Paul suggested that I take cover in the bucket of the steam shovel.

May 25, 2006

Paul suggested that before the bomb went off, I should take cover in the bucket of the steam shovel. He confided that whenever a big bomb exploded, he always preferred to hide in the scoop of a steam shovel, if one was available. I suspected a set-up. To get in, I’d have to squeeze into a fetal position, chin tucked between my knees. Paul would need less than a minute to round up most of the crew so everyone could have a good laugh at the greenhorn cowering in the bucket.

On the other hand, while almost everyone and everything is fair game for the brunt of Paul’s humor, the man is deadly serious about his work with big bombs. After briefly weighing the possibility of humiliation against the likelihood of dismemberment, I crawled into the bucket and waited for the bomb to go off or Paul’s laughter to begin.

Paul Stanford, Technical Operations Manager for Phoenix Clearance Limited, is widely regarded as the best big bomb expert working in Laos. He’s been here for eleven years and has seen just about every one of the 300 different kinds of ordnance left over from the war: small bullets, blockbuster bombs, and everything in between. He’s mastered the techniques of “low order” demolitions, where specialized equipment and skills are used to render a bomb incapable of exploding. It is close-up work that always carries the risk of unexpectedly becoming the other kind of demolition. A “high order” demolition is the one where the earth-shaking bang is planned and expected.

I was relieved when our medic came to join me in the bucket. Now I knew there was no joke. Buahom is built solid and thick-chested for a Lao. Together, like Spam in a can, we pretty well filled the bucket. Still, we had to make room for Paul. Feeling a bit guilty for momentarily doubting the man, I sucked in my gut and pressed my back into the thick, cold steel of the bucket, creating a stingy little space. It was unfair that Paul’s backside was wagging unprotected outside the bucket, since he had found our cover in the first place. I felt a bit guilty. Mind you, not guilty enough to swap places with him, but guilty nonetheless.

As the Lao technician at the safe end of the firing cable counted down to zero, Paul said, “A little bang is a bad sign. A big bang is a good sign.” He meant that if our blocks of TNT properly detonated the bomb, the 125 pounds of explosives inside its casing would explode with a roar. A gut punch of a blast would indicate the bomb’s complete destruction. As I’ve often heard Paul lecture our guys, “You’ve got to get it right the first time, every time”.

Fortunately, when the count reached zero, there was a resounding boom that I’d describe as about… say… a clap of thunder directly overhead multiplied by a factor of four. Paul grinned from ear to ear. That bomb was finished. The village was safe, and people could resume farming without fear.

We hunkered inside the bucket a while longer, just in case it started to rain hot razor blades. Big bombs can throw steel fragments, mostly small, but some the size of your arm, at the speed of a bullet for nearly a mile. The possibility of injury from falling “frag” is the reason we command villagers, whom we have moved outside the danger zone, to go under “hard cover.”

The rain of frag never came our way. Later inspection showed that most of it went straight up and came straight down. Not by luck alone, but by the design of the hole in which our team had carefully lowered the bomb before detonation. Had a miscalculation or a change in the prevailing winds caught us by surprise, Paul, Buahom, and I would have been safe in our steam shovel bomb shelter. It was another Paul Stanford lesson learned: You don’t find “hard cover” that’s much harder than the bucket of a steam shovel.

It was satisfying to know that this particular bomb was gone. The people moving into this area are leaving a village that has been their home for four generations. They’ve cleared their old village of dangerous ordnance, often at the risk of their own lives. Forced by the construction project to move, they have every right to a new home free of old bombs and landmines.

Today’s bomb was found on the surface of the resettlement village’s agricultural fields. It was dropped from an American plane, secretly bombing in Laos, about thirty-five years ago. Had the villagers accidentally set the bomb off while burning their fields, they would not have had the safety of a steam shovel bucket. An accidental detonation would probably have added to the list of 20,000 casualties that the Lao have suffered since the war ended back in the early 1970’s.

Looking back, the only down-side to the day was finishing demolitions so early. It wasn’t much past 10 am. Paul said, “I do love this work, but now everything will be anticlimactic for the rest of the day”. I looked to see if his dour expression was an act, setting up another of his jokes. It wasn’t. As he looked at his watch he said, “It’s all down hill from here.”

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