25th anniversary article (11/12/95)

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The following article was written by Register-Guard coast reporter Larry Bacon on the 25th anniversary of the Exploding Whale. The article appeared in the Register-Guard on Sunday, November 12, 1995. Scans of the original are available by clicking on the thumbnails below. A transcription of the article is also provided.

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Sunday, November 12, 1995

Beached whale: Thar she blows

Nov. 12, 1970: They meant to send the whale back to sea in pieces, but it didn’t work out.

By LARRY BACON
The Register-Guard

FLORENCE – Where does the time go? It’s been 25 years this month since they blew up the dead whale on the beach. And it seems just like yesterday.

It was my first big Register-Guard story. My first front-page byline. It even got a headline with an exclamation point: “When they blow up a whale, they really blow it up!” With the “really” underlined.

Florence was a lot smaller then. No McDonald’s. No espresso. Not even a pizza parlor. So a 45-foot rotting sperm whale washing up on the beach south of town was a big thing. A lot of people had been down to see it — most staying upwind. Some strong-stomached guy with a chain saw even cut away the bottom jaw, apparently hoping to make a killing in the ivory trade.

Tossed around in the surf, the whale left pieces of rotting blubber in the sand. The foul-smelling stuff stuck to the bottom of my boots when I went down to take a picture. I had to hose the boots off in the back yard and wash the carpet of my car. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have bothered.

One whiff of the rotting whale was all it took to drive home the urgency of getting rid of it. The number one lunch counter topic in Florence was how that would happen.

News spread fast when officials at the state Highway Division — in those days with jurisdiction over beaches because they were once regarded as highways — decided they would get rid of the whale just as they would a big boulder on a highway construction job. They would blow it away.

The plan was to put dynamite under the whale and blast it out to sea in little pieces. Boom! No more whale. No more smell. And chow time for the fish and the sea gulls.

Whale-blowing day — Nov. 12 — was a glorious Thursday, one of those flat-out beautiful days after the tourists leave that everyone on the coast relishes. A lot of people snuck away from work. People even came from Eugene to watch the show.

Scores lined the high dune overlooking the beach. Police were on hand to keep them at a “safe” distance. Everyone watched the highway crew dig a hole and place 20 50-pound cases of dynamite under the whale.

A party mood prevailed. The sun was shining. It was like after the whale blew up, we would have a sand castle contest. Maybe some beach volleyball. And fly some kites.

I don’t remember any countdown. Just the beach erupting in a 100-foot reddish column of sand and whale. Only it wasn’t going out to sea. It was straight up in the air. Directly above me and all the other spectators on the dune.

When the dynamite went off, I dropped my Rolliflex camera. It hung unused around my neck as pieces of the 30-ton animal soared above. There was no way I was going to take my eyes off the sky.

Some people screamed and ran. But I was not afraid. To me, the whale parts seemed to float downward in slow motion. And I just knew that if I kept my eye on those slow-moving chunks I would surely be able to dodge them.

After all, I wasn’t even 30 yet. Still young and fast.

Sure enough, I survived. In fact, no one got hit. Everyone was OK until the “snow” started falling.

The air filled with little bits of rancid blubber flakes accompanied by the smell of sweaty gym socks. A gymnasium full of them. On a warm day.

People began gagging, running for their cars. I began gagging. But I stayed, raching for my camera and notebook.

I took a picture of Walter Umenhofer of Springfield, collar turned up, looking at the caved-in roof his brand new gold Oldsmobile Regency 98 in the parking lot behind the dune. A piece of whale meat about three feet long had hit the car’s roof.

My stomach lurched when I realized the caved-in Olds was parked next to my beloved Mustang.

I talked to George Thornton, the Highway Division man in charge of the project. I remember Thornton appeared calm. He even tried to put a positive spin on things.

“It went just exactly right,” I quoted him the next in the paper. “Except the blast funneled a hole in the sand under the whale.”

The hole misdirected the blast, he said. And he added something about how it was a good thing he had kept the crowd so far back. Which didn’t make sense then, and still doesn’t.

I headed home to write the story — my clothes reeking of rotting whale. I had trouble seeing because powdered blubber covered the windshield and turned to smeary streaks when I turned on the wipers.

Before my wife would let me in the house, I had to leave my clothes in the garage. With a lot of elbow grease, the blubber washed off the Mustang. But the stink lingered inside for weeks.

A few days later I called Umenhofer, who said he was negotiating with the state to replace his car. That’s the last story about the whale in my yellowing scrapbook from 1970.

But the story didn’t die. Every few years I would get a call or a letter from someone wanting to know if the story about blowing up a whale on the beach at Florence was really true.

Someone showed me an article about urban legends — the amazing but mostly untrue stories that go on forever. The whale story was among those classified as “probably true but cannot be confirmed.”

Recently, I learned I was not the only one getting calls. Ed Shoaps, a public affairs coordinator at the state Department of Transportation, told me that over the years he had become the agency’s “Blubber Central” for handling queries and collecting news stories about the whale explosion.

Every few years, he says, someone would resurrect the story — sometimes accurately, sometimes inaccurately. In 1990, syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry published an account that made it sound like the whale blast had happened only recently.

The story made the Internet in 1994 and took on a new life. Shoaps said the Internet account was actually an uncredited rewrite of part of the Barry column. Some newspapers published the Internet version verbatim as if it was current news.

Other reporters from news organizations all over the country called Shoaps. And Umenhofer. And Thornton1. And now the 25th anniversary has sparked new interest.

Umenhofer, now 63, a retired manager for the Kingsford charcoal briquet company, says he has been on television a lot in the last couple years and even made a national radio talk show. Last year a TV crew came all the way from San Francisco to do up the whale story again.

Even though he lost a car, Umenhofer agrees it is a funny story.

“What makes it funny is nobody gor hurt,” he says.

It could have been different. Retired State Cpl. Cliff Elledge remembers an unattended baby asleep in the back seat of a car near Umenhofer’s. Elledge says one of his officers parked on the road behind the dunes saw the front fin of the whale fly over his car and land in a nearby marsh.

“It was six feet long a foot thick,” Elledge says. “The highway department took a front-end loader out to get it.”

Umenhofer had business in Florence that day with a local port commissioner, and found him at the beach monitoring preparations to blow up the whale. In the process, Umenhofer says, he met Thornton1 and ended up in an argument about the impending blast.

“I told him he was out of his mind,” Umenhofer says.

It crossed his mind after the piece of whale squashed his car that somehow it had been targeted by Thornton1. Eventually the state paid Umenhofer full retail price for the Olds and he bought another one.

The story has followed Umenhofer over the years, and he still enjoys talking about that day.

“But it’s a hell of a note that the only thing you’re really famous for in your entire life is your car was smashed by a flying whale,” he says.

I tried to talk with Thornton1 to check his perspective of the story after 25 years. I learned that after the explosion she was promoted to district highway engineer in Medford and retired in 1985.

He didn’t return a message to call me. Shoaps wasn’t optimistic that he would, and says Thornton1 hasn’t been receptive to whale interviews.

“He’s a little cranky about it,” Shoaps says. “He’s a little weary of the whole story, I think.”

Register-Guard coast reporter Larry Bacon has worked out of his home in Florence since September 1970.


© 1995 Register-Guard

Note:
1 The original article erroneously referred to “Thompson” instead of “Thornton”. That error has been corrected in this transcription.