Blow Guns and Chinaberries
By Nolan Bailey
Class of 1957
Back when I was a kid, in the 1940ís and 1950ís, my family was always doing
some kind of folk lore project. One of these projects was to make a blow
gun out of fishing or switch cane--four or five feet long. If the
cane was not straight, it could be heated and cooled while held straight in
place. The center of the cane was burned out with a steel rod, or pushed
out with a long hard hickory rod. Homemade darts were made using a
narrow sliver of the cane, or by carving them out of pine. Sometimes a
straight piece of bailing wire was used. Cotton or twine was twisted
around one end of the dart to keep the air from escaping. To aim the gun, it
was lifted until one could see the "two ends" of the blowgun on either side of
the intended target. This is a good starting point. Yes, there is
only one end of the blow gun, but due to an error in human vision there
appears to be two.
On one occasion my Granddaddy, as a boy, was told by his dad to keep the neighbor's cow out of the corn stored in the barn. Granddaddy Turner Bailey climbed up into the corn crib with his blow gun and patiently waited for the cow to appear. When the cow came by to get her daily ration of corn, Granddaddy shot her in the behind with a sharp dart. She headed for home just "a bawling," in high gear. Granddaddy got worried and chased her around a quarter of a mile to retrieve the dart before the cow could get back home. He didn't want to be reported to his Dad by the good neighbor. And, he really didn't want any of that "peach tree limb justice" that was regularly doled out way back then.
Another folk lore project was completed by my Dad, "with my help," of course. There were some large chinaberry trees on my Aunt Gertrude Malone's home place. In fact, Aunt Gertrude taught first grade at Bienville when I started there, and Joyce, her daughter, was a student. And, she served as principal at Bryceland for a few years.
The chinaberry trees gave dad one of his grand ideas. He was going to make a china berry gun. He and I wandered along nearby roads until we found and Elderberry bush that had just the right properties. Elderberry stalks had pith in the center of the trunk which could be pushed out, leaving a tube just the size of a chinaberry. The pith could be burned out with a steel rod, too. Dad cut around a twelve inch section of the Elderberry stalk for his gun.
He whittled out a plunger or ramrod that would just fit into the center of the tube. Then, it was time to try out the new weapon. Dad found a few berries that were the right size, loaded the chinaberry "gun" with two chinaberries spaced out one behind the other, and inserted the plunger into the bore of the chinaberry gun. It's similar to loading a muzzle loading rifle.
In reality, the small part of the ramrod is cut about two inches shorter than the barrel of the chinaberry gun. The first chinaberry is put into the barrel and rammed to the point where the ramrod goes in as far as it can go. Then, another china berry is placed in the breech of the bore and pushed until it is about an inch or two deep. The ramrod is placed behind the second china berry and given a rapid push to drive the last berry forward into the barrel. This creates a sudden rise in air pressure between the two berries, firing the first one out of the barrel at sling shot velocities.
My Aunt was standing out in the yard talking to family members, making an ideal target. Now, "Auntie" was not a small woman, probably weighed around 200 pounds, and she wasn't a "youngster." Dad aimed the "gun" at her posterior and jammed the plunger into the tube, sending a "hot berry" that smacked right into "Auntie's" behind. She jumped off the ground, no small feat, and said a few things to my Dad that made us all "blush." The "gun test" was definitely a success. Plus, I learned a few new words not to use. And, so the folk lore projects went....