Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thank you George Thomas Thornton

George Thomas Thornton died at the end of October at the age of 84. He was, in all likelihood, an ordinary guy—a civil engineer who lived and worked in Oregon. I never met the man, but I owe him my gratitude. Because, in 1970, George Thomas Thornton made the decision to blow up a dead whale on an Oregon Beach.

Picture it, a beach near Florence Oregon in early November. The weather is cool, but not so cold that a stroll is out of the question. You put on a jacket, anticipating the roll of Pacific Ocean waves as they lap the shoreline. You step to the porch, take a deep breath of salt air and…Eeew, what is that? It smells like something died under the porch.

The inhabitants of Florence had much the same reaction in 1970. Something had died, not under the porch but down on the beach where an eight ton sperm whale lay rotting in the November sun. The locals didn’t know what to do. They called the authorities from the State Department of Transportation who, at the time, were the guys responsible for overseeing beaches. The DOT called the district engineer only to find out he’d gone elk hunting. But, good news, he’d left George Thornton, a well respected engineer who had worked for the Oregon DOT for 37 years, in charge.

Thornton and his team didn’t know what to do about the whale, either. They considered the alternatives. Bury it? The waves would unbury it within days. Haul it out to sea? The tide would bring it in again. Burn it? Rotting whale carcass smelled bad, burning rotting whale carcass would smell worse. Thornton consulted the Navy, who, with years of munitions expertise, said “you should blow the damn thing to smithereens” 

Thornton and his team pondered the Navy’s advice. Set charges under the whale, blow it into tiny pieces and leave it like a dead whale salad at a seafood buffet.  The gulls and crabs would be ecstatic and well feed. The residents would be happy and the sea air would be restored to its natural saltiness. Yes, blowing up the whale might just solve the problem. Thornton gave the order.

 As you might imagine, when word got out that the ODOT was going to blow up a whale, curious local folk decided they might just take a ride out to the beach to watch the spectacle. Portland news station KATU got wind of the plan and decided it would make a good human interest story. They showed up with a film crew.

Everyone expected a show. No one expected what actually happened. Authorities moved the crowd back. Explosives were set on the landward side of the whale so the pieces would be blown into the sea. The charge was set and ignited. The crowd went ‘wow’. And then, as large chunks of rotting whale meat came raining down from the skies, said their prayers as they ran for cover. The film crew caught the whole thing on tape. The tape was, eventually, put up on you tube for all to see and there it remains to this day. 

Years later, I sat down to write a comedy called the P-Town Queen. I had invented a scene with a dead whale on a beach. A friend sent me the you tube link and I used it in the story. It may be the funniest scene I’ve ever written.

Poor George Thomas Thornton was never able to live down the decision that, almost literally, blew up in his face.  I never had the chance to thank him for it, but I’d like to do it now. Here’s to you, George Thomas Thornton. I know you didn’t mean to do it, but you made a lot of people, this writer included, laugh until we nearly peed our pants. Rest in peace, Mr. Thornton. And thank you. 

'til next time


Big Mike said...

Wow, what an interesting and strange (g) story.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Blow by blow.

Jude Johnson said...