04 Nov 2022

“Just Where Is the Other Half?”

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Old, Discarded Sticks of Dynamite

Vanderleun‘s boyhood had a good deal in common with mine, despite being set in California.

Sometime later my parents bought a house on the edge of Butte Canyon out on the fringes of Paradise. My father built a new bedroom for Tom and myself at the back of the house with its own entrance stairs that incorporated the trunk of a black walnut tree. There was a cherry tree in the backyard along with a brick barbecue. Beyond the backyard was an acre of wild oak, madrone, and manzanita. Behind that was an old dirt road that ran right at the edge of Butte Canyon. The canyon here was draped everywhere by frozen flows of black lava in all shapes and often precipitous drops. Nearby there were trails branching out and down into the canyon. On weekends and in the summer, our parent’s instructions to us were simple: “Home before dark.”

I was 9 and my brother 7 and we set off every summer and non-school morning with a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to explore this strange landscape of lava beds, High Sierra forests, and streams, and abandoned gold mines.

For there were abandoned gold mines everywhere in the sloping walls of Butte canyon. You found them by following old almost erased trails that slowly slumped downwards on the canyon walls. One particular site boasted a mine with three entrances branching off into the darkness under the canyon. Some mines were said to go back several miles but they were always too spooky and our flashlights too dim for us to venture very far inside.

Whenever we could we’d escape out our private entrance and ramble about the canyon under the watchful eyes of buzzards roosting atop dead pines waiting for a meal. It’s strange now to say we skipped along the edges of the paths oblivious to the potential for becoming buzzard food, but children are immortal in their own minds, are they not?

One day in (was it late autumn or before or after?) we were following a new path when we came upon a wide and long lava bed somewhere midway down the canyon. The lava was coal-black and had many lichen-covered stones protruding out of the crust. And in the midst of it all, there was one large lava spire that rose high above the bed below; a monolith that had felt the splash of the molten lava but had survived in a cooled lava shawl. The spire rose at least 20 feet above the canyon floor. At the top, the spire forked into several shards on all sides leaving the top open. And somehow in the top, there was enough earth for, strange in this High Sierra pine forest, for a stand of green bamboo to grow tall all around. It was like a giant lava planter with just a bit of a Chinese landscape at its top.

There was a hand-over-hand way of getting up into the bamboo at the top. We found it through the kind of determined trial and error a boy can have on a summer afternoon with nothing to do and the whole local wild world to explore. At the top, the bamboo thinned towards the center and we squeezed inside to be able to see the whole wide world of the canyon around us without being seen at all. It was a boy’s summer dream. It was impregnable. It was

“This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,”.

And so we did what any two young boys would do. We improved our fort and hauled in supplies. With some pruning sheers that my mother convinced herself she must have mislaid, we carefully trimmed out the inside stands of bamboo until a comfortable space was made (invisible to outside eyes) for two brothers to relax in a comfortable manner. We hauled in some water in bottles and some “rations” consisting of apples, jelly sandwiches, and chocolate chip cookies. These “rations” did not last the afternoon when we would pour over our latest comic books bought at the Paradise drug store and soda fountain.

After sober consideration, Tom and I decided that grown-ups could not be allowed to know what we were up to and where our fortress was located. To heighten our fortress security measures we named the place: “X.” After that, we always referred to it as such confident that no eavesdropping adult would be able to break our code.

Bored with being the only unattacked fortress in California we would sally out from the bamboo and climb down onto the lava flow to pick through the gold rush garbage dump at the bottom of the flow.

The considerable garbage tip of gold rush detritus had been formed when the various gold mining operations in Paradise had been producing in the mid-1900s to well into the beginning of the 20th century. The rush for gold was over but there was still gold in them thar hills and many prospectors still worked the streams, rivers, and canyons. Up and down the streams and canyons of Paradise, there were still places that were showing enough color for man to get enough of a poke for his whiskey and fixings and other needful things in their ramshackle camps along the canyon’s edge. When such needful things were used up or the gold played out, the garbage was taken to the top of the lava flow and disposed of by just chucking it over and watching it tumble until it disappeared into the tangled madrone and manzanita at the rock-studded bottom.

But what was garbage to a gold miner was gold to a couple of young boys. We found old whiskey bottles and jars of uncertain provenance. We found rusted metal sheets and rods that we fashioned into a lean-to deep inside the bamboo walls of “X” so we could store our comic books and other treasures. We found many things and then…


Then there was the day when we cut back a bunch of manzanita branches and pulled out a tightly dovetailed and nailed wooden box with the top stove in. Tom pulled back the shattered wood of the top to reveal a torn sheet of stiff brown paper. Widening the rip in the paper we looked in and saw about half a case of dynamite composed of broken sticks on the top and whole sticks of TNT on the bottom of the box.

Were we scared of these explosives? Not for a moment. Tom was 7 and I would have been 9 years old. Not only that but it was before the time when children were trained to be fearful before they were toilet trained.

Afraid of some dynamite? Please. We were overjoyed. At last, we had some real weapons! Better than guns! This was a boy’s nirvana.

And even though the years of winter rains had soaked the sticks through and through, the red paper casings still had all the warning signs printed on them. Perfection compounded.

We hauled the box of dynamite back up the lava flow to the foot of “X.” By the time we got there we were both into a shared dream of killing waves of Heil screaming Nazis in World War 2 as we had seen in a hundred movies. I reached into the box and took out a half stick of sodden TNT and heaved it a good thirty feet at the ghost Nazis until it went splat on a boulder.

Tom said, “Isn’t that a little scary?”

“It’s fine,” I said and added (betraying my limited child’s understanding of the nature and potential of Trinitrotoluene ), “It’s all wet. It can’t explode.”

Since I was the eldest Tom just nodded his head and threw his half-stick of dynamite even further than mine until it went splat on the stones.

And so we passed a fine afternoon defending “X” from the Wehrmacht zombies until the evening fell and we went home to supper. We’d been dressed in those Levi jeans you bought two sizes too large and washed separately and Western-style Levi denim jackets. We tossed these war-stained togs into the hamper and dressed for dinner. I don’t remember what I thought but I’m sure I was excited that the brothers now had two secrets that the parents would never know; “X” and TNT.

The next day was a school day and, after breakfast, we walked down the short dirt road to the bus stop on the paved road that, over hills and through forests and orchards, would deposit us at Paradise Elementary School and Mr. Roberts’ classroom.

It must have been a bit before noon when there was a knock on the classroom door. It opened and my father walked into the room accompanied by the Paradise Sheriff sporting hat, badge, gun, the whole tool kit. My father gestured to me and I was whisked off to the Principle’s office where we were soon joined by my brother Tom, my mother, and a deputy sheriff sporting hat, badge, gun, the whole tool kit.

I wish I had some memory of what my 9-year-old self thought at that moment but I do not. I ascribe this to the fact that under those circumstances, my child’s mind would be nothing but a vast tsunami of unremitting white noise radiating through an ocean of fear.

It would seem that, upon leaving “X” the evening before, my brother Tom had neglected to empty his pockets of one of his half-stick TNT “grenades” that had been polishing off the Nazi zombies all afternoon. No, it would seem that one-half stick was still in the pocket of his jean jacket the next morning when my mother turned them out for the laundry.

One of the rare pleasures of having boys for children is that, if you are their mother, you can find yourself at the washing machine in the garage holding half a stick of TNT you’ve just found in your 7-year-old’s jacket. Now that is a feeling you don’t get every day.

More pleasant still after seeing your child has a half-stick of explosive in his pocket is the thought, “Just where is the other half?”

Naturally, my mother could not wait to telephone my father at work with the joyful news of explosives in the kid’s clothing. His reaction was, I am sure, “Just where is the other half?”

Once we were seated in the principal’s office ringed by every authority figure short of the National Guard our interrogation commenced. The questioning could be boiled down into:

“Just where is the other half?”


Shenandoah, Pennsylvania as an Anthracite mining town, with loads of abandoned mine shafts and actively working strip mines in the immediate vicinity. My friend John and I discovered by late elementary school that a storage shed at the strippings just south of Poplar Street was not necessarily always locked, and that enterprising schoolboys could “borrow” the occasional stick of powder and the odd blasting cap. Just for scientific experimental purposes, you understand.

Dynamite is interesting stuff. Nitroglycerin is a strong explosive and highly unstable. It is very easy, way too easy, to set it off, and I guess it must have been Alfred Noble who figured out that if you soaked the stuff into some kind of absorbent clay, it became much, much safer to handle. You could also then vary the size of the bang you got by varying the ratio of nitro to clay.

We did not want to get caught, and we also didn’t want to offend the powers that be by removing so may sticks that they started locking up the supply, so we carefully limited our removals. Also we were concerned about the possibility of attracting adult attention with too large experiments, so we naturally made a point of cutting up our dynamite sticks. A quarter stick would toss a small boulder gratifyingly high in the air and employed as the proverbial “Lithuanian fly rod” would reliably reveal exactly how many fish were lurking in a particular pool.

Alas! Some of our schoolmates got wind of our activities and took to drawing on the same supply source. One fine day we found the old frequently-unlocked wooden shed replaced by a monstrous metal fortification all locked and bolted to a fare-thee-well. John and I set out to make our own nitroglycerin and dynamite, but that’s another story…

One Feedback on "“Just Where Is the Other Half?”"

Fusil Darne

The sticks that have an oily appearance on the outside of the wrap are the ones you shouldn’t play with.
We learned that, and, incredibly, nobody got hurt.


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