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Dynamite.

IF YOU WANT to reduce the risk of disaster, check the map against the territory. Compare what you think about a situation with ongoing events in the world Out There.

Like many families, ours occasionally took the map for granted.

While my two brothers and I grew up, our father taught us many things: to whittle, to sail, and -- to dynamite. Our education in the art of blasting occurred on a remote island in the Bahamas.

In 1951, my father gave up teaching art at Smith College and moved us south in search of paradise. On our schooner we sailed the northeastern Bahamas until we found our ideal isle: with landlocked harbor, beautiful crescent beach, coconut palms, limestone caves, and fruitful beachcombing. We also found virulent sandflies and mosquitoes, but no wellwater; thick bush, but no arable soil. Our paradise had located itself one day's sail from the nearest village and it had no intention of moving closer to civilization for many years.

While we built our shore home, we lived between our 47-foot schooner Langosta and a thatched hut on the beach. For domestic freshwater, we decided to follow local custom and build a concrete underground cistern that would store rainwater caught on the roof.

We began construction on a rocky outcrop on a dune that lay between the harbor and the Atlantic ocean. We had no power tools or equipment. We had picks, shovels, an iron bar. We had our hands and blisters.

We had a case of dynamite.

In those days, my brothers and I called my father by several names, although none of the "Dad" ilk -- his first name, Ran (the traditional old man denoting ship's captain, which received a special inflection when the old man made us tar the rigging or scrub decks), the Captain, the Professor, Captain Bly.

The Captain believed he should run his ship with ship's discipline and he'd bellow "Jump to it" if we crew failed to obey speedily. He also initiated a chain of command. In his absence, my older brother Bill gave the orders.

Shipboard discipline moved ashore when we began clearing bush, planting coconut palms, and of course, dynamiting an excavation in the rock for our cistern. My father gave Bill lessons in dynamiting, while my younger brother Peter and I watched enviously. The Professor took his teaching seriously, as one could tell by his stern voice and the way he tugged his beard.

On a dune covered in sea oats and wind-blown scrub, in a depression in a limestone outcrop, kneels a man in a wide-brimmed palmstraw hat. Three tanned, barefoot, teenage boys have gathered in front of their mentor. Around this small group lies broken white rock, white limestone dust, picks, shovels, a crowbar, a large blunt ax. In the brilliant sunlight, the limestone's whiteness hurts the eyes. The Atlantic surf booms a hundred yards to the east. Barren sand slopes westward to flat terrain spotted with sea-grape bushes between hill and harbor. From the low ground comes the sound of coconut fronds clicking in the sea breeze.

The Professor demonstrates: Peel back the waxed paper at one end of the dynamite. With a sharp pencil, make a hole, then insert the electric cap. Tie the dynamite to a stick and lower carefully into the blasting hole. Sprinkle stone dust into the hole, dampen it, tamp carefully. Carefully! Attach the ends of the red and black detonation wires to a long extension cord. Now hurry away along the ridge. Don't run! Stop. Crouch on the ground, hold one end of the wire to a flashlight battery....

"Fire in the hole!"

Before the fun, we had to drill. Although anticipation of a glorious explosion gave us stimulus, hand drilling of the limestone proved tedious work. We had primitive tools -- a chisel-ended iron bar or a sharpened length of iron pipe served for a drill. Singly, or sometimes in twos, we lifted the drill and rammed it down into the deepening hole over and over again, while the hands blistered, sweat dripped in the eyes, and the head swam in the heat. We poured seawater in the hole to remove the debris. The plunging of the pipe-drill pumped limestone sludge up the pipe and down over our heads.

Occasionally, the Captain went to work elsewhere on the land. One day, when we thought he'd sculled across the harbor to cut bush in our continuing attempt at a garden, we created a particularly fine explosion.

"Fire in the hole!"

Connect the detonation wires to a flashlight battery.

Blam!

Rocks, dirt, and dust flying.

A beautiful geyser of smoke, stones, and pulverized rock.

A pattering noise on surrounding sea-grape leaves as small stones fall round us.

The Captain had begun digging a saltwater well in the low ground to provide water for concrete, and thereby avoid lugging buckets of seawater from the harbor.

One must participate in the art of blasting in order to appreciate its finer points. The trajectory of a rock. The angle of the dust plume. The exquisite music of small things pattering onto the ground around you. The acrid smell of burnt explosive and burnt rock.

The unfinished well, now about seven feet deep, lay conveniently near the construction-cum-blasting site.

Our blast had produced a wonderful geyser of rocks, dust, and stones, and a gentle rain of small stones around us.

It also produced a yell from the well.

In a moment we saw emerging unhappily from below ground my father, the Captain, the Old Man, Captain Bly. With his pointed beard and wild hair, he looked less the College Professor, and more like Lucifer himself. His scowl would have turned a jellyfish to stone.

Our burst of laughter tapered off nervously. The Captain had spent years honing the skill of righteous anger, particularly when it came to bad boys.

We fell silent as the seriousness of what might have happened sank in.

My father strode up the hill. His voice shaking, he told us his part in the drama. Down in the well, he'd heard the cry of "fire in the hole" and had yelled for us to wait. Before he could scramble out, the dynamite had exploded. He'd squeezed up against one side of the well. Our beautiful geyser of dynamited debris had contained a big rock which had plummeted down into the well and crashed at his feet.

If it had landed a few inches either way, the rock would have killed him.

That day, Captain Bly didn't get mad. The shock of our close call with death cast a certain soberness over us all.

What had happened? My father had taught us to accept responsibility -- we'd take the schooner Langosta for supplies without his supervision, for example.

On that day of near disaster, we did not establish how communication had failed over my father's whereabouts. Looking back from a general semantics perspective, I now see it differently:

That day we took the map for granted. The map said the Captain has left the area.

We didn't check the map against the territory: we didn't look in the well.

With hired help, we went on to finish our poured-concrete cistern and cement-block house. The cistern provides my parents with their domestic water to this day. Almost ninety now, my father enjoys the sea breeze on his porch, where he can see the Atlantic to the east and the harbor to the west. If he feels like getting dressy, he might don a T-shirt. Shoes get low priority, unlike a stem of bananas he has hung to ripen from a porch joist. Once settled on the island, my father resumed his sculpting with some success. If you visit Nassau, you might see one of his bronzes in the Senate, or at Prince George Wharf, Rawson Square, or elsewhere.

I now live far away, where I wear shoes and work in an office. Those uncomplicated days of life close to nature seem even further away because technology and tourism has overtaken the islands, and the simplicity of life there remains mostly in memory.

Next time I see the Captain, I must ask what he remembers of the day we touched off the dynamite, and he stood trapped in a well while a large rock landed at his feet.

He might say: next time before you dynamite, look in the well.

ISGS Executive Director Paul Dennithorne Johnston lived in the Bahamas from age nine until his early twenties.
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Title Annotation:checking out information
Author:Johnston, Paul Dennithorne
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:1412
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