“Far better is it to dare…to win…even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat—Theodore Roosevelt
THE DAY WE BLEW THE ROCK IN MALIBU
“I don’t care if you’ve done anything or not,” said the cop. “If I have to drive up here again, I’ll throw your ass in jail.”
This moment, a low ebb in our building project, was undoubtedly generated by a number of explosions on our construction lot, coupled with the complete lack of a blasting permit. We were building a house on the side of a mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the beauty of Malibu, California. It was a life dream for my wife Gloria and I and, as they repeatedly and loudly pointed out, a nightmare for our neighbors.
In the Midwest, where I had grown up, building a house was an excuse for the community to bring over macaroni casseroles and beery offers of help. Building permits were in place to expedite the whole process while simultaneously generating small fees to help support local law enforcement.
Malibu and California were another story altogether.
“We will never let you build here,” announced our closest neighbor at the outset of our first meeting. We had knocked on their door to introduce ourselves as their soon to be new neighbors. This was prior to the commencement of construction. They, and subsequently others, went on to explain that they regularly picnicked on the land we had purchased and now that was no longer possible. It was also pointed out that the construction of our dream house would be noisy in the short term, plus upon completion there would be a house marring the view of what was currently an empty lot. They had, they said, built there themselves for peace and quiet and any interruption by us of the open space we now owned, of picnicking or solitude was unacceptable.
Malibu at the time was an iron-fisted fiefdom of the California Coastal Commission. The Commission controlled all building permits, which they could stop or start at will. The Commission was originally established to control and maintain California ocean beach access for the public, a terrific idea. However, when it was set up almost a half century ago, it never occurred to anyone that coastal towns could and did expand their city limits for dozens of miles inland. The result was that the Coastal Commission found itself in the position to regulate things for many inland miles of totally landlocked acreage. This they cheerfully did through concocting dozens of regulations, each of which required a permit and the paying of enormous fees.
Most folks trying to build a home just swallowed deeply and took the hit, including us. The most onerous and most hated of these regulations was one which required portions of land to be deeded over to the Commission in order to get a building permit. The stated purpose of this requirement was to insure “walk-in” public beach access, even on property located 20 or 30 miles from the ocean. After some years, an outraged land owner instituted a bitter fight. It took five years, but the Supreme Court ruled the requirement a form of legalized racketeering and unconstitutional. To my knowledge no landowner previously extorted however, including ourselves, ever got any land deeded back.
My wife Gloria and I were building our dream home on a wing and a prayer. Rumors flew, we later learned, about our horde of imaginary wealth, but in truth we were hanging on by our fingernails. Any delay or additional expense would almost certainly bring our whole project down. Such an event would leave us the broke and broken owners of a beautiful but empty lot. There was no fall back. Everything we had, could borrow or scrape together was in the project and on the line.
Stress levels were hideous. We dealt with serial, hostile neighbor complaints by requesting an official inspection of each complaint. That turmoil gradually tapered off when officials never found anything actually amiss. The already overworked inspectors finally got sick of the entire process, wrote the neighbors off as kooks and left us pretty much alone.
The Coastal Commission, was another matter. Without meeting their demands, regardless of what they were, we would not be issued a building permit. The Commission also controlled final occupancy permits, without which no one could move into a completed building. Unless you were prepared to wait years and invest tens of thousands of dollars into legal fees, fighting was not an option.
The Commission required us to build on bedrock in case of earthquake. This was reasonable, we felt, so we commissioned a group of certified engineers to do borings and verify bedrock lay beneath the entirety of our lot. This was completed after considerable delay and expense. The Commission was unmoved.
“We want to see it with our own eyes,” said the Commission’s representative, dismissing the findings of an engineering group the Commission itself hired on occasion. This direct eyeballing necessitated scraping away tons of dirt to prove we actually had bedrock under our lot. This cost us a significant percentage of our construction money.
Once to bedrock and receiving a grudging comment of “I guess the engineers were right,” from the Commission’s watchdog, we then had to replace and compact the tons of dirt we had scraped away in order to re-build a construction pad for the house itself. The expense, our lender repeatedly pointed out, just to meet the string of non-statutory; i.e., non-law regulatory demands, was by then over half the normal cost of building the house we had planned. Worse yet, the demands seemed to be unceasing, revealing themselves one at a time in a rabbit-out-a-hat manner. An ex-member of the Commission finally revealed over drinks one afternoon that the unspoken, dark-of-the night ethos of the Commission was to discourage as much mountain building as they could. This discouragement process often ruined the innocents who bought land to build upon and flesh out their own American dream.
Once we were bedrock certified and ready to build, the Commission suddenly issued a “shut down” order. This order was wrapped around a demand that before construction commenced, we first had to drill two fifty-foot-deep, four-foot-wide holes into the rock for a sewage system. We were horrified to discover that the cost to meet this requirement was just shy of a thousand dollars a foot. This gave us huge mortgage anxiety and our lenders serious dyspepsia. But the Commission held the whip hand. If we didn’t acquiesce, they would not allow us to build nor would they issue an occupancy permit. No occupancy permit, no moving into the dream house. Ever.
So we did it. My wife Gloria and I are serious environmentalists. But when calculations showed that two dozen people living at our house (there were actually 3 of us) for two dozen years would not fill up one half of one of the holes, we felt the requirement to be a bit excessive.
“Well,” I said to Gloria once we finished drilling, “that’s it. It can’t get worse.” Then, of course, it got worse.
“They have to perk,” said the Commission’s engineer. “Perk?” I responded. “Perk? What the hell is ‘perk?’ We’re talking holes in the rock here, not Mr. Coffee.”
He cheerfully explained that the Coastal Commission now required liquid to seep out of the bottom of each hole at a certain rate; the newly established “perk rate.” No perk, no occupancy approval.
“Seep out the bottom?” I was shrieking I think. “These are holes in rock; in rock! How the hell is anything going to seep anywhere?” We stared at each other. The next day our crew filled up the rock holes with water from, as it turned out, a very expensive water truck rental.
A week later the Commission’s engineer was back. “I have good news and bad news.”
God, I do hate it when folks start in with that. “O.K.,” I responded. “Bad news first, then good.”
“The bad news,” said the engineer, “is that your holes don’t perk at all. The good news is that you have two swimming pools for snakes.” Hilarious.
By now the engineer had been to our project lot many times, usually in response to complaints. We’d gotten to know each other to the point where he started doing inspections end of day, knowing that once he was off clock we had his favorite beer ice cold.
He saw, I’m certain, the doom in my stricken expression. After a pause, he said, “you know…if you could dynamite the bottom of the holes, the rock below would crack to natural drainage and the holes would almost certainly perk. Of course, you’d need a blasting permit, and the Coastal Commission will not grant those. They think drilling is more natural. Nope, all you can do is keep drilling and hope.”
I felt my heart starting to palpitate. “Isn’t there something, anything else we can do?” Desperation’s icy fingers reached out, making my breath hitch. Drilling funds were gone. Our lender was in full mutiny.
“I,” he responded, “am a licensed engineer. I cannot and will not recommend anything that does not conform to regulations.”
I just couldn’t contemplate breaking the news to Gloria. “Of course,” he went on, “if I wasn’t a licensed engineer, I would suggest you call this guy” and he handed me an oily, dog eared business card.
The person whose name was on the card, Jimmy, had a deep and abiding hatred of all officialdom. He also had the only privately licensed explosives bunker in all of Southern California. There were, I’m sure, many reasons for this. One, I suspect, was that his family had been in California since the Spanish Land Grant Days. They had at one time, it was said, owned a great deal of Southern California’s coastal lands. Another factor was probably that a long-gone Great Grandfather had used ‘49er Gold Rush experience to blast a road through a family-owned mountain canyon. This canyon, now sprouting multi-million-dollar mansions, still bore the family name, albeit no direct ownership. Tucked away at the very top of the canyon were some ramshackle buildings, the last of the family holdings. The site was beautiful. It boasted a breath-taking view and a huge underground bunker. This bunker was filled, rumor had it, with dynamite and other inventory utilized by Jimmy and his assistant for various projects, many of which included poking a finger into the eye of the “no explosives” mandate of the Coastal Commission.
I called. The phone rang and rang. Finally it was picked up and I heard a bellow at the other end “who the hell is this and why are you bothering me?” My stumbling explanation was almost immediately interrupted. “I’m retired!” the person screamed into the phone. I was certain he was either going to keep shouting or hang up.
I stammered out an “I’m sorry” and something about a guy who told me that he, Jimmy, might be able to help me with a problem involving the Coastal Commission. “Wait, what?” he responded. “Did you say the Coastal Commission?” followed by a string of curses. “I’ll come by and take a look. Only a few people I trust even know my phone number, so you’re probably O.K.” I noticed he left open the possibility that his initial character judgement might be in error.
Jimmy was older than his truck and in worse condition. His truck was a wreck. Had I not known better, I would have sworn that the rusty pickup, complete with a greasy derrick-like contraption bolted to it, dated back to his family’s Gold Rush days.
A younger guy, riding shotgun, was introduced as his assistant. “He’s learned everything from me,” pronounced Jimmy to the young guy’s nodding. “What he blew up in Vietnam wasn’t shit.”
After I filled them in on the situation and pointed out the two non-perking holes, Jimmy announced “we’re going down there. We’ll take the truck.” I was horrified. The access road was unfinished and not one contractor we had hired would use it. Too dangerous. “You’ll kill yourself if you try and take your truck down there,” I responded, petrified. They ignored me.
“The neighbors hate us,” I then called out as they fired up the old truck. Jimmy leaned out the driver’s window. “Fuck the neighbors.”
I couldn’t bear to watch as they drove down to the site. And I couldn’t bear not to watch either.
The assistant whooped as the truck, lurching to impossible angles left and right, banged down the access road. Once by the non-perking holes, the assistant grabbed a cable hanging from the contraption on the truck and disappeared first down one hole and then the other.
They left the truck by the holes and trudged back up. It was a long walk. “Didn’t want to chance the road to drive back up?” I asked.
Jimmy looked at me, then gazed outward. “Nice view here.”
“Had nothing to do with your piece-of-shit road,” he added. We’ll need to use the truck down there when we fertilize the holes, so we walked back up. You’ll need to drive us home.”
What? “Fertilize the holes?”
“You didn’t think we’d commit a violation by using dynamite, did you?” Jimmy was becoming a bit belligerent, I thought. Worse yet, I felt the meeting was now totally out of control. In moments, I had been morphed from a builder into a taxi driver for a wizened, self-proclaimed explosives and fertilizer expert.
“No indeed,” he continued. “We don’t want to upset the Commission by using dynamite. We’re going to use fertilizer.”
Jimmy was talking about ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer compound. Years after our episode with Jimmy, ammonium nitrate was used in the Oklahoma bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people. Since then and to this very day, anyone who purchases or tries to purchase more than a small amount of ammonium nitrate fertilizer is immediately reported. Then, it was not regulated and Jimmy had, he said, more than enough stored in his bunker to “fertilize” the whole mountainside.
Even in its pure form, ammonium nitrate by itself is not explosive. To be explosive, the fertilizer must be mixed with a fuel in an exact ratio, and a detonator must be able to generate sufficient energy to cause an explosion. This is not a job for amateurs. “Fortunately,” Jimmy said expansively, “we have had a lot of experience.” What he did not mention was that any such fertilizer detonation generates a shock wave which radiates outward at a speed of about 2 to 3 miles per second. This is not exactly conducive to stealth demolition work.
Two days later they were back, rattling up in another wreck of a truck. In the back was an ancient, air powered combination jackhammer and drill.
“We’ll hook up the drill to the compressor in our other truck,” explained Jimmy. “The one we left down below.”
He went on to explain that the plan was to jackhammer out grooves like the spokes of a wheel in in the bottom of each of the non-perking holes. They would then stuff their fertilizer concoction into the grooves and detonate each groove one after the other in a timed sequence to shatter the rock.
“Those suckers’ll perk like rivers,” promised Jimmy happily. “We got extra fertilizer; you need anything else taken care of as long as we’re here?”
We had just run into an unexpected rock shelf when digging the foundation of our home. The contractor estimated $20,000.00 to remove it; $20,000.00 which we did not have and had no hope of getting. Jimmy blinked at the news. Then laughed. “Twenty grand? TWENTY GRAND? Slip us 500 bucks and you don’t have a rock problem.”
I felt like I was in the middle of a low-grade mob deal. “You sure nothing will be blown up but the rock?
Jimmy looked at me in disgust. He turned on his heel without a word and within an hour I could hear the jackhammer.
They were almost ready by noon. “Why don’t you go grab some lunch?” Jimmy suggested. “We’ll be ready by the time you get back.”
Gloria and I had a picnic lunch. Perfect. What was not perfect was my lack of knowledge about one of Jimmy’s foibles. He had a superstition about not setting off charges if his client, in this case me, was present. As we finished our lunch at a beautiful spot some distance away, we heard a dull “boom!” and saw a dust cloud arise over, what we assumed, was our lot.
Until the moment I saw Jimmy back at the building lot I had never heard anyone cackle. Jimmy was actually cackling as he described how the first blast, the one blowing up the $20,000.00 rock shelf, had caused our neighbor to “pop out of his house like a gopher.” This was the neighbor who had proclaimed that he “would never let us build” on our lot.
Through gasping laughter, Jimmy went on to describe what happened next with our neighbor as the two dozen timed charges in the non-perking holes then went off, one after the other. “He kept saying, ‘What’s that? What’s that?’”
“I kept answering, “’What’s what?’ What’s what?’” By this time Jimmy, was hysterically punching my shoulder. “I haven’t had so much fun in years.”
We stood there in quiet companionship until suddenly we could see flashing lights approaching from below. A convoy. Fire trucks. A police car.
“Well,” said Jimmy. “We gotta go. Give our best to everyone.” And off they went, Jimmy and his assistant, both laughing.
Copyright 2019, Wayne D. McFarland. All rights reserved.