Perks Of Fatherhood

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Unexpected Life Lessons In
A Civil War Cannonball.

By Will Dabbs, MD
Photos By Sara Dabbs

America, while still the finest place on earth to live, seems awash in a sundry of tribulations these days. Our moral compass spins faster than the federal government’s debt clock, and verifiable examples of sound judgment in Washington seem skimpier than Paris Hilton’s wardrobe. In addition to these oft-lamented ills, there also seems to be a precipitous and unprecedented decline and dearth of Dads.

Mind you, we’ve got scads of fathers. You can’t swing a dead cat in a public venue without striking a male who has fathered a child. But what we are really growing short on is good old-fashioned, share-an-address-with-his-children Dads. The impetus behind this contemporary pestilence is a complex contagion, but I am blessed with such a Dad, and I am proudly one myself. There are some interesting perks a man can expect from the job.

Mine was a fairly rural upbringing, and we Dabbs men have always prided ourselves on being able woodsmen. My own Dad was out squirrel hunting many years ago when he happened upon what looked like a piece of fruit half buried in the mud. This particular strand of Delta forest was on the wet side of the Mississippi River levee and as such had flooded vigorously every spring since the very beginning of time. Being a typical inquisitive American male, my dad acquired a stick and poked it. The incongruous item turned out to be, much to his surprise, a dud Civil War-era cannonball. As he and I share an unfortunate amount of genetic material, he did exactly what I would have done––he innocently picked it up and carried it home.

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Will’s Civil War-era cannonball (above) originated from the guns of a Union gunboat
that once plied the waters of the Mississippi during the War Between the States. The
Bormann time fuse (below) was a simple powder train arranged underneath something like
a clock face. The gunner turned the fuse with a key and punched through the desired
time delay with an awl. The train was supposed to ignite upon firing, but Bormann
fuses suffered a 50 percent failure rate in combat.

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Obligatory Disclaimer

Before half the world writes in with colorful observations of what a rank idiot I am, this amusing little tome does indeed have a happy ending. However, never disturb or relocate unexploded ordnance. Your local Law Enforcement officials can put you in contact with the proper agencies for managing such things. The anecdote related herein occurred many years ago. My dad and I are both older and wiser now. The story is related solely for its entertainment value. Testosterone is the most potent poison known to man and many a voyage across the River Styx was indeed launched with the otherwise-innocent question, “I wonder what that does?” Now, back to our tale.

As my dad was walking to his Jeep with the heavy bomb hoisted upon his shoulder, he kept wondering what people would think if it spontaneously detonated. He doubted much would subsequently be discovered of his remains beyond his two smoldering boots. A typical local bait shop discussion might go something like this––“I heard Woody was out squirrel hunting the other day and just blowed slap up. I seem to recall the same thing happened to Billy Ray back in ’73.”

Anyway, he got the thing to the house, aggressively photographed it, and entombed the entire affair in the backyard. On my next free weekend, I made my way home. At the time, I was a mechanical engineer/former Army helicopter pilot grinding his way through medical school. Between the two of us, we had exactly zero useful professional expertise to lend to this unusual undertaking.

At cursory glance, the thing looked like a rusted version of the “Death Star” from the Star Wars movies. It was a typical example of hollow shot fired from the Union gunboats that plied the Mississippi River some nearly 150 years ago during the War Between the States. The iron ball incorporated a Bormann time fuse. This soft metal insert sports something akin to a clock face replete with embossed numbers. Prior to firing, the gunner would punch through the number corresponding to the desired time delay with an awl and load the bomb fuse-forward. Fiery blowby would supposedly ignite the black powder train enclosed therein and detonate the ball the appropriate distance from the gun. Bormann fuses suffered roughly a 50 percent failure rate in combat.

There had been a minor skirmish involving the nearby port town of Friars Point, Mississippi, where Union forces occupied the town and, for reasons lost to history, burned all the churches to the ground. Angry locals fired upon the moored gunboats from the banks of the river, and Union forces peppered the surrounding countryside with random cannonade. The sketchy performance of the Bormann fuse is the reason our example remained intact. Satisfied the fusing system was a simple waterlogged powder train and not some dangerous clockwork contrivance, we advanced to the next stage of our adventure.

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When this particular cannonball was fired in retaliation in 1862, weapons of war were
far simpler. The naval cannon involved was smoothbore and driven by blackpowder.

Technical Details

We procured a drill press, mounted it atop an old tabletop and headed out to the woods in my folks’ gosh-awful-huge motor home. Behind the RV we pulled a boat trailer loaded solely with a pickle bucket full of sand ridiculously over-secured with heavy nylon tie-down straps. As this is not a particularly atypical sight in the rural Deep South, we aroused little suspicion. Upon arrival at the base of the Mississippi River levee, we ran 300 feet of orange extension cord out into the forest and tied a comparable length of trotline to the drill press handle. We gently removed the sand from the bucket and replaced it with water to keep everything cool, fired up the RV generator and were in business. We had acquired a large rubber gasket upon which to place the rusty cannonball so as to retain it securely within our contraption. I oriented our proposed 1/4-inch breach 90 degrees out from the fuse.

Imagine if you will, the sight of two nominally grown men crouched in trepidation behind a large fallen log next to a motor home, big enough for its own zip code, parked at the base of the Mississippi River levee. Now picture we are also gently tugging a trotline snaking off blindly into the woods. This bizarre sight greeted the game warden as he pulled up alongside us in his big green cop truck.

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Civil War-era gunboats (above) were remarkably complex vessels for their time.
Steam-powered and heavily armed, these leviathans projected Union combat power
along the vital Mississippi River. The cannonball depicted in this article was
fired in 1862 from a gunboat similar to this one. Photo courtesy: US National
Archives. No, this isn’t Will and his dad extracting gunpowder from their
cannonball (below). Note the lack of safety equipment? These Union troops
had none as they extracted the gunpowder from captured Confederate torpedoes.
Photo courtesy: US National Archives

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Law Enforcement Involved

“What you boys up to?” the cop inquired amicably. My dad and I looked at each other, and after a moment’s reflection I said, “Drilling a hole in an old cannonball?” They say honesty is always the best policy.

Now this is one of the countless things I do truly love about the rural Deep South. Had we lived in New York, New Jersey, California, or some similarly storied locale, we’d undoubtedly be immediately clapped in irons, transferred to some special dungeon and labeled a father-and-son homegrown terrorist squadron. However, as we live in God’s country down here in Mississippi (don’t knock it––at least our air is still invisible), this upstanding officer of the law simply said, “Cool. Don’t blow yourselves up.”

We socialized for a bit before he wished us good fortune in our undertaking and drove off. It turns out he was simply concerned we might be trying to camp at the base of the levee, a practice indeed verboten per local statute. Convinced our sojourn was but temporary he departed placated.

The entire process took about 3 hours. We gently tugged on the trotline for a few minutes then unplugged the extension cord to allow everything to cool off while we visited together in safety behind the ample fallen log. We repeated the process as needed while surveilling the ball through a pair of binoculars. When finally we had the hole bored, we allowed another 1/2 hour for cooling and squirted a bit of chilled motor oil into the hole as a spot of insurance.

The cannonball now rests proudly on my mantle, minus the 1/2-pound of quite volatile Yankee black powder it once contained, the very centerpiece of my ever-expanding cool guy-stuff collection. Additionally, Dad and I had an absolute blast together (figuratively, of course) and but for the grace of God got neither killed nor arrested.

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Musings

Being a father can be as simple as writing a monthly check or as complicated as jointly deactivating Civil War-era artillery rounds. It is in the murky spaces between these two ends of the spectrum where profound happiness resides. My own three kids are grown nowadays, and were we to serendipitously trip over a Civil War-era cannonball today, we would indeed leave its recovery to the professionals. However, while we did our share of romping and stomping through the woods together, truth be told, they were not necessarily the greatest beneficiaries of our adventures. This notion has added a depth and richness to my life not to be found in the more civilized pursuits. In the broad field of human accomplishment, little brings quite so much satisfaction, if well executed, as the rewarding job of being a Dad. To my own Dad, thanks. I love you.

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