Back in the day university students could sometimes track down summer holiday jobs that paid well. Meat works, tanneries, wool stores, wool scouring plants and the like. These were the late 1970s, prior to the era of student “loans” and other measures that materially impact on the net household incomes of those who have received tertiary education. I was lucky to land a job at Stresscrete.
This was my first real experience with blue-collar workers.
“You’re a pretty smart sort of fullah. What did you do before you came here?”
“I’m a university student.”
“Shit, so you’ve got School C?”
The team at Stresscrete loved having a newbie to break in. Particularly a “smart fullah” newbie with brand new overalls and a complete unfamiliarity with them and their world. Fortunately I was a fast learner.
Stresscrete made pre-stressed concrete items for the construction industry. Our daily endeavours involved the construction of unispan panels for use in houses; double T beams for the new Taranaki Polytechnic in New Plymouth; power poles for the Taranaki Electric Power Board; I beams for various road bridges around the province; and massive beams to go into the Vivian Street viaduct, a key link in New Plymouth’s new one-way system.
Each day started by removing from various moulds the products that had been poured the previous day and steam cured overnight. Then the moulds were oiled, filled with reinforcing steel and twisted wire stressing cables before having concrete added. Most days that consumed about 20 tonnes of concrete. On the days we poured a Vivian Street beam that volume would swell to about 60 tonnes.
An essential tool was a set of wire cutters. Cages of reinforcing steel had to be tied together with wire and suspended so that these were completely encased in concrete. The cutters were used for cutting and twisting the tying wire.
Oiling the moulds generally resulted in one’s overalls becoming impregnated with the stuff. Most of the lads smoked. Oil soaked cotton overall pockets were a favourite destination for cigarette butts.
“What’s that burning smell?”
Shit, it’s me.
Hence the fascination with a new set of overalls. After a few days one’s overalls had the corners of all the pockets burned out. This meant that smouldering butts fell straight through, making one immune until such time as one acquired new unscathed apparel.
There was a smoko room for morning and afternoon breaks and the consumption of lunches. The seating plan was formally established and not negotiable. One had a designated place to sit. Proceedings always involved the playing of Euchre. I had played a lot of Euchre and thought that I was pretty good at it. Surprisingly, to me at least, I lost heavily. The cards were old and shabby. At the end of my first week I offered to replace the cards with a new set I had in my car. This offer was rejected out of hand. This reinforced my suspicions about the special qualities of the deck of cards being used.
After a couple of weeks I too had learned to read the shabby backs of the cards and also knew exactly what cards other players held. From that time on, playing Euchre was largely tedious, until a stranger joined in.
In these days there were no such things as health and safety laws or regulations. One needed to keep one’s wits about one, both for hazards that existed in this work environment, of which there were many, and for the efforts one’s workmates took to heighten these risks.
After they had been removed from their forming moulds, concrete products were stacked up outside. Wooden blocks were inserted between the layers, as concrete on concrete doesn’t help the curing process. Concrete takes about 28 days to reach its maximum hardness.
Stacking concrete items involved two people. One operated the Dinosaur. The Dinosaur was a modified Fordson Major tractor that had a centre pivot steering arrangement powered by hydraulic rams, and a hydraulic lifting arm that extended over the front of this contraption.
Most days Kevin operated the Dinosaur and I placed the blocks. Kevin’s ambition was to crush my fingers between a beam weighing a couple of tonnes and the wooden block I was inserting. He never succeeded.
Indeed the summer that I was there accidents were largely unheard of. However there were several examples of past mishaps. Rangi had LOVE tattooed on the knuckles on one hand and HAT tattooed on the knuckles of the other.
Live electrical cables lay around in mud and across steel moulds where machinery was dragged. The factory’s main switchboard was located where it was needed when the place was a dairy factory. The railway tracks that aimed wheeled skips into the concrete mixing machine passed directly under it. Failing to duck far enough when pushing a skip involved live cables brushing one’s head.
Lack of attention when one’s colleagues were welding things inside of a mould could lead to a length of reinforcing rod being tacked across the steel toecaps of one’s boots. It is really hard to walk after that has happened. Hilariously so, apparently.
Wirecutters left lying around were also subject to a spot of weld being added to the hinge. That kind of buggers them.
All of the concrete materials were made inside the factory building, with the exception of the Vivian Street beams. Because of their size, the moulds for these were located outside. it took two guys the best part of three days to insert all of the necessary reinforcing steel, thread through the stressing wires and get everything ready for a concrete pour. It took a whole day to do a pour. After pouring, the beam remained in its mould for a few days for the concrete to harden before being lifted. A set of hydraulic gantries had been built for the task of lifting the beams and rolling them clear of the mould so that the process could be repeated.
The northern-most gantry unit almost ran out onto Pembroke Road itself. It had to pass beneath the local overhead electrical supply lines during this journey, with a gap of less than 2 metres. That gap was usually plenty, until this one day...
A beam lift day involved a person having to stand atop each of the gantries to supervise that the hydraulic jacks behaved seamlessly, both when lifting and then lowering the removed beam.
Like many of the chaps who worked at Stresscrete, Kevin was a bit of a character. Indeed he fancied himself as a bit of an entertainer, always striving for a routine that was more innovative and entertaining than those that had gone before.
On this one day, it was blowing a bit of a gale. After having the beam fully raised, it was time to trundle it clear of the mould. At this stage Kevin commenced his rendition of the Hokey Tokey. He put his left foot in, he put his left foot out. Hopefully those of you unfamiliar with the Hokey Tokey’s actions will still get the jist of what was about to unfold.
The Hokey Tokey’s chorus implores participants to “do the Hokey Tokey” by throwing their arms in the air. “Oooooh, do the Hokey Tokey...”
Kevin reached his second chorus as the gantry rumbled towards the overhead electrical supply lines. These were being blown around by the wind. With his arms fully extended above his head, Kevin’s overall height exceeded by several centimetres the normal gap between the top of the gantry and the power wires.
Nobody was really paying much attention to Kevin being Kevin up until this point.
“Oooooh, do the Hokey Tokey...” Kevin’s arms shot up just before the first power wire was reached. Those of us on the ground saw what could happen and presumed Kevin was aware of his situation.
“Oooooh, do the Hokey Tokey...” Kevin’s arms shot up between wires one and two.
Stunned disbelief flashed across those of us standing below.
“Oooooh, do the Hokey Tokey...” Kevin’s arms shot up between wires two and three.
“Oooooh, do the Hokey Tokey...” Kevin’s arms shot up immediately after the wildly swinging third wire had been passed.
“That’s what it’s all about.” Shit, you’re not wrong there Kevin.
His song complete, Kevin looked down and with some surprise took in the looks of terror rather than enjoyment on the faces of his colleagues. He then looked up and saw the swinging power lines he had just passed through. A damp spot appeared in the crotch of his overalls.