Thursday, April 10, 2008

Loose Cannons

We are indebted to our nation’s naval history for many useful metaphors. Most people, vaguely understanding the intent, use them without genuine thoughtful reflection on the mechanics of their origin. With a nuclear powered navy it is somewhat difficult to relate to heavy beamed wooden ships rigged in full sail. Since no East coast harbor is complete without a vessel restored to pristine original condition, the opportunity to learn about the lore is abundant. Even the Mayflower (a replica) is tied up at the dock near the famous “rock” at Plymouth.

It was years after graduation when I first seriously thought of the meaning of our class motto. “Tis the set of the sail and not the gale which determines our destiny.” As I see my classmates at our frequent reunions and they speak of their lives, I realize that our challenge in the motto has been fulfilled. Their shared stories of a variety of adversity overcome are exemplary of the prediction. My first realization of the importance of the “set of the sail” came on Eibsee Lake in Germany when I rode the breeze in a small sailboat to the opposite side (about 2 miles) and then learned the hard way how to tack against the wind. Fifteen minutes down and two hours back proved that a “land lubber” hadn’t learned much about sailing in an Iowa corn field. It soon became apparent that I must learn to use what I had wisely rather than wait for a change in the direction of the wind.

One of my other favorites is the use of the expression “loose cannon.” On the gun deck of the USS Constitution, at a pier in Boston Harbor, one soon understands the importance of keeping guns secured.
The first lesson is to stoop to accommodate a six-foot frame in a five-foot ceiling. There are thirty 24# cannons, each of which weighs just short of three tons. With a crew of 6-14 men, the deck is crowded by an average of 300 men on the gun crews. The available space is further reduced by the base of three masts each with a diameter of 32”, the anchor capstan, powder and cannon balls. Each gun is fixed with cordage to allow controlled movement of the piece during recoil. Although primitive by today’s standards, it was “state of the art.”

The stress of firing and recoil were the major factor in cannons coming “loose” but at sea it was exacerbated by the pitch and roll of the ocean. This coupled with huge numbers of men present prevented escape from the danger. Members of the gun crew then were at the mercy of factors (careless riggers, weather, improper discipline, etc.) out of their control and possible victims of a deadly force.

Thus the “loose cannon” becomes the metaphor for a danger presented by an unanticipated and uncontrollable source, often in the heat of struggle. To see that which so dependably provides for your safety and security suddenly and inadvertently becomes the potential for your death or severe injury makes it complete.

In our heated political season, we have lately heard many individuals identified as “loose cannons.” Michelle Obama, Jeremiah Wright, Bill Clinton, Larry Craig, Geraldine Ferraro, Rush Limbaugh, Jimmy Carter, Ann Coulter, Bill Richardson, various party campaign organizers and aides, are but a few who have been so identified. All have said or done things which appear to discredit their avowed loyalty to their party, their candidate or their country. The fall out from their actions or remarks have at the least embarrassed and at the worst seriously damaged credibility both at home and abroad. This has caused a round of defense, pleas of misstatement; denials, and an overall bad taste in the mouth of the electorate. The ultimate discipline is administered by the voters.

We also have those in the clergy who are subject to the comparison. The archbishop of Canterbury, Fred Phelps, Al Sharpton, Warren Jeffs, the entirety of the archdiocese of Boston, Jim Bakker, TV evangelists, are among those with a short-sighted view of the repercussions of their actions. Their antics will be dealt with on by a much higher power. To offend a candidate is one thing; to offend God is quite another.

As you conduct an inventory in your own clergy and congregation, I’m certain you can apply the metaphor without any problem. You might even be able to see the culprit in your mirror. I am pretty sure it was “Pogo” who was credited with saying, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

One other metaphor has a surprising origin on the high seas. The aforementioned cannons had a devastating affect from 25 to 75 yards. They remained both accurate and lethal up to 1200 yards. When used at their maximum range –1 mile—accuracy was left in the hands of providence. The likelihood of a successful hit was slim and hence, referred to as a “long shot.” This widely used term is falsely thought to have originated in the racing community but shares its origin on the gun decks of sailing ships with “loose cannons.”

Is it not interesting that in today’s routine speech that both politicians and clergy can find their efforts turned into a “long shot” by “loose cannons?” It’s almost poetic.

In His abiding love,

Cecil Moon

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