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Muzzle Blasts Online
Muzzle Blasts Online Cover
Oct 1998/Nov 1998 Volume 3, Number 5

You Can Make A Difference

The small hands of a girl steady the musket against the rail fence, while other sharp pairs of eyes focus on the target fifty feet away. Pfff-boom! The targeted block bounces and spins away, reacting to a solid hit. There is a small sound from the drawing of breaths. Walking over a carpet of clover, several nine- and ten-year-olds recover, then examine the block and carry it back to the lattice-work of cedar for inspection by their mentor.

Rolling the pine block over in his hands, the Old One grins, and he speaks for the first time in ten minutes.

"Nice work. Now, what did you notice in the way of wildlife? Did you recognize that deer sign mixed in with turkey scat in the clover? Those bones are from a cougar-killed doe last May. That apple tree over there was topped by elk a couple of weeks ago. What do you figure we ought to do to protect it a little more?"

As the students drift off toward the browsed tree, everything is right with this picture. From the fur cap and pouches to the historic firearms they carry, you can sense the joy in this group. Only the footwear gives a clue to the time period they are in (Waugh, Nikes and Adidas!). They've earned these moments through their hard work, attention to safety, and a growing interest in life and the world. As they look down the slope across two thousand feet of elevation and six miles, their vision is lengthened and strengthened. They don't see just an awe-inspiring view, but are aware of a sense of direction and purpose that is being fostered within them. It's pretty hard to go back to mindless, eye-hand coordination video games when you've experienced a piece of the real world and the real action of life. This is quite an adventure, and it starts in the students' public school classroom.

Within this classroom, one finds an interesting array of things stacked around. There aren't enough cupboards to house the equipment and activities. One sees skulls of prehistoric-looking American and African species, piles of harness, trunks of cooking utensils, stacks of boxes filled with projects and books, aquariums, lumber for drying frames, and a collection of hides hanging from the wall alongside a green chalkboard. A half-dozen mounted waterfowl and grouse hang along the folding wall that separates the class from the computer/technology room. Antlers of deer, moose, caribou, buffalo, and pronghorn are laid in a pile atop a cabinet that houses hide scrapers, iron pots, nesting box materials, and blacksmith tools. A workbench is cluttered with hand tools. Vises hold parts of an upgraded Jaeger rifle and a British wall gun, and a simple sign inscribed "Gunsmiths" rests against the window taped over with a blueprint of a late 1700's rifle. Thirty desks are lined into the remaining space, filled with well used books and papers. Chairs are draped with lunches and backpacks, bike helmets, and baseball hats. Yes, it's just another day in the fourth grade.

While most people are surprised to find such an environment, this assemblage is a self-contained fourth grade classroom in Washington's Kettle Falls Elementary School in northeastern Washington, several miles from the old Hudson's Bay Post, Fort Colville. This teacher admits to being a little closer to the ten-year-olds in mentality than his graying hair indicates. Every day is an adventure, and as he drifts down from the mountains every morning, he's glad to be a part of such a system. While some are surprised to see what others might view as tools of mayhem (the knives, axes, firearms, iron kettles, and fire-irons), every item has a very clear place. There is a vision of what is needed by today's youth. They need responsibility, trust, example, and self-discipline.

From my perspective as a teacher, I don't find any lacking in the strength of these students once they enter a real world. When confronted with expectations and offered a little direction, nine- or ten-year-olds have enough skills to really take off and make something of their lives. They, like us older folks, have to make a commitment to what is right and good. As a neighbor, parent, and/or teacher, we have to stretch ourselves. I'm blessed with a supportive wife, a good administration, and support from a thinking school board, my principal, and fellow staff. But parents and community are still the real key. Without their support, we are pretty much doomed to have a rough time in education. So much of what we do rests with others. Oh, we can limp through, but the students suffer and so does the community. Community members have so much to offer; and when they're involved, our students will turn into responsible and productive citizens. Many of us in historical reenactments have so much to share with our knowledge and collections. With our help, students can develop lifelong strengths and attitudes that will make sure our families, neighborhoods, states, and nation are safe, interesting, and wonderful places to live. I can speak of first-hand associations with many of you that have made a difference with many of my students.

Some are surprised to find firearms or knives in a classroom. Laws, both at the Federal and State level, still allow this for educational purposes. Your local school board and administration are the key to allowing knives and firearms into the schools within your district. Thank goodness for the people who have worked to protect our heritage against the inroads of those who would hide freedom, history, craft, art, sport, and technology. Often, people who would choose to take part in activities are put off by not knowing what the law really allows--teachers included. We are so busy trying to please everybody and stay within the laws that we hardly have a second to breathe and take a look at what is flowing down the pike next. We need your enthusiasm and expertise.

If you were to see a seventy-pound youngster with a couple pounds of hammer, focused on beating a piece of hot iron into something that resembles a tent stake or a tool, you'd know there was no worry that this kid or group will go off the deep end. They are focused. This is not cut and paste. They are creating a tool or an extension of themselves that they would never want to see taken away or destroyed. Nor, for that matter, would they want to see the loss of this opportunity and adventure from their lives. We have to remember that in times past, apprentices started their careers at this age. The collection of firearms being made for the local museum will always be a source of pride for these students. They researched and planned the pieces. They helped craft these arms, cast projectiles, and fired them. The artistic works they ply are all a source of gaining the confidence and discipline to tackle other projects or hurdles in life. When tanned hides become pouches, blades become tools for the kit, and horns become works of art. You can feel the beaming pride of accomplishment. Imagine for a moment what it feels like for a small person to share with adults the joy they feel. Don't you wish you had started in this direction a whole lot sooner? Take the vision you have and share it. Go the extra paces and they'll be miles in a short time.

I'm often asked how much time we spend on these projects. It varies according to how responsible the students are. Usually a limited group gets to work on a project a few minutes a day. Some days, we might spend a couple of hours as a large group working a hide, digging roots, researching, and writing. Other times it may only be a few minutes with a piece of brass, sanding and finishing. Moments when work is finished can be used by students on individual projects at their desks. We might walk over to the high school shop and blacksmith for an hour with one of their torches. (A portable, gas-fired, ceramic and stainless forge just walked into our room with a student from fifteen years ago as this article was being written. He built it to give something back. That surely was nice.) The high school shop is a place of mystery, and well, you can mix wee kids with giant kids. The small ones get a chance to see where they may be some day and start the inner process of planning for their own projects. The big kids can be role models and reflect a bit on how far they've come.

If you are interested in sharing such activities with a class, start small. We always start with cooking in Dutch ovens, usually on the sidewalk outside the classroom door. We also practice our fire starting skills with flint and steel there as well. Moving out into a corner of a lawn, we cut a divot and build a fire pit, complete with irons and grates that were made by the students. Cook anything -- breads, pies, meats, (baked, broiled, boiled), soups, stews, vegetables, cobblers, etc.

Classroom projects--beading and the making of pouches, pattern making, and research--are all relevant to subject areas such as art, mathematics, English, science, history, reading/library, etc. These are usually done at the students' desks or in small groups. These can be extra or part of a specific course of study.

Hide tanning falls in here, and a frame should be made portable to protect projects from pets that might roam a playground area after students complete tasks for the day. Figure on eight to ten hours over a couple of days or weeks. We use take-down frames, fastened with screws, and plastic twine from hay bales to fasten the hides to the frames. This allows the materials to be stacked in a corner and out of the way when not in use. It also permits adjustment for different species or variations in the size of hides. Deer and elk hides work great and are converted into a whole raft of things.

For firearms construction, parts can be ordered for assembly. You can also build what you are capable of. We work and cast in the high school shop, or work with lead and pewter in the area outside the classroom. Bullets are cast outdoors, most often with an electric pot. A bench in the classroom has several vises for holding parts. Tools remain simple, in the realm of hand operated. A drill is about the only power tool used; however, now and again a electric buffer in the high school art room comes into play. The tools used most frequently are files, chisels, scrapers, and sandpaper.

Safety is taught before and during ongoing projects. Goggles, ear protection, shooting glasses, and leather welding gloves are important pieces of equipment. Students police each other in this arena pretty well. They are proud to know the correct way of doing things. Use sharp, good quality tools and show the students tricks for keeping things in good condition. No really large investment is needed. Often high school shops will help you out at the elementary school level with tool loans or the construction of benches. Your work pays dividends for them later on.

When it comes to finishing projects, sandpaper is pretty cheap, and a lot of tools can be made with doweling or wood scraps to work small areas. Chemicals, oils, and stains will need a container for storage if some area isn't available close at hand. You might even carry them back and forth with you if you're on a project with a group. One of the millwrights in town built us a steel locking box that sits under our work bench; we use it for valuable tools. We've built wooden chests to hold other items in the classroom, and they've also proven valuable in transporting equipment to outside locations. Nineteen-dollar poly footlockers from local stores are a good value as well. Theft has never been a problem, as students would never want to ruin the good things they got to do. You'd be more apt to lose your lunch around here. Trust is a very important point in dealing with all people in life, and kids learn behavior from the way they are treated. Expect honesty and offer trust. It's wonderful to see the returns you get for such a small consideration. Think positive, and if things go awry, you hold the greatest leverage of all: shutting down the project. If someone ever acts reckless, they don't have to be involved. Remember, you are not on a power trip, but you are in control.

Food cooking is an area that always seems to work. Keep it simple. My students have collected a pretty good list of fare from the Fur Trade period. Our thanks to many of you out there. We cook with charcoal on the sidewalk and real firewood on the playground. Baking is kept simple: breads, cobbler, biscuits. Roasting: chicken, duck, half turkey pieces, small roasts. Stewing and boiling: tongue, heart, Swiss steak, pot roast, vegetables and roots. Broiling: chops, steaks, whole fish. We collect roots and process them by drying for later meals. Air-drying meats, smoking others, and salting are always a part of the schedule. I've found that if you do one item at a time, you get fewer logistical troubles, and many items take care of themselves while you work on the morning's subjects. While it is hard to cook enough for everyone's wants, foods are cut into small sections and served. A taste is enough and you don't have to cook a banquet each time. I use toothpicks to serve meat chunks, and paper towels to serve baked goods. Stews with gravy can be served in inexpensive cups. You can show the period utensils, plates, cups, etc., but it isn't necessary to have service for a whole classroom.

One thing that has proved very popular is a camp-out at the end of the year. The boys stay out one night, girls another. Parents are needed for this, and it's never been a problem to get volunteers. Tents have been made and collected over the years. Most of us don't have the cash flow to jump in whole-horse at the onset of an idea, so things trickle in, getting better and greater in proportion to the length of time we're involved. Local merchants will help out at times, but won't know if not asked. The Alcoa Foundation supported us with a nice tent a few years back and it was much appreciated. Grants are available from a large number of sources, but you have to do the leg-work. Remember, to steal ideas from one person it plagiarism; to steal from many is research.

How about taking your ideas to a teacher or club member and building an event with a classroom? That event may be as simple as showing period equipment or a few minutes demonstrating. It may turn into a joy-filled period for many, and I'm sure you'll feel what I do nearly everyday. Remember that you are the one eyes will be focused on, so your example is what will be viewed for future activities. Be credible, be honest, and be sure to do your homework.

Keep it simple. What you can carry under your arm will work wonders, and you can help this world with very little but interest and a small amount of effort. Seek out a teacher, or if you're a teacher, seek out reenactors. Your efforts will pay dividends in the form of friendship, understanding, interest, and knowledge based on reality, not on some abstract written form. Don't plan to be spontaneous tomorrow. Go at it today. You'll find those shining times right here in this moment.

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