Alton B. Harper and Homer Hadley Hickam
The famous game cannon of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets was born in the dreams of three cadets of the class of 1964 and it's metal tested in the heat of battle between VPI and VMI.
For a third year, two close friends in the Corps "Butch" Harper aka Alton B. Harper Jr. and "Sonny" Hickam aka Homer Hadley Hickam sat in the stands of Victory Stadium in Roanoke in anticipation of the Thanksgiving Game with VMI. The Tech Corps formed on the field first and took position while the VMI Corps marched into the stadium.
Both Corps of Cadets took their traditional positions on opposing sides. And for the third time that Butch and Sonny had witnessed VMI brought in it's game cannon "Little John."
Oh, it was a small thing that looked more like a mortar than a cannon. They loaded it, fired it and the whole VMI Corps swelled with the chant, "Where's your cannon!," as a perfect smoke ring rose towards the sky.
This was too much to bear! Butch looked at Sonny and Sonny looked at Butch and the two made a solemn pact right there in the stands. This would be the last time that VMI would be allowed to "out cannon" Virginia Tech. They vowed to build the largest game cannon in the world. We won the game.
The whole thing took on the form of a major military operation. Sonny found the blueprints for a Civil War cannon barrel and Ben looked to find out where they could get a carriage made for the cannon. But the proverbial problem soon became evident. Where on earth would they get the money.
They attacked it on two sides. First, they decided that it would have to come from the Corps itself with some help from Alumni. Now just how do you convince 1700 folks to give money.
Sonny came up with the idea to have a wooden mold made of the barrel at our college of mechanical engineering. They took it on as a class project.
While they were working on the mold, Ben marched into the Commandant of Cadets, General Scheve's Office. He sat behind an imposing walnut desk in his office in the Old Military Building.
After a proper salute was proffered, Ben noticed two crossed barrels on his uniform signifying his affiliation with artillery. Suddenly the daunting task that was about to be requested seemed somehow possible.
With a slightly wavering voice Ben requested permission to speak. "Sir, a request, Sir!"
"What is it young man," snapped General Scheve. "Sir, I would like you to place me on the Regimental Staff next year so I can help build the largest game cannon in the world for the Corps."
Now at this particular moment, the General's stern countenance took on the warm glow of a grandfather seeing his first grandchild. He tried terribly to look serious, but I knew he was just busting to hear the plan.
Well you see Sir. Sonny Hickam and I, well I mean the whole Corps is getting tired of hearing it from VMI. And we're getting damn tired of listening to that cannon with no response, sir.
Now if you could see fit to put me on as Regimental S-2, the Information Officer, I would have direct contact with the Alumni and we need their money and support.
"How big did you say it was going to be?" the General asked. "The biggest damn cannon that VMI will ever see!" I snapped back. "And you and Sonny can get it done?" he asked.
The General looked for a long time with no response. I dare say, nobody had ever asked to be on the Regimental Staff before, it just was not done. And I felt I had probably blown my whole military career. But then, some things are worth it.
"Noted," said the General. "Dismissed!"
In the mean time, the cannon barrel project continued in the mechanical engineering shop.
I looked toward change of rank with great misgivings. Had I blown it? Was the General going to teach me a lesson for being so brash? As all of us marched onto the drill field to find our new destiny, my knees felt weak. I was certain that nothing would come of my request and that we may not be able to fulfill our dreams without the help of the Alumni.
The Seniors left their position of rank and the names of the Junior class drifted across the expanse of the drill field. "A" Squadron was first. Sonny was made an officer in "A" Squadron.
I know it was what he wanted and I was happy for him. No rank for me in A Squadron.
There I stood feeling very, very alone. Without getting anything in the Squadron, that only left Group and Regimental Staff. Group's Staff came and went. No rank for me in Group.
Now I was sure that this upstart was doomed. After what seemed like a century. The assignments for Regimental were droned out. I can't tell you what it meant when I heard "Regimental S-2, Cadet Alton B. Harper, Jr." It meant that we could fulfill the dream.
That the channel to the Alumni was open.
As we passed in final review and the New Regimental Staff saluted the Commandant of Cadets, I looked toward the General and witnessed the biggest smile I've ever seen. As he raised his hand in salute, it was the one and only time I have ever been given a wink by a General. It was his way of saying, "Now go build that cannon for this old artillery man, son."
Sonny came over and we decided on a strategy. We would call a meeting of every company and every squadron. And we would take the wooden mold of the barrel of the cannon to every meeting. George Fox, another friend from A Squadron volunteered to help.
What a wonderful moment. Every person should have one magic moment in life where they could enjoy something so accepted as "Skipper." The huge wooden mold of the barrel did its job. It inspired every member of the Corps. The meetings, 16 in all, made it evident that never again would the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets go into battle without a gun.
At the end of each meeting, each cadet got up, went back to his room and brought back what he could spare. We asked each for just one dollar and all of the brass they could give.
They brought their grommets, they brought their brass plates, they brought their old brass buckles. This cannon would not simply be built with their dollars, but with their hearts. It is for this reason that you can find the class numerals of 63, 64, 65 and 66 on the face of the barrel.
It was a moving experience. Sonny and I found it hard to look at each other after each meeting, because we knew we would each see a tear in the eye of the other. These were the best guys in the world. We have never seen anything so emotionally supported then or now. I would not trade that feeling of being a member of a group of which I was so proud for anything in the world.
The money was raised. We were a little short on brass, but Sonny brought in some brass fittings from his father's mine in West Virginia to fill it out and some bullet casings were gathered from the firing range. We took them all to the Virginia Foundry Company in Roanoke Virginia.
I had called the President of the Company a few months before and told him what we were about to do after swearing him to secrecy. I asked him how much it would cost and he astounded me with his response. You don't have enough, he indicated, but I've thought we needed a cannon for a long time too. Son, I'm a member of the Corps Class of '37. We'll be making that barrel for you for nothing. Just blow the heck out of them for us, will ya.
It was a deal. He took our brass and wooden mold and set about the task of casting the barrel.
A few days later I received a phone call from Mr. Hoffman. He asked where we had gotten the brass for the barrel and I told him the story. It seems that not all of the shell casings that we picked up from the floor of the firing range were empty. He said when they poured the brass into the vat for melting everybody was ducking for cover as the foundry was filled with the sound of gunfire. Well, after all, no good cannon worth it's salt is made without a little effort. He indicated that the brass we gave him was too soft without support and recommended that we let him add some navy gun metal brass for safety along with ours. It was done.
Hoffman asked if he could bring in the Roanoke Times on the secret. I told him yes, if he would wait until the edition that prints directly after the game because we had big plans for VMI, and it absolutely depended on their not knowing. He agreed, and I knew I could trust him because he was one of us.
It was now time to turn to the carriage. We found the place that made the old Civil War gun carriages for the National Battle Field Parks like Gettysburg. It was the Lorton Reformatory, in Lorton, Virginia just outside of Washington D.C. They were given all of the money that we had saved by not having to pay for the barrel and they agreed to make the carriage to hold "Skipper."
The cannon did not yet have a name. And we never dreamed of the circumstances that would cause it to have one that were about to unfold.
Time was getting short. The big game was fast approaching. Everything was in place.
It was time to pick up the barrel and the carriage. We rented a truck that Sonny and I drove and a chase car was driven by George Fox and a few others also from A Squadron.
We stopped by the Foundry in Roanoke first to pick up the barrel. After all, if the barrel was not ready, there was no need to go on to Washington. The whole foundry turned out. They were as proud of the barrel as we were. They shook our hands, wished us well and gave a big Tech cheer as we headed off to get the carriage.
It was a long trip, all the way across the state and the Reformatory was a bit foreboding. But the carriage was waiting just as promised. It took all of us to load it into the truck.
We had it! We had done it! And we were on the way back to show it to the whole Corps.
It was the best feeling in the World. Nothing like it.
After about 20 minutes, the chase car that was now a lead car, pulled over on the shoulder and waved us to pull over. Our truck did not have a radio. George Fox came back to Sonny and I and indicated that it had just been broadcast that the President had been shot in Dallas and that they did not know how severe it was. We continued back to Blacksburg not in the exhilaration that we had experienced, but with a tremendous foreboding. In those days, we did not know whether it was an international plot, whether war was imminent, or what the future would hold. It was like going from basking in the warm sun to being plunged into the abyss of a cold dark tunnel. There was no more joy in the trip. We were quite.
By the time that we arrived back in Blacksburg, we knew that the President was dead.
We felt terrible. But we wanted to do something in honor of our Head of State. We remembered an old military tradition that, at the death of a President, all military installations give a 50 gun salute to their fallen leader.
It was then that we knew what we had to do. It was then that we knew what we had to name our cannon. It would be named "Skipper" in honor of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his naval background.
The first firing of "Skipper" would be a 50 round salute to our fallen President. It would be our test of the barrel's strength and it would be the salute of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets.
As we placed "Skipper" in position on the lawn in front of Brodie and Rasche Halls, General Sheve appeared. Sonny had quickly devised special charges that were quite rudimentary.
But, at the time it was all we could do. I saw a look in the General's eyes that spoke a thousand words. Never did he dream when he allowed us to proceed on building the cannon that it would be christened in this way. It was an emotional moment for all of us.
The first charges for Skipper were made after we bought all of the local stores out of yellow and red plastic catsup and mustard squeeze bottles. We filled them with super fine black gunpowder. Placed a cherry bomb on top with two fuses taped together that extended out of the hole where the catsup pours. We wrapped the bottles tightly with heavy tape so that the charge would explode rather than "poof." One of us held the charge, the other lit it and slid it down the barrel. Not exactly how they do it today. But we were not about to have a cannon on the installation without being able to honor our President.
"Skipper" did just fine. A tradition was born.
After we found that the Thanksgiving Day game would indeed be held, we immediately began laying plans for introducing "Skipper" to the opposing Corps of Cadets at VMI.
We met with Curt Tompkins, Captain of the "Highty Tighties." He was brought into the big secret. We would take the cannon to Roanoke the night before the game and hide it in the stadium. We would let our Corps and the VMI Corps march in the parade, and into the stadium. We would take our place in the stands and let the VMI Corps form and take their place as normal. We would let them bring in "little John," their mortar, and fire it as usual. We would let them chant Where's your cannon," as usual.
At that time, Sonny and I and George would stand and signal Curt and the Highty Tighties to strike up the march of the Charioteers from Ben Hur. And 50 Freshman members of the rat class would pull in "Skipper" with two long heavy ropes. Place it in position aimed directly at the center of the VMI Corps of Cadets and fire it!
And Fire it we did. Sonny and George placed a charge in the barrel and looked at me as if to ask if that was enough with a twinkle in their eye. I knew the answer they were looking for. Another would be appropriate and yet another. We placed a triple charge into the cannon that day.
What happened after that became legend. The folks sitting next to the VMI Corps later told us that it blew the hats off of half of the Corps. And a huge announcement came pounding from the press boxes. It seems that the reporters had to place their hands on the glass of the press box to keep it from vibrating out of its frame.
The VMI Corps was quiet - never again to challenge the veracity of our artillery. The mission was complete. The duty was done. The game was won. Little did we know how this simple act would affect the rest of our lives.
Sonny went on to fulfill his dream of being in the space program with NASA. And launchings and firings became a permanent part of his life. He went on to write the book "October Sky" after retiring and Hollywood turned it into a four star movie. Now he's writing more books.
We met again just recently for the first time in 35 years.
I remained in the Public Information business that started as PIO for the Corps and turned into becoming the Advertising Director for the Kroger Company. I am chairman of "Thunder Over Louisville" the Opening Ceremonies of the Kentucky Derby Festival. It is the largest Fireworks, Light show in the World with over 50 tons of fireworks, 112 World War II searchlights, and 125 aircraft in the show witnessed by a live audience of 600,000 and a televised audience of over two million.
So you see, we both are still blowing up the world. The moral of this story is never do anything in college that you don't want to do the rest of your life.
So we leave you with this thought. If anything is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well.
The other effect of Skipper hit us at the Syracuse game. After 35 years something that Sonny and George and I had a small part in creating is still a living symbol of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. You cannot image how great that makes us all feel. Well done Corps. You have carried the torch of tradition well. You have earned the honor and respect of "The Old Corps."
We have passed the torch to you and you have carried it with honor and distinction.
The words of an old General come to mind. We will always remember The Corps, and the Corps, and the Corps.
March 8, 2000 (GMc)