Although Erick Nicholls served for more than three years in the Navy in World War II - most of that time in the South Pacific as a crewman on two of the Navy's carriers that were involved in major engagements - he still prefers to delve into Civil War lore.
"Maybe," Nicholls says, "it's because the war between the Blue and the Gray, the War Between the States, seems nearer to the heartbeat of America for me."Nicholls has around 30 Civil War volumes in his library, and he's lately been building replicas of the guns that roared at Shiloh and Gettysburg.
Building replicas of the big cannons began a few years back when Nicholls acquired a hunk of hard-to-come-by brass. In time the brass and numerous other bits of scrap became the replica of a caisson, the kind of vehicle that carried the body of Pres. John F. Kennedy to the grave in Arlington National Cemetery and the replica of an 1853 Napoleon 12-pound cannon - 12-pounders because the balls they fired weighed 12 pounds - the rifles that were principal weapons in the Civil War.
The replicas, handcrafted to scale, exact in almost every detail, were built from scraps of oak and black walnut, bits of brass and steel. Only the steel balls were purchased. The end result involved months of careful work with a wood lathe, a steel lathe, a table saw, files, brushes and oils.
And the cannon works. The barrel can be raised and lowered as in Civil War battles. A few pinches of black powder poured down the barrel, a few bits of toilet paper tamped into place with the ramrod, an inch or two of fuse inserted into a small hole in the barrel and a lighted match applied to the fuse and the explosion frightens every dog in Nicholls' neighborhood.
He hasn't tried the ultimate demonstration with the addition of a steel ball. The city fathers might object, he says. And the Civil War guns weren't as sophisticated as the huge guns the USS Missouri fired in hurling shells 30 miles into Iraq a few weeks ago.
"Who knows," Nicholls says, "where a ball from my Napoleon 12-pounder might land." Although, they were pretty accurate when the Merrimac and the Monitor fought what was probably the first duel between iron-clad warships, he adds.
Nicholls has made replicas of other vintage cannons, too. One of his models is of a broadside - a gun mounted on a carriage so that it could be moved from porthole to porthole during a sea engagement.
It's the kind of weapon that helped the English navy defeat the Spanish Armada in one of history's decisive battles.
And that battle, like the battle at Gettysburg, helped shape the course of the nation's history, Nicholls says.
Retired now from a job at Snow College that engaged his many skills, Nicholls and his wife, Elga, occasionally attend a reunion of the crew of the USS Copahe, the second flattop on which he served.
But he can usually be found in his shop, building toys for the grandchildren or replicas of the tools men used in other days.