DUXFORD SUPER GUNNER

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September 1, 2010 by David Gillaspie

How does military genius work?  Start with technology. 

Military genius understands the role of technology.

The knife wins hand to hand fighting.  The club beats the knife.  Heaving a rock from a distance might hit the guy with the club.  A spear gives accuracy and distance.  An atlatl adds velocity to the spear.  The bow and arrow drills the atlatl. 

A tank trumps a horse.

The use of gunpowder lowered expectations of hand thrown weapons.  The pistol, the rifle, and the artillery all made the world a smaller place to reach out and touch someone.

Add airplanes, bombs, jets, and missiles and you’ve got the full plate of destruction.  Not mass destruction, you say?  

Close enough. 

One person is considered the top artillery man in the world.  If you needed the best cannon, the most up to the second artillery, he was your man.  He built big guns for South Africa, who sold them to Iraq.  He built shells that flew further.

By the time of the first Gulf War, Iraq had the best artillery on the battlefield.  Further, Iraq had plans for the biggest most dangerous gun on the battlefield since WWI.

This is where you stand back and wonder, what was the man thinking.  Artillery is no longer the God of War the Russians used so well in WWII.  Iraq had longer range artillery than America? 

Sounds like a bomber question, as in how many runs would it take to blast the Iraq artillery?

If artillery won’t work in a bomber world, why would a cannon work in the missile era?  The short answer is it doesn’t, so don’t try.

But Iraq tried. 

They knew the top artillery man in the 20th Century, a man with designs to send someone into space with a cannon.

All Iraq wanted was a prototype.  They didn’t want to go to the moon.  The wanted a gun that could shoot as far as, say, Israel.  Any cannon strong enough to drop one on Tel Aviv was good enough. 

It’s a start.

Military technology says that a well-placed missile removes the threat of a Super Gun.  Project Babylon becomes a game of Pick-up Sticks.

This is when the questions start running wild.  Who built the Super Gun?  Who was going to put it together?  Who would fire it?  The man who held all the details in his head took five shots to the repository in 1990. 

The language for Project Babylon turned mute.

The story continues that three weeks after the shooting British customs agents seized sections of the Super Gun barrel made by a Sheffield forging company who thought they were making petroleum pipes.

Fly forward a decade and a half and the story of the Super Gun turns into a script I write in class with the help of many script-guru books and coverage companies.  It’s a great story that finds no love because the threat of a cannon in a missile world doesn’t raise the stakes enough.

There is no arguing about raising the stakes in a story, but there is the story based on true, if idiotic, facts.  A man wants a cannon for protection, he ought to have one.  Once he gets it built, the builder gets whacked.  There is a lesson, a universal truth.

The failure of Soldier On, the Super Gun script, weighs heavy during a family trip to England.  On one slow day we planned a trip to the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, just outside Cambridge. 

The English section looks realistic and hard-scrabble.  The American section looks like a chip maker’s clean-room.  I walk the floor under the huge aircraft hanging from cables.  The England trip was full of museums, family, and churches. 

Duxford was a nice museum, but just another show, until I saw the matte metal finish on some pipe on the ground.  A closer look showed it was sections from the Super Gun.  They looked like thick walled pipe with flanged ends.  If you saw them next to the Alaskan pipeline you’d think they were extra parts.

The writing world came into better focus that day.  

Yes, I had a story that died on the vine, but the gun sections pumped some life into it. 

Yes, I choose big stories, but that helps when you’re trying to stay awake doing research and writing.

Yes, it’s hard to believe that the object of a big story pops up in the least expected place.

I walked up the ramp toward the small snack-bar in the American Museum at Duxford, my two boys following.  They came into a special view that day too, when I got to the snack-bar and saw something called Spotted Dick.

“Boys,” I called back,  “how would you like to try some Spotted Dick.”

“It’s a favorite,” the clerk said.

“I’m pretty sure they’ll want as much Spotted Dick as you’ve got.”

For the next thirty seconds my two teenagers watched their old man try and not to break down in the laughing fit of the century.

The clerk smiled at them across the counter.  “You’ve never tried Spotted Dick?  That’s a shame.  It comes in hot and cold.  When you want the right pudding, reach for Spotted Dick.  Your father seems to think you’ll want more than one, but let’s start there.”

“Maybe they could put some Spotted Dick in their pocket,” I offered.

New story elements formed in my mind: Super Gun, Spotted Dick, and kids.  I could feel the stakes rising. 

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