Interview: Australia’s Most Wanted
Industrial: The Fox and the Contractor
Unions: Industrial Wasteland
International: Two Bob's Worth
Economics: National Interest
Environment: The Real Dinosaur
History: Only In Spain?
Review: Clerk Off
Justice, Applied Liberally
Lunchtime Boy! Turn that machine off and give it a quick wipe down with this oily rag. I'll go and get the pies out of the oven.
- How long have you been a fitter Tommy?
I dunno, boy. Come to think of it, it must be a while now. Why?
- Well, where did you do your time?
My time eh? Well, son, apprenticeships in my day were a bit different to now. You see, we did five years to earn our trade tickets, and we didn't do our college in six or seven week blocks at TAFE. No, we had to front up one night a week at college, in our own time, and go through the lessons, and do some practical stuff. Just to show the government fellas that we were getting' a proper education.
- Which way do you reckon is better Tommy?
A little from both. I like the way things are done today, you goin' off to college for 7 weeks at a time, gives me a break from your constant questions, and wild ideas on how to be a better a fitter. But I also like the idea of five year apprenticeships, gives us tradesmen a chance to knock some sense into you young buggers.
- I reckon apprentices today are going to be a sight more technologically minded than your mob.
Well, stands to reason doesn't it. Those bloody computers are taking over everything now aren't they? I won't be surprised when I retire to be handed a walking stick with a bloody computer chip in it.
- The Japs have probably invented one already!
Yeah, some real tradesmen over there boy. Lot of them have been replaced by robots though, which goes to show you that they aren't all that clever really. Not like the old boys that taught me, they were a pretty cluey bunch. Most of 'em are probably dead now I suppose, they were pretty old when I first met them.
- When was that?
- Bloody hell Tommy, that's ancient history!
Doesn't seem that long ago to me, boy, and in the big scheme of things, it isn't really. I was 14, and I had been working about the country for a while and I thought it was time to get a trade.
- What were you doing drifting about at 14?
Trying to find a home for myself and my brother. Things were pretty rough back then, boy. Bloody hard times all round. Mind you the war meant two strong young blokes like me and my brother were pretty much in demand.
- How old was your brother?
Eddy, he was younger than me by four years. But in the end we found a good place to live with a nice old stick, and she was happy to look after us.
- Pardon me for asking Tommy, but what were your parents doing?
Well, my mother, she died when I was about 10.
- I'm sorry Tom.
Don't be sorry, son, she's been a long time gone, and I'll be honest, death was probably a step up for her as far as I'm concerned. Tryin' to bring up a family of four kids with a husband who was away more than he was home.
- What did your dad do for a crust?
Dad was a shearer. Times were tough in the depression though, so he spent a lot of time on the road, moving from shed to shed trying to find work. When he did land a contract at a shed he'd send some money home to us, but mostly he drank it, or gambled it.
- We read about the great depression in history. So your mum would have been on the dole?
Read about it in history, eh? It didn't seem that long ago, but I suppose it was. Mum wasn't on the dole either. She got by, working from home, ironing, cleaning, mending clothes, that sort of thing. Every now and then one of her relations would turn up with a box of food, or a feed of fish, we didn't starve.
- Geez Tommy, must have been rough?
Not really, boy. You see everyone we knew was pretty much in the same boat. Everyone was poor. To us kids, that's just how it was. We didn't know about luxuries. We thought having bread and butter 'and' jam was a treat. Many was the time we could have bread and butter, or bread and jam, but not bread, butter and jam. Not enough to go round.
- So what happened with your mum?
Well, poor thing was always crook with one thing or another. I can't really remember her being well. I guess she was, but mostly, I can only remember her either getting sick, being sick or getting over being sick. Then, one day we came home from school, and she wasn't there. Uncle Ben was waiting for us in the kitchen, and he said that he was going to look after us for a little while.
- What was wrong with your mum?
She went to hospital. Uncle Ben was a nice bloke. Young fella, always ready with a laugh or a joke, we all liked him. But he was only minding us 'til dad got home. Ben was what folk's would call an idler, a ne'er do well. I think my grandparents were glad to have shot of him for a bit.
- What became of him?
You're jumpin' the story a bit son. If you can hold on without wetting your pants, I'll tell you all about it. Now, where was I? Yes, the old man got back just before the start of the war. He had been up North looking for work, and was waiting for the shearing to start again. He didn't look too good either.
- Crook too was he?
No, just tired. A long time on the road, and not a lot of healthy eating, too much drinking and too much worry was taking its toll. He probably came home for a bit of break. Ben and he worked out a system, and us kids had to share the jobs as well. I was the oldest boy, so I was in charge of the garden. Big veggie patch it was. Mostly my job was keeping the bloody goat and chooks out of it.
- Doesn't sound too hard.
It wouldn't too you, because you've never had to do it. But goats, well, they're a bloody determined sort of animal. Anyway, I'm not here to discuss farmyard politics, you wanted to know how I came by my trade.
- I'm starting to think that this isn't going to over by the end of lunch.
Well, stop asking so many questions, and we might make it.
- Alright, alright, carry on old fella.
Ok, Hitler and his merry men got World War 2 underway, and the country was arming up. Mum wasn't getting any better, but between Dad and Uncle Ben we kids were doing alright. It would have been nice to have mum around though. My younger sisters missed her terribly. And then she died. One day she was sitting up in her hospital bed smiling and laughing with us kids, and the next day she went to sleep and never woke up.
- What did she die of Tommy?
I don't know. She just died. I used to think she was old, but the poor thing was only twenty nine. I never bothered to find out what killed her. I had enough things to worry about.
- You were only ten, what was there to worry about?
Our future for starters. Dad, in a fit of insanity went and joined the bloody army. Uncle Ben wouldn't be able to look after all of us when Dad left for his basic training, so it was decided to split us kids up.
Me and my younger brother Ed would stay with Ben in Sydney, and the girls would be taken to Melbourne to live with my mum's people.
We did ok for a little while, then my grandfather, mums' and Uncle Benny's dad, up and bloody died. Heart attack on the Royal Melbourne golf course.
- You weren't exactly having a good time of it were you?
No son. Anyway, Uncle Benny went to the funeral and the will reading, and that was that. He never returned to Sydney. Much to everyone's' surprise he was named as Chairman of the Board at his fathers' engineering workshop.
- Did you go and live with him in Melbourne?
No we didn't. Uncle Ben suddenly went from a life of socialising and spending money like it was confetti, to a life so busy that he just about had to hire someone to scratch his arse.
- Nice bastard!
He was, he looked after us eventually, but he was too busy to think about anything else but the factory for a while. You see, the country was arming for war, and every tradesman and workshop was pumping out supplies for our fighting lads. Ben's father had scored a deal that would keep the workshop busy for a long time, and all but guaranteed the continuing wealth of the family for years to come.
- So what happened to you kids?
Well, my sisters stayed with their grandmother. They were settled there, and the old girl seemed to like them in her own way. She was pretty strict, but they had a good life. Got to go to good schools, learned to dance, and hang out with a much better class of people. Dad tried to foist me and Ed onto the old girl as well but she wouldn't have it. In the end he sent us to a small town in the backblocks of New South Wales to live with his older brother Ted. Eddy was named after Ted.
- That was a bit rough.
Not really. I wouldn't have lasted with the Melbourne mob, being a bit too independent. But I was happy for my sisters, and was even happier to still be with Ed.
- How much younger was he than you?
About four years, but he was, and still is, smart as a tack. He was sort of born 40, if you know what I mean. A real serious sort of kid, mature beyond his years. Anyway, no sooner had dad dropped us off than he went off to the war. We never saw him again.
- Oh no...
Yep, he was killed in action in North Africa. My uncle only told us when we started questioning him why dad had stopped writing. I took it pretty bad because dad was my hero, and I was so proud of him in his new uniform. I think the army was good for him too, just a pity he didn't live through the war, he would have made a good career soldier I think. I still have some of his old letters, and they're full of his thoughts. He was doing alright, made sergeant just before getting killed.
- So your dad's brother, Ted, bought you up then?
Well, he was doing his best, but his wife wasn't too keen on having us around. They already had a couple of kids to feed, and now there was no money coming in from dad's war pay we were just two too many more mouths to feed.
- Don't tell me they kicked you out!
I did it for them. I started to run away, adding more stress and pressure to my poor old uncle's life. But he always found me, gave me a few clips under the ear and bought me back home. They weren't mean to us, or cruel, but there was always the underlying thought that they really didn't want us around. While dad was alive they were content enough, knowing that we were only temporary visitors, but when dad was killed that all changed.
- How long did you last there?
Just before I turned fourteen, the circus came to town. I had been working as a farm hand for a couple of years, the shortage of young men around the countryside, and my hatred of school, gave my uncle the excuse he needed to have me working for him on the farm. At a cut price rate of course. All farmers are the bloody same. Crying poor all the time in public, then counting their money at night in the darkness at home!
- Surely not all farmers are like that?
Met a few have you? No. Then trust me, son, they're miserly, grubbing bastards. Anyway, the circus came to town, and when it left so did I.
- Joining the circus is a bit of a cliché isn't it?
Well, I couldn't think of what else to do, and the circus seemed like the answer at the time. It was the most fun I'd ever had in my short life as a kid.
- What did they hire you as, a clown?
No smart arse, I was a general labourer. Being a clown is bloody hard work, and I should know.
- In a professional sense?
If you don't want to hear the rest of my story, just keep it up son. If you keep interrupting me I won't share the wisdom of my hard earned years, and you'll end up in a bad way.
- What sort of bad way?
With your smart-alecky mouth and constant interruptions, I have no doubt you'll end up a car salesman, a politician or worse yet, a bloody lawyer. They're always interrupting good, well meaning folk, with some cheeky comment.
- Sorry Tommy, please carry on. You were saying how you joined the circus.
Yes, that's right. My job was to clean up after the animals, feed the horses and make sure they had straw to lie on at night. It was good work. I was only there for a couple of days, and we'd been through a couple of small towns when the bloke who looked after the generator for the lights gave his notice. He was leaving for the war as well. So the owner of the circus, who was also the ringmaster, promoted me to look after the generator. My first real job. The sparky showed me how it all worked, how to start it, stop it, maintain it, and when he was happy with my progress, packed up and left. I'd been with the circus for about a week by that time.
- Didn't your uncle try to find you?
He was looking for me, but not real hard. He had enough on his plate trying to harvest his crops before they all went off. So he was limited to a couple of hours each day driving round the district asking the usual gang of suspects if I'd surfaced yet. He didn't think of tracking down the circus until the local copper put him onto it.
- How did the policeman know you were there?
He didn't, but he would have acted on a hunch, and would have been right. Not all coppers are dull eyed plodders. So, there I was, chief generator specialist, on a better rate of pay, and much easier work. I couldn't have been happier, except for the fact that I was missing my brother Ed a lot.
Anyway, I became fairly good at setting up, and dismantling the generator each night before and after the performances. My social standing had also taken a turn for the better as well what with me being in charge of such a vital piece of equipment. If only I could go back in time and take full advantage of that social standing.
- Ha! You old reprobate! Having your filthy ways with the trapeze girls!
Don't be an idiot son. If I'd have known how to lever my power properly I would have been better fed. Good food was hard to come by those days. I wish I'd been in a union then, I would have told them to stuff the extra money, just give me steak and gravy every night, with lashings of roast spuds.
- You need help Tommy.
Obviously you've never been hungry for long periods, and I'm glad of that son. I feel for anyone who's constantly hungry. It's a horrible way to live. So, there I was, master of the electric machine, and I was feeling pretty cocky I must say. Unfortunately pride goes before a fall, and boy did I fall. I clearly remember the second I knew my life was about to go to shit.
- Really? It must have been a pretty traumatic event. What happened?
Well, being overconfident, and not the full book on the dangers of electricity, I started to take short cuts. So there I was watching the show on that fateful night, the ringmaster was in the big cage surrounded by lions, cracking his whip, and making the bloody great monsters do their tricks. He lit the ring of fire and was trying to coax the cats through the flames, it was the feature attraction of the circus that stunt.
Meanwhile, galloping around the outside of the cage was a clown on a horse. A real funny bastard, I can't remember his name now, but I liked him, he used to wear a little cowboy hat, and oversized leg chaps. He was seated on his horse, steering with his legs, while he shot at the crowd with twin water pistols.
- So, what happened, how did your life go to shit?
Well, I'm watching the proceedings, having a little chuckle, even though I'd seen it plenty of times, three times a day at least for week, when my eye was drawn to a small bare wire sticking out of the ground near the cage. It was the earth lead. The bloody thing must have been dug up by the horses' hoofs. As soon as I saw it, I knew I was in trouble, and sure enough it arrived with a bang.
I'm standing there thinking what the hell do I do now, when the clown rounded the ring again, galloping even faster. Part of the crowd was cheering wildly as the ringmaster tried to gather the lions to the ring of fire, and the other part was laughing at the clown shooting water at them. Then the horse stepped on the earth lead.
- Did the horse get killed from the shock?
No, the horse survived, but the lights didn't. The generator tripped off, and the lights went out. In the darkness the only light was the glowing ring of fire inside the lion cage.
- Holy hell Tommy, what happened then?
Ok, several things happened all at once. The horse bucked hard from the shock, and sent the clown flying over the top of the lion's cage. He landed with a thud right next to the ringmaster. The ringmaster who was trying to keep the lions in check found himself in a cage with five large cats, and a panicking clown. The clown was grabbing at the ringmaster lapels and screaming for help. Then the lions started roaring, and boy, let me tell you, if you've never heard a lion roar, then you don't know what fear is.
The ringmaster he was a pretty cool head though, he kept cracking his whip and yelling out to me, "Lights! Tommy, Lights!!"
Then the ring of fire started to dim down. The diesel on the rope was starting to burn off. The last thing I remember before I left the tent was the sight of the ringmaster and the clown standing next to the ring of fire and blowing on it to try and keep it lit. All the while the ringmaster was trying to keep his whip moving and the lions at bay.
- How long did it take you to get the lights back on?
I didn't fix the lights. Someone else did.
- Why didn't you do it?
Well, before I answer your question, I want you to remember that I was only a kid really, not very old at all.
- Ok, so what did you do?
I ran away.
- Oh, Tommy, how could you?
Well, I panicked, and the crowd was screaming and the lions were roaring, I just got all caught up in it all. I ran into the night as fast as I could.
- So you went back home then?
Eventually. Later that night I was trying to hitch a ride out of town when some of the circus folk found me and took me back to the ringmaster's caravan.
- Was he really upset?
What do you think? He cuffed me about a bit, which told me how disappointed he was, but as labour was a bit thin on the ground he gave me back my old job, mucking out the animals and stuff. They gave the generator job to the young bloke who managed to get the lights going that night. I found out later that he held that job for nearly twenty years, so I feel kind of good that I was able to help out a fellow worker.
- Yeah, real big of you!
And you would have done better would you? I don't think so! I only lasted another couple of days when my uncle tracked me down. He was pretty upset, because we had travelled a fair distance, and he had to take a couple of days off to travel to where the circus was camped. The ringmaster leads him to where I was working, and I was glad that he stayed, because I thought my uncle wanted to kill me on the spot. He had bought my little brother Ed with him, because the poor little bugger was completely lost without me.
- So you went back home. How did you end up with a trade?
If you'll let me finish I'll tell you. The ringmaster was a pretty good sort, he knew people, and knew some of my story, so he had a bit of a talk with my uncle. By the time I had packed my few belongings and said goodbye to my new friends, the old uncle had calmed down a bit and was looking at me in a bit of a new light. I don't know what the ringmaster said to him, but I'll be forever grateful, he was a good man, and I like to think I've modelled myself after him. He was a good egg.
- So, how did you get a trade.
I'm pouring out my bloody heart here boy, how about a bit of silent respect!
- Sorry Tommy, it's just that lunch is nearly over and I don't want to miss the ending.
Calm down then, I'll tell you. On the way home we camped for a night next to a river, and after we had finished tea my uncle talked to us. Ed and I listened politely as the youth of the day did when an older person spoke to us. He asked me if I was interested in learning a trade, and I said I was, but I didn't want to leave Eddy behind anymore. He nodded his head, and spoke a bit more. Told us a bit about himself and our father when they were boys. He cried for a bit, and so did I. We all missed him badly.
When we got home, things went back to how they were for a little while, then one day a big black car pulled up out the front, and who gets out of it? Our Uncle Benny! He was looking a little pale, but he still had the same gleam in his eye that we loved, the look of someone who was always ready to have a bit of a laugh, or carry out some harmless practical joke.
- What did he want?
He wanted to give me a job. The factory was hiring apprentices, and my uncle had written to him asking him to find me a place. In the letter he wrote of my experience looking after the circus generator, and the farm machinery. He turned out to be a pretty good bloke old Uncle Ted.
- A happy ending Tommy.
Yes, eventually. Eddy and I went to live in Melbourne with Uncle Ben, and I started my apprenticeship the day after I turned fourteen as a fitter and turner. It was a gruelling trade, and I had to put up with a lot of shit from the older fitters, but it gave me a job for life, doing something I enjoy doing. The week I started work my Uncle Bens' neighbour took us in. She was, as I said earlier, a good old stick. Uncle Ben was at work for long hours, and she kept a bit of an eye on us. Eventually I asked her if we could move in with her. She agreed, and I lived there for the next five years. Eddy stayed longer, being that he was younger, and the old girl sort of filled the gap that mum had left in his life. I was happy that he was happy, so when I finished my time I didn't have to worry about leaving him for a while, while I wandered about the countryside. I've had what you could call a bit of a charmed life.
- So what happened after your apprenticeship? Where did you go?
Nothing that can't wait 'til another lunch break. Don't be so impatient boy, we've got the next four years together, let's not wear out our friendship too early eh?
- No worries Tommy. Thanks for that, it was... interesting.
I'll bet it was, now get back to work you cheeky little bugger!
Copyright Greg Bray 2006
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