Old Ironsides

By Lawrence Henry
web posted July 1999

This summer, every evening, my 21-month-old son voices a wish to repeat a ritual.

"Go see Old Ironsides," says Bud, "shoot off a cannon."

So we do. We live in Charlestown, Massachusetts, where, in the Navy Yard, the U.S.S. Constitution, newly and brilliantly refurbished, the oldest commissioned warship in the U.S. Navy, rests at anchor. At sunset every day, the crew strikes the colors and fires a blank shot from a bow gun, the massive report slamming in near-instant echo off the wall of a nearby office building and setting off car alarms throughout the now-condo-ized Navy Yard. (Local political lore has it that Richard Nixon closed the Yard to government contracts in 1972 in a fit of pique over not carrying the Massachusetts electoral delegation, the only blemish on a perfect landslide.)

Bud loves it. I generally smoke a cigar, and I love it, too.

Bud has now reached the age where he makes decisions about how to behave, and where I try to teach him how to behave. As we watch the sunset ritual on Old Ironsides, I particularly recall how badly I used to behave as a youngster -- how impatient I was, how unwilling to follow directions, how bullheaded about listening to good advice. I remember these things because, as a landlocked youngster in Minnesota, I loved Old Ironsides, and I tried again and again to make models of her, and botched them all: the plastic kit I pulled to pieces with my clumsy running rigging, the balsa hull I carved in killing haste and jammed full of nailhead cannon, then tried to waterproof with plastic tape, and which I promptly capsized and waterlogged in a succession of bathtubs and mudholes. I hope I can somehow spare Bud the pain of too much idiot yearning and not enough maturity, and at the same time let him be a kid, too.

So I tell him about big guys.

"Big guys don't yank," I'll say when he grabs a locked door handle and hurls his body backward against its resistance. "Big guys take their time and figure out how it works." Or, "Big guys don't kick. Big guys are always gentle. You want to be a big guy, don't you, Bud?" Bud looks at me with his soft brown eyes and nods, yes, he definitely wants to be a big guy.

So it pleases me that he loves Old Ironsides, which, in his lifetime, he has seen emerge piece by piece from unmasted disassembly in drydrock to its present magnificence. I'm especially pleased at the polite young sailors we meet when we go to watch the firing of the sunset gun.

"Big guys," I've told Bud, "are always careful."

The sailors clear tourists from the muzzle area of the gun, and warn bystanders of the impending shot via dockside sentries carrying radios. The radios rasp out, "Five minutes!" and the sailors make sure everybody stands in a safe place.

Big guys observe rituals.

Two sailors stand by at the American flag that flies at the stern, one at the ship's flag flying from the bow. A bosun's whistle blows. The cannon booms an instant later. The sailors stand at attention and gently lower and gather in the flags while a bugler plays. Three blasts on the whistle mean, "All

Rituals mean something important to big guys -- to all big guys, everywhere.

Visiting warships dock near the Constitution -- recently, a Canadian submarine and two Royal Navy missile cruisers. The sailors from these ships strike their own colors and salute their own flags in unison with the firing of Old Ironsides' sunset cannon.

Big guys are punctual.

As the sun drifts gradually south toward summer solstice, we go to the Navy Yard a little later each night. Sunset now comes at about 8:12. The sailors always fire the gun on time.

You can count on big guys. They're always there. They'll always do what you expect them to.

Big guys are patriotic, polite, and respectful, and they follow orders. Big guys dress in neat, clean clothes. Big guys take care of their belongings, and of the belongings they hold in trust for others.

(Periodically -- let's not forget -- big guys get to shoot off great big guns.)

"All done Old Ironsides!" says Bud.

Time to go home and take a bath. Big guys keep their bodies clean and say their prayers before they go to bed.

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