On the cool, misty morning of Saturday, April 19, Wyatt Blalock stands on a creek bank. His right hand is extended across the water toward a spot on the other side; his left hand is cupped protectively over his private parts. "It's right there, you see it?" he says quietly, pointing at something poking out of the mud. From a few feet away, at first it looks like a thick, rust-colored fish--a goldfish or a salmon maybe. But it's actually an artillery shell, one likely packed with enough explosives to blow a gaping hole in the Rougemont countryside.
"That's what blew tanks up, so you can imagine what it would do a person," says Wyatt's wife, Amy Blalock. She'd been imagining just that since the previous Thursday, when Wyatt found the bomb. The unwelcome discovery came about, Wyatt explains, because the couple's cat went off into the woods to birth a litter of kittens. Wanting to check on them, he followed the new mother out to her spot, about 150 yards from the Blalocks' house. "I saw the cat go into that stump, so I was like, 'Hey, I know where the kittens are now,'" he recalls. "So I'm getting ready to cross the creek, and leaped across to this nice clear spot, and I landed on it."
"It" turned out to be an intact, high-explosive round, lodged in the soil sometime in the early 1940s, when the land was part of the Army's 40,000-acre Camp Butner. Thousands of acres used for artillery training were passed back to private owners after World War II. The Blalock's 10 acres, which they've owned since January 2002, were smack dab in the middle of one of the firing ranges--a fact they didn't learn until after they'd purchased the property.
Today, the Blalocks are one of several Butner-area families who are demanding that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers clear their land of old explosives. So far, the couple has had no luck, but they're hoping that media coverage of this, the third substantial piece of ordnance to turn up on the property in the past year (along with enough shrapnel to fill a bucket), will finally force some action. Their worst fear, they say, is that a local child will find one of the bombs and accidentally set it off. "Little boys who play on this creek, if they found it, they would just have a blast with it," Amy says, apparently with no pun intended.
Around 11 a.m., a two-man "explosive ordnance disposal" team arrives from Fort Bragg. As he straps on body armor, a Sgt. Rios introduces himself and aplogizes for not arriving earlier. "We've had a real busy week," he explains; the team was sent to retrieve six munitions, from a huge bullet found in Chapel Hill to a World War I-era artillery round discovered on Bald Head Island.
Rios asks the Blalocks to open some of the windows in their house--"In case anything bad happens, we don't want the wave of air pressure to blow glass all over the place"--and advises them to stand behind a shed while he extracts the bomb. Then the soldier walks down to the creek, pokes away some of the mud and gently scoops the shell into a metal tube. He carries the tube on his shoulder, like a bazooka launcher. "You're a brave man," a reporter hollers as Rios secures the tube in sandbags in the bed of a pickup truck. "Well, they pay me an extra $150 to do that," he says, grinning.
Watching the bomb squad drive off, Wyatt sighs. "Maybe sooner or later we'll get 'em all," he says.