Fire In The Hole!

I can’t remember if I was 10 or 11 that summer that my Dad, a bricklayer, contracted with the city to build some manholes for a sewer extension project. It was just a couple of years after World War II and Augusta, our little town of 5,000, just like the rest of the country, was beginning to grow as the men returned from the service and started their lives again. The northwest part of town was the logical area for growth and the city intended to extend the sewer lines to cover that area. The proposed line would start at the edge of a developed area at the south end of Henry Street and run south for about a half mile. It would pass through a hillside that was limestone covered with some short weeds and grasses because there wasn’t enough dirt to support anything else.

This hillside was one of my favorite places and I didn’t ever tell anyone else about it. It was the only place in town where there was an abundance of horned toads and ring-necked snakes. I’m sure you’re familiar with horned toads but maybe not with the ring-necked snakes. They were normally up to 6 or 8 inches long and were a deep black in color with a bright orange band around the neck. They were skinny, not even as thick as an earthworm, and were just the perfect size to carry around in your pocket. We always turned them loose in a few hours so they wouldn’t be harmed by being captive.

The construction guys were digging the ditch or trench with what we called a “steam shovel” back then. The machines were no longer powered by steam so I guess we should have called them “diesel shovels.”  The bucket pointed forward on these units as opposed to the back-hoes we have now with the bucket pointing toward the cab. Anyhow, the trench was dug to a depth of 8 to 10 feet and every so many yards a circular area was hollowed out to accommodate a manhole. The manholes were circular and maybe 6 to 8 foot in diameter at the base and grew smaller as the thing approached ground level. I guess they kind of looked like an igloo with a tube sticking out the top. Dad installed metal rungs or steps inside that were anchored in the brick work, as he went. The purpose of the manhole, of course, was to allow a workman to have access to the sewer line in case there was a blockage or some other problem.

This was to be my first time working for Dad. I wasn’t big enough yet to mix mortar or to carry  a 5 gallon bucket of mortar down a ladder but I could help get the bricks to where they needed to be.  A quantity of bricks had been left at the location of each manhole. Those bricks had to be taken down into the trench and placed where Dad could reach them as he worked. For this, he said he would pay me $.01 (1 penny) per brick. I thought I was going to be rich!

The boss on the job was a man named Glen who worked in the city maintenance department. Glen was a nice guy and the reason we knew each other by name was that whenever the city workers did a project in our little town it always drew a crowd of kids. Glen was an easy-going guy who answered all kid questions and I think he knew us all by name.

There was an abandoned house at the bottom of the hill and we always put our lunch bags and water can in there and then we also ate lunch there because that’s the only place there was any shade. The temperature was running between 90 and 100 every day so the house was a perfect retreat.

Speaking of lunch bags and heat, I need to digress for a moment. When we fixed lunch back then, we made a bologna sandwich and slapped a little mustard on it, wrapped it in a piece of waxed paper, and put it in a brown paper bag. If we were lucky, there was an apple or a peach to throw in also. Nowadays, lunch means a 50 dollar Igloo insulated box containing a 3-course balanced meal, sodas, and 5 plastic bottles of water. Lunch has sure gotten complicated.

To get back to business, the old abandoned house was also a cooler place to keep the dynamite and the blasting caps. One day when we were all eating lunch, I was asking Glen questions about dynamite and blasting because he was the one that did all of that. One of the things he told me was that the fumes coming off a stick of dynamite were so powerful they could give you a terrible headache or even make you sick at your stomach. The trick was to not have the stuff directly under your nose and to be careful about taking a deep breath. Glen said that they had to do some blasting that afternoon and if it was ok with my Dad he would show me how to prepare the dynamite and the blasting caps.

Dad had been listening to all of this and he agreed that I could come back to the house and watch Glen. Glen said he would be heading back to the house in about an hour and when I saw him heading that way to come on over. Dad and I went back to work and I got enough bricks stacked up to allow me to stay away for a while without Dad running out. Instead of carrying all the bricks down the ladder, he had been letting me drop them into the trench as long as I didn’t let them hit each other and break. I would then go down in the trench and stack them neatly within his reach.

There was a case of Hercules Dynamite and a box of blasting caps in the house. The dynamite looked like you would imagine…red sticks wrapped in wax paper with an appearance not unlike that of a road flare. The blasting caps looked like a short piece of brass tubing with two wires coming out the end. Glen told me how the wires would be attached to a detonator and that closing a switch would send an electrical current to the blasting cap causing it to explode and having been inserted into a stick of dynamite, would cause the dynamite to explode, too. Glen had a wooden dowel that had been sharpened to a point on one end. He showed me how to push the pointed end of that dowel into the end of a stick of dynamite and make a cavity for the blasting cap to be placed in. Next he would insert the cap into the cavity and use his fingers to mold the material over the end of the cap to keep it from falling out. You could mold the stuff just like a piece of clay. That’s all there was to it. The other workers would have drilled the holes in the rock and one of them would help Glen place the dynamite sticks in the holes and wire them up. When they were ready to blast we would all be given the signal to take cover in the old house and Glen would yell the classic warning “Fire in the hole” and set off the blast. I got to help with the preparation several times and really enjoyed it.

In later years I wondered how my Dad felt when he let his kid go play with dynamite. I figure that Dad trusted Glen and knew he would see to it that the proper safety rules were followed. I also figured that Dad knew he could trust me to do exactly as I was told. And, last, Dad probably figured that if there was an accident, all of us on the hill would be vaporized no matter how close we were to the old house and the dynamite.


Dave Thomas
November 25, 2013



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