Kirby: Echo of artillery fire like music to my ears

By Robert Kirby

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: June 19, 2012 02:38PM
Updated: June 19, 2012 04:03PM
image
Robert Kirby, Tribune columnist

My father received orders for Fort Douglas in 1970. He sold our house in California, packed us up and hauled us to Utah.

A year later, I got an after-school job as a janitor at the aging Fort Douglas PX. I wasn’t much on cleaning, but I had another highly sought-after job skill. Unlike the dozen women I worked for, it didn’t bother me to trap rats.

I left that job after a year, but I’ve always had fond memories of Fort Douglas. There’s so much colorful history in that part of the valley — much of it about cannons.

On Saturday, I returned to the old Army post when Sonny and I took our wives to the Fort Douglas Museum open house. I had been lured back by another woman: Su Richards, museum research archivist and friend.

Su needed me to do the only other thing I have ever been good at: demolishing stuff. In this case, a new building complex that blocked the parade ground’s view of downtown Salt Lake City.

According to Su, the view had always been an essential part of Utah’s history. From here, Col. Patrick O’Connor is rumored to have trained his cannon on the Salt Lake temple as a neighborly way of reminding Brigham Young who was in charge.

Because the temple was three miles away and out of range of O’Connor’s guns, it was likely all for show. It probably still bothered Brigham Young, though.

I don’t know anything about that. I do know something about artillery, especially the old stuff. And on Saturday, the Fort Douglas parade ground was once again filled with rows of obsolete cannon.

The guns ranged in size from pokey little Revolutionary War 2-pounders, all the way up to a Mexican War-era 16-pound howitzer. There were also more modern guns.

Note: The word “pound” refers to the weight of the projectile the gun is capable of firing. Two pounder equals 32 ounce cannon ball. Simple.

Note No. 2: If 2 pounds doesn’t sound like much, try catching a can of lima beans coming your way at 900 feet per second. Better yet, try finding all of someone who did.

On Saturday, Fort Douglas echoed with the sound of artillery fire. The blasts were ear-splitting and made my wife flinch and cuss. Clouds of sulfur and cordite billowed across the parade ground. Dogs as far away as Ogden cringed under porches.

Sonny and I were either in heaven or a highly attractive version of hell. He immediately fell in love with a 37mm revolving-barrel Hotchkiss gun. I went for the more unsophisticated 17th century stuff.

Sonny is a former U.S. Navy gunner’s mate. I have no idea what that is, only that he’s never tried anything with me. However, he is smart about cannons. In fact, he’s probably the only reason why all of me is still here.

While Sonny figured out his Hotchkiss gun, I spoke with Cap Cresap of California. Cap was wearing a Revolutionary War uniform. Cap had a small bronze 2-pound gun, copied from and original that once served aboard a sailing ship.

Cap’s cannon would have fit nicely in the back of my truck had he been distracted for a couple of a minutes. Instead, he showed me how to fire it.

After carefully sighting them on the building Su wanted gone, Sonny and I touched off our respective guns. When the smoke cleared, the building was still standing.

That’s when we discovered that once again, the cannons at Fort Douglas were just for show. They were loaded with blanks. It probably still bothered the people in the building, though. We had to settle for that.

Robert Kirby can be reached at rkirby@sltrib.com or facebook.com/notpatbagley.