Remembering Challenger

This article was originally posted on January 28, 2013.

Twenty-seven years [twenty-nine now] ago I sat at the window in my office enjoying the clear, crisp morning that would give us an unprecedented view of the Challenger launch more than 120 miles away. Normally clouds would limit our view. Even so, we would not see the shuttle itself, just the fire from the rockets and the huge vapor trail following it.

Since we seldom saw the sequence where the external tanks drop, we didn’t recognize the unusual attitude of the vapor trail as a problem. We had no television or radios in the office so we didn’t know anything was wrong until someone came by with the news. The TVs in our training room were quickly jerry-rigged with makeshift antennas to pull in the local news coverage of the disaster and we spent most of the remainder of the day in a state of shock.

What I remember most about that day is the vapor trail which seemed to hang there in the sky for hours (no, but it seemed that way) as testament to what had happened.

My fascination with space travel continues and I watched every shuttle launch I could until the program ended. I will always be in awe of the men and women who ride those amazing rockets into the unknown.

The Hot Shot Oven

Castillo de San Marcos
Castillo de San Marcos. Photo by the author via Flickr

The oven is that small structure with the chimney you see in the distance. I always wondered why it was located outside the fort’s walls. The article below explains that. Note the semi-circular structures in the grass to the left side of the photo. Those were gun emplacements also built by the U.S. Army after Florida became part of the United States.

The following article was compiled by workers of the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Florida in 1940. You’ll find a copy of the actual manuscript at Florida Memory.

The substantial little furnace for heating cannon balls on the seaward side of Fort Marion (Castillo De San Marcus) has been an object of interest since its erection in 1843. These auxiliaries of the artillery have been common to forts erected on the seacoast since revolutionary times, and the shot heated in these ovens were very effective against wooden ships.

The hot shot furnaces were all about the same size and held 60 or more shot, according to the caliber. The shot being placed in the furnace cold, it required one hour and fifteen minutes to heat them to a red heat, but once the furnace was hot, a 24-pounder shot could be brought to red heat in 25 minutes; the 32 and 42-pounders requiring a few minutes longer. An unusual circumstance concerning the heating was that the balls expanded under the heat but did not
return to their normal size after cooling.

Inside the shot oven.
A look into the shot oven at the Castillo. From the author’s collection at Flickr.

Once the balls were cherry-red or white hot, they were taken from the furnace with iron forks, scraped carefully with rasp to remove scale, and carried in ladles to the cannon. The ladles were formed of an iron ring, the interior of which was beveled to fit the ball, with two wooden-handled arms inserted.

Several other implements were attached to the furnace also; pokers for stirring the fire, rasps, tongs with circular jaws for taking up shot, iron rake to remove cinders from ash pit, tub for cooling implements, rammer with head covered by a circular plate of sheet iron of larger diameter than the ball to remove clay from bore when clay wads are used, and a bucket. Many of the implements were furnished in twos so that one set could be cooling in the tub while the others were in use. When the battery was in action it took three men to serve the furnace, and handle the tools.

In siege batteries, or in other situations where there were no furnaces available, a grate was used for heating shot. In a painting of the Battle of Niagara, during the War of 1812, an American woman is shown heating shot on a grating of this sort, while another rushes the cherry-red balls to waiting gunners. In loading the projectile, gunners elevated the cannon’s muzzle sufficiently to allow the ball to roll in, and rammed the cartridge or powder bag home. After the powder was seated, a dry hay wad was rammed against it, then a wet hay or clay wad. Next the powder bag was pricked open and primed through the vent, and a wet sponge passed through the gun. Finally, the hot shot was rolled in packed with another wet hay or clay wad, the match was applied to the touch- hole, and the meteoric projectile bounded across the billow.

The cartridges (powder charge minus shot) for hot shot were little different than those used for ordinary projectiles, being made of cannon cartridge-paper, or parchment well pasted to prevent the powder from sifting out.  Sometimes two bags were used, one within the other. When clay wads were used they were cylindrical in form, about one caliber long, and were well moistened.  Wet hay wads were preferable, however, and these were soaked in water for about 15 minutes then allowed to drip.

When the wet hay was used, steam was often seen to issue from the touch- hole or vent as soon as the ball was rammed home, but as this was the effect of the heat of the ball against the water contained in the wad no danger resulted from it. It is said that the ball could cool in the gun without the charge taking fire, but shots were usually fired as quickly as possible to prevent the steam dampening and injuring the powder.

It has been argued by some that the cannon ball would cool in its passage through the air towards its objective, but the contrary is true; the temperature of the ball was increased by friction with the air. According to the Ordnance Manual of 1861, a red-hot shot retained sufficient heat to set fire to wood after having struck the water several times!

The penetrations of cold and hot shot into wood were equal under the same circumstances. Charges for hot shot were reduced, however, to one quarter or one-sixth the weight of the shot in order that the ball might remain in the wood and not penetrate too deeply as it was found that the fire was communicated more rapidly and certainly to the wood when the ball did not penetrate more than 10 or 12 inches. At a greater depth the shot would be less effective, as the  communication with the external air was not sufficient for combustion.

With the invention of the ironclad Merrimac and Monitor during the later days of the War between the States the days of wooden battleships were over, and the hot shot furnace became obsolete also. During its heyday, however, the arrival of some of the furnace’s cookery rolling along pitch-oozing decks littered with fragments of power bags, very likely terrified the seamen. Often the ship would go up in flames from ignited rigging, or blow up from a shot to the magazine. Somewhat slower, but just as effective, were shots placed “‘twixt wind and water’,” which smouldered [sic] away in the oaken sides until quenching the blaze was impossible.

Although cold and useless today, the hot shot furnace at Fort Marion still stands on a humble monument to the ingenuity of artillerists who have established the Coast Artillery branch of the Army.

Silent Sentinel

Silent Sentinel – photo art created by the author.

The Castillo de San Marcos has protected the residents of St. Augustine for more than 300 years. Built using a local shell rock called coquina, this fortress was never captured in battle. Instead of shattering its walls, cannon balls either bounced off or were absorbed into them like in a sponge.

Today it is one of our national treasures maintained by the National Park Service and open to visitors daily. To learn more, visit the Castillo’s site at

Twinkle Lights

One Christmas while I was still in the Air Force, I came home for what I expected would be a quiet holiday.

There were no young children in the family at that time so our custom was to go to midnight mass at Trinity Church on Christmas Eve then come home and open our presents after the service. That way we could all sleep in on Christmas day.

Trinity Church by H. S. Wyllie

Midnight mass had become such a huge service at our church that on this particular year they had decided to have a family service earlier in the evening. We chose to attend the early service and enjoyed one of the most joyful celebrations of Christmas we’d ever experienced.

The normal processional was replaced with a telling of the Christmas story frequently interrupted by everyone singing appropriate carols. The first carol was “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and as the congregation sang, the angels – a small mob of pre-schoolers dressed as angels – marched down the aisle. Marching is what they were supposed to be doing, but that was forgotten as soon as they saw mommy or daddy and had to wave or say hi. Once they were all “settled” at the front of the church, the story continued and the next carol brought a group of slightly older children dressed as shepherds. More carols were sung as the oldest children performed the roles of the major characters and the pageant was complete. The actual service then began and the normal rituals were expedited somewhat as the children fidgeted up front. At the appropriate point, they all marched out to change from their costumes and have refreshments while the adults took communion. There was a joyful reunion of parents and children in the churchyard after the service.

As we walked back to the car we noticed a small group of people across the street chatting. One young man stood out because he wore a beret with holes punched through the felt and a strand of small twinkle lights poked through the holes. He had found some source of power and was standing there casually twinkling away. We found this quite amusing.

Back home, we all relaxed around the tree and began opening gifts.

Christmas day was always full of visitors. Neighbors would drop by with gifts – usually delicious baked goods – and we shared bags of citrus fruit from our trees. Christmas dinner was a group effort, but always a relaxed and enjoyable experience. There was time to stop and visit whenever a neighbor or friend dropped by. Our big meal was late afternoon and things were normally cleaned and put away by sunset.

This particular Christmas evening, we were all semi-comatose in front of the evening news when a car pulled into the driveway. It was several young adults Mom had befriended – she was always adopting strays – including the young man with the twinkle lights beret from the night before. Once everyone was introduced and settled, he plugged himself in and was soon twinkling away. It was most festive! Twinkle Lights was actually quite articulate and an interesting addition to the conversation. We were so engrossed that we didn’t notice another car pulling into the driveway until the occupants stepped onto the porch. I looked up to see one of Mom’s friends with her husband and another couple I didn’t recognize. She was staring at Twinkle Lights through the glass front door and I could see the shocked look on her face. You could see that she was considering a quick retreat. Fortunately, that didn’t happen and the group was soon finding Twinkle Lights and his friends as fun and fascinating as we did.

Mom had a gift for bringing disparate groups together and this Christmas evening was just another example. Although this was not a Big Christmas in the sense of large family gatherings or large events, it was very special. Thirty years later the images of those little angels marching down the aisle and the young man with the twinkling beret are still vivid memories.

Originally published December 2011.