My musket-shooting summer


The view from the fort at Plimoth Plantation today.
  • The view from the fort at Plimoth Plantation today.

It was my last summer job, a break between junior and senior year of college.

It was also the summer I turned 21.

And the first, and last, time I ever shot a gun.

I was working at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, a recreation of the Pilgrim settlers’ village circa 1627, where in thatch-roofed cottages the “interpreters” — that’s what we were called — did our best to explain the history many of us had just learned at the beginning of the summer. Nowadays the interpreters embody actual people who lived in the village and look charmingly puzzled when visitors from the future ask trick questions.

That sounds like fun. I was a theater guy, I could have played a role. But instead, the role I was called to play was myself: chatty college kid in a floppy felt hat and blousy britches talking up 17th-century New England history and demonstrating some of the villagers’ everyday tasks, which included cooking (I’ve never had stews better than what we made over those open hearths), cleaning, and firing the matchlock musket.

Musket demos were part of the routine for any interpreter assigned to the top of the fort. You talked about security, the location of the fort at the crest of a hill overlooking the water (fantastic view), and about the musket itself, which you filled with gunpowder before producing a nice big bang for the gathered throngs.

But as I said, I was chatty. And there was one time when I loaded the musket with gunpowder, went on chatting, and then, without realizing I was repeating myself, loaded it again.

And then I pulled the trigger.

You’d be surprised — or maybe you wouldn’t be (I sure was) — by the powerful recoil that an overloaded old musket can generate. In my case, it drove me right back to the ramparts, and produced a very big bang.

And a genuinely startled audience.

Once they realized everything was ok, and I explained that no, that wasn’t what I was intending to do, one woman said to me, “Oh... I wondered why you were filling it again.”

Like the time I set my hair on fire while attempting to light a cigarette during a play rehearsal, thus convincing me that I would never be suave enough to smoke for real, my experience with musket overload proved to me that maybe, just maybe, I should stay away from guns.

I did continue interpreting the musket that summer, but I never double-packed it again. The little gunpowder burn in the brim of my floppy felt hat was all the reminder I needed. 

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