedy of mankind's belligerent history. At dusk his Sixteenth Maine was recalled, and the historian adds, ``... if 27 officers and men can be called a regiment.''

Back on the farm the musket became the varmint gun. As I fondled it that evening, lifting it to my shoulder with great difficulty - it was long and heavy and I was short and spare - Grampie said, ``Someday I'll let you shoot it.'' He could no longer get the army-issue ``cattridges,'' but he had a powder horn and balls and shot, and plenty of percussion caps. For thieving woodchucks and corn-stealing crows he would feed in a handful of birdshot, and the long barrel made the charge effective at quite a distance. So the next day I teased to shoot the gun, and my father said, ``No way!'' Dad well knew about that gun, and I was only 6, and he knew Newton's third law - that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. ``No way!'' he said.

But I teased, and Grampie said, ``Aw, let him shoot it - it won't kill him!''

Grampie did the loading, ramming home the powder and shot with the rod, and then he stood up a short ladder so I could rest the long barrel on a rung. He held the ladder upright just to one side and instructed me, and my dad went away back and stood alone. The target was a wooden barrelhead they'd nailed to a shed behind the barn. Grampie told me to hold off until I had the barrelhead in line and then to crook a finger to the trigger. ``She's gonna make some old noise when you touch her off!'' he warned.

Then, ``Are you ready?''

``Ayeh.''

``Then touch her off!''

The blast hurled me backward to the ground, and Grampie reached out to grab the musket in midair before it clobbered me. I bounced to my feet to ask, ``Did I hit it?''

I did. The barrelhead and the whole side of the shed were peppered, and Grampie was already on his way to the house to clean the gun. No need to look. He knew what was done was done.

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