March 22, 1994
As the summer of 1955 approached I was about to complete my third year of studies in the field of mining engineering. In the previous years I had used these summers to work in a number of different mining operations, as much to make money as to learn more about the reality of mining. By coincidence I learned about a possible job in Sweden and thought that a summer in Sweden would surely be great fun. Luck smiled upon me. I obtained a trainee position in Yxsjoeberg, a little west of the historic mining district of Falun.
The mine at Yxsjoeberg was a small operation, probably not more than a hundred employees. Having had about two years of experience in a variety of mining operations I soon received my own work assignments. For a time my job was to use a loader, powered by compressed air, to load a mine cart, push the cart to the shaft, dump the rock onto a grid of rails and return to repeat the cycle. If the rocks in the load were too big to fall through the grid they had to be drilled and blasted with half a stick of dynamite. We used the traditional safety fuse which could be lighted with a match and which burned slowly, smoking and spitting sparks, until it finally reached and set off the dynamite. If several sticks of dynamite were to be set off at the same time the problem was to get all of the fuses lit in quick succession before retreating to a safe position. It is a problem similar to lighting the candles on a birthday cake with one match. As one might expect the last fuses were always the most difficult to light and would, at times, display a fiendish obstinacy. I wrestled with this problem until an old Swedish miner showed me the trick to achieving fast ignition. He took a piece of paper and folded it into a narrow trough. Then he proceeded to smear dynamite in the bottom of the trough for a length of perhaps eight inches. This task accomplished, he pulled out a match, lit it and held to the end of the dynamite trough. The dynamite did not explode (after all I lived to tell the story) but burned with a hot, relatively slow flame. This flame made it easy to ignite all the fuses in quick succession. The procedure works well with fresh dynamite but is risky because time and temperature changes can impact the behavior of dynamite dramatically.
In the course of their daily work miners frequently encounter forces and conditions beyond their power to control. The stuff frustration is made of. These conditions have given rise to a repertoire of swear words unique to each country and language and expertly used by most of the members of the mining fraternity. My work at the mine in Yxsjoeberg gave me the opportunity to practice my Swedish repertoire. On one occasion, when my mine cart had jumped the track and stubbornly resisted my efforts to lever it back, I vented my frustration with the newly learned words: “Helvete! Perkla! Verbanna, verbanna!” (Hell! Devil! Damned, damned!). It turned out that I was not alone at that moment. My old friend was just coming around the corner. He had heard me and had a big grin on his face. He put his hand on my shoulder and said reassuringly:” You will make a good miner yet.” Then he helped me to put the car back on its track.
The material mined in Yxsjoeberg was Scheelite or calcium tungstate. It is a milky white mineral which glows in a blue to violet color when exposed to ultraviolet light. An easy method to determine where the highest ore concentrations were was to turn off all lamps and to shine a beam of ultraviolet against the rock wall. The mine owner and manager did this whenever a decision was to be made where to drill and blast next. I remember this procedure as a ghostly and utterly romantic event: Total, black darkness, the dancing, ghostly blue glow of the minerals on the walls, overhead, beneath our feet. The crew of miners barely visible shadows. The mine manager muttering “Mycke penga, mycke penga” (lots of money, lots of money) in approval of any particularly bright display of blue, glittering light.
My summer in Sweden was a great adventure for me. Upon my return to school I felt that I had learned and grown in many ways which exceeded the potential of the classroom. This experience had much to do with my later decision to see more of the world and to come to the United States.