October 1991

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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Dynamite on the Hill

Fred Hines, my intrepid boss, saw himself as an expert dynamite man. His men saw him as a menace whenever he handled the stuff. I too came to that view after working as his blasting assistant one Saturday afternoon. Diego Pasburgo, our regular powder monkey when not working as a laborer, had lost an eye on a long-ago blasting job and held great respect for explosives. We used Diego's expertise for sensitive blasting on projects such as sewer construction through rock in congested areas. But on this Saturday, as was often the case, Fred avoided Diego's union wages for something he and I could do.

I was wrapping up some bookkeeping, preparing to leave for the weekend when Fred came into the office. "Say Ed, I got a farmer out on the Pittsford-Mendon Center Road who's got a boulder in his field that he wants broken up, a big one—weighs maybe ten ton, and I thought me and you could take care of it this afternoon. It would be good experience for you."

"Good experience" generally meant that I wouldn't get paid for my efforts, and that alone would make Fred's day. He had put thought into his plan and had concluded that since I had been a sucker for the experience appeal before, I would be good for one more. I asked: "Will we need the compressor, and is Diego going with us?"

"Naw, we don't need him—I'm going to mud cap it. Saves hauling the air compressor and drills out there."

Mud capping is performed by placing a stick or two of dynamite on top of the boulder, then forming a cap of mud over the explosive with the expectation that enough of the concussion would thrust downward to split the rock. The method is generally spurned by professionals as inefficient and terribly noisy. The professional method uses a pneumatic jackhammer to drill a hole in the rock to a depth of about one-third its diameter, pack the charge into the hole, and cover the surface with a heavy blasting mat to contain exploded debris.

Into Fred's 1939 green International pickup we threw a case of 40% gel dynamite, a small box of detonating caps, a roll of blasting wire, a hand-held electric generator, and a shovel and bucket for making mud. Not included was the trivial nicety of a New York State blasting license. As we arrived at the sight we left the road to drive across a field upward to near the top of a hill where sat the surprisingly large boulder, half exposed.

I found water in a nearby stream for making mud while Fred positioned a couple sticks of dynamite on the boulder, and inserted the detonating caps into one of the sticks. He then strung out about 350 feet of wire to where the generator would be activated by Fred's pushing the bar-geared plunger down to spin the armature. Uneasiness crept into my mind: "Fred, are you sure you've got enough wire to keep us from getting killed when that rock breaks up?"

"Why certainly. Now, Ed, you come stand by me while I touch it off—there's nothing to it."

Though only twenty-years old, I felt more comfortable standing behind Fred's 320 pounds, but that annoyed Fred. "What the hell's a matter with you—you're no coward are you? Always face the charge—it's safer that way."

Well, the first charge just blew the dust off the tough old boulder that had ridden the last glacier to this place from who knows where in the far north. Fred tried again with four sticks, then again with six sticks, and the hillside reverberated with the thunder of 40% nitro gel. We both sweated from the labor of shoveling ever larger piles of mud over the charges, and my leader was suffering frustration.

"The hell with this Ed, go down to the pickup and bring up the whole goddam case. I'm getting sick of fucking around with this pebble."

There must have been over a half case left in the wooden box marked "Hercules Powder Co." that I carried up the hill to place on the boulder at Fred's direction.

"Ed, we gotta put a lotta mud on—then by God, I betcha something gives this time!"

"Fred, you sure you want to shoot the whole half box? I'm afraid we'll break some windows around here." (Windows were the least of my concerns.)

"Naw, they's half a mile from here—now string that wire."

Once again Fred hobbled on his short leg back to the detonator, his great Danish face florid. Sweat poured over his eyeglasses, he was driven now by pure obstinacy. I took off running down the hill, a move I had been planning for the last few minutes.

Fred roared: "Ho-boy, come back here, goddam you—I told you to face the charge." (Actually, it is the correct thing to do.)

As he spoke he pushed the plunger's handle, driving the ratchet shaft downward to send a jolt of electricity along the wires to the little brass detonating cap plugged into a single stick of dynamite that nestled with the rest of the sticks in the wooden box covered with mud atop our adversary.

Flying segments of the boulder came with the awful explosion. My eye caught sight of one slab of rock about a foot thick and three feet in diameter that buzzed as it fluttered between us, missing Fred by a foot or two and me by perhaps six feet. When it hit the ground it rolled far down into the valley below. Other large pieces flew in random directions—a sight that remains vivid in my memory!

People streaming from the farmhouse in the valley below were making their way toward us. Fred took a quick look at them and began to move hurriedly. "Ed, put the stuff in the pickup and let's get the Hell out of here. I won't bother the farmer about the bill today. You can collect some day next week."

© 1991, Edwin N. Harris
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