Blown Away, Almost

The Cast: Marines (instructors and fellow), Myself (learning).

I wish I had an exciting opening tagline. I don’t.

As of yesterday, school is back in session where I live. That means that I am back to work at the middle school and the university. This is good—my wife prefers it when I can bring income into our household (I do too). But, as this week approached, I wanted to have a school, or educational experience to write a post about. Sorta like a commemorative piece. I couldn’t think of any. Most of my school days were pretty basic (elementary through college—even my master’s program). I wasn’t sure how I was going to do this. Then, I used my Leatherman.

Now, if you are unfamiliar with what a Leatherman is I feel sad for you. Not the, “Poor, pathetic you.” kind of sad, just the, “Oh, my goodness! You have no idea what you’ve been missing out on!” kind of sad. They are probably the greatest tool out there! Their quality! The versatility! The support! The designs! Okay, okay. This is not about them. But, it kinda is. Follow me into The Wayback Machine…

During Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm my brother was sent overseas to assist with that whole thing. Before he left, our parents presented him with a combat knife and a Leatherman. The knife had a special sheath that would work with the A.L.I.C.E. system and had a special setup that the Leatherman could attach to. All with his name engraved, military-style (last name followed by first and middle name initials). It was pretty slick. So, in keeping with that ‘tradition’, they felt like I should have something special when I graduated from Boot Camp.

“I would like a tactical Leatherman (black) with a blasting cap crimper.” They asked what I wanted, so I told ‘em. So, I got a tactical Leatherman with a blasting cap crimper built into it. YIPPEE!!! Seriously, YIPPEE!!!

“What are you going to do with a blasting cap crimper?” Was my mother’s real question.

“Crimp blasting caps.” Was my real answer.

“And, just how often will you get to do that?”

And now, the story…

In the military, you have an MOS, or Military Occupational Speciality. And, for this occupation, you go to school. Mine: 0311, Infantry. Yup, I was a grunt. Proud of it. The Backbone of the Corpse. I enjoyed what I did. Especially when I got to crimp blasting caps.

So, there we were, a bunch of new Marines learning about the basics of how to kill stuff (I know what I wrote) with everything from explosives to drinking straws (that last one, I know 12 different ways—and, no, that does not mean stabbing in 12 different locations, that still just one way: stabbing. I know 12 different ways to kill you with a straw.) On one of those days, we went out to learn about ‘splody stuff. I almost died.

There are all manner of safety precautions taken to make sure trainees and instructors survive the education of the proper use of explosives (after all, you don’t usually get a second chance with an explosion). While I don’t recall exactly what all was done over the several days of explosive training, I do recall a couple of particular events. One of which involved the Leatherman.

Event #2: Exploding pizza!

Some time ago I mentioned a bit about a pizza-shaped explosive. During the day’s training, we had been using quarter-sticks of dynamite (meaning they were a quarter of a full stick of dynamite, not the size of a U.S. quarter) in learning how to connect fuses, blasting caps, and explosives.

When all that training was done, there were quite a few quarter-sticks left. Well, Uncle Sam doesn’t like to have stuff brought back. Maybe it’s the paperwork, maybe it’s having to store the old stuff you just got rid of… Regardless, it was made abundantly clear that the leftover dynamite was not headed back to the Quartermaster. So, what to do with it? Make it into a pizza that explodes. What else?

I don’t know how many quarter-sticks there were being used, but, from what I could see, the ‘pizza’ appeared to be an extra-large. The cylindrical quarter-sticks were stacked side-by-side so that their caps looked like grey pepperonis on this powder-keg pizza. A fuse with a blasting cap was inserted into the center ‘pepperoni’ and the time-fuse was wrapped several times around the ‘crust’ and then trailed off into a tail. This extra fuse allowed for plenty of time for whoever ignited the fuse to get to a safe distance (there is a science to it—it’s called math).

Those of us in training were instructed to take a seat in the ‘classroom’ bleachers, while a few instructors headed out, into a ravine, to deposit—and then detonate—the pizza of death. We were assured that all safety precautions had been taken, and that we were all completely (repeatedly assured) out of harm’s way. The blast radius must assuredly be much smaller than what would have been expected (safety). It was Bikini Atoll all over again.

All of us wet-behind-the-ears Marines were sitting and waiting for the inevitable explosion. Surely it would happen soon. Thankfully, it didn’t take long before the grand finale of the day’s experiences happened—it just felt like forever. Right before the detonation, we were, once again, warned that all of us were definitely out of harm’s way. Then it happened. There was the boom. The earth shuddered. Smoke rose from the trees and shrubs. Then, I felt the pain. Despite all the warnings, we were still well within the blast radius.

I had been sitting on one end of the bleachers, my elbow set upon the railing, my hand holding my head erect, when it hit me. Literally. The rock hit me (no, not Dwayne Johnson). A shrapnel rock from the deadly pizza was hurtled right at me. At the angle I was sitting at, had my arm not been there, that rock would have hit me directly in the throat. What are the odds? Fortunately, there was not much damage. Some broken skin. Some blood (adventure!). For a few days, there was some bruising and tenderness. After what I had been through earlier, this was not a bad way to end the day. Now, on to earlier in the day…

Event #1: Crimping! (and almost death)

So as to keep us all busy, we had been rotating training stations throughout the day. One of these included how to properly crimp a blasting cap onto time-fuse and install it into an explosive. For our purposes, we were using quarter-sticks of dynamite. This was done for a few reasons. Some of them being that it’s just fun to watch something explode, and, to ensure we do it right, something must explode. See, a blasting cap doesn’t have much punch, and if not connected to the fuse correctly, or seated into an explosive correctly, the explosive doesn’t go off. By having us learn in a relatively dangerous situation we pay attention. It worked. We paid attention.

In the first part of the training, we prepared the blasting caps and time-fuse. Our small group was divided into smaller groups, due to a limited number of crimping tools and explosive safety. By the time I arrived at the crimping station, my group was informed that a crimper was broken, and one of us would have to wait. Nope. Not I.

I pulled out my Leatherman and before I could do anything I was being told that you can’t just use a set of pliers to crimp a blasting cap onto a fuse. Then, I was given a list of reasons as to why. Then I showed my trainers the crimper part of my Leatherman. They were impressed. I was allowed to continue. See, mom! See! “…how often do you get to do that?” Sheesh.

Once the blasting caps were connected to our time fuses, we attached the detonation devices to the other ends of the fuse. They are a simple, one-time-use device. Again, if not set up correctly, it won’t work (and if it doesn’t, you have to fix it, with live explosives, you don’t want to goof up with live explosives—effective teaching). Next, we plugged the blasting cap into a connection plug intended for use with the quarter-sticks of dynamite. Detonator + fuse + blasting cap + TNT = good times!

After preparations, our group was moved to the detonation area. This area consisted of the latest in explosive protection technology devices: A large dirt patch which included several dirt ‘dents’ and a short (in length and in height) brick wall (to protect from shrapnel—and it worked. you could tell from the pockmarks and missing chucks in the brick. ‘cause you never know when you need protection from shrapnel). Now, our final bit of instruction.

First, each one of us were set into one of those ‘dirt dents’ to ignite our explosives (it was explained that after ignition, the explosion would be channeled safely upward). Then, we were informed how the rest of this was going to work. We would each be pointed to, one at a time, and called to ignite our fuse. Once ignited we were to remove the explosive from our cargo pocket and place the device into the center of the holes we each occupied. Yes, I said, “remove the explosive from our cargo pocket”. Yes, our own explosive was in our own pocket!

This was done so the instructors knew we had one. In theory, it was to keep us from playing around with it and accidentally setting it off, and if we did set it off, it would be our leg that we blew off and not someone else’s. Smart.

Once the explosive was ignited and placed into the center of the hole, we would walk over to behind the wall and lay down in the defensive position we had all learned in Boot Camp. However, in order to fit us all behind it, we would have to stack. Yup, some of us would be kissing dirt while the rest layed down on top of each other. Yeah, it sucked to be on the bottom, but the ones on top would get hit by debris. So, fair’s fair. Here we would lay until all the detonations went off. Simple.

I went first.

I pulled the pin. Smoke began to leak from the plastic sheath coating the time-fuse. So far, so good. I removed the explosive from my pocket, set it into the hole, walked over to behind the wall, and assumed the position. Now, I waited for the rest of the group.

One by one, the young Marines took their turn. Bodies stacked. I—along with the rest of the bottom row—was slowly crushed by the rest of the group. Then the Marine next to me whispered, “Do you smell smoke?”

“Yeah, but maybe the wind shifted?” I quietly replied.

“Maybe. But it smells like it’s right here, doesn’t it?”


Then we felt the weight change. Bodies were getting off the top of the stack. Sounds of foot movements. Then, heavy weights were dropped upon our group. Were they dropping bags of rocks on us? Then came the booms. Lots of them. One for each of us. This was good. If there were not enough, the Marine who failed would have to be the one who inspected their device.

After all the boomity-booms, we found out that one of the Marines had not removed his explosive from his pocket and had made it back to behind the barrier with the rest of us. Moments before it went off, our trainer noticed the smoke, grabbed the guilty Marine, pulled them over the wall, removed the live dynamite, chucked it into an empty hole, tossed the Marine back over the wall, then jumped to safety himself (the bags of rocks). The explosion (while relatively small)—due to how close we all were packed behind that wall—would have killed most (if not all) of us and seriously maimed any who would have survived.

And some people think school is boring.

My second Leatherman, worn from almost 30 years of daily use. The first (my original gift) was lost by a Sgt. Leatherwood, in Hawaii. He replaced it with this one. This design is no longer in production, making this a collector’s item—and a family heirloom.

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