At Fort McHenry
By Michael J. Foster
Babe in the Belfry
had just put dinner on the table when Jim got
home. Jim quietly sat down at the table. Grandfather
was visibly alarmed when the candlelight exposed
reached for his napkin and answered without
got beat up again."
grabbed Jim's chin and leaned in close to examine.
it those Wilson boys? Those boys are worse than
a pack of mangy wolves! Did you put up a good
rather not talk about it now."
sighed and sat down.
I know you are having a rough time, but you
must stand up for yourself."
his hands, Grandfather bowed his head. Jim did
the same. Grandfather spoke in a solemn voice.
in heaven, thank you for this food we are about
to eat and bless our house and those in it.
Bless the militia and the soldiers at the Fort.
Make their fortress strong and their cannons
ending his prayer, Grandfather peeked up at
Jim with one eye and smiled.
God, please give Jim the courage and strength
to best those darn Wilsons! Amen."
looked hard at Grandfather.
what happened to Father? I mean why do people
call him a coward?"
picked up a pitcher of water and began pouring
ago, your father was challenged to a duel. It
was over some petty squabble, but the other
fellow felt that his honor was at stake. The
whole town showed up early that morning for
the spectacle. You father showed up, too, but
refused to duel. The crowds jeered him and his
opponent shouted insults to provoke him to fight,
but your father walked away."
didn't he duel, Grandfather?"
poured himself water from the pitcher.
partly because your father is the best shot
with a pistol in three counties. He surely would
have killed that man. But mainly he didn't fight
because that man was his future brother-in-law.
see, Jim, your mother and father had been courting
long before the incident. They had been keeping
their engagement a secret because your other
Grandfather would not allow your father to marry
his daughter. He didn't think a seaman was good
enough for his daughter.
father refused to duel because he was thinking
of your mother. If he dueled, she might lose
a brother or a fiancée. Either way, he
might never see her again. His only hope was
to swallow his pride and walk away. Eventually,
your parents eloped and here you are."
sat in amazement.
that day your father has been respected by a
few, but scorned by many. No matter the truth,
people will believe what they want to believe."
looked down, trying to make sense of Grandfather's
don't think for a second you father's not brave.
I remember when your father was just a lad."
looked up with anticipation.
was deathly afraid of heights. While his brothers
and sisters climbed trees, he was content staying
on the ground with the dog. He never ventured
out on the balcony of our old house in Fredricksburg,
and I never even seen him climb a simple ladder.
Your Grandmother and I tried to break him of
his fear, but he was as stubborn as a mule."
began scooping potatoes onto Jim's plate.
day, much later, when you father was a young
man, we were all out the church picnic. It was
a beautiful summer day. I remember your Grandmother
used to make the best apple pie for that occasion.
Anyway, the adults were all eating and talking
and the kids were all about playing when we
heard screaming. To everyone's surprise, little
Martha Jones was atop the church bell tower.
She had been playing in the belfry with her
dolls and fell over the railing onto the steep
scooped some potatoes onto his own plate. Jim
was on the edge of his seat.
the darndest thing. Martha's parents were beside
themselves with panic. Reverend Foster and Mr.
Jones ran into the church, but little Martha
was quickly slipping closer to the edge of the
roof. Out of nowhere your father appeared in
the bell tower. He climbed out onto the roof.
With one hand, he hung onto the railing, with
the other he reached out to the girl. A horrible
screaming erupted in the crowd as a small body
dropped off the roof and fell to the ground.
Fortunately, it was just one of her dolls. As
she began slipping again, he grabbed her arm
and pulled her to safety."
poured himself a cup of water and began drinking.
Jim was dumbfounded, sitting without a sound.
do you know, even after that, your father was
still afraid of heights."
was shocked. He had no idea his father had been
such a brave hero. He never spoke about it or
defended himself in public for all these years.
put his sore body to bed that night. It had
been a long day. Moments after his head hit
the pillow he was asleep.