“Who’s the guy with the hook?” or “What happened to your hand?” or for the more polite, “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you injure your arm?” or from a child “Where’s your hand?” or “Why do you have a hook?” Since my cannon firing accident which took my right hand, when I was at the age of 20, some 40 years ago, I have had to become used to such questions.
After a debilitating injury it is good if you can maintain your sense of humor. Some folks in my situation are pretty sour apples about being handicapped – and who knows, maybe I am too at times – but generally I think I’ve always pretty much used humor and sarcasm to deal with down moments as well as life in general.
I’ve been a reenactor and lecturer on American Colonial and Revolutionary war topics ever since 1975. As a part of the Bicentennial movement I founded and commanded a group of colonials in 1977 that portrayed Colonel Seth Warner’s Green Mountain Boys in reenactments and parades. Generally I had a line or two of 10 to 20 musket men all dressed in colonial attire. I was the commander marching at the end of their row (or file as we called it) with a sword. We attended several Bicentennial parades in those days and children along the route many times were heard to say, “Look mom its Captain Hook.” The members of my unit laughed at this (as did I) the first few times we heard it, but after a while it became so common place we grew to ignore it. Then in 1980 at the Menotomy Patriots Day Parade (just outside Lexington, Massachusetts) a very young little boy that was probably two and a half or three years old became confused about his captains. He shouted out at the top of his lungs, “Hey dad, look its Captain Crunch!” Myself and the members in my unit laughed so hard that I thought we were going to hurt themselves. Sometimes you just have to go with whatever happens and smile.
So back to how I got this way. I had been involved in a muzzle loading cannon accident while participating in a school sanctioned activity at the Nation’s Oldest Private Military Academy, Norwich University. Norwich University is a prestigious and fully accredited university which was originally begun in Norwich Connecticut in 1819. It moved to Norwich Vermont by the middle of the 1800’s and finally moved to Northfield, Vermont. They are the founders of the ideas and philosophy of the Reserve Officers Training Corps or ROTC. The only difference from most ROTC programs in civilian colleges and universities from those at Norwich is that as a Norwich Cadet you live military life 24/7 instead of just 4 hours a week. Physical and cadet military training are applied as rigorously as academics, and upon graduation you can be accepted into the U.S. Army, Marines, or Air Force as a 2nd Lieutenant.
I entered Norwich as a Freshman in 1972. I was a Cadet Sophomore and a new member of the Norwich Independent Battery in the Spring of 1974. The Battery was ordered to fire a salute of 2 rounds prior to the start of the university graduation ceremonies on May 18, 1974, as well as 4 more rounds at the completion of the ceremonies. The ceremonies were held outdoors on an athletic field. We were firing a matching pair of original brass Model 1841 six-pounders with a 3.57 inch bore. While firing the end of ceremonies salute of four rounds, two out of each cannon, the cannon I was re-loading misfired and I lost my right hand. I was the person who had to stand in front of the barrel, ram the charge down to the bottom of the breech, and clean out (swab) the barrel after each firing. Swabbing (which was done) by itself does not guarantee that all hot debris has been removed or extinguished.
The firing procedure is that one man stands at the right rear of the breech, and has a leather vent stall (that looks like the portion of a glove that covers only the thumb) tied on his left hand. He holds this thumb with a downward pressure over the vent. (The vent is the ignition hole located over the rear or breech of the cannon.) The stall must tightly cover and seal the vent preventing any flow of Oxygen into the breech through the vent hole. The stall remains in this position as the charge and rammer is pushed down the breech by a second man. With the breech vent blocked by the stall, all the air in the barrel has to exit the breech by passing around the rammer and out the front end of the muzzle – in essence turning the cannon into a giant vacuum and extinguishing any flames or debris left in the breech by the first shot fired. The stall is never removed when crew members are forward of the wheel hub and axle.
But if the man removes his thumb from the vent as the charge is being rammed down the barrel all the Oxygen rushes down the barrel in front of the rammer, past the end of the breech, and up the vent hole. Now with the vent not being stalled (blocked) the barrel becomes a giant bellows (like those of a blacksmith). The air pressure of the ram as it pushes the next gun powder charge down into the breech pours Oxygen onto any flaming debris in the barrel and flames it up to a red hot pitch. The chance of igniting this round as it is pushed hard against the hot debris increases dramatically. If the gun powder charge ruptures as it is pushed against a breech (that is essentially on fire), – a premature ignition and injury of the man ramming the charge is certain.
In my case, there was hot debris in the barrel that would have been extinguished if the vent hole had stayed blocked. The man tending the vent hole stayed on the mark when I was ramming the charge into the barrel and I was safe at that point. Then he made an error. He removed the stall from the vent as I was pulling the rammer out of the barrel. I had already seated the charge in the breech. My pulling the rammer out of the barrel with an unstopped vent sucked Oxygen down the vent directly onto everything and anything that was in the breech. The man stalling the vent needed to leave his thumb in place until I was no longer in front of the muzzle (another 2 seconds). As soon as he pulled his thumb off the vent, Oxygen rushed in and the gun, with 22 ounces of black powder, went off in my face.
We were told to fire two quick shots out of each gun, but safe drill calls for three minutes between shots not the 15 seconds we were doing it in. (We had never seen an original manual or even a modified modern safety manual so we knew nothing about leaving three minutes between shots.)
I was looking directly into the muzzle as I began pulling my rammer out of the breech. Suddenly the Senior Class threw their hats into the air with a very loud cheer in jubilation of their having graduated. I was pulling the rammer out of the barrel and was about a foot from the end of the muzzle. The cheering seniors startled me and I turned my head and looked away toward the noise and KABOOM, the cannon went off. It was lucky they startled me or I never would have looked away and most likely would have lost or severely injured both eyes. The right side of my face was burned with heavy gunpowder encrusted first degree burns from my eye brow to below my shirt collar. In the coming days that side of my face would look like a very ugly burnt ruffle potato chip.
I staggered around, fell on my face, rolled over onto my back and saw that my uniform on my right side was on fire so with the other hand I swatted it out in quick hard pats. I then looked along my extended right arm that was swelled to about twice its size with a small pool of blood forming beneath it. I could see the upward tips of my fingers which didn’t look bad. What I didn’t realize was that between the palm of my hand and my arm four inches of my wrist was completely gone except for a thin strip of skin which kept it attached. I started to get up and could see a little more. I said, “Oh f#*#,” at which point the rest of the gun crew joined me, pushed me to the ground and applied a tourniquet made from a web belt and a stick. They covered the arm with a T-shirt.
I was then joined by a good looking female nurse and a doctor who came out of the crowd of visitors that had been in the bleachers. In the ambulance the doctor rode up front and she along with EMT’s in the back with me. I told her it really hurt and the ride to the hospital was long. I told her time always goes by faster when you are kissing. I was fortunate she obliged and time flew by.
I became a Revolutionary War reenactor in late 1975. In 1977 a year after graduation, I became the commander of the Official Vermont State Ceremonial Firing Battery known as the 2nd Battery Vermont Light Artillery. The Battery was originally formed as a recreation group in 1960 and since 1965 had been custodians of an original Civil War 12pdr cannon owned by the State of Vermont. The cannon was actively fired for events, ceremonies, and reenactments until 2006 when the state was pushed by private interests to reclaimed it using liability worries as an excuse. The 2nd Battery today uses a full scale Civil War cannon known as a 3″ Ordinance Rifle.
The activities with the 2nd Battery and my command role in Seth Warner’s colonial regiment, led in 1978 to help found The Living History Association (LHA) a not for profit reenactor’s organization which helps dispense Safety Manuals for nearly every time period being reenacted, as well as insurance policy coverage for Personal Injury, organizational liability, officers and directors liability and event liability. Over time I served as President, Board of Director, Program Director and today as Executive Director. The membership and the coverage is extended across the United States and it is fair to say that at times the LHA has covered everything from the British attack on Lexington Green, the Battle of Gettysburg, the Fight at the OK Corral, to historical dance classes and seminars on a variety of history topics all in the same summer season. In essence without the LHA a lot of good history related programming just would not happen.
Dr. Jay Anderson PhD of history and folklore studies at the University of Utah stated in his book “TIME MACHINES” that the “Living History Association is a chamber of commerce for living history interpreters and reenactors.” See us at www.livinghistoryassn.org.
-By James Dassatti, Executive Director, LHA