Written by Dr. Thomas N. Told, Dean of RVUCOM
Ever since I learned that my initials, TNT, stood not just for Thomas Nelson Told but also for a famous chemical compound, I became intrigued with its history and applications, wondering what it would be like to use it. My parents said that by the age of four, I had learned the chemical name of Alfred Bernhard Nobel’s compound and could even pronounce Trinitrotoluene (the real TNT) perfectly. It may also be one of the reasons why I’ve always enjoyed firearms or explosive fireworks—and certainly why I now have to buy hearing aid batteries.
Growing up, I was never in a position to experience firsthand why explosives were so popular until I moved to Craig, a ranching and mining community in Northwest Colorado. There, it seemed everyone had a stash of dynamite, which was sold over-the-counter at the local hardware store. Dynamite, after all, is a useful tool for stubborn rocks, stumps, ice jams in the winter or even beaver dams that can choke streams and canals or cause washouts and flooding.
Wanting my boys to grow up as I had in the country, we bought a little place south of Craig and began to raise sheep and horses along with the hay crops needed to sustain them through the winter. Though it was nothing fancy, this provided me with great physical activity. Maintaining the ranch also became a superb diversion from the rigors of a busy medical practice. As a weekend farmer/rancher, I also experienced the joys and challenges that my patients faced in the livestock industry. By working the land, I came to understand my patients better and, in turn, they trusted me not just as their physician, but as an equal.
Our land had a generous supply of water from a canal that had been laboriously dug years before, and it carried water from the free-flowing Yampa River. All had been going well with our little operation until a family of beavers, feeling that our canal needed some wildlife engineering, set up residence and began building two large dams. I can perfectly recall the day, in the middle of the summer season, when my irrigation water completely stopped.
My war with the beavers had begun.
At first, I was tolerant of the little engineers, especially when the streams were swollen with winter snowmelt and provided plentiful water for both of our needs. However, the streams dwindled in the summer heat and the beavers completely cut off my water supply, jeopardizing my hay crop.
Like two people trying to share a small blanket, I thought that if I gave a little, they might do the same. I diplomatically approached each dam and pulled out a few large sticks, mud, and logs and released just the right amount of water needed to irrigate my field. To my dismay, a few hours later, the water once again stopped flowing. Every physical effort and plan to dismantle the dams failed. Every morning, the dams were once again in perfect condition.
I was losing this battle fast.
My hay crop was rapidly dying and it would require swift and, quite honestly, desperate measures to rectify this. Before long, I found myself at the local hardware store purchasing the region’s most popular explosive, dynamite (a first for me).
As a neophyte in the fine art of explosives, I enlisted the help of the former owner of my property, whom we’ll call Earl. Earl was an 80-year-old man who had been crippled by years of arthritis and was now confined to the use of crutches for walking. He advised me on how much explosive to buy, the ideal length of the fuse, and the need for a supply of the notorious blasting caps, which are a bit unstable and require special care.
The fuse itself would need to be one that burned underwater when lit, but when I asked Earl how we could make the blasting caps waterproof, he said he usually crimped them to the fuse (at the top of the cap) with his teeth to make it watertight. After he explained this, I realized that Earl did not have a single tooth in his head. He looked up at me with a wry, toothless smile.
In an instant, images of patients with missing fingers and other body parts, lost by fooling with blasting caps, raced through my mind. I instinctively knew that biting a blasting cap was most definitely not sanctioned by the American Dental Association. To my relief, I later found out at the hardware store that I could purchase a special pair of dynamite pliers made for crimping. Though I only used them twice in the time I had them, I kept them as a memento of this adventure. I topped off my purchase with a box of “strike anywhere” matches and returned to the canal.
Back at the dam, I approached with a sense of trepidation while Earl lumbered along behind me on his crutches. At the top of the steep canal bank, we surveyed the job at hand. I had cut the fuse extra long (nose to fingertip) and mated it to the blasting cap. After crimping it with the pliers, I attached the combo to one of the dynamite sticks. This stick would be placed above the others to ignite them when the fuse was lit.
Wading waist-deep into the cold water, I used my shovel handle to create a deep narrow hole in the mud, just behind the dam. I lowered the explosives, fuse, and blasting cap to the bottom of the hole and tamped it lightly into place, leaving only a foot of fuse above the water to light. The fuse lit easily, and Earl and I retreated to wait for what seemed a long time. Impatient, I wanted to check if the fuse had gone out, but as the County Coroner, I had examined other unfortunate souls that had done the same only to have the charge go off just as they arrived.
I’m sure we could have roasted three hotdogs and eaten them by the time we heard the muffled, rumbling boom of the exploding dynamite and saw mud, sticks, and water rising 50 feet in the air. Clearly, I had cut the fuse way too long; it was my first time, after all. Only a portion of the first dam was removed by the first explosion, so we vowed to use more dynamite and shorten the fuse for the remaining dam.
Before lighting the explosives for the second dam, I led Earl to a place where we would both be safe from falling debris, assuring him that I could do it alone now. I waded into the stream again, but the cold water made me fumble with the matches, making it difficult to light the fuse. At the exact moment, a match touched the fuse, a gust of wind came down the canal and blew out the match. I repeated these three more times with double and triple the number of matches, and each time the wind foiled my efforts to light the thick orange fuse.
Finally, I took out my pocketknife and cut a cross at the end of the fuse to better expose the accelerant. I tried to light the fuse two more times without success. My prolonged efforts had begun to worry Earl and, thinking I needed help, he struggled up the bank and began to hobble over to me. Just as he did so, my last match landed successfully, lighting the fuse.
I thrust the burning fuse into the water and saw it burn more brightly. Earl, seeing the bubbles and smoke rising from the water, suddenly remembered how short the fuse had been cut and whirled around to escape. His crutches went flying in each direction and he rolled down the bank. I thrashed in the water, struggling to extract my body from the water and thick mud.
When I reached the bank, I pulled Early up by one arm—by then he had managed to rescue one of his crutches—and we both half-hobbled, half-ran as fast as our panicked bodies would allow. Within seconds, the ground shuddered, and the sky above was darkened by a massive geyser of black mud, sticks, and water, much higher than the first. The black column stopped for a moment and then plummeted back to the earth and right on top of us.
By some miracle, we had made it!
The high canal bank had deflected the explosion upward instead of outward. We both knelt on the ground, wet, covered in mud, yet incredibly lucky to be alive (and definitely much wiser).
The next day, the beavers moved out and migrated down the stream to the neighbors’ land. I returned to practice the next morning with an unbelievable story to tell, and a much healthier respect for the power of explosives. This was the first and last time I ever used them for any purpose, but my infatuation with TNT would continue in another form. In the years that followed, my sons have enlarged the Told Clan with a generous number of grandchildren who also share the unique and fun initials of “TNT” with their grandfather.