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Instructor Angell Shares His Enthusiasm

May-June 2006

New Yorker writer and editor Roger Angell ’42, who has a long-running devotion to the game of baseball, has now produced an episodic, always engaging memoir, Let Me Finish (Harcourt, $25), in which he writes about another old love—a machine gun.

Back among my fellow seniors on Commencement Day in Harvard Yard, with the tides of war almost visibly lapping at our toes, I’d run into a favorite professor of mine, Kenneth J. Conant, as he hurried past in full plumage, and took the chance to shake his hand. Three or four vivid courses with him in contemporary and medieval architecture had almost lured me away from my major in English, and when I’d seen him in May, while delivering a late paper to his office in the Fogg Museum, he’d taken a key and a flashlight out of his desk and invited me down to a large room in the basement, where we spent half an hour circling a great table model of the classic dig he’d been engaged upon at the twelfth-century Burgundian Abbey Church at Cluny—a work now suspended because the site was in the hands of the enemy. My last Harvard lecture, it turned out, was a private one.…

…[O]ne day in March of 1943, a bare nine months later, I thought of Professor Conant again, and wondered what he’d make of my new line of work. Since I’d seen him, I’d finished tech school, got married, become an instructor in machine guns and power turrets, picked up a couple of stripes, and had made Permanent Party at Lowry [Field, outside Denver].…

What I wanted Conant to come look at with me was the Browning Caliber .50 Machine Gun, M2—a lean, 64-pound, five-foot eight-inch automatic dispenser of destruction, with an interestingly perforated barrel jacket within which the barrel and complicated inner parts banged back and forth at blurry speed and with terrifying noise and smell.… Learning the Browning, I’d fallen in love with its dozens of slots and grooves and cams, its springs (some coiled within each other) and switches, its ejectors and extractors. In supporting roles were the accelerator, a beckoning forefinger at the front of the oil buffer body, which quickened the recoil; the breech lock, which froze things at firing, and its partnered, instantly arriving breech-unlocking pin; and, as main player, the slim, pale steel bolt, which, nipping backward with a fresh round in its teeth, simultaneously knocked free the spent casing of the old round and, reversing, rammed the new projectile snug into the same chamber, ready for fire.…Professor Conant relished the inventive new as much as the medieval—he’d introduced me to the Mies van der Rohe-designed Tugendhat House, in Czechoslovakia; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson’s Wax factory in Racine, Wisconsin; and more —and had we been standing together…with the weapon before us on a tall table, he’d have run his fingertips across its silky metal surfaces and asked questions. “This?” he’d say, pointing inside the lifted cover. “Oh that’s the belt feed lever,” I’d say in return .…“And this gizmo on the slide is the belt feed pawl, which sort of snaps over the top of each new round and grabs hold.”

“‘The Belt Feed Pawl,’” Conant would repeat happily, making it sound like a name in Dickens.

These imagined scenes helped pass the wearying and boring hours of repeated instruction, during which we had to present the exact same material each week to another incoming fresh class of students.…