Appalachia Stories

Playing with Dynamite – The Bunker

Today’s guest post was written by Ed Ammons.

Dynamite in box

Beanie’s dad Luther worked for a time at a quarry over in Sandy Mush. Quarries used dynamite to blast rock into pieces that then were crushed into gravel. Sometimes sticks of the dynamite or the detonation caps that were supposed to explode didn’t function properly. Part of Luther’s job was to find and gather up all these dangerous materials. His bosses didn’t want to reuse any of it, so they gave it to him. He brought home boxes of dynamite and detonation caps. The caps often had insulated copper wire still attached. He had miles of this wire. He would sit by the heater and strip the insulation off the wire and save the copper to sell. Sometimes he twisted the wires together into a bundle from which he made copper bracelets. 

Me and Beanie were in our early teens around this time. The world was our oyster. We were invincible. we had access to dynamite and the means to set it off. Parents in that area and that era, unlike today, were not “helicopter parents”. They told us the rules and set us free. They expected us to be responsible for our own safety. Luther explained how to handle the dynamite, how to use the caps and then turned us loose on the world. Somehow, we survived. And the world too!

While out tramping around the woods Beanie had stepped into what we later surmised was the remains of a failed mine entrance. It was mostly filled with leaves. We decided to pull out all those leaves and see what was back in there. It took a couple of hours, but we finally got it cleared out. The opening was so small that we had to belly crawl to get inside but once we were in it opened up enough that we could halfway stand up. It went back into the mountainside for about ten feet. The floor of our bunker was loose dirt that had fallen from the ceiling and could be easily removed. The entrance needed to be enlarged enough for us to crawl in on our hands and knees. We didn’t want it any larger because we didn’t want anyone else to find it. The interior needed to be expanded to allow room for more than just the two of us. We hoped to make room for a fire and planned to somehow make a hole up through the ceiling and out to the surface so the smoke could escape.

We went home, gathered up some tools and returned to the jobsite. We cleared the opening first, then dug our way toward the back. The farther we went, the harder it got. One of us had to go in the hole, dig a shovel full of dirt, and pitch it out through the entrance while the other one scattered it down the mountainside. There was no room to swing a mattock or a pick inside. There was no room for a long-handled shovel. The back wall was even harder material, what we called sandrock. Harder than dirt but not quite rock. With the tools we had we were scratching more than digging. We needed something that would move material easier and faster. We had it! Remember Good Times? Remember Jimmie Walker? Dyn-O-Mite!

The next day we returned with the needed supplies to begin our blasting operation. We had a few sticks of dynamite, some blasting caps and enough lead wire to extend to a safe distance away. We brought a hammer and a piece of steel rod with which to drill holes in the back wall of our inner sanctum. The only battery we had was out of an old Jeep that Luther kept in the barn. That thing was heavy! I carried the battery and Beanie carried everything else.

We commenced our drilling operation. It was not as we expected. We didn’t have a proper drill and the more we pounded the rod the more it packed the sandrock behind it. After an hour or so of “drilling” we had managed to make a hole deep and wide enough to put one stick of dynamite almost completely in. Instead of drilling deeper we decided to load the hole then pack dirt over anything that protruded. We strung the wire as far as it would reach. We removed the safety shunt and attached the legs of the cap to the lead wire that ran to where the battery sat. We were ready!

Keep in mind the dynamite, the caps and the wire were all “used”. They had gone through a blast at the quarry and had survived. Or had they? Were they damaged, were they “duds”? Did the battery have enough “juice” to set off the charge? We were about to find out! 

Beanie had chosen to detonate the blast. I reasoned that it was his dynamite after all, so I didn’t argue. I donned my ear protection (my hands). Beanie needed both his hands to touch the leads to the battery posts. He touched one lead to the negative side and held it there then slowly reached to positive with the other one and touched it. We both flinched but nothing happened. Was it the wires? The cap? Was the battery too weak? We decide to scrape the battery posts hoping a better connect would render a better result but fully expecting another failure. If you expect to fail but instead succeed, you have failed no matter the outcome. Beanie repeated the procedure. 

A tiny spark jumped from that battery and in the same moment a voluminous roar filled the valley. Rocks, dirt, roots and billowing smoke erupted from our little enclave and rained down into the bottom of the holler and onto the far hillside. We had been successful. 

In case you do not know, the smoke from a dynamite blast will give you a splitting headache among other things. The active ingredient in dynamite is nitroglycerine. It’s something about the nitroglycerine dilating the blood vessels in your head that caused the terrible headache. Nitroglycerin is used in medicine for angina pain. It’s strange that it relieves pain in your chest but causes it in your head.  

We waited outside for half an hour before attempting ingress and should have waited longer. We both ended up with a headache but not before we surveyed the results of our efforts. An explosion seeks the path of least resistance therefore instead of breaking up the sandrock as we had hoped, its energy was emitted from the mouth of our cavern. It blew out a hole in the back no deeper that what we had drilled and about as wide. It’s contents and the dirt we had packed in front of it, as well as everything loose, in the tunnel were ejected. 

It took us a half a day to get the dynamite, wires and battery to the jobsite and in place. It resulted in the removal of the same amount of material we could have broken up and thrown out in about 15 minutes outerwise. Plus, we both went home with a bustin headache. Me and Beanie learned something that day that we would be able to use in later life. I’m not sure what that something was but I’m sure it was something.

There are more “Playing With Dynamite” tales if anyone is interested in reading about them.            

I hope you enjoyed Ed’s post as much as I did! And I certainly hope he’ll share more of his dynamite stories with us.

Last night’s video: The Role of Gospel Songs in Traditional Appalachian Music | Oh What A Savior.


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  • Reply
    Kathy Gautier
    January 22, 2022 at 4:06 pm

    Loved this story and all the comments.

  • Reply
    January 22, 2022 at 3:19 pm

    Ed is an excellent writer!! That was a great tale made better by the telling.

    Of course, we want to hear more, Ed.

    Now you can forget helicopter parents. Can you imagine what would happen to any company today that allowed young boys to retrieve caps and dud sticks? I managed to get my hands on some blasting caps as a kid. They were in a gravel pit that I scrambled about in until it filled with water. Had fun settin’ ’em off. Wish I’da found some dynamite . . .

  • Reply
    Cheryl Christensen Bennett
    January 21, 2022 at 6:57 pm

    I loved this story. What a great writing style. More please!!

  • Reply
    Annette Casada Hensley
    January 21, 2022 at 1:43 pm

    I loved this story and would love to read more like it!

  • Reply
    Dennis M Morgan
    January 21, 2022 at 12:00 pm

    My wife’s uncle Oscar used to explode dynamite every Christmas Eve at 9:00 pm during their annual Christmas dinner. He said he could not afford to buy fireworks but he was in the construction business and had could get dynamite. When I married into the family I would help Oscar explode the dynamite. We would go into the woods several hundred yards behind his house to do it. It took three people to do this; one to carry the dynamite, on to carry the blasting cap and one to carry the D Cell battery and the extension wire (which got shorter every year). There was a ditch we hid in when the dynamite exploded. It would shake the ground and make a really loud sound. People in the neighborhood would listen to hear the explosion. I was always amazed at how simple it was to explode the dynamite. After doing this for many years Oscar stopped because new homes were built near his and he was afraid the blast would damage them. Those days are gone but the Christmas tradition of exploding dynamite sure was exciting while it lasted. Dennis Morgan

  • Reply
    January 21, 2022 at 11:51 am

    Ed, if you’ve got more dynamite stories, I would love to read them! I am from a coal mining county in eastern KY and heard a few ‘blasting’ stories from my dad. Good thing the rascals among us today can’t get their hands on anything explosive as easy as the responsible boys of your era could.

  • Reply
    Paula Rhodarmer
    January 21, 2022 at 11:07 am

    I remember years ago one of our neigbors set off some dynamite on the fourth of July. Everyone in the cove heard a huge boom. Somehow it blew an entire large tree clean out of the ground.

  • Reply
    Patricia Wilson
    January 21, 2022 at 11:07 am

    Great story, Ed! It reminded me to thank God again that He gave me only girls to raise. They did some “dangerous” experiments with hair coloring chemicals, but that was mostly hair-threatening, not life-threatening.

  • Reply
    Kim Smith
    January 21, 2022 at 10:53 am

    Yessir, we want to hear more!

  • Reply
    Rita F Speers
    January 21, 2022 at 10:19 am

    Bah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!!! LOVED IT!!!!!

  • Reply
    January 21, 2022 at 9:51 am

    That’s a great story!! I especially loved that last couple of lines “Me and Beanie learned something that day that we would be able to use in later life. I’m not sure what that something was but I’m sure it was something.” Hilarious!! I’d love to hear more of his stories. Thank you for sharing!

  • Reply
    January 21, 2022 at 9:47 am

    Thank you, Ed Ammons, for such an interesting dynamite story. You are so right in that there were no “helicopter parents” but somehow most of us survived. Some cousins still like to laugh and tell the story of how they were using dynamite to move a rock or something. They set off the dynamite and blew my aunt’s canned green beans to smithereens. The only thing that saved their hide was their dad’s youngest brother was the head honcho in the plan. I usually think everything is funny, but all I could think of was the hours of work and jars my dear aunt put into that.
    My mother always turned us loose, and I do believe it taught us so much more than if we had been protected constantly like many children are nowadays. The worst I suppose was that we had a double train track not far from our house. We had the smartest little boy ever as a neighbor. My two sisters were young enough to go off on many adventures with him to include walking train trestles and climbing trees. They loved to wave at train engineers who would throw candy to them. This is the story as told to me with some paraphrasing. On one particular day they were walking along one track unaware of a train on the opposite track. The clickety clack noise drowned out any other sounds. Suddenly Danny pushed my young sister off the tracks to safety just as a train came down the tracks in the opposite direction. They remained friends long after they were married, and he visited her not long before she died. Some of the tales told in our family as adults make it quite obvious that this old saying may be true. “God protects fools, drunks, and children.”

  • Reply
    January 21, 2022 at 9:44 am

    Oh my stars! I was on the edge with fear for them. I know boys will be boys, but God definitely protected them both that day. Well written story and an experience they both will never forgot.

  • Reply
    January 21, 2022 at 9:31 am

    I enjoyed reading Ed’s story. My daddy liked to tell a story of a family he knew that hand dug wells and used dynamite when they hit rock. This took place nearly 100 years ago. One of the boys would go down in the hole that was being dug and place the dynamite and their daddy would then go down and light the fuse and call to his boys to pull him out of the well. One day they pulled a trick on him and pretended not to hear him after he had lite the fuse, The boy that had went down with the dynamite had only put a fuse in the hole and no dynamite. They had been telling their daddy about how dangerous this was and they needed to switch to the newer method of setting it off but he refused to change. After doing this to him they had no more trouble getting him to change to the newer method.

  • Reply
    Garland Davis
    January 21, 2022 at 9:22 am

    I never had access to dynamite but in my day you could buy black powder at the hardware store.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    January 21, 2022 at 8:25 am

    Yep, sounds just like what two country boys would do if they could get ahold of dynamite. What a different world then though. Nowadays the whole alphabet soup of law enforcement agencies would be in a dither knowing somebody had dynamite at all, much less unsecured. But it used to be not uncommon.

    Where he got the dynamite I don’t know but my Dad shot a ledge of sandrock when he was digging out the basement of the house he built for Grandma. He had worked with it in the mines and on road construction and knew how to use it. I expected a big blast and he made us get way back but when he set it off it was just a dull thump and nothing went flying. However, before he got the experience he and another fella found some dynamite one night at a mine when they were coon hunting. Just for fun they hung a necklace of it around a white oak tree to see what would happen. Well, they blew that tree in two but escaped unhurt, though I think they got a never-forgotten scare and awe of what dynamite would do. In later years, his first cousin once removed was killed by a flying rock from a blast on road construction.

    We’re glad you survived Mr. Ed.

  • Reply
    January 21, 2022 at 8:17 am

    Yes Ed, more.
    One of my uncles kept a box of dynamite in his cellar. This would have been in the 1950’s. I saw it many times but never used any of it.
    Ed, today you would be locked up.

  • Reply
    Margie G
    January 21, 2022 at 8:12 am

    As Jimmy Walker of Good Times (a 70’s sitcom) would say “ DYNOMITE!!!” Lol. When I was in Ecuador in this man’s Army, I ended up at a blast sight (a bridge was being constructed) and when they hollered FIRE IN THE HOLE, you’d better be out of rock and debris way (lest you possibly get hit and killed) and I won’t ever forget it. It lifted me about a foot off the ground. At that moment, I fell in love with detonation. I stayed there all day in awe. Looking back over my life, I often wish I’d have become a demolitionist. I’ve heard of blowing up fish for an easy picking. I’d never do that, but if I‘d have been one of the kids in this tale, it would have been a hoot to be in on this adventure. If youll be detonating anything call me at BR 549 ( Junior Samples of Hee Haw’s number, remember?) Lol

    • Reply
      January 21, 2022 at 10:02 am

      Hi Margie, my career was “in this man’s Army” too! Back in the early 80’s I was in a unit in Germany where we held monthly EOD (Emergency Ordinance Destruction) drills. Each month we’d alternate between “standard” and electrical EOD procedures. Both involved C4…this article brought back many of those EOD “exercises”. Two things I miss about the Army are the people and blowing up stuff!

  • Reply
    donna sue
    January 21, 2022 at 6:29 am

    I enjoyed reading Ed Ammans’ memory. I don’t know much about dynamite other than what a friend told me, he use to haul it in the high desert of California. I do know you don’t play with it! I love all the details Mr. Ammons gave in his story – I could picture what he was telling very clearly. Thank you for this guest post! I will read it to both my Dad and my uncle over the phone later today. One is in Indiana, and one is in California. They will both get a kick out of hearing it! Again, thank you!

    Donna. : )

  • Reply
    January 21, 2022 at 6:19 am

    Oh, my goodness! What an experience. The visuals of digging out the old mine, then that explosion. Wow. Well-written and appreciated!

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