Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Saturday, January 16, 1999
“There is no doubt,” Jason smiled. “This is the place.”
“I guess,” Emily laughed. “That thing makes it pretty clear. It doesn’t look like a Civil War cannon, though.”
“It isn’t,” Jason shook his head, looking at the yard art and the sign hanging from it. “It’s a 105-millimeter howitzer, roughly World War II, although I think the Army may still have a few. And the name, Malvern Hill, if there were any doubt this guy is serious.”
“Emily, you know anything about the Civil War?”
“That was North versus South, right?”
“Right,” he smiled as he pulled the pickup into the side yard and put it into park. “Maybe you better ask this Woodward guy about it, but if he doesn’t tell you I will later.”
In a minute the two of them were out of the truck, and heading up to the back porch, which was the only part of the house that had been shoveled out. They hadn’t even made it to the door when it opened, and a tall, salt-and-pepper-haired man with an infectious smile stood inside. “Hi,” he said. “Are you Mrs. Holst? I think I remember you from the township board meeting the other night.”
“Please call me Emily,” she replied. “This is a friend, Jason MacRae,” she continued. “After all the snow we’ve had the past few days I wasn’t sure how bad the roads were going to be so he volunteered to bring me out with his truck. Besides, he was in the Army and might pick up on something I’d miss.”
“Jason MacRae?” Woodward frowned for a second as he held the door open for them. “Oh, yeah!” he said. “You’re the knife and sword guy, right?”
“More knives than swords,” Jason replied. “But I’ve done a few.”
“I’ve been meaning to look you up. I hear you do some great work.”
“I like to think I do better than average,” Jason smiled, instinctively liking the guy already, and not just because of the praise. There was a joviality to him that was infectious. “Thanks for having the road plowed out.”
“I have to do it, the county never does,” he shrugged. “Back on a dead end like this, it’s almost a private driveway. But I knew you were coming, so that made me get around to it a little quicker. Well, welcome to Malvern Hill.” He turned to a short, chunky gray-haired woman about his age, but with an equally infectious smile. “This is my wife Laura.”
“Pleased to meet you,” she smiled. Jason looked at both of them carefully. They were maybe his age, and they had the look of having money and being comfortable with it. “I suppose you’ve heard some of the stories going around about our little hobby.”
“It’d be hard not to,” Emily smiled. “Mr. Weber wanted me to thank you for letting me come out to do this story.”
“It’s probably better that people know what’s going on, rather than have rumors,” Woodward smiled. “Would you like some coffee? Or would you rather see some of the toys first, and then you’ll have a better idea of what we’re talking about.”
“Actually, that sounds like a good idea, especially since we’ve still got our coats on,” Emily said.
“Fair enough,” he laughed. “I’ll grab mine and we’ll head out to the barn.”
“I have to ask,” Jason said, his resolve to keep quiet and let Emily take point eroding out of simple curiosity, “Is the 105 out front the real thing?”
“It is and it isn’t,” Woodward grinned as he headed for a coat hanging from a hook near the kitchen door. “It was the real thing; I bought it off an American Legion post that was closing. Some idiot welded the breech shut, and I don’t think there’s any way to fix it. I wouldn’t want to try to fire it anyway; the tube is pretty pitted, but it makes a good signpost.”
“Jason was saying he thought Malvern Hill meant something,” Emily observed.
“It was a battle toward the end of the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, back in the War of Southern Arrogance,” Woodward explained, and he pulled his coat on while Laura began to pull on her boots. “The Feds got their butts kicked clear down the peninsula, but the last defensible point was a place called Malvern Hill. They lined up their artillery wheel to wheel and when the Rebs attacked just blew them apart with canister. The Rebs called it “Artillery Hell.” I thought it made a pretty good name.”
“Sounds appropriate, from what I hear,” Jason grinned.
“You know much about the Civil War?”
“I’m no great expert on it,” Jason shrugged. “I’ve read a few books over the years. I know something about sabers from that era, though.”
“Ever build any replicas?”
“A few,” he smiled. “I lean more toward the ceremonial style than I do the field style. I’ve got a couple lying around.”
“Great, I want to check them out some time. I have a couple field sabers from that era, but I wouldn’t mind having a nice presentation saber.”
“Well, if I don’t have what you want, I can probably make it,” Jason smiled.
A couple minutes later the four of them were walking across the farmyard, in just the remnants of snow that had been plowed out from earlier. Jason could remember back to when this place had been a working dairy farm; a friend had lived nearby. But that had been long ago; his practiced eye could tell that this hadn’t been a working farm in a long time – there was no evidence of animals or farm machinery or the odds and ends that got left around the typical farm. Untypically, though, the outbuildings seemed to be in good shape; on non-working farms they were often just let go. While there was still a lot of farmland in the area, there were only a handful of working full-time farmers who owned or leased hundreds of acres in order to be able to get along.
Woodward led them in a side door. After the bright light outside, there were only dim shapes visible in the darkness of the barn floor, until he threw a switch, and Jason’s eyes boggled, even more than Emily’s because he had some idea of what he was looking at. “Jesus,” he said. “An M4, right?”
“M4-A4 Sherman tank,” Woodward grinned. “As far as we can tell it was in the Third Army when it rolled across France. It’s not mine. I’m just storing it for a friend who’s restoring it. He bought it in Israel, and they modified it quite a bit; we know it was in the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars, but he wants to get it back to original condition.”
“Sonja’s mother,” Emily laughed.
“Huh?” Woodward frowned.
“We have this friend; her mother is an officer in the Israeli Army, some kind of colonel, I think,” Emily grinned. “She was in the Yom Kippur War, I think Sonja told us.”
“Probably not driving this tank; they didn’t have women in tank crews,” Woodward smiled. “I’m not a big World War II buff, but I have a couple pieces like that 105 out front.” He turned and pointed at a small artillery piece, mounted on rubber wheels, with armor shields on either side of the barrel. “This is mine; it’s a 37-mm antitank gun. It was a lousy antitank weapon, it just didn’t have the punch, but it was a handy infantry support weapon in the early part of the war. It’s in good shape, it could be fired, but the ammo would have to be custom made now, and then we’d have to have a special permit since it’s fixed ammunition using smokeless powder. I don’t want to try it until we get the museum pretty well established and people get used to us.”
“Museum?” Emily asked.
“That’s part of the long-range plan,” he replied. “But the plan is to have a working museum here where people can see displays of this sort of thing. In the interim, it’s going to be a place where we can do some re-enactments and shoot a little.”
“Civil War re-enacting seems to be gaining popularity,” Jason observed.
“Oh, yes,” Woodward smiled. “This is going to be the home of Battery A, First Michigan Light Artillery. Right at the moment, I only have the one Napoleon here, but there’s a friend who will have another one here in the spring, and if things work out we hope to have the full four-gun battery in a year or two. But I do things other than just Civil War re-enacting, or else I wouldn’t have Big John over there,” he said, pointing at a steel framework looking like a pair of A’s sitting back to back near the barn doors. It was high, seemingly only barely able to fit through the tall doors.
Jason frowned for a moment; it seemed familiar, but there was something missing. All of a sudden, it hit him. “The lower part of a trebuchet, right?”
“Right, the rest of it is sitting around here in various places,” Woodward smiled.
“Sir,” Emily frowned. “What’s a trebuchet? And how do you spell it?”
He spelled it out for her. “It’s a medieval siege artillery piece. Even before medieval, it goes back to Roman times, maybe. This one follows the function but isn’t intended to be an exact replica. It’s really intended to see how far you can throw a pumpkin. We had it out back before Christmas, tossing a few around; we want to enter it in some contests next year.”
“They have contests for throwing pumpkins around with these things?” Emily asked incredulously.
“Oh, yeah, it’s popular in places. The record is about 1500 feet, but we haven’t gotten that far with Big John yet. The accuracy stinks; you really don’t want to be anywhere near in front of it, and it’s a crapshoot where the pumpkin is going to hit. In the old days, they threw rocks and anything else within reach, usually trying to knock down castle walls. Another way you can toss a pumpkin is with an air cannon. We can get around three thousand feet out of the one in the back shed. The accuracy is a little better than the trebuchet. You can easily hit the back forty from here, but where in the back forty is anyone’s guess. At this point, we’re planning on having a few people in for a little pumpkin tossin’ meet here next fall; we’ll invite the public out of good neighborliness, and help people get used to us a little. We’ll probably have a demo from Battery A, just on general principles.”
“That sounds like fun!” Emily grinned.
“Sure sounds different,” Jason grinned. “You’re telling me you bought this place just to be able to have a place to shoot this stuff off?”
“Oh, yeah,” Woodward smiled. “I bought it after I retired. It’s a hobby farm, after all; I’ll get a few bucks from raising alfalfa to help with the taxes. I’ve got about a hundred and thirty acres here; it’s pretty much long and narrow since one side of it runs along the Interstate. That means we’ve got a clear mile. It gives some room to shoot; the Napoleon couldn’t shoot that far on the best day it ever had, and it’ll be a while before an air gun can get a pumpkin out that far. Not that I don’t intend to be the first.”
“Why do you use an air gun?” Emily asked.
“Can’t use powder or you’d turn a pumpkin to pumpkin soup before it got out the barrel. It has to be accelerated a little more slowly, and compressed air works about as well as anything.”
“How’d you get started in this?” Emily asked.
“I was in an artillery outfit in Vietnam, the early days,” he replied. “105s, like the one out front. I was in the 82nd, so we didn’t have the 155s. I just liked the shooting. I missed it after I went back to civilian life, but I didn’t do anything about it then. Later I got to messing around with some guys who played with spud guns, and things took off from there.”
“Just a toy. A piece of pipe, you put some propane from an unlit torch down it, drop a potato down the muzzle, and set it off with a spark plug and battery. They don’t cost much to make, and you can launch a spud a couple hundred yards with them. Then Laura bought me a yacht signal cannon for Christmas one time, and it sort of went on from there. I took early retirement so I could do some serious playing. Anyway, let’s show you the Napoleon.” He led them around the trebuchet, to the Civil War-style cannon sitting on the far side of the barn, beside a second pair of barn doors. “This is less than a year old,” he said. “But it’s about as exact a replica of an 1859 Civil War Napoleon as can be made. There’s a guy down in Ohio who makes these things, and he really does a good job.”
“You fire cannonballs and all, right?” Emily asked.
“Just cannonballs,” he replied. “Technically you could fire canister or grape in it, but the barrel is bronze and the steel ammo would tear it up too much. Sometimes we just fire blanks for the sake of the noise, but it’s more fun to shoot at something.”
“I heard you shoot at old junk cars.”
“Yeah, they make good targets. If you hit one, you know it’s been hit. Would you like to see us fire one?”
Emily got a big smile on her face. “I have to admit that I’d have been disappointed if you hadn’t offered,” she said.
“We were kind of hoping you’d ask,” he smiled, and turned to his wife. “Honey, would you like to go get the garden tractor so we can tow our baby out?”
In a few minutes, the garden tractor had been used to tow the shining cannon well out of the barn to a previously snowplowed area in a field behind the barn. “You wouldn’t believe the bird shit you could knock down from the rafters if you touched it off too close,” Woodward grinned.
He and his wife went through a quick but obviously practiced routine of tamping a black powder charge into it, some wadding from old newspapers, and then he picked up a cannonball. In a few seconds, Emily had the camera pointed at the pair as they got ready to fire, after using a goofy-looking framework to help sight it in on a mostly-buried junk car a couple hundred yards out. “Three . . . two . . . one . . . fire in the hole,” Woodward yelled as Emily punched the button on the camera.
The Napoleon let go a huge cloud of smoke along with the noise; Jason swiveled his head just in time to see some snow flying near the junk car. The bark of the cannon was still echoing off the trees when Woodward said, “Short and a little left, but we weren’t trying real hard. You get a decent photo?”
Emily glanced at the display screen of the digital camera. “Looks like it,” she said. “I don’t think I jumped too much. Boy, that thing is loud!”
“We could fire a real reduced charge with no ball, just for some smoke,” Woodward offered.
“No, I think it’ll be all right,” Emily said. “If it doesn’t come out, there ought to be others I can use.”
“Good enough,” he said. “Let’s roll this thing back inside and go get some coffee.”
“He sure is enthusiastic about it,” Emily grinned as Jason drove the pickup down the road toward town a couple hours later.
“She is, too,” he grinned.
“I find it hard to believe he’d buy a farm just to shoot off cannons,” she shook her head.
“Sounds crazy on the surface,” Jason nodded. “And he had to have spent a quarter million if he spent a cent. But hell, he paid cash for it; he’s got his taxes covered, and when the time comes to sell he’ll make out on it, so you can’t say it’s money wasted. It’s the same thing as collecting knives, just on a bigger scale.”
“I sure hope the township doesn’t shut him down,” she smiled. “That could get interesting. I mean, on the chamber we’ve been looking for some sort of unique attraction to draw people to town, and here we have this dropped right in our laps! I didn’t want to ask him today, but maybe next summer we can have him give a demonstration with the trebuchet or something.”
“Or get his buddy to drive that tank in the parade,” he grinned. “I sure wouldn’t want to be the guy to play bumper tag with him. But as far as the township shutting him down, I don’t think it’s going to happen. As far as I can see, what he’s doing is legal, even though it’s on the odd side, and I think he can afford more lawyers than the township can. And a museum? That’s smart! Even if they try to zone him out or set up an ordinance, he’s grandfathered in. The question is how big a stink Lynnette can make, and you’re the one who can settle that.”
“You mean with my story, right?”
“Sure, if you can make the point that it’s good, clean, harmless, amusing fun no matter how odd it sounds you’ll steal most of her thunder. Weber is sneaky; that way she can’t even blame him, and she won’t think you have an axe to grind. She may think you were dazzled by the dog and pony show, but she won’t think you’re deliberately out to get her.
“When you say it that way, it makes sense,” she grinned. “Yeah, Lloyd is sneaky, but I’ve learned a lot from him, and I think doing some writing for him is going to be fun. I’m really looking forward to throwing this story together tonight. He said if I had it done and some good photos with it, he’d show me how it’s made up on the page. I think that’ll be neat to learn, too. I’m glad I let him talk me into it, I learned a lot and had some fun.”
“I did, too,” he smiled. “Thanks for inviting me out here, Emily, I really enjoyed that. I guess I’m just as glad Kevin had to work overtime today, or I wouldn’t have seen it.”
“We can use the money,” she shrugged. “Time and a half doesn’t hurt. I’m just glad Vicky could watch the kids.”
“No big deal, she likes it; you know that. Since she doesn’t have kids of her own, she likes to borrow someone else’s.”
“I know,” Emily nodded, “She’s been a reliable babysitter ever since she got back, and she’d make a great mother if she could just find some guy.” She stopped for a second and went on, “Maybe that’s a step closer now that she’s out of Walmart. I haven’t seen her much this week. That’s a little strange, you know?”
“Oh, when she was working at Walmart she was working all sorts of funny hours; she could drop into the store any time day or night. Now she’s working a regular job at more hours, so I’ve only seen her a couple times all week, and then not real long. She seems to like it out there, though.”
“I think she does, too,” Jason agreed. “It’s the same sort of thing she did up in Warren – from what she says she’s falling right into it; but let’s face it, we’ll see in a couple months how it’s going to work long range.”
“I hope it works out,” she nodded. “The management out there is kind of picky and penny-ante about the employees, but that’s due to the union, I guess. She isn’t in the union, so it might be a little different.”
“And she’s coming up from Walmart, so it could seem like a walk in the park, too,” he replied. “I know she’s seemed pretty cheerful this week.”
“That’s good,” Emily said thoughtfully. “She can talk herself into a downer, real easy.”
“Too well I know,” he nodded. “She didn’t do that much back when she was in high school, but I’ve seen it all too much since she’s been back. But then, she’s had reasons to have downers, so maybe it’s not all bad. I’m hoping this job perks her up, but you’re right, she needs a guy.”
“You’re about her best guy friend, aren’t you?”
“Well, yeah,” he sighed, knowing Emily’s casual question was a lot deeper than it sounded, both for her and for him. “I mean, I’ve known her since she was a little kid, I’ve always been like the big brother she never had. I’ve been able to give her a shoulder to cry on when she needs it once in a while.”
He didn’t know if Vicky had told Emily about last Saturday night, but he doubted it and wasn’t going to let on. They’d wound up sitting cuddled together in the cab of the truck for an hour or more, and yes, there had been some crying. It seemed like it had been worth it; she’d seemed to have been able to talk out some things that had bothered her clear back to high school, mostly things he’d never heard before. Finally they’d worked through it, and they’d been able to switch the topic to other things, other days, good days – and by the time they’d both come to realize it had gotten very late, she’d gotten herself back into a much better mood.
They’d finally gotten out of the truck and he’d offered to walk her across the back yard to home, but she’d said it wouldn’t be necessary, but surprised him when she took him in her arms and kissed him. It wasn’t the first time she’d done that, but always in the past it had just been a good-natured brotherly-sisterly hello or goodbye or something, but as soon as her lips touched his he could feel a charge he hadn’t felt before. It had been a serious kiss; it had gone on a long time before she finally broke away, thanked him, and told him she’d come over and work on the ulu more tomorrow. Then, she headed for home, leaving him standing there in the garage with some conflicting thoughts he’d never confronted before.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t know that she was an appealing, eligible woman, because he knew she was. In fact, he knew she was pushing thirty and would be there in a few months, had been married, had had lovers in the distant past. But none of it could wipe out the fact she still had been the little girl who had dragged a battered tricycle over to his back shop a quarter century before. Try as he might, she was still that little girl.
Perhaps it was all the sex talk of the evening – it was an area they’d touched on before, it never had gone to any real depth. But, as they’d stood there in the darkness of the garage in a serious kiss, the little girl he thought of her as was battling in his mind with the grown-up, sensual woman of reality, and right at that moment the real woman had been winning.
It had been a long time since Christine – ten years in a few days. As he always did, he’d drive out to the cemetery and go out to her grave, no matter how much he had to posthole through the snow, just to leave some flowers and pay his respects to her memory. He had been vaguely aware for some time it was probably too long, but he hadn’t really felt much desire to change things either; he had a life he liked, although realizing it could change in a few years if he retired.
But last Saturday night, as he had stood there with a woman in his arms instead of the little girl he knew, things that had been pretty well settled in his mind weren’t quite as well settled any more.
There had been no way he was going to do anything about it at the time – if it could have been done or if it was even appropriate, anyway – but now there was a strange and new thought, a thought that had been simmering in the back of his mind all week. Longer than that, in fact; he remembered back last fall when Mignon had hinted she wouldn’t be opposed if the two of them got together.
“She’s needed it, Jason,” Emily replied, choosing her words carefully since she could see he was lost in thought. “Needed it a lot. You’ve been very good for her, especially since she’s been back. She really is my best friend, and I want her to be happy, but she’s had damn little happiness the last few years. What she needs more than anything else is a man, a good man, and a family.” She let out a sigh to cover up her pause for further careful choosing of words and continued, “I’ve tried to help her when I can, but there’s only so much I can say, so much I can do.”
Just like there’s only so much you can say and do right now, Jason thought, suspecting he was reading her mind 20-20. Is it that obvious to everyone but me, especially after what Mignon said last fall? “Same here,” he said slowly. “A couple times there have been guys who I’ve thought I ought to try to fix her up with, but when I thought about it, I realized they aren’t the kind of guys she needs at all. The last thing she needs is another Augie.”
“Boy, that’s the truth,” she shook her head. “I still don’t know what all happened with him. I mean, I know he beat her up, and I guess it wasn’t the first time. I’m pretty sure there was more than that, but I don’t know what. I know when her folks and Kevin and I went up to move her out she was as mad and depressed as I’ve ever seen her.”
“I remember her that evening,” he nodded, relieved the conversation seemed to be veering away from sensitive areas. He remembered the time, over three years ago, now. If he hadn’t already been at work when she called her parents from Warren pleading for assistance, he probably would have been there, too. As it happened, Mignon decided they needed more space to haul stuff than they could get in a couple cars, so called in Emily and Kevin with their minivan and pickup truck. Jason had only found out about it when he got home, while they were unloading; he’d helped with that. “It wasn’t pretty,” he commented. “I mean, I understand it in a general sense. She had some big dreams, dreams she’d held onto for a long time, but when reality came around they turned into little ones, and she tried to make the best of things. And then they got kicked to shit, too.” He shook his head and sighed, “I don’t blame her for being depressed, because I’ve been there too.”
“I know that,” Emily nodded. “That’s part of why there’s only so much I can do. Jason, there’s things you can tell her that I just can’t.”
“I realize that,” he nodded. “But at least I can say them because I’m her friend and she knows it.”