I once met a very old and wise man. He had lived a full and interesting life and wanted to pass on his knowledge to someone. He was also my neighbor from down the street. His name was Albert Webster. He was 83 years old.
I was 11 when he began hiring me for odd jobs; raking the leaves, painting his house trim and such basic tasks. When I was 12 I was promoted to mowing his lawn with an ancient Atlas Chain Co. , (ATCO), gas powered lawn mower. I enjoyed working for him and it helped pass the time after school. He also had such interesting stories he would tell me after I had finished the chores he needed done. Then he would make me tea and cookies and tell me stories of places he had travelled to and adventures he had lived.
One day I asked Mr. Webster about the model cannon that was on his mantel piece. It was completely made of brass and it would actually fire. This fascinated me. He could see that I was interested in the cannon and not long after that he told me he would teach me how to make one. I could hardly believe my ears but sure enough, one hot summer day after I finished mowing the lawn he showed me the machine shop.
Most retired people have hobbies and Mr. Webster’s hobby was his machine shop. Here he made working model steam engines. Meticulously crafted precision engines of steel and brass. In his shop in the basement he had a fine steel lathe and a milling machine as well as many smaller metal working tools. He took a piece of cold rolled steel and cut it to length on a bandsaw. Then he put this on his lathe in a three jaw chuck and drilled center holes on both ends. At each step of the process he explained what he was doing.
Then he began turning the steel into a cannon barrel. First he drilled the bore to the correct depth. Not right through like a modern cannon but only part way as this was the old style muzzle loading cannon. Then he began to cut away the metal on the outside of the barrel to give it taper and a muzzle ring. He even let me try my hand at the lathe controls. He explained that you had to have a feel for the controls, like working with a horse or playing a guitar. You had to feel what your hands were doing and how the metal was responding to the lathe cutting tool.
He took his time explaining all the steps involved and then swaged on the trunnion piece and drilled the touch hole to finish the cannon barrel. He really did all the work, but he showed me and gently explained how to do it. Through his patient teaching and all the stories he shared with me he imparted an understanding to me. When I went home with the cannon barrel and proudly showed my parents they thought it was good to learn a skill like that.
Firstly I was learning how to work and build things with my hands. I was learning skills that would stay with me as I explored career paths. Secondly, with a “small business loan” from my parents I was able to acquire my own miniature lathe and milling machine and start making my own brass cannons that I was able to sell to the local gun store. This provided pocket money while I was in high school and I also had fine marks in Machine Shop class. Even the teacher was impressed with my brass cannons.
I test fired each cannon and carefully proofed them with a double charge of FFF blackpowder using firecracker fuzes in the touchhole. Even though I was selling the cannons to the gun store I wasn’t able to buy the gunpowder so dad had to buy me that for me. I even made friends with the historian at the local military museum who helped me with scale drawings so my cannons would be historically accurate 6 pounder muzzle loading cannons.
I don’t know what happened to Mr. Webster as I left to go to work in the logging camps of northern Alberta when I was still a teenager. I had spent time with Dad on the oil rigs and didn’t like that and running skidder was far more fun. I mean standing on a stationary drilling rig in -40 or working in the snow covered woods dragging sweet smelling spruce trees to the logging landing. Which would you choose?
I wish somehow I could reach across time and space and thank Mr. Webster for the time he spent with me. He was a true mentor and a very caring man. I thank you Mr. Webster and honor you for taking your time to help me to be a better person. I’ve had occasion in my own life to teach music or heavy equipment operating to a young person and I hope I always have the same patience and care as Mr. Webster took with me.