Friday, February 14, 2020

When it is good to be boring (fiction)

Thermite is a mixture of finely powered aluminum and iron oxide.

Aluminum has a much greater chemical affinity for oxygen than iron. After being heated to the critical temperature, the aluminum ‘steals’ the oxygen from the iron oxide and the process releases a huge amount of heat.

Bereft of its oxygen and pumped up with heat, the iron oxide becomes molten iron with a density that is seven times the density of liquid water.

Larry Tomanica didn’t have enough thermite to take down an entire bridge. The production process was encountering difficulties. The aluminum had to be finely powered. More importantly, iron oxide is not red rust.

Rust is hydrated iron oxide. Making iron oxide suitable for thermite involved finely dividing iron and then oxidizing under hot, dry air.

The industrial infrastructure in Capiche was hitting multiple bottlenecks in manufacturing thermite.

Tomanica had enough thermite, in his estimation, to cut two, 15” I beams similar to the ones in Miguel’s sketches. Pertinent to Tomanica’s calculations was the fact that Miguel’s bridges were held up by seven I beams. However long it took to cut two of the I beams, it would take three times as long to cut seven of them.

Bridges are some of the toughest structures on the planet. They suffer abuse, gross overloading, the elements, thermal expansion and contraction and are expected to stand for fifty years.

Modern bridges are also designed with sacrificial beams. If an errant truck or tractor, barge or alien spaceship hits the bridge and takes out the outermost beam, the bridge remains standing and capable of carrying the specified load.

The bottom line of the thermite experiment is that it did not work. The bottom, horizontal flanges of the I beam were efficiently cut by the thermite. The fifteen inch tall, vertical flanges were a different story.

Based on the best information Tomanica could find, he started the column of termite at the top and let it burn downward. Larry had the fighters pack dry sand/clay around the column of thermite to hold the super-heated puddle of molten iron against the half-inch thick vertical web.

It was an exercise in futility. Less than half of the web was cut through due to the sand/clay rupturing and allowing the molten iron to spill out, away from the steel beam.

Time spent: seven hours. Beams completely cut: zero

Conclusion: Thermite good for welding and cutting horizontal steel but not useful for cutting I beams.

The test for disassembling bridges was even more conclusive. Apparently, bridge designers take into account that certain elements of society might be tempted to remove steel members and turn them into salvage yards for scrap prices. All fasteners had buried nuts and disassembly by wrench first required the removal of the entire deck. That just wasn’t going to happen.

Cutting with a plasma arc cutter had some promise, but it was slow going and generated large amounts of light and required a generator. The working assumption was that the crew would have to disable twenty-four bridges in one night. The plasma arc cutter wasn’t going to get it.


Having settled on explosives to demolish the bridge, Tomanica created a drilling crew and had them practicing to build speed and proficiency.

Chernovsky gave Tomanica a list of roadbeds that were internal to Capiche to mine. Chernovsky wanted them mined.

Tomanica didn’t ask questions. His crew needed practice. Chernovsky told them where to practice. The first place they practiced was a mile north of Kate’s Store.

That brought them to Milo Talon’s attention.

He was hauling a load and stopped while Tomanica’s crew struggled to bore a four inch diameter hole into the compacted gravel roadbed.

One of the nice things about the new economy is that most men were their own bosses. If they wanted to take a break, they could stop. If they wanted to talk to a neighbor, they could. If they wanted to work long one day and start late the next so they could go fishing...well they could.

Milo stopped and watched the crew. It was similar to the work he had done before moving to Eaton Rapids and marrying Nyssa. It seem like eons ago but in fact had been slightly more than a year.

Milo installed seawalls. You could say that Milo was the resident expert in punching holes in the ground under difficult conditions.

After five minutes, Tomanica waved Milo through. Milo shook his head “no”. He was still watching.

Tomanica wandered on over. “See something funny?” he asked.

“Nope.” Milo said.

“Then why are you smiling.” Tomanica demanded.

Larry was frustrated. He had hoped that the crew would speed up with experience while they were slowing down as exhaustion and blisters made themselves felt.

“Because that is not the way I would do it.” Milo said, honestly.

“Do you think you could do any better?” Tomanica challenged.

“Depends. How important is it?” Milo asked, mildly.

Milo had more than a full-time job. He didn’t need any distractions...unless it was super important.

That is when Tomanica caught himself. Something about how Milo presented himself. He didn’t come across as the typical bullshitter.

“You would have to ask my boss, Chernovsky” Tomanica said as Chernvovsky himself showed up to review the, so far, dismal progress.

For all practical purposes, Chernovsky and Milo were brothers-in-law. Chernovsky was married to Janelle and Milo was married to Nyssa, both foster children of Rick and Kate.

“Hows they hangin’?” Chernovsky asked Milo.

“Better than they seem to be doing.” Milo said indicating the exhausted men with a jerk of his thumb.

“How important is it that they get those holes bored out?” Milo asked.

“Pretty damned important.” Chernovsky said. “Mom is at her wit’s end. She is damned tired of invaders entering Capiche and having their way with her store.”

“And when mama ain’t happy...” Chernovsky continued

“...ain’t nobody happy” both men finished.

Milo frowned. He would have to make some calls to renegotiate some delivery schedules but family takes precedence.

“How many more holes you guys gotta dig?” Milo asked.

“Three more, here. Then an ass-load more in a couple of other places.” Tomanica said.

“Why don’t you guys knock off for the day. Meet back here at eight in the morning” Milo suggested.


The next morning, Milo showed up. He had two IBC cubes on the bed of his truck. They were full of water. He had a 9hp fire pump and hose and a "trombone" made of 1-1/2” black iron pipe.

Milo started the pump and let it warm up. Then he picked up the short “trombones” and walked up to the stake that marked the location of the next bore-hole.

Milo angled the barrel away from his legs, leaned into the short handles and depressed the trigger. A blast of 100 psi water exploded from the tip and quickly gouged a hole in the ground.

After drilling two feet in about thirty seconds, Milo stopped the water and screwed a two-foot long extension on the end of the  trombone. Another minute and another two feet then another extension. The top of the bore-hole grew in size as the hole deepened. Mud, sand, gravel, even fist-sized rocks disgorged from the hole with equal ease.

Five minutes, eight feet.

“How deep do you need it?” Milo asked.



  1. Problem solved.

    Run a piece of pipe in there, cap it and it will be there when needed.


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