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The Potato Gun
It was a Friday in late September in Southwest Oklahoma. When the door chime rang, Jack turned off the evening news and stood. “What are we doing this weekend?”
Jill was taking clean dishes out of the dishwasher, putting them away in the kitchen cabinets. “Laura and Mike are coming to visit.”
“He’s back already? It seems like he just left.”
Jill came out into the living room. “He’s been deployed for over a year, and now that he’s back he’s on leave for a month. Laura convinced him to come see us for a couple of days.”
“Well, it’ll be good to see Laura again, but I don’t think he likes me.”
“He’s a young soldier, you’re a retired veterinarian. You have nothing in common.” Jill went back to the kitchen.
Jack opened the door. “Laura, welcome home! Mike, how’s it been? Come on in and have a seat.”
Mike was lean, and a few inches shorter than Jack. Laura was busty, developed, tawny skin contrasting her golden hair. Mike held the door for Laura, then shook Jack’s hand and handed him a half gallon bottle of whiskey. “Kentucky Deluxe, anyone?”
Jack took the bottle to the kitchen. He put three pieces of refrigerator-door ice into each of two tall glasses, poured an inch of whisky and added Pepsi. Then he returned to the living room, handed one glass to Mike and then clicked his glass to it.
Mike sat on the couch, took a long drink and said, “You really know how to make them.”
Jack sat in his recliner. “I’ve never got a hangover from this.” Jack took a long drink from his glass and sat it on the small reading lamp table next to his chair. He looked at the clock on the wall above the TV: 9:37 p.m.
“But I’m sure going to try.” Mike went to the kitchen to mix himself another drink.
Jill said, “Now take it easy, guys.”
Laura added, “Yes, this is Mike’s first alcohol in over a year.”
Mike sat back down. “That just means I get more effect from less drinking.”
Jill turned on the TV and switched it to Lifetime Channel.
Jack stood, his glass empty. “Mike, let me show you my latest project.” Mike followed him through the kitchen and laundry room to the two-car garage. “I’m going to make a spud gun.”
Mike took a long drink, emptying his glass. “I’ve heard about those, but never seen one.”
“I’ll be right back.” Jack took the empty glasses to the kitchen to refill them. When he returned, Mike was standing in the narrow space between the workshop table and Jill’s car, a new Cadillac CTS. Jack pushed the button to open the garage door and noticed that Mike’s ’05 Dodge Dakota pickup truck was parked in the driveway behind Jill’s car.
“Hey, move your truck and I’ll back this car out of the way.”
“All right.” Mike backed his truck down the driveway and parked with its rear bumper even with the curb. Jack backed Jill’s car out of the garage and parked with its bumper a couple of inches from the front bumper of Mike’s truck. Jack then moved his truck, a fifteen year old Ford F-250 Crew Cab extended bed with a camper shell. Then he went back into the garage and opened the second garage door so he could back out his Mustang.
After backing the Mustang out and parking in the driveway, Jack opened its hood. “It’s a ninety seven. I put in a fuel-injected 351 Winsor engine and a C-6 transmission. It does the quarter mile under twelve seconds and I’ve had it up to a hundred and sixty on the turnpike.”
Mike stared at the engine. “Nice.”
Jack closed the hood. “Okay, let’s make a spud gun.”
The wall of the workshop area of the garage was covered with pegboard and hooks that had tools hanging from them. Stacked in the corner was a folding work table that Jack stood in the middle of the garage, and then he grabbed an armload of PVC pipe from the corner where it stood and laid it on the floor beside the workbench. Then he took the hacksaw down from the wall and laid it on the table. Finally he went out to his truck and returned with a folded paper as thick as highway map. He spread it out on the work bench and said, “The directions.”
Mike looked at the diagram and said, “This will be easy.”
Jack took the empty glasses back to the kitchen to refill them, adding two inches of whisky this time. He looked into the living room and saw Jill and Laura sharing a bottle of Yellow Tail wine, watching some Lifetime Original Movie. Jack headed back out to the garage.
Mike asked, “Where’s your ramrod?”
“Here,” said Jack, handing a glass to Mike as he reached for an old broom handle leaned in the corner.
“Looks about right. I marked four feet on the tube. Do I cut it with the hack saw?”
“Sure. Let me hold it for you.”
Mike cut through the 2” PVC pipe, then beveled the end with a wood rasp, and then sharpened it with sandpaper so that it would easily strip a potato into a cylindrical projectile. Then he and jack glued the other end into a four inch PVC pipe joint adapter, which screwed into a four inch section of PVC pipe they cut to eight inches long. The end was threaded and Jack showed the four inch end cap to Mike.
“The way it works is, we shove the potato in the muzzle down to the end of the barrel, and then we spray propellant into the combustion chamber, then screw this cap on the end, then light the propellant and the potato comes flying out the end as a slug.”
Mike thought for a moment. “How do we light the propellant?”
“I forgot to drill a hole. We’ll hold a lighter to it.”
Mike looked at the directions. “This shows that a spark igniter from a gas lantern is supposed to go in the hole.”
“Well I forgot to get one and I’m too drunk to drive to the store now.” Jack drilled a quarter inch hole in the side of the combustion chamber. “This should work, like the old-timey cannons. They held a match to them.”
“I got a lighter. Let’s test-fire this bad boy.”
“Take it out back to the patio, I’ll meet you there.”
Jack went to the bathroom and got a half-empty can of Jill’s Aqua-net hairspray, then went back to the kitchen and grabbed a raw potato from the pantry. He went out to the patio and said to Mike, “Hold it level, I’ll load you up.”
Mike held the potato cannon level at his waist while Jack shoved a potato down the barrel, first by hand, the sharp muzzle of the gun stripping away the extra potato material, then with the ram rod to push the spud to the bottom of the barrel. Then Jack sprayed Aqua-net into the breech for a second and a half before screwing the end cap on.
“Ready?” asked Mike.
Mike lit his lighter and held its flame to the quarter inch hole in the side of the combustion chamber. A whoomp sound came from the gun, about half as loud as a twenty gauge shotgun firing target loads would have been. A flame five feet long lit the night’s darkness in the back yard as a ball of orange light in front of the muzzle, and the cylindrical projectile of potato matter slammed into the boards of the privacy fence twenty feet away, making a splatter more than a foot in diameter.
Mike said, “That’s hard core!”
Jack unscrewed the cap and looked inside the chamber. “Still clean.”
Mike looked, and studied the threads of the cap. “I have an idea.”
They took the spud gun back into the garage. Mike screwed the end cap back on and marked four points equally spaced around it and the breech. Then he removed the cap and used a grinder to remove the threads between every other mark, so that the cap and the breech had half the width of its screw threads removed, half the threads remaining. Then he inserted the cap straight until it was flush and turned it a quarter turn to lock it in place.
Mike said, “Just like a howitzer.”
Jack said, “Well watch this.” He sawed off three inches of the muzzle. He went to the kitchen and returned with a potato, which he shoved through the piece he had just cut off the muzzle, then took the projectile and stuck it into the chamber and pushed it into the bottom of the barrel. “Now we have a breech loader.”
Mike headed through the kitchen to the patio. “Let’s try it out.”
Jack followed, bringing the whole bag of potatoes with him. He used the piece cut off the muzzle to make half a dozen rounds. Mike took one and inserted it, Jack sprayed Aqua-net and secured the end cap, and Mike lit the cannon. Whoomp.
“That will never get old.”
Jack reached for the gun. “My turn.”
They shot five more rounds before Jack heard the doorbell chime. He went back inside to see what was going on. Jill held the front door open. The next door neighbor, a soldier retired from the Army who now worked as a security guard, was standing in the foyer.
Jack approached him. “Derrick, anything I can help you with?”
“Yes. What’s all that noise and fire coming from your back yard?”
“Come check it out.” Jack led Derrick through the living room to the back yard. “Mike, this is my neighbor Derrick. Derrick, this is my son in law Mike.”
Mike and Derrick shook hands.
Derrick asked, “So what do you do?”
Mike’s lips curled back a bit as he said, “Infantry.”
“That’s all right. I was artillery.”
Mike swallowed before saying, “Close enough.”
Derrick said, “Man, whatever. Let me try that thing.”
Mike looked at Jack, who paused a moment before nodding. Mike handed the spud gun to Derrick, and Jack loaded it for him.
“You ready?” asked Mike.
Whoomp. The round went over the fence, Derrick holding the gun up at a thirty five degree angel. A moment later, they heard a panging sound from the neighbor’s metal loafing shed. The neighbor behind their houses had a mini-ranch of ten acres and kept a couple of horses for his grandchildren to ride on weekends.
Derrick smiled. “Got it on the first try.”
Mike said, “Watch this.”
He loaded the gun, aimed carefully, fired, and then a moment later heard a horse whinny.
Jack said, “Hey, let’s leave the horses alone. Keep the shooting on my property, aim at the fence.”
Derrick reached for the spud gun. “Okay, we’ll cut it out.”
Jack went back inside to mix more drinks. Jill and Laura were still watching Lifetime, their bottle of wine empty.
Jill asked, “How much longer are you guys going to be doing that?”
Jack said, “Not long. We only have about twenty more potatoes.”
Jill said, “Save ten of them, for dinner tomorrow.”
Jack went back out and handed drinks to Mike and Derrick before putting a dozen potatoes back in the sack. He then took the sack and put it back in the pantry, made a stiff drink for himself and went back outside.
Derrick asked, “Hey man, can I bring my son over?”
Jack shrugged. “Yeah, why not? We’ll save a couple of rounds for him.”
“Thanks, Jack. I’ll be right back.”
Mike said, “Guess we should be going to bed soon.”
Jack gestured toward the living room. “Yes. In about twenty minutes their show will be over.”
The doorbell rang again. Jill called, “Jack!”
Mike and Jack went inside. A policeman stood outside the front door. Jack moved to stand in front of him. “Evening, officer. Something wrong?”
“Sir, we received a complaint about noise, and disturbing the peace. And someone shot a horse?”
Jack said nothing, caught between carefully choosing his words and carefully choosing to say nothing. Derrick and his son approached along the front walk. The policeman turned to face them.
Derrick spoke, “Joe! What are you doing here?”
“Derrick, we got a noise complaint.”
“Oh, that was me messing around with the neighbors. I’m real sorry about that.”
“Well it’s after hours. Now tell me what’s going on.”
Derrick turned and gently nudged his son to go back home. Then he faced Joe and said, “We fired a potato gun in the back yard, and I shot too high and hit a horse.”
Officer Joe asked, “Can I come in?”
Derrick intervened, “Follow me around the side through the gate, to the back yard.”
Officer Joe followed Derrick around the side of the house to the gate to enter Jack’s back yard. Jack and Mike went to the patio and met Joe and Derrick there.
Officer Joe pointed at the potato gun and said, “Is this it?”
“Yessir,” said Jack.
“Can I take a shot?”
Mike loaded the gun, handed it to the policeman who held it at the waist, then nodded for Mike to light it. It whoomed, the round hitting the fence.
Officer Joe smiled. “That’s cool. But it’s too late for this much noise.”
Jack said, “Okay, we’ll call it a night.”
“Thank you.” Officer Joe left, Derrick went home.
“Whoo, that was close,” said Mike.
They watched the last five minutes of the Lifetime movie with Jill and Laura, then went to bed.