On a very cold morning in Kemmerer, WY I showed up for my first day on the job at the local coal mine. Although the mining job paid three times my hourly wage as a gas station attendant, I nervously entered the machine shop with an acquaintance and a host of grizzled men wearing dirty hard hats and lots of clothing. At 20, I knew men who worked hard for a living could be tough on young guys. It takes time to earn respect, and first impressions can last a long time.
Shortly before 6:00, the men gathered around very large equipment parked inside the mechanic shop, forming a rough circle that suggested someone would soon fill the space. Fidgeting nervously, and wearing enough clothing to know how mummies might feel I made my way over a loader with tires that stood a good foot taller than my six foot frame. Huge trucks sat in the other bays. I marveled at the immenseness, and wondered if my first assignment included one of these monstrosities. I could imagine my flattened body, like in the cartoons, floating in the air like a leaf if I got under one of these beasts.
The foreman stepped into the circle and barked out some commands to the group. I knew instinctively that this guy ruled the roost, and we did what we were told. We belonged to the United Mine Workers Union, but he belonged to the company. For the first time in my life, I understood the fear of the boss. After yepping to him calling my name, he assigned me to go with two other men, who thankfully looked nicer than many of the others in the circle.
Our leader, Jim, appeared forty something, and the other fella looked to be mid-twenties and Asian. We introduced ourselves, and walked into a dark, bitter-cold Wyoming morning. Jim jumped into a large flat-bed truck that he started earlier, and I took the shotgun position at the other window. With a sickly amount of moonlight illuminating a winding dirt road, we bumped along on shocks that seemed too cold to compress, and so we just bounced.
Nervous about my future, I asked, “So, what do we do?” “We load hose” was the response. Few thinking people wish to appear stupid, so I mulled those three words around for a few seconds. What kind of hose gets used in a coal mine, and how would you use it in this bitter cold? Nothing made sense, so I asked in feigned casualness, “What do you mean, hose?” “Dynamite, we load dynamite.” they said.
That pale moonlight obscured the loss of color in my face. Not wanting to die, I checked beforehand to be certain that no one worked underground at this mine. Only strip mining and open pit existed now, so it seemed like a safe job. And now I found myself hundreds of miles from my parents with two strangers preparing to handle dynamite. A few times in my life, I knew that I ought to flee the situation, but a graceful means of doing so kept my feet from moving. This was one of those times. My mind raced from excuse to disaster, but not to clear paths of escape. Like a hearse, my ride took on grimness and reflection as my driver slowly made his way to my final resting place.
We pulled up to a large, padlocked box, about four feet square. Jim gathered blasting caps and cord for the day, and warned me to be very careful with the caps and cord, because both detonate from shock. With our explosive triggers in a gunnysack on the back of the truck next to the cab, our fully gassed truck bounced down the road.
I held my breath and waited for the explosion while my tormentors made small talk about the previous weekend. We made it to the next stop, a semi-trailer parked alongside the road, and I eagerly got out. Jim swung open the doors to reveal a trailer filled about two-thirds full of explosives.
The mine used two sizes of tube explosives. One tube measured about 20 inches long by 3 inches in diameter and the other tube measured about 36 inches long by 4 inches in diameter. The smaller tubes blew patterns in coal and the larger tubes blew patterns in dirt. In strip mining, a large drill on the back of a truck drills holes 20 feet and much deeper in a pattern that is later loaded with blasting materials. Patterns are designed for coal or dirt, and the amount of blasting material needed to loosen that material. Giant equipment then digs up the loosened material and loads it onto even bigger dump trucks.
That morning, we loaded the back of our truck with tubes of dynamite. Jim’s instructions included unnecessary concerns for caution. By the time we finished, I needed to sit down, but warily got back into the truck with blasting caps, cord and dynamite all sitting together on back. The sun now revealed the age of our well-used potential rocket, and I understood better why the ride seemed so bouncy. The rough road continued for a long mile or so until we arrived at the freshly drilled pattern of dirt.
At the pattern, Jim explained how we placed x number of blasting caps on the cord and put it down into the bottom of the hole, leaving about 18 inches of blasting cord sticking out the top. Then, using a rope with a little hook, each bag would be let down into the hole by attaching the hook to a ring in the end of each bag. I watched a few bags get lowered onto the caps and was warned about the necessity of gentleness to avoid delivering a jarring impact on the blasting caps at the bottom. When the bag reached the bottom, a little slack released the hook and the rope could be brought up.
When I got my first chance to lower a large tube of dynamite, I imitated the strategic process described that I witnessed. Moving the bag to the edge of the hole, I put tension on the hook and lifted one end of the bag to slide the other end into the hole. About half way into the hole, the hook came loose. We all froze as my bag of explosives slid down the hole at gravity speed toward another bag and several blasting caps. Thud, just a thud. After a little nervous laughter and exchange of glances, we shook it off and I hooked up another bag. I never lost another one, and we finished loading all the holes to a certain level and filled the rest with dirt. Afterwards, we took more blasting cord and tied all the 18 inch pieces together and ran a long cord way over on the other side of the man-made valley.
After alerting the foreman and all surrounding workers, Jim set off the explosion with one of those official gadgets hooked to a battery, and lifted dirt 30 feet into the air. I must say that at the end of the first day, I enjoyed myself. The sun shown, I made some friends and only a healthy fear remained every day afterwards. After nine days, the union went on strike for three months. I returned to the mine months later, but never again with the blasting crew.
Over the years, I have used a lot of power tools and machinery, but nothing that powerful again. Many tools come with warnings about risk to limb, but not many with warnings about life.
Even today, I approach a new power tool with caution and some trepidation. Learning to use power properly cannot be underestimated. I still have all my slightly battered fingers, and I want to keep it that way.
Wear your eye protection and read the instructions. I could tell you stories, and maybe I will. But let’s not become one of those stories that make people shudder.
Enjoy the power!