Bob was a middle-aged plumber. He employed me as a university student supplementing my meagre scholarship allowance during vacations.
Who’d think plumbing was life-threatening? But Bob began as a builder’s labourer in the good-old-bad-old-days. Back then, occupational health and safety were scarcely a gleam in a shop steward’s eye.
Bob reminisced on his first job, lumping roof tiles along scaffolding eight stories up. Young and confident, he let his feet do the work of his eyes, and took a step … into fathomless space.
His life flashed before him while his mind processed the missing scaffold support and his plunge to messy oblivion.
Human instinct’s a funny beast. The plank wasn’t absent, just warped. But that inch between where his foot was and where it should have been turned his hair prematurely grey.
He also told me about his mate, the crane rigger — the bloke in pre-walkie talkie days who rode the load from ground to destination on high rise constructions. After a few beers one lunch, the rigger got careless.
His pals furtively attached the neglected safety harness to his corpse. They knew his widow and children would be destitute if the workers’ compensation claim was refused. To my youthful imagination, it was a law-defying act of social culture — justice and injustice facing off in a moral punch-up behind the lunchroom.
Bob never worked at heights again. He became a plumber.
‘Plumbers stick to the dirt, mate.’
With them, but not of them
They were memorable stories, but I was immortal; nothing like that could happen to me. Besides, I belonged to a different culture. I was a student of literature, an historian, a philosopher. My occasional forays into the lives of working folk were objective, observational, remote. I was with them, but I wasn’t of them.
I took time off my honours degree to liberate my inner writer and invaded beautiful New Zealand. Beauty fuelled ideas, but didn’t pay even my most modest bills. Discovering your literary shortcomings still takes money. I worked as an itinerant while busily failing to capture the great Australian story.
Along the way I lived with a gentle Maori family. I witnessed New Zealand’s unique blend of cultures: an eclectic mix of individualistic British pragmatism and collective Polynesian exuberance. At first it seemed a clash of peoples, but I learned it takes two to Waitangi.
Was it coincidence, or some kind of cultural predestination that landed me a job in a steel factory as a crane rigger?
I mastered the hand signals that guided the overhead crane driver. He and the crane travelled the hundred metre length of the plant on twin rails, delivering coils of steel plate like metre-high, two-tonne toilet rolls to the mills below. They rolled the steel into pipes, and the crane returned the finished payload to rail-trucks for despatch.
Bad cultural move
The canteen was central to the often crude, all-male workforce. As the youngest employee, and probably the only university educated worker, I kept to myself, writing poetry in a corner. Bad cultural move.
The plant was unionised. One time, a minor dispute with management led to a stop work meeting. Naively, I voted against a popular strike motion.
One of the regular crane drivers was a statuesque Maori. He played rugby and had a physique a bulldozer would hesitate to tackle. His physical presence was in stark contrast to his speech. If he spoke to me at all, he kept it brief: ‘F_ _ k off, pakeha (non-Maori)’.
After the strike, he signalled me up the ladder to his control cubicle four metres above the factory floor. As I drew level with his cabin, he opened his window and without a word crashed his leg of lamb-sized fist into my face.
Taking a cultural dive
My cultural somersault with pike and twist scored well in the descent, but lost points on landing. When I came to, an incredulous manager chortled: ‘Mate, I’ve never seen any body bounce like that!’
Asked if I wanted to press charges, I declined. I mumbled my cultural arrogance must have provoked him. In truth, I was rigid with terror. It was time I moved on.
Just before I left, the crane driver came to my lodgings. Struggling for words, he said he was grateful I hadn’t taken the matter further. His discipline and police record would have meant suspension, loss of wages, a fine, or even a criminal sentence. He was struggling in his marriage, and the fall-out he’d narrowly avoided had made him re-think.
He gripped me in a rib-cracking embrace and boomed: ‘Man, you no f _ _ _ _ _ g pakeha. You my bro!’