Have you ever repeated a saying you’ve heard before to fit a circumstance perfectly and have no clue where that saying came from or know exactly what it means? I’ve done it for no other reason than it fits the occasion, and I’m guessing you have too. It was -1 degree this morning here in Batesville, Indiana and that did not include the wind chill. That’s cold; colder than a witch’s [bosom]; colder than a well digger’s [rump]. You get the idea… In your mind’s eye you can probably make the connection and justify how cold both scenarios may be, and you never really need any more proof of origin or scholastic validation for either saying. But…there are other phrases that really do have an origin in fact worth noting. This is a short story of a chilly education of my own that reveals a slice of actual history behind one such saying.
In 2004 my wife, Lori and I, were on our honeymoon having just been married by the Chief Magistrate in a very old cemetery outside the jail in Beaufort, NC. That right there is another hilarious story for another day. We love the tiny coastal town known as the oldest naturally protected inlet on the east coast. Beaufort is on the eastern-most end of the Emerald Isle and down the beach front from Wilmington and Morehead City, NC; hurricane bait to be more exact.
The tiny harbor is just west of a locale known as Bogue’s Point and near Cape Lookout, which is more widely known and at the extreme southern tip of the Outer Banks. Bogue’s Point juts out into the Atlantic and is home to a Confederate Civil War fort built to protect access to the inlet and had been engineered by Robert E. Lee. Fort Macon is the name of the fort, and if you like interesting tours, the tours here are quite good with very informed and very old tour guides. The historians there actually referred to the War Between the States as “The Great Discomfort”.
The South controlled the fort for just under a year, arming the structure with 54 cannons, until Union forces swept through the region in 1862, capturing Beaufort and Morehead City, and setting their sights on the coastal Fort Macon. The winters at Fort Macon can be extreme despite being as far south as North Carolina; blame it on the constant wind and accompanying chill whipping inland off the Atlantic. Perched atop rarely occurring high ground sat Fort Macon; directly in line with the wind. So how cold was it really?
A grizzled old tour guide enlightened us with a brief story.
Fort Macon’s armaments consisted of an assortment of cannon and mortars. Mortars back in the days of The Great Discomfort were short squatty devices bigger around than a standard garbage can and almost as tall. They sat upon platforms that supported them on either side enabling them to be rotated and tilted to aim. Next to each one was a device called a monkey that had a square surface with cupped depressions arranged in a 3X3 pattern. In those depressions nine cannon balls were placed with additional balls stacked on top to form the shape of a pyramid. The balls were made of iron containing an explosive charge and about the size of bowling balls.
With a twinkle in his eye our guide connected the dots for us. I made the connection almost immediately when he began to describe the extremes of wind and cold coming off the ocean and the simple fact that the monkeys were made of brass. In extreme cold the brass would contract faster than the iron causing the cannon balls to pop free of the depressions and scatter about.
Yes…it got cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.
Consider this little piece as my New Year’s gift of trivia. Feel free to impress your friends and neighbors at your own discretion.
Oh look…now we have no temperature at all. It’s warmed up to zero outside…
Happy New Year to all my readers and may your body parts be protected from freezing wherever you are!
Gary G. Wise
Workforce Performance Advocate, Coach, Speaker
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