Courage At Fort McHenry
By Michael J. Foster

Chapter Three
Babe in the Belfry

       Grandfather 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 Jim's injuries.
       "What happened!"
       Jim reached for his napkin and answered without emotion.
       "I got beat up again."
       Grandfather grabbed Jim's chin and leaned in close to examine.
       "Was it those Wilson boys? Those boys are worse than a pack of mangy wolves! Did you put up a good fight?"
       "I'd rather not talk about it now."
       Grandfather sighed and sat down.
       "Jim, I know you are having a rough time, but you must stand up for yourself."
       Folding his hands, Grandfather bowed his head. Jim did the same. Grandfather spoke in a solemn voice.
       "Father 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 accurate."
       Before ending his prayer, Grandfather peeked up at Jim with one eye and smiled.
       "And God, please give Jim the courage and strength to best those darn Wilsons! Amen."
       Jim laughed.
       "Thanks, Grandfather."
       Jim looked hard at Grandfather.
       "Grandfather, what happened to Father? I mean why do people call him a coward?"
       Grandfather picked up a pitcher of water and began pouring Jim's cup.
       "Years 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."
       Jim was confused.
       "Why didn't he duel, Grandfather?"
       Grandfather poured himself water from the pitcher.
       "Well, 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.
       "You 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.
       "Your 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."
       Jim sat in amazement.
       "Since 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."
       Jim looked down, trying to make sense of Grandfather's story.
       "But don't think for a second you father's not brave. I remember when your father was just a lad."
       Jim looked up with anticipation.
       "He 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."
       Grandfather began scooping potatoes onto Jim's plate.
       "One 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 roof."
       Grandfather scooped some potatoes onto his own plate. Jim was on the edge of his seat.
       "What happened Grandfather?"
       "Well, 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."
       Grandfather poured himself a cup of water and began drinking. Jim was dumbfounded, sitting without a sound.
       "And do you know, even after that, your father was still afraid of heights."
       Jim 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.
       Jim put his sore body to bed that night. It had been a long day. Moments after his head hit the pillow he was asleep.

Read Chapter 4

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