Peter Hughes

 



Uncommon Bravery

 

            G’mpa Joe was a brave man who loved me.  He was not really my granddaddy, he was my great granddaddy.  I had so many granddaddies, grandmothers and great grand somethings I ran out of names.  Only he gave me a name I could pronounce, ‘G’mpa Joe’.  He and I were buddies, I was easy going, he was slow going.  I also think we were buddies because I was the only person on the planet Earth that would listen to his story.

            My Grandma Tucker looked after him, she said he was fixed and confused.  I liked him,  hell, I loved him.  He was gentle and kind to me.  But I do think he was senile.

            The same story over and over again.  The D-day invasion of Normandy.  Holding my hand gently we would walk the property at an old man's crawling snail pace.  The walk usually took most of the morning.  Up on Granddaddy’s mountain, we could see down in the valley, fields and the other mountains of the White Mountain Range in Northern New Hampshire.  New Hampshire is perfect setting for a kid and his Great Granddaddy to play.

            After our walk, we'd lunch on cheese, bread and milk.  He would, with shaking hands, slice the cheese,  then break the bread.  Carefully selecting the pieces, he positioned them on my plate.  Grandma Tucker poured the milk, neither he or I were trusted to do such.  He was too old and shaky.  I was too young to negotiate the task.  Then we'd both nap, followed by another walk.

            Same story, he recanted again the dreary weather, the flares in the sky, the bombs the explosions so loud, the percussions vibrated your body.  He cringed whenever he talked about the big bombs going off much as if he were there.

            How he was a young and brash ARMY Sergeant on the amphibious landing crafts. How the gunner on his landing boat had been shot.  How he commandeered the cannon on the listing sea.  The waves rolling and tossing the vessel so that aim was impossible.  The Gerrys were shooting at them from the bunker and G’mpa Joe was gonna shoot back.

            "Son, I fired that thing at that bunker four times...  Count 'em, four times. One, two, three and then four. That ARMY Duck was rolling so much and the waves making us list, that it was impossible to use the manual to aim.”

            "I looked at my compass,  calculated it in my head, using my squirrel windage...  Aimed and fired.”

            He chuckled slightly, "Gerry never knew what hit him."

            He cleared his throat, "The concrete flew, fire all over the  place, rounds exploding, flares shooting out of that thing.  I hated to kill those men...  But son, they were the enemy, and I had to give our boys a chance to get in there."

            The same story every time.

He had been a master gunsmith for over fifty years.  A gunnery smithy he was.  His workmanship was nearly legendary; my Dad had his share of those guns in the bank vault.  G’mpa Joe was sought after by the finest of target shooters to rework their barrels or triggers or whatever.  Any gun, rifle or pistol with the words ‘J. Whittier’ inscribed in metal or wood to this day, commands the highest dollar.

            He had raised a family of five children, and survived two wives.  He wore a hearing aid, glasses and a hat, always.  He used a stick to walk with; my hand was in his opposite hand.

            When I  arrived at the beginning of my visit, I would stand on the threshold, hands cupped around my mouth and yell, “G’mpa Joe!  Where are you?”  His face would light up, turning red from his usual beige.  He would immediately stand and reach for his stick when he heard me, then hide in the closet. His wait was patient.  I always knew where he hid, but would take my time, taunting him, as if I didn’t.

            Even though the first walks of my visit would leave his legs sore, he would persist and complain little.  My visits were only for holidays and the summer vacation.  Only during the long summer did his legs get used to our daily jaunts.

            He was so tall, I, so short and little.  My paw was only a tiny vestige of a hand inside his palm as we walked.  One day we sat on the rocks at the North end of the mountain.  I rubbed his wrinkled hand with mine, his fingers were long and still strong,  “G’mpa Joe, will I ever get a hand this big?” 

            “Lord! Son, look at the size of your feet.  You’ll be bigger than me.  You’re already bigger than most boys your age.  Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”  He laughed a little under his breath.

            Those warm days and cool summer nights up on the mountain with him developed into a ritual.  He had a restored old civil war cannon in the backyard, over by the orchard.              In pristine condition, he kept the barrel and metal painted with black marine paint.  The wood was polished with wax every year.  ‘J. Whittier’ was inscribed in the wood.  It was a prize to him.

            Every day, we would remove the ramrod from the shack, wet it with oil and clean the bore and touch hole of the gun.  In the morning, the story of Normandy and every afternoon after our nap, we cleaned the bore and touch hole.  He told me stories of the civil war, the black powder, battles and the horrors the New Hampshire brigade had fought, won or lost.

            I frequently sat horse-style over the cool iron cast barrel, listening to him tell the tales of men in the infamous war.  Generals promoted in the field of attack, heroic gestures by brave men serving their Union.

            Memorial Day weekend,  Sunday night, Grandma Tucker told me about a festival display that night.  “Peter, if you take a nap after supper, I’ll get you up before ten o'clock so you can see the display.”  I wasn't sure what all that meant, but I trusted her, she was never wrong.

            I laid to rest, wondering about a display.  I couldn’t sleep at first, but quickly succumbed to the pillow.  She awakened me, asking me to wash my face and come out to the south deck. We sat out on the deck, in folding lawn chairs overlooking the valley and the lake, slapping mosquitoes and waiting for the display, whatever that was.

            She turned off all the lights in the house so we could see better.

            Suddenly a bomb exploded over the lake, and screaming through the air.  I jumped up, scared for my life!  Another and another!  I held my ears.  Then a boom so great the shock vibrated my body!  Just like what G’mpa Joe had told me!  I was fearful but glad that it was happening down there and not up here on our mountain.

            Grandma had her hand over her lips, I could tell she was containing her emotion for the poor souls at war just beneath us.  She was remaining calm just so I wouldn’t see her cry.  I hugged her trying to console her.

            The bombs kept coming.  I couldn't help but utter a prayer for those proud Americans who no doubt, were taken by surprise,  while protecting us.

            Then I felt a tap on my shoulder.  "G’mpa Joe!”  I cried!  He was wearing his old green helmet and his thick, faded pink robe.

            Grandma Tucker said, "Hi Dad!  You can watch if you want.  Have a seat."  The seemingly lack of concern in her voice worried me.  I suspected she was concealing her sadness and worry from him also.

            He muttered roughly, "I've seen enough."  He took my hand firmly and we walked down the wooden steps to the backyard.  He steered us toward the orchard, "Son, you may as well learn now...  You can see things going on around you or you can do something about it.  I've seen enough.  Time to do something."

            He walked with me over to the old civil war cannon.  "Help me move it into position..."  I helped him as much as I could.  We rolled it over beside the cherry tree, on the slope toward the valley, pointing the heavy blue-black barrel toward the lake.

            "I think I can see where that bunker is.  Can you see it, Son?"

            “G’mpa Joe?” I questioned,  “Do you mean where those rockets are coming from?"

            "Yep that's it...  Point to it.   I can’t see it, too far...”  I pointed my stubby finger toward the cannons by the lake.  “Got it.”  He said,  still squinting at the lake below us.  The battle was intensifying,  the sky was lit up with the rocket fire. “Here, you pour this powder in,  follow it with the rag and pack it, just like I’ve shown you...  I’ve got figuring to do."

            He lifted his helmet,  removing a brass compass from the top of his head.  The brass was not very shiny, it must have been old.  The points on the compass and the needle glowed in the darkness.  “Now look, that way is North,  they are North by North by West.   Boom!  Another enemy rocket vibrated my body...  G’mpa's too.

            I packed that rag and powder in there.  "Pack it as hard as you can muster...  That's it, son.  Now help me pick up this ball and roll it into the barrel." 

            It didn't roll.  "Now you pack it in there tight."

            "Stand up and salute for your country."  We reverently saluted the poor people below that were getting bombarded.

            He sucked on his index finger, wetted it, holding it high in the night air.   He turned the black iron crank with one hand and held the compass in the other, "There's not much wind tonight..."  He knelt, his robe draped on the cool ground around him.  He aimed his eye along the barrel of the cannon.  “Point your finger at the invading troops at North by North by West, again.  Check one more time and stand still...”  I stood as straight and true as anyone would at such an important time.

            He found the angle to fire, "That's about it!  Now get out of the way!  Boy!"  He withdrew a wooden kitchen match from the pocket of his robe,  "Do you want to fire it?  Any boy that is about to defend his country is no longer a boy, but an honorable man.  Worthy of lighting the charge."

            He handed it to me.  I wasn't sure what to do with it, my Mother never let me handle or play with matches, let alone defend my country with one.

            "Here, I'll help you son," bending over and taking my hand, he drew the fat part of the match along the coarse metal of his helmet.  The phosphor sparked and ignited.  I eyed the flame, that was pretty neat!

            "Now, let's stand to the side, because of the recoil, and just touch it to the hole there."  He extended my tiny hand holding the lit match and touched the flame inside the hole we carefully cleaned every day.  I heard a raspy fizz... the hole flashed... a putter then:

            The whole thing belched,   Kaa-boom!

            A flume of smoke, fire, light and sound!

            The cannon leaped backward toward us!  I jumped nearly out of my pajamas! G’mpa jumped, the robe caught the blast of wind and his spindly legs had to reach so that he didn’t fall.

            Black, stinky smoke was everywhere, we couldn't even see the lake.

            I heard Grandma Tucker yell, "What the hell?  Dad?  Dad!"

            G’mpa Joe patted me on the back,  "Come on!  Let's go see if we did it!"  He led me, nearly running around to yards beyond the front of the cannon,  clear of the heavy smoke.  We could see.  "Look son!"  He pointed to where the rockets had been firing.

            Where the enemy had been hurtling rockets into the night, was fire, flares and explosions. The bad soldiers were running.  Just like G’mpa Joe said.  No more rockets were hurled.  Lights came on down there and we could see the ant sized Americans moving with their vehicles toward the now beaten bunker.

            "We got em!"  He high fived my palm.  We danced around, his robe swished around us. "Look!  Those are our tanks!  Now our boys are coming in."

            She was yelling at us, "Dad!  What have you done?"

            He held his finger pointed to the heavens, "We men... have given our boys a chance down there in the hell hole of war!"

            She was red-faced mad and yelled, her mouth almost touching his chin, "You get in the house." She led him briskly, by his sleeve into the house.  I followed.

            I could hear her yelling at him, "You get in that bed, and you had better stay there until morning!"

            "You can't talk to me that way! I'm still your father!"

            She stomped angrily into the kitchen, I was still holding the ‘smoking gun’, so to speak, the wooden kitchen match with the blackened tip.

            She turned to me, "And you!" she pursed her lips, “You...” shaking as if trying to not say something...  "Just wait until I tell my son!  Your father!"  She put me in bed, almost choking me with the blanket around my chin, “You stay in your bed too!  Young man!”

            She was pretty mad.  I had no thoughts whatsoever that would have prompted me not to stay in bed.

            I was rudely awakened with the flashlight shining in my eyes.  I heard Grandma say, “See, he is just a very small child!”

            “Mrs. Tucker,  Ma’am.  We’re just doing our job.  Investigating all the possibilities.”  The light disappeared from my eyes, but I couldn’t see, there was still a bright spot in the center of my sight.

            “Officer,” she said,  “There are no possibilities.”

            “Ma’am, we are trying to get the facts, just the facts.”

            “The facts are… they did it!  Those two!  But he is too young to know what they were doing and Daddy is too old to make it worth an arrest.  What would you do with them?  I’m the closest one with an age that might be convictable.  And that doesn’t mean I’m any spring chicken.  And who would take care of Daddy, your taxes?”

            “Well, Ma’am.  We are going to take the cannon with us.  We’ll come back in the morning.  Someone has to pay.  You are lucky no one was hurt, or I’d have all of you in custody.”

            “Yes Sir.  We’ll pay the damages somehow.”

            I crept to the window and watched as the officers tied the cannon to the rear of the cruiser, taking it with them.   Maybe they needed it for the battle.  I’d learned in preschool that officers are our friends.  We should be friends back and lend them our cannon, if they are short of one, during a war.

 

            I was still asleep when Grandma Tucker came in to awaken me, usually I awaken her. “The Police are here, they want to talk with you.  Wash your face, comb your hair and brush your teeth, then come into the living room.”

            G’mpa Joe was already seated on the sofa, wearing the green helmet and pink robe.  He had the same look on his face as when he would tease me.  He knew something I didn’t and it would amuse him... that look.

            “Mister Whittier,” the officer began,  “The war is over.  You no longer need to do that anymore.  It’s over and long over.  Now..”  He pointed at G’mpa Joe,  “This isn’t Normandy;   it is Lake Winnipesaukee.” 

            He continued, “We have nice people living up here. They are not the enemy.  There is no need to fire a cannon up here, anymore. It is also illegal. Got that?”

            “Why sure,” G’mpa Joe replied.  I nodded too, as if I understood what was going on.

            “Now, before I leave...  I want you to acknowledge that the war is over.  We’ve got people like me to keep the law and order here.”

            G’mpa nodded, “The war is over, Sergeant. And you are a handsome, strong, young fellow.” I nodded too.

            “We’ll return the cannon filled with concrete, so that it doesn’t get into unsafe hands, “ the officer glanced at me, “Catch my drift?”

            G’mpa said, “Yes, I’ve always been one for gun safety.”

            The officer sighed and stood to leave, picking up his hat, he turned once more to G’mpa, “Old timer.  The war is over, really it is.”

            G’mpa looked toward me, nodding and winked, “We know.”  He smiled as the officer left.

            I was satisfied in my heart that because of me, and my G’mpa Joe’s uncommon bravery, we had done our part in hastening the end of last night’s war.




Copyright  © 2013 Peter Hughes


 
Peter E. Hughes is a Clinical Laboratory Biochemist, Ph.D., North Carolina State University.  

He is a NASA Scholar and Senior Scientist.  He researches and writes for the Mad Scientists as a representative of the United States and is an editor of Biochemistry and Medicine for the Encyclopedia of Earth. Major interests are photography, writing about life experiences, electronics and Radio Astronomy of Close Space Events.

He writes short stories, poetry and humor.