Suitable for thawing

LONG years ago, when he was a small boy, my Uncle Ralph asked to shoot his father's Civil War musket. He was told to forget it; that even when he became much bigger the recoil would set him over into the next town. But there was another reason at the time; the ramrod was missing. They knew where it was, but it wasn't available. It was down the water pipe. Without the ramrod the gun couldn't be loaded. The farmhouse, built in 1790, was the finest in the county, but it lacked some refinements. It would stand for a half century without running water, and every drop used inside by the family had to be fetched from the dooryard well in pails. And water was lugged out again because nobody thought to put a drain in the dry sink in the kitchen.

One day they did rig a drain, but it would still be a time before the outside well was piped inside and the luxury of a hand pump attached. A ditch was dug, a pipe run under the foundation into the ``sulla,'' and from an elbow the pipe continued straight up so the pump was on the sinkshelf and delivered into the sink.

Now anybody could get a pail of water with the same athletic exercise that would paddle a canoe 60 miles, but he didn't have to step outdoors. The pump was next thing to a happy miracle, but as winter hurried apace they found it had a fault. The cellar was warm enough, and unless the fire in the range faltered so was the kitchen, but right at the floor level the brisk outside would work in to freeze the water in the pipe.

There was one ready remedy. The Civil War musket was on its pegs on the wall, and its ramrod was a steel device just suited for thawing a pump. The business end would be shoved into the hot hardwood coals in the range. By pulling a pin, the handle and top of the pump could be removed, the piston included, and the hot end of the ramrod lowered in to melt a hole through the two or three inches of ice in the pipe.

But one morning somebody's fingers weren't alert, and after the ramrod thawed the ice, it kept right on going and clunked against the pipe elbow under the dirt cellar floor. It stayed there quite a time, and while another iron rod was brought from the shop to thaw the pump, the musket was bereft.

So my Uncle Ralph had no way to load the gun, but neither did his father. And now and then the musket was needed to eradicate woodchucks from the peas, crows from the corn, and foxes from the henpen, and his father - my grandfather - kept saying he'd have to dig and take the pipe apart. He kept putting it off, but one rainy day he uncovered the elbow, unscrewed the pipe, got the ramrod, and put things back together. The musket was again in service.

My Uncle Ralph got to shoot the gun. In stealth, while everybody else was gone to the village by horse and wagon, he stood on a chair, took down the musket, and loaded it. He brought powder from the supply on the summer kitchen shelf, and found a percussion cap. He wouldn't need ball or shot for his exploratory fun, so he wadded home a couple of pages from the National Tribune on his generous handful of powder, and he positioned his cap. He stepped into the dooryard to achieve his great desire. In spite of his boyhood heft, he was able to lift the muzzle of the gun toward the sky - the barrel is heavy and long - and he pulled the trigger.

The explosion knocked him flat, and he heard the peculiar sound a ramrod makes when by mistake it is left in a gun barrel and departs into the distance. Powder smoke filled the dooryard, so he had no idea where the ramrod was gone.

He cleaned the musket and put it back on the pegs. He volunteered no information. But the ramrod was found. That same fall, neighbor Sam Littlehale was hand-mowing his buckwheat, and his scythe found the ramrod sticking out of the ground, straight up in his grain. The scythe was now dull, and Sam was unhappy. He brought the ramrod to Grandfather, and Grandfather gave Uncle Ralph a spanking.

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