Traffic Blunders and 21-gun Salutes

Item #1: One of the absolute certainties of life in Door County is that from approximately July 15 through somewhere between August 16 and 20, the peninsula is the busiest it will be during the year. Whether business is up or down during the course of the year, this stretch of time consistently sees more visitors in the county than any other time.

With this throng of visitors comes absolute mayhem on our roads. Much has been written about the problems of traffic in the county, and it is not my intention to reiterate those problems here; instead, I’d like to mention one particular problem which, quite frankly, scares me.

This problem most often manifests itself as I descend the Sister Bay hill at the bottom of which is the intersection of Highway 42 and Maple Road. To explain this as succinctly as possible, as I descend the hill (heading north on Highway 42), a car comes to the intersection traveling west on Maple. This car stops (ideally) well out into the right-of-way, due to the number of parked cars on the highway obstructing their view. Being a conscientious driver I note this carefully, and – while still descending the hill in my own car – I spot the problem which alarms me: the driver of the car on Maple turns their head to look at traffic heading south on the highway.

In other words, this driver looks at the wrong lane of traffic first – before ever turning to peer in the direction of the cars that will have the first opportunity to smash the hell out of them should they choose to attempt crossing the highway. What kind of rear-end thinking is this? Perhaps, more to the point, is any thinking going on in this driver’s head at all?

I can handle the lack of turn signals, the goat gawking, the halting in the middle of the road while attempting to discern location, and all the rest – but I cannot abide this practice of ignoring the cars most likely to collapse your side panels. This scares me, and I am not ashamed to admit this fact. Thus I slow to a virtual stop which the offending driver takes to be a sign of courtesy on my part, pulling out in front of me and (occasionally) offering me a thankful wave – completely oblivious of the dire thoughts I am directing toward their alleged cranium.

I have no direct proof, but I believe that it is reasonable to assume that the drivers of these cars are the same people who, in a pedestrian role, eschew crosswalks to emerge from between parked cars – again looking first at the opposite lane of traffic!

I wish that I could tell you that, after this little tirade, I feel better. In the past, the venue of this column has provided a modicum of relief for my peeves. In this case, however, the fear remains, hence my unease continues.

Item #2: One night, quite some time ago, when we were sitting watching a movie we saw a gun salute during a funeral. This particular scene caused me to wonder aloud, “I wonder where 21-gun salutes came from? And why are they 21-gun salutes? Why not a 12-gun, or 18-gun salute?”

So here’s what I found out, folks.

Gun salutes have been around almost as long as guns have been with us. It was also quite common for ships entering a harbor to fire their cannons. In doing so they were demonstrating that the cannons were no longer loaded and that their intentions were peaceful.

The firing of volleys in odd numbers goes back to folklore and superstition, which held that odd numbers were lucky numbers and even numbers were unlucky. Seven, of course, was considered a particularly lucky number and was even believed to have mystical power, thus seven-gun salutes became widely used.

Forts protecting harbors could store far more gunpowder than a ship, so, over time, it became common practice for a fort to fire three cannon shots for every one shot fired by an approaching ship. So, if you follow the math here, an approaching ship fires three cannon shots and the fort guarding the harbor fires three shots for every shot fired by the ship…meaning the fort fires a 21-gun salute. As a footnote, the firing of an even number of cannon shots by an approaching ship came to mean that the ship’s captain had died during the voyage.

In the course of researching the above, I did discover a few other tidbits of interest. For instance, the first officially recognized salute to the American Flag (“The Stars & Stripes”) occurred on February 14, 1778. The Continental Navy ship, Ranger, commanded by Captain John Paul Jones, fired 13 guns (one for each of the 13 colonies) as he approached the French Fleet anchored in Quiberon Bay, France. The French answered with a nine-gun salute which, at that time, was the official salute to recognize a Republic.

The United States Navy was the first to detail a specific manner for rendering gun salutes in their 1818 regulations. This document states that “When the President shall visit a ship of the United States’ Navy, he is to be saluted with 21 guns.” Of interest here is that the number of States in the Union in 1818 was 21. The Navy’s regulations were revised on May 24, 1842, and the prescribed specifics for gun salutes have remained largely unchanged since.

Today, 21 guns is considered a national salute and is used to honor a national flag, the sovereign chief-of-state of a foreign nation, a member of a royal family, and the President, an ex-President, and a President-elect of the United States. 21 guns are also fired at noon on the day of the funeral for a President, ex-President, or President-elect, on Washington ’s Birthday, on Presidents’ Day, on the Fourth of July, and at noon on Memorial Day while the flag is flown at half-mast.

So there’s our answer. And now we know something we didn’t know yesterday.