If the '70s were the decade of the whimper, the '80s will start with a bang.
They will at least in the close-in Maryland suburbs, where on New Year's Eve a man named Chuck will load his century-old three-inch-diameter ordnance rifle (a cannon, in ordinary terms) with a pound of black powder.
When the Guy Lombardo orchestra reaches a certain phrase in Auld Lang Syne his wife will give him the high sign and he will set a match to a long cherry-bomb fuse. Then he will stroll into his house. By the time he reaches the second-story window that looks back to the cannon's lair the fuse will have done its thing.
The blast generally picks the carriage up about three inches off the ground. Sparks and smoke come charging out of the barrel. "But most all," said the owner, "we do it for the noise."
The noise is formidable. The first time one neighbor, an ex-Marine, heard it he hit the deck and covered his head. "I could only think one thing," the neighbor said. "Artillery attack."
Like other neighbors, the ex-Marine now looks on the cannon blast as a twice-yearly highlight -- July 4 and January 1. "It's great," he said, " as long as you know it's coming."
Chuck, who asked that his last name not be mentioned for fear of kooky visitors, bought his cannon at auction in Ohio in the early 1960s, when he was in high school. He tested it over a lake by loading a beer can full of concrete down the muzzle and setting off the charge.
"We could watch the can easily," he said. "We tracked it two miles. It was still rising when we lost sight of it."
When he went off to college at Heidelberg he brought the cannon to football games and set it off (without projectile) when Heidelberg scored. "I don't know how far you can hear it, but I do know that everybody in that town of 25,000 knew it every time we scored."
It took Chuck more than a thousand hours to restore his Civil War cannon. His first chore was chipping out nearly a yard of concrete the previous owners had poured in to make sure it would never boom again.
"The only thing we salvaged was the wrought-iron barrel," he said. He had to manufacture a wagon-wheel carriage and all the iron trappings from scratch.Then, of course, there's maintenance. When you fire a gun only twice a year you wouldn't think it would require much care, but there are little things to look after.
Like the pair of squirrels that set up a nest in the breech one year. And the other squirrels that use the barrel to store acorns every fall. "I'll have to get out this week and give it a thorough check," said Chuck.
He claims his model was one of the safest used in the civil War because it's made of wrought iron, rather than cast.
Cast iron has a tendency to fragment when something goes wrong. "They built a number of cast-iron cannons for the Civil War that would shoot a hundred times and then explode, killing the crew."
All wrought iron will do is bulge. It will not bulge in Chuck's cannon, however since the only projectile ahead of the charge is a ball of newspaper, which explodes in cinders from the muzzle for a fireworks effect.
There will be a small party at Chuck's place Monday night, preliminaries to the big event. The whole affair will smack more of turn-of-the-century doings than an entry into the '80s. His full-time job these days is restoring antique gadgets, and he has a houseful of nickelodeon player pianos, player banjo machines, windup phonographs, player harps and even a military band organ with 13 brass trumpets, 13 brass piccolos, 100 other pipes, a bass drum, snare drum and cymbals, all running off an air pump and compressor through pneumatic tubes. It will set your ears back astraddle your head.
His current project is restoring an early 1900s twin-violin-plus-piano nickelodeon that plays Beethoven concertos. All these gizmos started as a hobby. "I bought this stuff because I liked it. It keeps getting more valuable, and now people are buying it as an investment and pushing me right out of my own hobby."
The antiques are his life's work, but twice a year they take a back seat to the cannon. Next week is one of those times.
"I wait until about five or 10 seconds after midnight, after everyone else has blown off his load, and then I end it. There's usually about a minute of stone silence afterwards."