Oudomsouk has something you don’t find in many American towns.

May 8, 2006

At first glance you wouldn’t realize that the new dam and power plant have turned Oudomsouk into a boom town. To put it kindly, Oudomsouk is a bit rough around the edges. The village sprawls over a bare, treeless, rolling landscape. There are about two hundred structures in town that fall into just a dozen categories. Mostly tin-roofed houses constructed of rough, unpainted boards. There are countless sheds and animal pens. There is a little market consisting of three rows of open stalls; it doubles as the bus depot. We sent a truck off for repairs, so I know there is a garage somewhere that I have not yet seen with my own eyes. Considering all the children running around, there surely must be a school somewhere. But given the fact that the children are present all day, every day, I wouldn’t bet that the school is sized to accommodate mandatory attendance.

This time of year Oudomsouk is a dry place. A bone-dry place. When the winds pick up, or a vehicle wheels through town, we all clench our teeth and shield our eyes to protect ourselves from the brick-red dust. If a dust cloud catches you laughing, you’ll be spitting grit and rubbing dirt from your eyes. All that Oudomsouk needs to complete its imitation of nineteenth-century Tombstone, Arizona, is some tumbleweed rolling through the center of town.

Oudomsouk does have its charms. Unlike our camp, there is electrical power twenty-four hours a day. People in the shops are friendly, helpful, honest and fair. One of the two or three restaurants features food to please an American palate. (I particularly favor an order of “Stack and Chip;” there is also “Fried Nothing” on the menu but I’ve always been too hungry to take a chance on whatever that is.).

Oudomsouk also has something you don’t find in many American towns. Right smack in the middle of the village is a live 750-pound bomb. Its hardened steel casing holds about 350 pounds of TNT. It’s been here since the hey-day of rock and roll. Around 1968, give or take a year or two. No one remembers for sure when it arrived, because back then, a bomb landing in town was not the newsworthy event it would be today. It didn’t explode, and nobody investigated the hole it made. It lay hidden for decades before someone discovered it while digging a post hole.

Whoever found it had the good sense to leave it alone. In the years since, villagers have gone about their business as if the bomb didn’t exist. No one messes with it, so it just sits there undisturbed in its earthen nest. It is either incapable of fulfilling its mission, or it’s a very patient bomb. Sooner or later someone is going to have to lay hands on the 750. Up to this point, everyone who possesses the skill to do something about Oudomsouk’s bomb has passed on the chance.

When the day of reckoning comes and someone takes on that bomb, there will be a lot of excitement – with or without an explosion. The whole town will have to be evacuated while clearance workers set up their equipment and implement their plan. Roads will be blocked. Shops will be closed. Villagers will round up their livestock and children and lead them to safety, at least a mile out of town. If Oudomsouk is lucky, at the end of the day the 750 will be harmless, and life will return to normal. If Oudomsouk is unlucky, half the town will be hard to find.

If the company I work for, Phoenix Clearance Ltd, is assigned the 750, the responsibility will fall to Paul Stanford, our Technical Operations Manager. (We more commonly refer to Paul as our “big-bomb specialist.”) Paul is a retired Royal Air Force veteran. He is the longest-serving explosive ordnance disposal technician among the expatriate community in Laos.

It’s usually easy to get Paul to talk about bombs. He’s friendly and a great story-teller. As we rode along in our truck one day the subject of the 750 came up, and I asked Paul to share his plans. In the silence that followed, I pulled out pen and paper so I could take notes during what I expected would be a detailed lesson on bomb removal. I was surprised that Paul was quiet on this day. Then he said, “I’m going to give that bomb a lot of serious thought.”

I waited; I wondered if more was coming. When I realized that the lesson was over, I quietly put the paper and pen away. I remember Paul once telling me that, big bomb or small bomb, “you’ve got to treat them all the same.” I realize now that “treating them all the same” doesn’t mean doing the same thing to every bomb. “Treating them all the same” means giving every bomb equal respect for its unique differences. As Paul gives the 750 “some serious thought,” he’ll consider its age, its manufacturer, its fuse and other unique component parts, its condition, its location, its previous treatment or mistreatment, and … maybe a hundred other considerations. As Paul considers the 750, I hope I can get him to think out loud when I’m around. I’ve always got my pen and paper ready.

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