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Blasting day never short on excitement

Two well drilling rigs worked steadily in the sweltering Iowa heat, up on the top of the 60-foot-high quarry cliff face. They drilled rows of 60-foot-deep holes, into which we would pack three-inch by two-foot sticks of dynamite on blast day. These explosives would then, when detonated, blast the limestone cliff face loose so that the smaller rock could be picked up by a huge loader and dumped into a rock crusher.

It was 1962, that summer I worked for this rock crushing outfit. It was a good college summer job. A lot of it was boring, and hot, but then came blasting day. Then it was still hot. But it sure wasn't boring.

Shorty Buckmeyer was the foreman, a short wiry fellow, not an extra ounce of extra weight on him. He resembled, in more ways than one, a banty rooster, but one that you didn't want to cross.

He acted that way, puffed up, most of the time, except for blasting day, when we had to handle the dynamite.

TNT fumes make people sick -- headaches, throwing up. Really sick. Especially in the summer heat, when the stuff oozes liquid nitroglycerin from its skin. The dynamite of course had to be kept locked up in a special, windowless extra-secure building, and when it was 90 degrees outside, which happened in Iowa easily, it was double that in that building, and the fumes were a big problem for us.

Anyway, Shorty spent the first part of blast day daring that dynamite to make him sick, and the second half of it throwing up. Some of us joined him. It's hard for a foreman to maintain leadership qualities when he's bent over behind a gravel truck barfing. Blasting day was hard on Shorty.

Shorty and the owner somehow heard about nitrogen fertilizer and fuel oil, and that it apparently made a pretty explosive mixture. Cheap, too. Buy it all at the local co-op. When he told us this, we thought he was crazy. He said, "Boys, we're gonna try it."

Next thing you know, it's blasting day, we're up there on that high cliff face, looking at five rows of 60-foot-deep bore holes, each row 100 feet long, discussing how much granular nitrogen for the co-op fertilizer truck to auger into each hole. This particular detail? No one had a clue. We philosophized our way to filling the holes one-third full. About 300 holes. One-third looked pretty empty, so we poured some more in. What the heck.

We arrived at the amount of fuel oil the same way, hosed in ten gallons into each hole, stood around looking down into them, thought they looked pretty dry, dumped some more in.

Us? With no dynamite to make us sick? We thought we finally had it made. No headaches, no Shorty or any of us throwing up here and there? Pretty easy to take. As we loaded the holes, there were lots of jokes about planting corn in the fertilizer. None of us really thought this was going to work.

Since each time we blasted -- about once a week -- the electric detonator cord got 20 feet or so shorter, we drew for short straw to see who operated the plunger on the electric detonator. For once, Shorty lost.

One thing: You can't blow all those holes at once, or rock is pushed out across the floor of the quarry. You have to blow the middle and back rows first, so time delay electric caps are installed in the holes. That way, the front row holds the back rows in place during the blast. To install the fuses and cap the holes with clay, we took off all metal objects, shoes, jewelry, anything that might generate a static spark. It was a truly hair-raising feeling to walk around up there, knowing how much explosive power lay beneath you.

All fused and capped, from what was judged a safe distance away from the blast, about a football field and a half, we watched Shorty raise the dump box of a truck, climb up underneath it for a shield, hook up the det cord to the electric plunger, and holler, "Fire in the hole." We could barely hear him, we were that far away, standing in Johance's alfalfa field.

His arms went up. Then down. As usual, there was a slight delay between the down and the blast.

Then all Hell broke loose. It became immediately apparent that we had way overestimated the amount of fuel and fertilizer necessary for this. As the mushroom cloud formed, we were for once struck silent with awe. Not one smart remark. All summer we had seen blasts. But never, never one this big. The air shock wave hit us like a hammer. We were silent, unbelieving at the ferocity of what we had triggered.

At first the wind blew the cloud away from Shorty, but then it changed and the cloud headed his way. That cloud was pure poison, full of toxic fumes. Shorty took off running, just barely ahead of the cloud. From our position, we found our voices and hollered encouragement. Stuff like: "Run you short-legged little excuse for a rooster!" "Give'er Hell, Shorty!" And so forth. Most of it isn't printable. We were all glad we hadn't gotten the short straw.

It was a grand moment during which no one had quite yet assimilated the size of this blast, nor the fact that we had no doubt just strewn the entire cliff face across the floor of the quarry about six inches thick, a lot of work, hot quarry work.

I heard something whistle, during all this hoo-rawing. Then a whistle again, slightly higher in pitch. Then yet again. Suddenly, with a great loud WHOOOMPP! a car-sized boulder struck in the hay field about 20 yards away from us.

To heck with Shorty. It was then every man for himself, and we all took off running in every direction, as rocks and boulders of all sizes and descriptions rained down on that farmer's hay field.

When the dust finally cleared, and we surveyed the scene, we found that the blast, which was in a quarry somewhat at the intersection of four gravel roads, had knocked the REA's electric wires down in all four directions, had buried the roads in limestone to the point that it took two bulldozers all of one day to clear them, and dropped enough rocks and boulders on Johance's hay field that we picked rock for two days.

Unbelievably, no one got hurt. Well, Shorty's pride took a licking, but we cut the next blast dose by over half, and it worked pretty well.

It was 1962. I was 18 years old. It was very exciting.