The day my slingshot backfired

Years ago, the Lewiston (Maine) Daily Sun had a front- page story that teased my curiosity. It said the police had arrested a man on Main Street and he was being held to face two charges: carrying a concealed weapon and brandishing a gun. I wrote at once to the editor to ask for details as to how this implausibly simultaneous crime was effected, but have not yet had his courteous reply.

So I can't tell you how, and instead I'll relate how I obtained a permit to carry a concealed weapon and what happened after that.

I'll begin by reminding readers that Maine, as a mostly wilderness state, has many laws about firearms, but that certain provisions derive from hunting and sport shooting, and are not related to high-society crime. That is, you may dispose of a spouse or hold up a bank, and you take your chances. But if you shoot a moose out of season, you're in trouble.

Maine's statute about concealed weapons goes back to 1820, when our basic code was drawn up with goose quills and blueberry-juice ink, and it isn't just for guns. It includes slingshots. Actually, it says "slungshot," meaning the Biblical kind.

In the little attic chamber that I presided over while growing up, the wallpaper had red rosebuds. If I read or studied after dark, I lit my kerosene lamp with a wooden match. I had a commode with all related equipment, as did every proper bedroom, guest room, and spare chamber of the time. I didn't use all my conveniences because better ways had been found, but the handsome Liverpool Pitcher standing in my washbowl was my repository for horse chestnuts.

It held a good half peck of horse chestnuts, which were the ammunition for my David slingshot when I ventured to hunt Goliath. I gathered them in the fall when the frost opened the burrs and they fell to the ground and my pitcher held enough for a year's Goliath-ing. I speak not of the tiddly, pip-squeak slingshot made with a forked stick and rubber bands; I'm talking about a real biblical David slingshot that was whirled over the head and let fly a stone or the equal that could discourage sheep thieves or more formidable enemies. A smooth buckeye chestnut is just great.

The biblical sling was weapon enough so that it's included in Maine law to require a permit if you wish to conceal it. As a youthful expert with the sling, I knew that, and in due time I went to the town office to say I would like a permit to carry a concealed weapon. My thought was that, as a law-abiding citizen, I might have occasion to roll up my sling and slip it in my pocket if I went to Sunday School or into an ice cream store, or some such situation where lethal weapons would be considered gauche.

Miss Eloise Pritham, the deputy town clerk, looked down at me and said, "The selectmen usually consider these applications at Tuesday meetings. Are you old enough to have a gun?"

"I don't want it for a gun."

"You don't? What else would you want it for?"

"My slingshot."

"You don't need a permit for that!"

"State law says I do."

"I don't believe it."

The selectmen didn't believe it either until they looked it up, and then they said it was an archaic law and should be repealed and it would make them look foolish if they issued a permit, and why didn't I go away? I stood my ground with them, and they found the permit was due me and they had no choice. I was eligible and qualified. They issued me a permit to carry a concealed "slungshot" which I renewed annually for five years.

About 100 yards from our back doorstep stood a church with steeple, and in the steeple was a fine bell. One day as I was skulking about seeking a Goliath, a wonderment passed my thoughts, and I cast a horse chestnut with my sling to see if I could ring the bell. It was a good distance, but a David sling can put a chestnut out of sight. I waited, peering, and it was quite a wait. Then the bell went bong!

After that, I pretended now and then that I was David and the church bell was Goliath and I would slay him again. And the particular afternoon came when I put a horse chestnut on the leather of my sling and slang it. The afternoon came, indeed.

Instead of taking unerring flight toward the church steeple, my chestnut backfired, and it flew unerringly behind me and cleaned out the glass in our dining-room window. The impact was magnificent, and not a speck of the broken glass was larger than a freckle. Every freckle settled on my mother's dining-room rug. My mother was not in the dining room just then but, attracted by the tinkle of falling particles of glass, she arrived almost at once and made a noticeable outcry. This brought on my father, who made inquiry as to what had happened anyway, and this gave me an opportunity to explain, which I did. I told him I'd meant to ring the church bell.

My father said, "So that's it! I guess you better cease and desist. Joe Knight, the church janitor, has a hideaway nook in the steeple. He goes up there and reads blood-and-thunder pulp stories, and he says every now and then the bell rings. The deacons all think poor old Joe has gone dotty, and I guess Joe thinks so, too. And you owe me $2.75 for a pane of glass."

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