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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Rabbit traps, Caves, and Cannon

Another thing my father and his brother had in common with Tom Sawyer were the caves that are part of the Missouri landscape.  Like Tom, they explored those what were near where they lived.
The time we were living on Doc Hunt’s place was at the beginning of the Great Depression of the 1930s.  No one in the Ozarks knew much about national economics and such—at least not in our neck of the woods—but we sure knew that times were getting hard and money was mighty scarce.  That is what we called those days—“Hard Times.”

There was practically no way for youngsters to make spending money during Hard Times except for trapping rabbits.  The countryside was full of cottontail rabbits and dealers from the city would buy rabbits in the fall when the weather was cold enough for the carcasses to keep after they were killed.  We could trap rabbits, kill them by breaking their necks, gut them, and sell them at the store for ten or twelves cents apiece.  The city dealers would come by once a week or so and buy the rabbits—the carcass for meat markets and the skin for making cheap fur coat collars.

We used box traps to catch the cottontails.  They were wooden boxes about twenty inches long made from pieces of board six and eight inches wide.  There was a vertically sliding door at the front.  Two holes were drilled on the top; one for a forked stick for a fulcrum and the other at the rear for the trigger.  The trigger was connected to the sliding door by strings and a log stick levered over the fulcrum so that when the trap was set the trigger held up the sliding door.  The trap was baited with an apple core or carrot.  When the rabbit went in after the bait and bumped the trigger the door came down and he was caught.
Author's sketch of the kind of rabbit trap he and his brother made.

Richard and I usually had six or eight box traps.  In thickets and fence rows we would find the little paths where the rabbits travelled and set the traps where they would not miss them.  In rabbit season in the fall, we ran our trap line every morning and each evening—killing those we had caught and re-baiting the traps.  We never worked very hard at it, but we would often have three or four rabbits a week to take to the store.  When we got old enough to carry a 22 squirrel rifle, the rabbit money enabled us to buy shells for the slender little Remington rolling-block single-shot rifle that Dad got for us when I was ten.

Richard and I were to grow up carrying that little squirrel rifle while we roamed the fields and woods.  Dad taught us to handle it safely and how to aim with deadly accuracy.  He taught us never to aim a gun unless we intended to shoot and to shoot straight.  His philosophy was, “if you can see it, you can hit it.”  When we killed a squirrel, for instance, we did not just shoot at the squirrel.  We shot at his eye.  We killed squirrels only for meat for the table and shooting one through the body tended to spoil the meat.  If we could not see the head, we did not shoot.

Once in a while, of course, we would accidentally gut-shoot a squirrel.  When that happened to me (which was not often, I am happy to say) I would bury a badly gut-shot squirrel rather than be embarrassed by taking one home that I had not shot in the head.  I know that Richard occasionally did that also, although he seldom missed.  He was always a shade better than I was.  In fact, I saw him competing successfully in adult turkey shoots when he was only fourteen and I have known him to knock down a quail on the wing with that 22 rifle.  Of course I insisted the latter had to be an accident to be an accident!

That, however, was later on as in 1930 we were still not allowed to carry a rifle.  Instead, we had to be content with trapping rabbits, fishing, and just roaming the countryside exploring.  We found our first cave along the creek north of the Doc Hunt place.  We had been fishing with a neighbor boy who was two or three years older and were moseying along the creek bank under the trees along the base of a limestone cliff when we spied a dark opening about three feet high.  We hiked back across the fields to the neighbor’s house, borrowed a coal oil lantern, then went back to explore the cave.

It was a dandy cave.  The narrow passageways back into the cliff a few feet then widened into a low room maybe eight feet across from which two passageways led off into the limestone.  We could go no farther, however, as the openings were too low to crawl into.  The only thing unusual we found was a small glossy blue and green stalactite to carry home in my pocket.

Our father gave us another lesson about that.  When I proudly showed him the piece of stalactite, he turned it in his hands then explained to us how those stalactites take hundreds of years to form from water dripping through the limestone.  I felt bad then about damaging it and even thought about taking the piece back and gluing it into place but I never got around to it.  The result was that I never again thoughtlessly destroyed any sort of natural wonder.

That was the summer we made a steam cannon and could have gotten badly injured in the process.  We were fooling around with the same older neighbor boy (whose name I cannot recall) and came across an abandoned old broken-down blacksmith shop.  There were some dandy pieces of junk piled out behind the weathered old building and one of them was a piece of iron pipe about ten or twelve feet long.  It was capped at one end.

The neighbor boy proposed that we make a steam cannon and he proceeded to show us how.  The pipe was about three inches in diameter.  We spent about an hour cutting a plug from the end of a tree branch that would fit tightly into the open end of the pipe.  That done we built a fire and got it going good while we carried some water from the creek in an old bucket and filled the pipe about half full with it.  We then drove the wood plug tightly into the pipe, stacked up some rocks and propped the pipe up at an angle with the lower half across the fire.  The idea was to boil the water until steam pressure built up enough to blow out the plug.  Hopefully it would blow out before the pipe exploded.
It is possible the boys had seen an ad like this.

It took quite a while for the steam pressure to build up.  I got tired of just sitting waiting and was wandering around when finally, there was a satisfying BOOM!  The pipe jumped and fell off the rocks, and we could hear the wooden plug screaming off into the distance.  In later years during my engineering courses at the University of Washington I realized that we were lucky that we had not driven that plug into the pipe too tightly because the old rusty pipe could have exploded from the steam pressure and sent shrapnel flying in all directions.  At any rate, it was a very satisfactory experiment, but we never got around to trying it again.

The lessons of the Doc Hunt place would come together in the future when team work, creativity, shooting skill, and a large measure of grace would protect the Frieze boys.