In a recent column, I had mentioned my father’s off-hand explanation of cold weather. It referred to the difficulties encumbered by the so-called brass monkey.

More recently, I tackled the undertaking of doing a little early spring-cleaning. I decided to shuffle through the contents of my “grin bin,” my “chuckle bucket,” my “smile pile,” and what my Little Lady quietly referred to as my stay away from, off-coloured “sin bin.”

I do this by simply dumping them out on an out-folded card table and sorting through. In the dark and dingy chasms of my dusty sin bin tumbled a long-ago explanation that I knew I had tucked away but my mind had displaced its position. So, though I am not a teacher, let me infringe education wise for just a moment. You are never too old to learn.

In distant times, it was necessary to keep a good supply of cannonballs near the cannon on old warships. But how to prevent them from rolling about the deck was the problem. The storage method devised was to stack them as a square-based pyramid, with one ball on top, resting on four, resting on nine, which rested on sixteen.

Thus, a supply of thirty cannon balls could be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon. There was only one problem: how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding/rolling from under the others.

The solution was a metal plate with sixteen round indentations called, for reasons unknown, a monkey. But if this plate were made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem was to make them of brass – hence brass monkeys.

Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts much more and faster than iron when chilled. Consequently, when the temperature drops too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannonballs would come right off the monkey.

Thus, it was quite literally, cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. And all this time, the major majority thought it was just a vulgar expression. So rest at ease folks. Now you know. Isn’t education wonderful?

And from my grin bin comes this: a sign on a septic tank truck: “Yesterday’s meals on wheels.”  On a maternity room door: “Push. Push. Push.”

From my chuckle bucket: on an electrician’s truck: “Let us remove your shorts.” Outside a muffler shop: “No appointment necessary. We hear you coming.”

From the smile pile comes one of my Little Lady’s favourites: “The ten commandments are not multiple choice.”

And one of my favourites, on the back of a septic tank: “Caution – this truck is full of political promises.”

Take care, ‘cause we care.



Barrie Hopkins