Herald Journal Columns
Feb. 17, 2003 Herald Journal
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The Lester Prairie military, led by David Weise


In a recent story, I wrote about some boyhood friends and our first adventures with our air rifles, but none of that BB gun mischief can compare to the day that we built a cannon and tried to kill Punky Davies.

I shouldn't say "we," because I only watched. It all started on a sunny morning in late June.

My mom was working the day shift at the Alice Haney Nursing Home, so I was left in the care of my brother. Sonny and some of the older boys were going over to David Weise's to play army, and I had to go along.

I wasn't looking forward to it because the last time I went, I was forced to play one of the wounded soldiers and had to lie in the dirt for an hour with a dishtowel spotted with catsup wrapped around my head.

By the time David Weise was in junior high, he had already become obsessed with all things military, and demanded realism in his war games.

On many days the vacant lot just to the south of his father's mortuary was transformed into a virtual battlefield. Most of the boys who joined his army, or who were drafted as I was, brought along their Boy Scout gear ­ canteens, mess kits, hatchets, and sheath knives.

But it was David who supplied the more authentic equipment ­ army cots, pup tents, wooden rifles, a replica machine gun, and most important of all, the master battle plan.

On this particular day, the battle was not going well because, according to General Weise, we lacked the necessary heavy artillery to destroy the enemy's fuel depot.

The solution: build a cannon. Sergeant Schmalz and Corporal Mesenbring led a patrol over to the scrap metal barrels located behind the Schwartz Manufacturing building on the other side of town.

They returned with a four-inch diameter steel tube about three feet in length (which didn't look like scrap). They also had "liberated" from the enemy's stockpile of supplies, a thick, 6-inch square iron plate.

The troops were ordered to march with these pieces over to Weise and Kuhlmann's stanchion factory, where some of the men were on lunch break.

The general talked one of them into welding the metal plate to the bottom of the pipe "for the good of the country," as he explained it. After the weld was cooled off in a five-gallon pail of water, the cannon was transported back to the battlefield to be made ready for combat.

We had, from time to time in the past, used small Zebra brand firecrackers to explode potato hand grenades, but for the powder charge in this monstrous cannon, we were going to have to use some of the unit's precious silver tube salutes or some cherry bombs.

We were, however, still missing an appropriate projectile of proper size and lethal weight. Several reconnaissance patrols were sent out to scout for a tree whose trunk measured a little less than the four-inch diameter of the cannon barrel.

After much collateral damage to the neighborhood foliage, one was finally secured. Munitions Officer Slanga used a hand saw to cut the slender birch trunk into five-inch long segments to serve as our cannon shells.

We were now ready for test firing.

The entire regiment was assembled in the middle of the battlefield, forming a circle around the cannon, which was pointed straight up.

On command, privates George and Jimmy Daly stepped forward, each dropping a lit cherry bomb down the barrel, and immediately after, the wooden shell was dropped in by the general himself.

We all stood so still that we could hear the burning wicks sizzling beneath the plug for three or four seconds, then . . . boom!

Our heads snapped back, and we all stood staring up at a tiny black speck high in the sky directly overhead.

At about the time the speck started getting bigger, it occurred to all of us at once that we had not employed a great deal of foresight when pointing the cannon straight up. We all broke ranks and ran for our lives.

Preceded by a loud rush of air, not quite a whistle, the wooden shell smacked into the sod, the top end black and smoldering.

It had missed Punky Davies by less than a foot. White-faced and frozen, he stood there staring down at the half-buried shell near his feet.

The rest of us broke into hysterical and derisive laughter at the sight. To regain some of his dignity, I suppose, Punky yelled at David, "Ha! Ha! You missed me!"

We all laughed again. Now that could have very well been the end of it, but Punky hadn't acquired his nickname just because his real name was Marion.

During their early teens, Punky was probably my brother's best friend. If Sonny needed help finishing his paper route in a hurry because it was raining hard, Punky would volunteer.

If Sonny needed a friend to sneak out late at night to go raccoon or jackrabbit hunting, Punky was always willing and eager. And if the result was a licking when he got home, Punky just considered it to be the price of freedom and friendship.

He was a trusted and loyal buddy; but like all of us, he was not perfect. Punky was the kind of kid who never knew when he was ahead and sometimes kept working his mouth until it got him into trouble.

So, naturally, he kept on yelling, "Ha! Ha! You missed me! Ha! Ha! You missed me!" until David took one threatening step toward him, and Punky ran for his bike and disappeared around the corner.

In a few minutes the cannon shell had cooled off, and so we were ready to reload and, this time, test fire for distance to see if we could hit the Mobil fuel oil storage tanks located across the road over by the railroad tracks (probably another bad idea, right?).

The munitions team once again did its duty flawlessly. The lit cherry bombs were in and the cannon shell dropped on top, when, suddenly, around the corner of Sonny Birkholz's lumberyard came Punky on his bicycle yelling, "Betcha can't hit me! Betcha can't hit me! Betcha can't hit me!"

Now this might be an appropriate time to say a word or two about David Weise's character, as I understood it.

He wasn't really a mean kid. He just happened to have a more precise understanding than the rest of us of what would kill a guy and what would just hurt him a lot.

This ability may have served him and our country well during his multiple tours of duty in Vietnam during the 1960s, but a decade earlier it proved, as it did on this day, to be a bit unnerving. But I digress.

"Betcha can't hit me!" Upon hearing those words, David picked up the cannon and trained it upon Punky, who was racing down the sidewalk on the other side of the street on his bicycle.

Then David slightly adjusted his aim to lead him by four or five feet, and boom!

Punky's eyes widened as the eight-ounce birch messenger of death rocketed toward his head.

In that split second, I knew exactly what was going to happen next. I played it all in my head as the shell traveled through the air.

Punky would be lying there dead on the sidewalk, most of us too afraid to look at his mangled face ­ except for David, who would remain calm and in command.

He would order two privates to run and get one of the army cots to use as a stretcher. They would load up the body and double-time the corpse over to the garage attached to the funeral home.

In the meantime, other boy soldiers would be disassembling Punky's bike and hiding the parts in the evergreens.

Once in the garage, the body would be carried onto the elevator and taken down to the mortuary basement. We wouldn't have time to embalm it, although Gilly, David's dad, had once explained to us how to do it "just in case."

We would simply put Punky in the loss leader coffin, the one nobody ever bought because they didn't want the people who attended the funeral to think they were cheapskates.

With a little luck, nobody would find the body there until we had time to escape. We would all skip town by train, hiding in a boxcar, traveling west until we hit the ocean, growing old, and never getting to see our mothers again.

Wham! Jolting me from my reverie, the wooden shell exploded into a thousand splintered fragments against the sidewall of the lumberyard one inch behind Punky's head.

I was never in my life so glad to hear, "Ha! Ha! You missed me! Ha! Ha! You missed me!"

I would get to see my mother again.

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