From the July/August 2008 issue of Sporting Classics.
Days of lengthening light. Wood ducks are whistling up dates and the soft maples blushing from the conversation. Widgeons are strolling the tide swash and gaudy northbound greenwings are dabbling duckweed in the ponds behind the dunes. Just outside the surf line, little knots of scaup bob black and white on rolling ocean swells, and if I look real hard, I might imagine canvasbacks among them. But the guns are all triple-oiled and laid away till next season. Too late to shoot but never too late for remembering.
The saltwater scaup are mostly gone, but back when I was a boy, they would raft offshore, a thousand, ten thousand at a time. It would take a booming gale to get them moving into the ponds where we could hunt them, but whenever it blew that hard, we’d be laid ashore, too. We tried to sneak on them in open water, but they would take wing, circling 500 yards out of range like vast clouds of smoke before settling in, a mile or more away. I don’t know what happened to all those birds, but you can’t blame their demise on us, though—Lord knows—we tried.
It was pretty well picked over, but we found one of the guns, a twenty-millimeter automatic cannon.
Me and Hampy and Tommy, young and full of fool ideas. All those birds liked to drove us crazy. Maybe they did. We figured to be the Last of the Outlaw Gunners, with a punt gun like they used to shoot scaup in the old days. Didn’t matter if scaup tasted like anchovies; didn’t matter if a punt gun was illegal. We’d lash it to the skiff, pile on brush till we looked like a floating marsh island, and drift down on them. One shot would be all we’d get, but one shot would be all we’d need. And such a gun fell right out of the sky.
The beginnings did, anyway. There was a plane wreck in an island duck pond, crashed before we were born. It was pretty well picked over, but we found one of the guns, a twenty-millimeter automatic cannon.
Tommy had one bad eye, but he could still tell three-eights from a half-inch at a hundred yards. He didn’t know a damn thing about women, never did learn, and I saw the day he had to climb up a three-story rose trellis after his fourth wife locked him out of the house he bought for her. But he was crackerjack when it came to things mechanical. Tommy had this idea of some sort of single shot, loading number fours in junk shell casings, easy enough to find in those days. He got to working on the shells before he got to working on the breech, cutting wads out of felt gaskets with another shell and a thirty-six-ounce ball peen hammer he called The Big Bopper.
The primers were big as hearing aid batteries. Tommy knocked them out with a long punch and The Big Bopper, but he never found anything to go back in the holes. He was figuring up some kind of bushings so he could use shotgun primers, but it all finally got too much for him and he threw the barrel and the shells into the devil vine behind the garage and went to working on the Packard.
That Packard was a moonshiner’s dream—’56 Clipper, black and white and big, with a trunk like a phone booth laid sideways. Loaded with Mason jars, the Level Ride would jack the rear end up and if the revenuers didn’t hear all the clinking, they’d think you were running empty. But we were too young to run shine just yet.
We were out looking for woodies and the gator was sunning himself right in the middle of the road. The gator got to the water about the same time Hampy got to it, but Hampy was still able to get a hold of the tail. When it bowed up and made a snatch at him, Hampy flung it over his shoulder.
It was like catching a chainsaw with a stuck throttle. We made a gator sandwich, Hampy on top, me on the bottom. “Gimme a rope! Gimmie a rag! Gimmie anything!” Hampy hollered as we went round and round in the dirt.
Tommy went running for the Packard and came back with a roll of electrical tape and we made a couple of tight wraps around the gator’s snout. We’d nearabouts got our wind back when Tommy asked, “Now what?”
Seems like that was a common question in those days, right after we’d got halfway through some real bad idea. Hampy mopped his face, grinned like it was Halloween. “Let’s turn him a-loose in Blocker’s Store,” he said. Into the trunk the gator went.
Blocker’s was way down on Seaside Road, a dog-on-the-porch place where everybody shopped before Piggly Wiggly came to town and beat the price. Tommy squinted at Hampy with his one good eye and half a smile drifted across his mouth. About three miles on along, there came a thumping and a scratching. A wisp of smoke rolled from beneath the floorboards and the Packard settled on its haunches with a long wheeze like a tire makes when you run over an oak stob. Tommy hollered. “He done et through the wires!”
We pulled onto the side of the road, back wheels rubbing the insides of the fenders, a-wha, wha, wha, you can imagine the racket. Tommy ran back, popped the trunk and the gator came out of there like a spring, hissing and snapping lest one of us tried to lay a hand on him again. Nobody did. He scooted across the road, took to the ditch and pretty soon, all you could see was bushes moving.
Then we chanced a look in the trunk. A bundle of wires big as a carrot was chawed through and dead-shorted to the frame, like so much burnt spaghetti. We limped back to down, hungry, tired and dirty. No ducks, no gator, no tires. And that’s how Tommy came to give up on the punt gun and turn to working on the Packard instead.
But meanwhile, me and Hampy got impatient.
“The boy ain’t right,” Hampy said when he saw the cannon barrel in the thicket behind the garage. We were down to riding our bicycles, Hampy a single-speed Huffy, me a three-speed Sears and Roebuck that Hampy called a Swear and Rear-back because if you didn’t tickle the gears just right, it’d throw the chain. We lashed the barrel to the crossbar of my Swear and Rear-back and went wobbling down the road, the barrel klinkety-clanking against the frame.
Hampy’s uncle was a well-driller with a shop on the edge of town, next door to Huck and Buck’s Community Center, a colored dance hall where the Saturday night straight razors cut three ways, high and wide and frequent. The yard was a litter of rusty pipe and cable, bald tires, busted cylinder blocks, trucks that would never run again, saplings and bushes grown up through fenders and frames, all decorated with a generous sprinkling of beer cans, paper plates and plastic cups blown across from the Huck and Buck.
You couldn’t see the tops of the workbenches for the clutter of tools. There was a pipe cutter, drill press, electric welder, and a venerable case of dynamite drip, drip, dripping nitroglycerine into a bucket on the shelf below. “Find me a hacksaw,” I said.
Four hours later, we had us a swivel-gun muzzleloader that would throw a pound of shot. Tommy took it better than we expected. He scratched his chin, scratched his fanny, walked in little circles. Then he picked up the gun and held it to the light. “Like a red-bone mule,” he said. “Dangerous at both ends. We got to proof it.”
Hampy cast his eyes at the soggy dynamite, but Tommy cut him short. “Don’t even think about it. We need us some black powder. That gator eat the sacred scroll?” Tommy was asking about the roll of toilet paper we kept stashed in a bread bag in the corner of the trunk.
There was something mighty satisfying in that black powder sound, a low, throaty earthquake ku-whump and a cloud of smoke bigger than a cow.
“You got to crap?”
“Naw, but we’ll need some wadding.”
“FG?” Hampy asked. That was a couple of days later, after Tommy somehow came up with a pound of powder and twenty-five of shot.
“Eff-Gee,” Tommy said. “That what we’ll be if this weld don’t hold.”
We were out at an old sand quarry where they dug for fill to fix the county roads. There was leftover dirt here and there, so we pulled behind a sizable pile, drug the punt gun around to the other side. Tommy broke out a cherry bomb and one of those old brass twelve-gauge shotgun shells, the kind the government bought for the Winchester trench guns during the First War. He bit on the fuse, pulled it out of the cherry bomb, threaded it through the touch hole and commenced to ladle powder with that twelve-gauge shell, once, twice . . .
“Great God A-mighty,” Hampy said.
Tommy kept dipping, three times, four. Then came toilet paper and the sixes that streamed down the bore with a dry rattling hiss. “Little more . . . little more . . . there!” When he topped it off with another generous swipe of toilet paper, she was plumb full.
There was something mighty satisfying in that black powder sound, a low, throaty earthquake ku-whump and a cloud of smoke bigger than a cow. We scrambled around the backside of that dirt pile and the punt gun was gone.
“You done blown it all to hell,” Hampy said.
We were kicking dirt and looking for pieces in the tops of the trees when my foot hung on the muzzle. Wishbone mount and all, the whole blessed thing had drove itself clean into the ground. Hampy scratched at the dirt, got a handhold just like he did with that gator tail. But he couldn’t budge it. “You got a shovel?”
Next time, there was only one scoop of powder, two of shot, and the wads Tommy cut with the Big Bopper. We swung back by the shop and snagged a five-foot stick of inch and a quarter iron pipe, then drove over to the funeral home for one of those big cardboard casket boxes. Tommy tapped the pipe halfway into the ground with the Big Bopper, I set the gun to swiveling in it, and we propped up the casket box about forty paces out.
And then they elected me, or maybe it was nominated, I’m not sure of the politics. Tommy bit the fuse out of another cherry bomb, a fifty-foot head start, I reckoned. But a cherry bomb’s got a nap to the fuse, a pink peach-fuzz that will flare up and scare you sometimes. This fuzz went right to Tommy’s toothmark, hit powder quicker than it takes to tell you about it.
I was choking smoke and spitting soot and Tommy was counting up holes in the casket box when Hampy found the punt gun. The pipe was bent off level with the ground and the barrel was buried in pinestraw, a hundred feet back in the bushes.
“A six-foot pattern,” Tommy hollered, “a pellet every single inch!” That’s what I think he said, anyway, my ears ringing like they were.
“Ain’t room for me and this thing in the same boat,” I said.
“Well, it was your own damn idea.”
Hampy said it again, mouthing it, so he’d know I’d understand. But I pretended not to. We kept after those scaup, but we never fired that punt gun again. By and by, we swapped it off to somebody for something. But that was years ago, and I forget just what it was. +++
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