My fascination with explosives and demolitions began with a pretty young girl I met in junior high school, Mary Loizeaux. I think every boy had a crush one her. Did I mention that she was very pretty? Her allure grew when her family was featured in a magazine supplement to the Sunday Sun newspaper. They had a trampoline in their house that made her even more alluring. But it was her father who fascinated me even more. He founded Controlled Demolitions Incorporated. You've probably seen their work featured in television news broadcasts of major hotels being destroyed. Now that got my attention. Still does.
I had grown up with a fascination with explosives. I had manufactured my own black powder and gun cotton. I might have been crazy enough to make nitroglycerin had I been able to get my hands on the ingredients. At least I knew what I needed and how to blend them safely[?]. I wasn't certain that I was going to survive OCS, but I knew damn well that they weren't getting rid of me until after training in explosives and demolitions.
I was very fortunate to be teamed up with a classmate who was deathly afraid of explosives and was happy to have me do everything. I was happy to do it. Fortunately for me he didn't know that military explosives are far more stable than commercial ones. They have to be inasmuch as they are handled in abusive environments such as battlefields where more sensitive ones, like dynamite, might detonate accidentally. I can still see him cringing at a distance as I pounded a lump of composition C4 on a concrete work bench to get it into the desired shape. The stuff you see in the movies is more soft and malleable. It's fake. I once had to pry a coil of detonating cord out of his hand. He had thought it was plastic clothes line when the sergeant sent him to retrieve it from the storage locker.
We learned restraint with explosives. Most people tend to use too much when they don't know what they're doing. For example, I had a friend who I helped clear a field of tree stumps before I joined the Army. His father gave him and his brothers each a plot of land to build houses when they got married. My friend's parcel was covered in cedar trees. His father contracted with a lumber company to clear the trees but failed to negotiate to have them remove the stumps. He decided to use dynamite.
In practice, you need just a small amount – a quarter or half of a stick – to loosen the dirt and then drag the stump out with a logging chain and a pickup truck. However, my friend's father used three sticks with each stump. We went away – far away – when he detonated them. We found his father later under his truck. He was afraid to come out until it stopped raining tree stumps.
The Army also taught us about sympathetic detonations. Most explosives are detonated with the shock from a smaller detonation, such as a blasting cap. However, solid materials can transmit a sufficient shock from a nearby detonation to set off other explosives. I had seen this effect before joining the Army.
A contractor hired an explosives expert to clear an exposed shelf of bedrock so he could expand a commercial park. The expert supervised the drilling of holes for the charges and the contractor then fired him thinking that he could finish the job himself now that the expert had planned everything. He decided to save time by placing the charges in all of the holes thinking to detonate them one at a time. However, the shockwave of the first detonation was transmitted through the rock setting them all off simultaneously. The story that appeared in a local newspaper featured a photograph of a hole in the wall of an office building where a chunk of rock the size of a small car entered the building. Fortunately no one was injured, although a secretary was shoved against a wall as the rock propelled her and her desk backward.
I couldn't help applying my lessons as I wrote Rebels on the Mountain. I knew that there were nickel mines in the Sierra Madre mountains in Eastern Cuba and that the Fidelistas had stolen explosives there. They also stole them from military posts that they raided.
My research showed me that they derailed an armored train on one occasion using explosives, and that they dynamited buildings during their final offensive. It was obvious that they needed someone who knew how to handle them and I provided fictional character, an engineering student, Juan Tumbas, to fill that role. I couldn't find any extant documents proving me right or wrong.