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“Now children, remember; violence is never the solution.”

Josh Campbell sat in his middle school creative writing class, dutifully taking notes.

“Why,” he wondered, “do they call it ‘creative writing’ when they basically tell you what you have to write?”

Ding!  The bell rang and Josh hastily shoved his notebook into his backpack and ran for the door.  His next class was science, his favorite.  The students were all working on their science fair projects.  For his, Josh had chosen the ballistics of a Model 1841 12-pounder howitzer.  There was one chained to a pedestal in front of the city government offices.

Josh’s dad was the mayor of Port Clinton, Ohio.  After a lot of pleading, Josh had talked his dad into letting him fire the howitzer as a demonstration of his knowledge of ballistics.  “You want me to win the science fair, don’t you?” he had demanded.

Yes, Josh’s dad did want him to win the science fair.  Mayors don’t make much money and, while Josh was only 13, it was not too early to start thinking about college.  If Josh was going to go, it would have to be on a scholarship, and winning the science fair was a start. 

“But couldn’t you think of a project less… violent?”

“How about growing flowers?” his mother had suggested, “You could plant a flower bed and then describe their growth patterns.  If you took very careful notes about how they responded to varying amounts of water and fertilizer, that would certainly impress the science fair judges.”

“But I don’t want to grow flowers,” Josh had complained, “Nobody else’s dad has access to a howitzer.  That will give me a leg up in the contest.  I have to take every advantage that I can.”

Actually, that was true.  Science was the only class Josh got A’s in.  Otherwise he was a mediocre student.  And, even in science, Josh was no superstar.  Last year the science fair had been won by a student who had done a project on DNA, of all things.  Josh knew how to spell DNA, but that was about it.

Sarah Hayes sat stiffly in her long-sleeved ankle-length dress with its top buttoned right up to her chin.  She was intensely aware that the other children scoffed at her clothes.  But she couldn’t help it.  Her mother was deeply religious and felt that young ladies should dress “appropriately,” which meant with not a square centimeter of skin showing.

“Ms. Hayes,” the teacher addressed Sarah, “have you decided on a science fair project?”

“I wish to prove that the Earth is 6000 years old.  I will do so through biblical studies, the only true science.  I will count the generations since Adam and multiply by 20 years.”

Several of the children snickered but Josh, sitting behind her, felt compassion.  He could tell by the inflection in her voice that these were not her own words.  She was reciting a speech that her mother had told her to give.

“Now, your mother knows we won’t accept that.  But I didn’t ask what your mother wants.  What do you want to study, Sarah?”

Sarah did not reply but just sat with her hands folded in her lap.

“Maybe Laura Ingalls could build a covered wagon for us,” a boy suggested, and his friends all laughed.

The teacher cast a dark look at the smart-aleck, but spoke to Sarah.  “You know a lot about optics.  Remember, you told me all about how golfers measure the distance to the hole by adjusting a pair of mirrors until the flag pole comes into focus.  Perhaps you could construct one of those devices for the science fair.”

It was true.  Sarah didn’t have any friends to hang out with (for obvious reasons) and spent a lot of time alone in the library.  On one occasion, her teacher had found her reading a college-level textbook about optics.  Alone with her teacher, away from the accusing eyes of her classmates, she had enthusiastically explained the workings of an optical rangefinder.

“Yes, if you will write a note to my mother forbidding the biblical study, I suppose I could construct one of those.”

“Excellent!  Josh intends to study the ballistics of a Civil War vintage howitzer.  I believe that you two will make an excellent team.  You can measure the distance to the target with your device and he can calculate the correct angle of elevation.”

Josh blanched.  He felt compassion for Sarah, but that didn’t mean he wanted to be on the science fair team with her.  He tried using mental telepathy to tell the teacher that he didn’t want Sarah on his team, but it was too late.  The teacher was already writing his name and Sarah’s on the chalkboard.

“Nathan, have you given any thought to the science fair?”

“Um, I dunno.”

“Josh and Sarah will be needing shot to fire in their howitzer.  Now, I happen to know that your father runs a business in which he makes ornamental iron fences and lawn ornaments.  Perhaps your father has taught you enough of his trade that you could make some 115-millimeter balls?”

“Oh, shit yeah!  I mean, yes ma’am.  I can make stuff lots more complicated than round balls.”

“Your father will not object to your using his workshop for this purpose?”

Nathan returned the teacher a wan smile.  “No, he won’t object.”

That answer actually had the ring of truth to it.  Nathan’s dad spent days at a time in a drunken stupor.  He wouldn’t have objected, or even noticed, if his son had constructed a twenty-meter-tall robot in their back yard.  The fact was, when orders came into their shop, Nathan typically just did the work himself.  He no longer even bothered keeping his dad informed about what was going on in the business.

His father had once had a store in town displaying his wares, which were quite artistic.  But, after Nathan’s mother had died, they had moved into a house on the outskirts of town where they sold their ornamental iron from a weed-infested front yard.  They lived in squalor with no running water, which explained the smell of body odor that the teacher could detect even from the front of the classroom. 

“Excellent!” the teacher exclaimed, writing Nathan’s name under those of Josh and Sarah, “We have already settled on one team.  Now, who else has given any thought to what they will do for the science fair?”

“Excellent?” Josh thought to himself, “What a crock!  I’m stuck with Laura Ingalls and Pigpen, who smells like he hasn’t bathed in a month.  This is the worst science fair team ever assembled in the entire history of middle school education!”

“Mr. Montgomery will drive us to the lake,” Josh explained to his father, referring to Nathan’s dad, “He has a hitch on his pickup truck that can tow the howitzer.  We’ll be very careful.  I will have parental supervision, just like you said I needed before ever firing the wea… device.”

Josh caught himself; he knew how his father couldn’t stand to hear the word “weapon” pronounced out loud.

“Well, okay,” Josh’s dad consented hesitantly, “As long as there is a responsible adult along, I guess it is okay.”

Yee-hah!!!” Mr. Montgomery whooped from the bed of the pickup as he flung an empty beer bottle at a stop sign and reached for another from his cooler.

Nathan, who would not be issued a driver’s license for another three years, was at the wheel.  “It’s really safer this way,” he explained.

Sarah sat on the bench seat of the 1976 Dodge between the two boys.  She was wearing one of her pioneer dresses, but with a few modifications.  She had cut off the long sleeves, hemmed it just above her knees and cut out a V-neck; she was actually quite a pretty girl when she got into normal clothes.  On the floorboard of the rusty old truck she had an unmodified dress in her school bag which she intended to change into before returning home.

“Is this vehicle insured?” Sarah inquired.

“You’re sure that thing can accurately measure the distance out to the target?” Josh asked her after an uncomfortable silence.

“Certainly.  I tested it by dialing it in on a telephone pole and then counting how many poles away it was.  I can measure ranges out to 2500 meters, plus or minus three percent.”

“And those shells you made, you’re sure they’ll detonate?” Josh asked Nathan.

“Hell yeah!  They’re more reliable than what we were using during the Secession.”

Nathan had gone farther than just making solid shot.  He had made hollow shells, which he’d filled with Bullseye gunpowder and topped with a fuse of his own design.

“And you?” Sarah asked, turning towards Josh, “You’re sure that Java Applet that you found on the internet can tell us the correct angle of elevation?  And windage too?”


“And you’re confident that the speed you measured with your ballistic pendulum is accurate?” Sarah asked Nathan.

In Nathan’s backyard now stood a wooden A-frame taller than his house and suspending a heavy log with a cannon ball embedded in it.  Nathan didn’t know the meaning of the words “I can’t.”  When asked to measure the speed of a cannon ball, he got the task completed even if it meant constructing a pendulum so big that it was probably in violation of municipal building codes.

“Oh shit yeah!  There’s a Java Applet for ballistic pendulums on that same website about ballistics.  A four-kilo shell that strikes a 200-kilo log and raises it two meters is going 319 meters per second.  You can check the math yourself.”

“Don’t worry,” Josh assured Sarah, “What could go wrong?”

“You see, it’s like this,” Josh stammered as his dad glared down at him, “Mr. Montgomery said he knew where Bessie hung out on the lake.  And, sure enough, he spotted her with his binoculars.  We thought she was just the stuff of tabloids, but it’s true.  The Lake Erie monster is for real.

“So Sarah used her optical rangefinder and said the range was 2150 meters.  I knew the elevation above sea level is 174 meters and Sarah’s barometer measured 1023 millibars.  The temperature was 20° Celsius. We used our anemometer to determine that there was a 5 meter per second wind from two o’clock.”

“So you hit her?” Josh’s dad demanded, barely containing his anger, “You hit Bessie?”

Josh gulped, “Yes sir.  We thought we’d blown her head off, but it turned out that she was sticking her tail out of the water.  But it’s just the tip of her tail.  She’s over a hundred meters long and we only took off, like, maybe ten meters of tail.  She won’t be too pissed.”

“Oh, she’s more than pissed.  Bessie attacked Port Clinton.  She destroyed Fisherman’s Wharf.”

Suddenly it occurred to Josh that, in the telling of his account, his dad had never once questioned the existence of Bessie.

“You knew about Bessie, didn’t you?  You knew that she was real!”

“We had an agreement with Bessie,” the mayor fumed, “Every Sunday we go out on the lake and we hammer on the hull of the boat – we have a special tune that Bessie recognizes – and then we scatter flowers on the water and we… we push a cow overboard.”

“But that’s… that’s appeasement!” Josh accused his father, “I learned all about appeasement in history class.  That’s how the English were dealing with the Nazis in the 1930’s.”

“Call it what you like,” said his dad, defensively, “But I can’t allow Port Clinton to go back to the way things were in the old days, during colonial times when Bessie routinely came ashore to eat people.”

“Why didn’t you ask the Army to kill her?”

“Oh, I did.  I don’t believe that violence is ever the solution to any problem.  But others in the city government insisted I pursue that option.”

“And what did the military say?”

“They said something about ‘silly civilians’ and hung up on me.  Now they won’t return my calls.”

Josh’s dad turned and began pacing furiously, back and forth across the kitchen.  He tore at his hair, puling whole clumps out.

“Dad, what are you going to do?  You’re the mayor.  You have to make a decision.”

“Oh son!  Oh son!  What on Earth were you thinking?  How could my own flesh and blood have made such a horrible mistake?”

“Yes, yes, it was a mistake.  But what are you going to do now?

More pacing.  More clumps of hair landing on the kitchen floor.

“This is horrible!” Josh’s father lamented, “Horrible!  How could you?”

“Dad!  Your decision?”

“Maybe we can negotiate.  We’ll offer her two cows every week, to make up for the loss of her tail.”

“You’re going to negotiate??  With a snake???

Josh’s dad began banging his head against the wall.  “Horrible, horrible,” he repeated, “What am I going to do?”

“I’m leaving,” Josh informed his father, “I’m going to kill Bessie.  I’ll let you know how it goes.”

“Pray with me,” Sarah’s mother urged, “The end times are nigh.  I predicted this!  I predicted it all.  The serpent portends the second coming of Jesus Christ.  I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.”

“Yes, that’s all you do, is wait,” Sarah complained, “This eschatology is just fatalism.  All you ever do is wait.”

“Our Savior comes!  We must pray!”

“I think we’ve prayed enough.  Now is the time for action.  We have to kill Bessie.”

“Heathen!  Infidel!  You’ve been consorting with boys, haven’t you?”

“Mother, I told you.  Josh, Nathan and I shot the tip off Bessie’s tail.  Now she’s attacking Port Clinton.  We have to kill her.  This isn’t a religious issue.  It’s just… pest control.”

“You will go to hell!  You floozy!  You slut!  You whore!

“I’m leaving,” Sarah informed her mother, “I’m going to kill Bessie.  And I’m not wearing pioneer dresses anymore.”

“Mayor Campbell is organizing an evacuation of Port Clinton.  He has commandeered all the school buses to evacuate the people.  Maybe you should get on one of those buses,” Nathan informed his father.

Nathan’s dad threw his head back and brayed like a donkey.  “Yeah, if you ever need someone to organize a retreat, ol’ Campbell’s the man for that job.  But if your operation requires offensive action, well, ya better pick somebody else.”

“Seriously, I think you should get on one of those buses.”

“Hee, hee, hee,” Nathan’s dad chuckled as he poured himself a shot of Jack Daniels.

“Here’s to Josh Campbell,” he said as he raised his glass in the air.

Getting no response from his son, he slammed the shot and poured another.  “And here’s to Sarah Hayes.  Best damned cannoneers I know!”

Nathan stood silently, watching as his dad gulped downed that shot too.  He began counting quietly to himself, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi,…”

“Yeah, we’re going to kick ol’ Bessie’s ass.  Yes we are,” Mr. Montgomery assured his son as he downed another shot of Jack after a vague wave in the air to some unspoken toast.

By the time Nathan got to twenty Mississippi, his father was asleep.  At twenty-five he was sawing logs.

We are not going to kick anybody’s ass,” Nathan informed the sleeping man, “You are passed out, as usual.  I am going to kill Bessie.  And I’m taking the truck.”

The three children sat across the front seat of the Dodge as Nathan drove down Fremont Road, heading for the center of town.  They had the road entirely to themselves.  But the other side of Fremont was clogged with refugees.  Cars were bumper to bumper and there were many pedestrians and bicyclists. 

One old lady was pushing her belongings in a wheelbarrow.  The butcher hurried past clutching a dozen frozen filet mignons to his chest, his apron flapping in the wind behind him.  A woman in a purple jogging suit jogged past, though she was actually running no faster than the people walking.  A man wearing a cowboy hat drove a white F-150 with what had to be the world’s ugliest plaid easy chair in the bed; no boxes, no suitcases, just the chair.  A woman in business attire and heels walked past carrying a cage with a rat in it.

“She should have left the rat,” Sarah observed, “Rats can fend for themselves.”

Most of the refugees were preoccupied with their own thoughts, but a few glanced up nervously at the Model 1841 howitzer that Josh and his friends towed behind their truck.

“Turn around,” they urged.

“Run!  Save yourselves!”

“Violence is never the solution.”

Yet in spite of receiving counsel from so many adults to the contrary, the three children pressed on towards the center of town.  A pall of black smoke hung over the city from fires where Bessie had broken natural gas lines.  Sporadic gunfire could be heard, though there appeared to be no organized resistance.

“So, what’s the plan?” asked Josh.

“When attacking linear targets like trenches with guns, it is important to enfilade them,” Sarah explained, “This is because the shell just skims over the surface of the Earth so even small undulations in the terrain or errors in elevation can cause the shell to fall short or go over the enemy’s heads.”

“Back up.  What does ‘enfilade’ mean?” Josh interrupted.

“It means to fire down the long axis of a trench or a column of troops.”

“Where did you learn all that?”

“In the library.”

“Okay.  But Bessie is zig-zagging between buildings.  How are we going to arrange a clear shot at her all stretched out straight like that?”

“I’m not sure.  I haven’t figured that part out yet.”

“I think I know,” said Nathan, “If we can get her to retreat, she’ll jump in the canal and swim for the lake.  We can enfilade her by positioning the gun to fire down the long axis of the canal.”

“Why would she retreat from us?”

“General Forrest was a master at getting the Yanks to think he had more troops than he really did.  He seized Union City without firing a shot.  Captain Logan saw what he thought was a large body of reinforcements but they were actually prisoners taken in previous battles.

“I’m thinking we can do something similar.  We’ll position the howitzer and then I’ll get a log and drag it in the dirt behind the truck.  Bessie will think the cloud of dust is from an advancing column of troops and retreat.”

Josh thought about that.  Suddenly he had an epiphany.  “You’re named after him, aren’t you?”

“Hell yeah!  General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Wizard of the Saddle.  That’s me!”

“The combination of Yankee artillery with Rebel infantry would make an army that could be beaten by no one,” Sarah quoted from her history textbook, “and we have both.”

“Then you’re okay with this plan, Sarah?”


Bessie did not really have a brain in the sense that humans do.  But she had lived for hundreds of years and had seen many things.  Somewhere deep in the recesses of her neural networks she associated clouds of dust with danger:  an approaching army.

Bessie considered charging the army.  If she could attack with sufficient suddenness, they would not have time to form a skirmish line.  She could slither straight down their column, snapping the soldiers’ heads off left and right while crushing others with her massive body.

But the lake meant safety to her.  After a moment’s hesitation, Bessie decided that discretion was the better part of valor.  She could assess the danger from there and then perhaps attack the town again from a different angle.  Slithering spookily fast for such a large creature, Bessie headed for the canal.

On a rise a kilometer away, Josh and Sarah stood ready with their howitzer.  Five shells lay on the ground with measured Ziploc bags of gunpowder beside them.  Also, they had two rounds of canister shot; thin-walled cylinders filled with 25-millimeter steel shot.  The canister shot was for a last ditch defense in the event that Bessie overran their position.

Using a carpenter’s level and a plumb bob, Sarah had constructed a device for measuring the grade of the slope out to the target; it was minus three degrees.  The elevation above sea level was 226 meters.  Sarah’s barometer measured 1009 millibars.  It was a warm 30° Celsius.  Their anemometer recorded a stiff 9 meters-per-second wind from 11 o’clock.

Josh had his laptop computer with the Java Applet on it resting in the grass a short distance away.  The battery was at 24%.  He had about fifteen minutes of power left.  After that they would have to use Kentucky windage to aim their weapon.


Sarah, lying in the grass and observing through Mr. Montgomery’s binoculars, spotted Bessie in the canal and gave the order to fire.  The battle was joined!

Struck squarely in her middle, Bessie was blown clean in half.  The front half catapulted itself out of the canal and hit the ground slithering.  Trailing entrails behind her, Bessie charged the howitzer that she could clearly see on a rise only a kilometer away.

Working like robots, Josh and Sarah reloaded their howitzer and tamped the load down.  Manually lifting the trailer hitch, Josh repositioned the weapon and Sarah touched the powder off.  Missed!

Their next shot struck the dirt close enough to pepper Bessie with shrapnel.

Their following shot missed and then Bessie was on them.  Her head was as large as a car and her jaw seemed to have an extra hinge in it.  When she opened her mouth there were multiple rows of scimitar-like teeth.  Zeroing in on the human female, Bessie lunged!

With blinding speed, Josh shoved a Ziploc bag of powder and a can of shot down the gun tube and fired.  No more than five meters away, Bessie took the shotgun blast full in the face.  But still she did not die.  Blind, she frantically twisted about, snapping her mouthful of teeth in every direction.

Josh tossed another Ziploc bag of powder into the howitzer and Sarah shoved their last round of canister shot in after it.  The blast left Bessie in tatters, broken teeth scattered around her in the bloody grass.  She flopped about a few more times and then lay still.

“Is she dead?” asked Josh.


Josh threw his arms around Sarah and kissed her.  “We got her,” he said, “We really did.”


Pop Quiz on Artillery!

  1. If the 115-mm shells that Nathan made weigh four kilos, what is their ballistic coefficient?  What is the diameter of a ballistically equivalent steel ball, to the nearest tenth of a millimeter?

  2. Determine the angle of elevation and the windage adjustment for the children’s first shot, when Bessie was 2150 meters away in the lake.  Assume that the carriage holds the muzzle one meter above the water level.

  3. Determine the angle of elevation and the windage adjustment for the children’s second shot, when Bessie was in the canal 1000 meters away and at the bottom of a 3% grade.

  4. Suppose that you are tasked with shooting the snipers off the roof of a 27-story office building at the top of a 2% grade. Note. You must fire from 1000 meters away to avoid being shot by the snipers.  You have reduced the initial speed of the shell to 120 m/s.  Assume an altitude of 350 meters, standard air pressure, 15° C and a 10 m/s wind from 4 o’clock.  Determine the angle of elevation and the windage adjustment.  Why was the powder charge reduced?

  5. Suppose that the enemy is on a hilltop and under siege from all directions.  They have constructed deep, narrow, concrete-reinforced trenches, so you must maximize the angle of descent.  Assume that, wherever you are, you must keep the same distance to avoid their guns and you cannot alter the speed of your shells.  Should you fire from upwind or downwind?

  6. Suppose that you are trying to drop your shell down a missile silo.  You must fire at an angle of elevation greater than 45° to get enough of an angle of descent for the shell to go down the silo.  But it is a small silo, so your primary concern is accuracy.  Should you fire from upwind or downwind?

Contact me with your answers and I will tell you how many you got right.