R.D. Saunders’s nonfiction memoir, Underground and Radioactive: Adventures of a Uranium Miner in 1970s New Mexico, is the author’s love song to the art and challenge of mining and his affinity with working underground. Before I began reading, I wondered how dry a book on this subject might be, but soon found that the author’s story was engaging and addictive. Saunders is a natural-born storyteller, and even being somewhat claustrophobic didn’t stop me from vicariously relishing his adventures while working as a laborer and eventually as a miner in Section 35. His accounts of the experienced men he worked with, and later those newer workers who became his helpers, are fascinating, especially his association and friendship with long-timer miner Cal Cargill. I found myself looking forward to the photographs that are interspersed throughout the narrative and avidly studying the machinery displayed in many of them. Yes, I’ve always been opposed to nuclear energy and fought the proliferation of nuclear power plants, but this book is not about those subjects. Yes, they mined for uranium, but the story of those miners, the life they led in that small boom town and the skills they used in making their working environment a safe one takes precedence here. Underground and Radioactive: Adventures of a Uranium Miner in 1970s New Mexico is most highly recommended.
Underground and Radioactive: Adventures of a Uranium Miner in 1970s New Mexico by R.D. Saunders is a memoir that is so aptly and succinctly described in the sub-title. The author recreates, in excellent prose and with vivid clarity, the joys and perils, the almost forgotten memories of those associated with the “Uranium Capital of the World” as they ventured underground in 1970s New Mexico. Beginning with a mining accident that almost convinced him his underground adventures would be over, the author leads readers into what it felt like, smelled like, and looked like to work as a uranium miner.
The writing is beautiful and it opens an entire world and experience to readers; the prose leaps off the pages of the book with unusual elegance, and it is sprinkled with vivid descriptions of tools, machinery, and processes, allowing the reader to have a complete picture of what mining looked like in the ‘70s. From the preface, the reader already feels how intimate the author is with the experience when he writes: “There is no other fragrance or resonance I know equal to that produced by the Jackleg rock drill operating at full bore; no other sight that matches that of walking up to a miner sitting atop a couple of hundred pounds of dynamite and casually finishing up his cigarette; and no more colorful characters than miners who spent the majority of their working lives underground.” R.D. Saunders offers exciting stories, builds memorable characters, and makes history come alive in Underground and Radioactive: Adventures of a Uranium Miner in 1970s New Mexico.
This book is about mining. No! Wait! Come back. The book is absolutely amazing. Okay, maybe I should have led with that, but luckily, you are still here. Although the book is, in fact, about one man’s experiences in his time working in a uranium mine in New Mexico, it is also about so much more than that.
This book is about American culture in the 1970’s, perseverance, hard-work, incredible skill, and the unique challenges of working in an environment that many of us have never even thought much about. All of these themes are presented to the fortuitous reader with a healthy serving of humor and complemented with excellent writing.
Underground and Radioactive by R.D. Saunders is a non-fiction book chronicling the times leading up to and during his employment at Kermac Nuclear Fuels Corporation at Section 35, one of the uranium mines in the Ambrosia lake area, New Mexico. Saunders tells us of his college experiences and his employment opportunities (and sometimes lack thereof) which led him to him to Section 35, his experiences getting hired for the company, and his time working for Kermac. He details for the reader the trials and tribulations a new employee at a company like this needs to undergo, the hierarchy of employment working underground, the nature of the work itself, and many of the dangers inherent in the work. This is a very personal tale of Saunders’ own experiences and although it is riddled with plenty of extremely informative information about uranium mining (or any type of mining in general), I would prefer to classify it as a continual collection of anecdotes that introduce the reader to a life they have likely never imagined. These anecdotes inform, destroy some stereotypes (and likely enhance some others), imbibe immense respect for those doing these jobs, spark internal reflection into how you would personally do in these situations, and even laugh out loud.
Quite bluntly, I cannot say enough how much I enjoyed this book. I loved the descriptions of the mining community and how every single inch of respect gained during employment is solely earned on the coattails of hard work (and often keeping your mouth shut). I loved reading about the ladder of employment that one climbs while working at a place like Section 35. Just because you work underground doesn’t mean that you are a miner. You are an underground laborer and can only hope that the crappy (sometimes literally – Saunders had a stint filling in the mine’s underground latrines for a while) jobs will lead to more interesting positions such as a miner’s assistant (or eventually an actual miner). I thoroughly enjoyed reading about how Saunders managed to climb these rungs over a relatively short period of time due to his hard work, commitment, and sometimes luck. One chapter of particular note and interest for me was both a lead-in to an upcoming story and something that we surface dwellers would rarely think about: darkness. Saunders explains how a mine is a place of complete and utter darkness (if you turn the light off); there is absolutely no light around whatsoever. This can be terrifying, peaceful, dangerous, and disorienting all at the same time. He tells anecdotes of dead headlamp batteries stranding miners for hours on end and even of a mysterious light that literally haunted one of his mining stopes. I think one of my biggest takeaways from this book, besides the pure and simple enjoyment I had reading it, was the utmost respect I have for those that work in mines like this. Not only is it absolutely grueling, thankless work but there is much more to the work than meets the eye. There is an extremely acute instinct and intelligence required to be a successful miner. I learned that there is a definite science to detonating charges underground. You need multiple holes, in distinct patters, timing just perfectly, such that one explosion leaves room for the next to expand, and so on. Beyond this, a miner needs to be so in tune with his surroundings that he is able to foresee every possible consequence of even the smallest actions he takes (at least if he wants to get out alive). I wish I could fill this page with all of the great anecdotes and things that I learned while reading Underground and Radioactive but I guess I’ll just have to let you read them for yourselves.
If I was forced to say one thing that I disliked about this book, it would have to be that the title is somewhat misleading. Undoubtedly the “Underground” in the title works quite well, but quite honestly, there is nothing “Radioactive” at all in the book. Besides the fact that this book is talking about mining uranium ore, there is only one mention of radioactivity at all. Saunders presents a minor (excuse the pun) nugget of information that a small chunk of uranium ore has about as much radiation as a bunch of bananas. I realize that using radioactive in the title is likely an attention grab to make it sound more interesting, but it has little to do with the book.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I loved this book, and it is with distinct ease that I rate it 4 out of 4 stars. In Underground and Radioactive Saunders gives the reader an enlightening glimpse into a world many of us will never see or know anything about. All the while, he makes it entertaining, informative, and downright interesting. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who reads non-fiction and loves learning new things in a fun manner. If you absolutely, 100%, only read fiction, I guess this one wouldn’t be for you. If you find yourself thinking too hard about whether or not you should read this book, go with your gut and follow the advice that one of the miners Saunders worked for gives, “It just doesn’t pay to be doing too much thinking.”
One thing that’s aways bothered me over the years has been the lack of books written by miners. One notable exception is the making of a Hardrock Miner by Stephen Voynick but by in large there’s practically nothing.
Most books about mining are just that; about mining. No stories, no anecdotes, no character studies, no description of what life is like underground. The fact is, it’s an interesting life. A little dangerous at times but interesting.
My own book, Underground and Radioactive, is heavy on anecdotes and characters and pretty light on technical mining information. There’s a certain mining vernacular that has to be explained a little but otherwise nobody is going to learn how to mine anything by reading my book.
A couple of years ago I took a trip to the Mining Hall of Fame in Leadville, Colorado. I was expecting to see a whole wall of incredible miners and explanations of their amazing careers. Nope. There was a wall alright but almost everyone was wearing a suit. Lots of mining executives and incredibly few miners. I have to say though that there was some abstract imagery that pays homage to the people that do the physical work of mining.
I thought about that for a while until I realized that the people actually doing the work, the hard labor, do so in virtual anonymity. They work, more or less, alone and in the dark and other than a few co-workers who’d ever know how good they are at their jobs? So, there is no hall of fame for those workers because nobody has a clue who they are. I try to shed a little light on who they are in my own book.
I found the people underground to be fascinating and just as importantly, rather amusing characters. Not that they were trying to be funny but the stuff that happened underground was fairly hilarious. Hopefully, I did a decent job of explaining that in my book through anecdotes.
So, if you want a technical book about mining my book isn’t for you. If you like character studies and humor then maybe it is.
During the 1970’s I worked at was then known as The Uranium Capital of the World, Grants, New Mexico. There was large sign just off of I-40 that told everyone that as they approached town. I don’t know if it was ever true but there sure is a lot of uranium buried close to Grants in a huge mineral belt that stretches for many miles.
One of the more productive pockets of uranium ore was found at Ambrosia Lake where there were over 100 mines. It’s not a lake at all but rather an ancient sea bed. Still, along with the uranium capital sign there was for years another sigh along I-40 that directed travelers to Ambrosia Lake, forgetting to mention that there is no lake. I told many a disappointed fisherman that fact until finally someone in the highway department thought to remove the sign.
Prior to the discovery of uranium in the 1950’s Grants was a very small town mostly known for carrot farming and the railroad. Grants is in an interesting spot in western New Mexico in the middle of a field of lava generated by Mount Taylor, a now dormant but not extinct volcano.
When uranium was discovered the town was overwhelmed with prospectors and mining companies large and small and miners from all over the country and the world. One thing about miners; they go where the money is and that means from one boomtown to the next as long as their careers last. As the uranium boom gained momentum the small companies were gobbled up by the much larger and well known outfits like Homestake, Kerr-McGee, Ranchers Exploration and whole bunch of others.
I happened to end up working for Kerr-McGee or as it was known then simply as Kermac. I worked underground in a few capacities until I finally became a certified miner. Miners are quite different from laborers or helpers underground and it takes a while to become one. I wasn’t aware of that when I started and it’s a good thing too because had I known what was required to become a miner I may never have gone underground. I’d assumed if I worked underground I was miner. I was way off on that one.
There’s nothing very interesting to me about uranium or for that matter any other metal or mineral. Well, if you own stock in gold, silver, copper or something similar I suppose the end products of mining become interesting in a way. I just never found a pile of rock that interesting, and really that’s what it is that’s extracted. It’s never pure uranium or solid gold or silver but just a pile of rock that contains a usually minuscule percentage of whatever is to be refined. Just a pile of rocks. What was interesting were the people that mined uranium and how they did it.
Kermac had an interesting system of paying miners that was based on how much they produced as opposed to a flat hourly rate. That kind of system leads to individually innovative mining techniques unique to specific miners personalities. Speed was of the essence so forget safety. While there were a hundred state and federal mine safety rules to be followed underground it cost money to follow the rules because they slowed down production. Some of the rules seemed to make sense like wearing safety glasses. Nobody did because they fogged up so fast they were useless. Take ventilation with you by means of large plastic tubing. Few did because hanging that stuff paid so little and took so much time it cost a miner a lot of money to do it. Always work under supported ground so as not to be crushed by a large slab of rock. Ore extraction paid by the carload so miners frequently ignored that rule. Don’t smoke underground. Why not? Well, it turns out that radon somehow sticks to the smoke from a cigarette and that’s bad for the lungs apparently. Oh, and there’s a lot of dynamite being used underground and having an open fire source like a lighter or a match around could be a problem. Nevertheless, I often saw miners smoking not only underground but sitting atop a pile of dynamite while they did it. Had a pile ever gone off that definitely would have slowed that miners production somewhat.
Kermac basically told miners how much they’d get paid for extracting x amount of ore, gave them millions of dollars of tools and equipment and let the miners figure out the actual mining part of it. There was no rulebook on how to do anything as far as ore extraction was concerned. That led to some really innovative work and what I found to be interesting stories.
So, when I think about underground mining I’m always thinking about what the individual miners, laborers, helpers, underground geologists and all the others down there are going through. I find their stories to be fascinating, as hard labor often is.