Photo note: A friend, Karen (Faulkenberry) Johnsen, found this photo in an old box. It shows her and I goofing off at the top of Halsey Ave., near our homes, circa 1970, looking almost due east. Halsey is a steep road and we’re sitting at the top near the dead-end fence behind the photographer to the west. We were maybe 6 blocks from Grant School.
In the background I noticed the quarry cliff where this story took place circa 1965 when the quarry was owned (I think) by the Heintz brothers. By this time, the quarry was mostly depleted and the property was beginning to pass between different owners.
You can see the cliff edge, but not the floor where the dynamite shed, crushers, sorters and other equipment were located. Just past the cliff, but out of sight behind the hillside, would be Highway 101 and the Petaluma River.
Thanks Karen for sharing this photo and to several Facebook friends who helped narrow down who owned the quarry when we were trespassing for this adventure.
Young boys don’t need or want much from life except a good adventure from time to time. Petaluma, California is about 40 miles north of San Francisco, between the Sonoma Mountains and many unnamed rolling hills to the west around clusters of creeks that join to become the Petaluma River which provided enough commerce for local businesses to thrive, but not much in the way of adventure, so, we pretty much had to make our own.
On a clear summer day, with fresh images from the old 12 O’clock High TV series in my head, I fleshed out and executed a brilliant idea for some serious fun. I collected the normal suspects that included: Mike Stoffel and his younger brother, Jimmy, Rick Van Bebber, Bill Lee and a few others and grabbed the needed supplies:
- a big piece of construction paper,
- my mom’s scotch tape dispenser,
- a small vial containing about a tablespoon of gasoline,
- an eyedropper,
- four firecrackers from a pack my dad gave me for the 4th of July coming up,
- and a book of matches.
With these supplies, we set off for the nearby rock quarry. This adventure required a big cliff, and the rock quarry had the best one around. We used the highest ledge above Heinz Rock Quarry at the south end of Petaluma.
Okay: explosives, combustible fuel, things to blow up and a cliff… Parents; are you sure you want your children reading this?
There is no way to obfuscate the location of this adventure because everyone who traveled highway 101 across the high bridge above Petaluma Boulevard south, has seen the giant raw cliff with the rock quarry right there above the Petaluma River. It was something of a landmark. I suspect much of Petaluma was constructed with the rock from this quarry during the 1900s. Like so many of our other adventure sites, it is now a neighborhood.
But on this day, it was to be the site of a great grammar school boy adventure.
We trekked up the road to the Petaluma Golf and Club and then to the 3rd hole which marked the path we always took to the quarry. The path through about a hundred feet of thick oak and walnut trees was rarely used and always overgrown, but took us to a dilapidated fence which we easily stepped over and climbed the last steep few yards to the top edge of the quarry cliff. From here, we could sit on the edge (of course) with our legs swinging idly over the nearly 200 foot drop and see almost the whole Petaluma valley below us and talk about all the weighty topics that young boys discuss. We could always find loose rocks to kick and watch as they rolled down the cliff – a pastime young boys are genetically wired to enjoy.
We would also examine the state of the always-changing quarry roads and work sites below and, since we only went out there on weekends, there was never a crew in sight, just the cliff, various temporary roads, piles of rocks to be sorted and the huge motorized sorting barrels.
We would have loved to go down and check out all this out up close, however, this would have meant “going into the quarry” which we had all be warned never to do.
The crews who worked the quarry, chewed out the mountain side with dynamite which was ignited with blasting caps, and we had all heard stories about less-qualified boys who had discovered leftover blasting caps with, shall we say, life-changing results.
So – to brag a bit about our sense of safety, we never went down to the floor of the quarry and I have no stories that involve real blasting caps. We did from time to time try to roll large rocks down the cliff hoping to set off one of those hidden blasting caps – but alas, were never that fortunate.
Today, we had our own makings for an explosive adventure, so right at the cliff edge, we set to it.
We pulled out the construction paper and:
- folded it into a huge paper airplane,
- taped it so it stayed folded,
- centered and taped 2 firecrackers under the midpoints of each wing,
- used the eyedropper and gasoline to draw little fuel paths around the wings and fuselage
- that all led between the back corners of the wings and the fire crackers.It should now be obvious what we had in mind. We wanted to stand at the cliff edge:
- light the back corners of the plane and
- launch it out over the quarry,
- while burning,
- with the gasoline paths leading to the firecrackers,
- so the plane sail out and self-destruct in a blaze of glory,
- just like the enemy planes in 12 O’clock High.Surely, this would be awesome to watch! Let’s do this!
Since they were my firecrackers and supplies, I claimed the launch privilege and stationed a buddy with a match at each wing tip. The matches were struck, the tail tips began to burn and I gave the plane a great heave.
It sailed out into the open air, caught enough air that it sailed out straight away from us, some 200 feet above the quarry floor, and flew great for a several long seconds.
We could see the fire spread along the fuselage,
… so any moment now…
BAM! – BAM! – the first pair of firecrackers exploded,
blowing the plane into two burning fragments,
one that still sort-of looked like an airplane,
both exhibiting badly failing aerodynamics,
both still on fire and spiraling down to the quarry floor,
leaving small smoke-trails that quickly dispersed.
Eventually, both pieces landed. The small fires consumed the rest of the paper and ignited the last pair of firecrackers, which, at that distance, made pathetic little popping sounds that only scattered a few paper fragments around – and silence returned to the quarry.
It was an; “all that for this?” kind of moment – a huge disappointment.
We sat down at the cliff edge and discussed what we should have done differently, but the moment for this idea had clearly passed and we had no passion to actually try again. Bigger explosives would have helped, but no one had anything like that. Maybe if we could find some of those blasting caps…
After a few more minutes of idle discussion, we left for our trip back down the hill – but the god of young boys was not done with us yet.
We followed the cliff edge back in the general direction of the trail for home and came to a strange object. Poking out of a less steep part of the cliff was an enormous single boulder. This giant rock stood about 12 feet tall and approximately 6 feet wide and stood like an epic monolith pointing to the sky from about 8 feet down from the cliff edge.
Now, most of you know that I’m taller and bigger than most and this was true even at our age this day. One of my buddies stood back and said something like, “I’ll bet that Gary could climb down and give that boulder a push and it would go.”
And I’ll grant that this idea, given the near epic failure of the exploding paper airplane experiment, actually appealed, but I did not agree with his assessment. That boulder had to weigh more than 2 tons and I was not going to be able to move it, yet alone break it free. It was bigger than most cars and was solid rock.
We stood there and talked about it until, that slight appeal grew into a reasonable hope. If I couldn’t budge it, fine, but if I could — EPIC rock rolling down the cliff time. Okay, I was willing to try. What could possibly go wrong? It was just a big rock.
I slid down to the saddle point, where tall rock met steep cliff. I put my back to the cliff and feet to the boulder — and pushed — and the boulder – oh my god – yielded…
The monster rock actually started – very slowly — to move — ever – so – slowly down the cliff. Not possible, but true.
This was pretty cool until I realized that I was using that rock to keep from sliding down the cliff myself. Whoa!
I really should have thought this possibility through before going down to the boulder in the first place because I really – really did not want to follow that monster rock down the cliff, because, you know, there are stray blasting caps scattered all over the quarry floor and I did not want to die from one of them today.
So in a near panic, I quickly turned and scrambled against a wall of loose rocks, back up the edge before the whole saddle disintegrated. All the loose shale fought my effort to climb back up, but lacking the availability of a stunt crew to plan out such exciting scenes, I simply turned on the speed and quickly arrived back up at the top and turned to watch the boulder.
It was still accelerating, like a small building slowly moving down the cliff. The whole saddle area I had been sitting was gone, like an enormous scoop had been taken out of the slope.
The small boy chorus together went “oooo – cool,” while I got back to my feet to stand with them.
The boulder, ever so slowly, picked up momentum and, carved a giant slow-motion wake of shattered rock fragments all around the base, while slowly sliding down the cliff and still standing straight and tall.
But such a large, tall rock was too heavy for its own base, and the bottom began to crumble as it picked up more speed and made a larger wake of rock fragments all of which were now making a great symphony of rock-on-rock clapping and crashing noises.
Now this was getting cool. This had to be the biggest rock ever kicked down the side of a cliff by a small boy.
This was much cooler than our puny paper airplane and firecrackers. But it was so big – we brave young boys went almost silent, enjoying sure, but also thinking… “Are we in trouble here? Will our parents ever find out about this?”
As we watched, the bottom third of the rock suddenly dissolved into thousands of fragments and the top tilted and rolled over in the direction of the quarry floor, still about 100 feet below. That large fragment really picked up speed now as it had mostly air between it and the quarry floor. It splashed through a few cliff points – spraying waves of rock everywhere before finally crashing into the quarry floor with an enormous, almost explosive, shattering sound and dissolved into a huge rubble pile.
We boys were of one mind at this point:
- That was very cool – much better than the paper airplane, and,
- maybe this will finally set off one of those reluctant blasting caps (alas – no joy today) …
- It was past time for us to be gone,
- You know, just in case . . .
We had witnessed something few people ever get to see and lived to tell about it. Maybe we’ll stay away from the rock quarry for a long time this time…
I’d sure like to have been in the back seat of any car going south on the 101 that day to hear the driver and his wife suddenly notice that a giant boulder had broken from free from the top of the rock quarry cliff and was sliding down to crash with such a landslide scale of commotion – and wait – “is that a gang of young boys at the top of the cliff? Could they ever have done that? Nah; that would be impossible.”
Well, no, not really. The god of young boys is very good about this sort of thing.