Ramblings #1

I am numbering this post, as I expect there will be more Ramblings to follow. I’ve had enough politics for today. All of us have made up our minds, so I am going to think about something else.

My parents moved to Illinois when I was little. Every summer we took a journey back to New Hampshire, to the town they were from, to visit both sets of grandparents. These were epic road trips. Stories from these trips will be told in their turn. But it is enough to know that for a couple of weeks every summer, I was transported from the prairie along the Fox River to the rolling hills and woods of New Hampshire.

My grandfather was a crusty, opinionated man. I don’t think there are words in English to describe him, or how I felt about him. One thing is certain. He did not treat me like a child. I was always “old enough to know better.”

I was taught to reload shotgun shells. Once he was sure I was doing it correctly, I was allowed to reload unsupervised. I was meticulous, and loaded box after box. My grandfather used those shells in competition, trusting me to have done them right. As an aside, he trusted them in his guns, and as anyone who reloads knows, that is the point at which you really trust someone.

I would sit at the table at the bottom of the basement stairs. A bucket of old hulls on one side, a half full box of loaded shells on the table. There were boxes of primers, and a large cylindrical can of flake gunpowder nearby. A MEC reloading press was bolted to an old table before me. Powder on one side, shot on the other.

The presses changed a couple of times over the years, and every summer I got a refresher course. One thing I clearly remember was, early on, having to set the wad to a certain compression. The ram on that press had a spring, and as each wad cup was pressed in on top of the powder, it had to be pulled down until that spring was compressed to a certain mark on the frame. On each shell, at that point, I would hook my toes under the crosspiece of the workbench and pull down with both arms, watching carefully to see that I had gotten to the right point on the frame.

I would do a couple of boxes a night, maybe a case over the course of each vacation. Eventually, the powder must have changed, and the need to compress the wads went away. He got a new turret press, where one hull went on and one finished shell came off with each pull of the handle, and the hulls rotated, being deprimed, shaped, primed, powder, wad, shot, and finally crimped, each in their turn.

He passed away at 85, the last of my grandparents. I have not been back to New Hampshire since I went up for the funeral. My uncle took all the guns. I took a couple of cases of his handloaded shells. I shot them, mostly at sporting clays. I have one box left. I have not been able to bring myself to shoot it. It sits on a shelf with the rest of the shotgun ammo, getting a little older all the time.

When I raise the gun and feel it hit my cheek right on the sweet spot, and the bead appears, following the clay, and I know it’s going to break before I pull the trigger, there he is.

When I go out with the juniors or assist at a Ladies Day, and I’m teaching someone to how to hold and point a shotgun, I can hear his voice. It takes me back to a time when I’m 8 years old. Holding a short 12 gauge single barrel break-open shotgun, standing at the trap station, the other shooters watching as he instructs. When I pull the trigger the first time, it knocked me down. The other shooters may have chuckled, but he just helped me up. I broke eight out of twenty-five. Not bad, I suppose, looking back. I wanted to break them all like he did.

A couple of months ago, late in the afternoon, one of my friends brought out an old box of shells. Peters, Waxed cardboard, 12 gauge number 8s. I put a bird in the thrower and he put some shells in the gun. Pull! Boom! Pull! Boom! The fragments of the second bird scattered on the ground and then it hit me. The smell of the powder. I don’t know what the difference is, and I don’t know when it changed, but I picked up that old paper hull and smelled my childhood in that powder. I threw him a couple more, and then he noticed it too. He leaned over and picked one up and smelled it. He looked over and we both smiled and then laughed. But tears weren’t very far away.

Lean into it now. Lean in. Get your head down. When the bird appears, put the bead on the bird and pull the trigger.
–John Sowerby


2 thoughts on “Ramblings #1

  1. Thank you for sharing that lovely memory of your grandfather and you as a child. Shame we don’t see or hear of that happening these days, well, in New Zealand anyway.

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