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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Thirty Years Ago Today...

Thirty years ago; this awkward, scruffy, hippy-haired, rotten-mouthed, teen-fugged lump, still fifteen, began his first day of work.

Thirty damned years: long enough to break a year-long silence.

Feeling old today. But not too old, not yet. Back then, on that day and in that place, there were men who'd worked forty years and more, every day of which spent in that same grim shipyard.

Well: I escaped that fate at least; as indeed I had another just by being there - the only viable alternative to the 'yard was a job "doon the Pit", as they say, digging coal.

First day of a four-year apprenticeship (remember those?), and I loved almost every minute of it. Started smoking in those first few weeks, tied to metalwork benches learning to file, and saw, and "chip" with a chisel. Loved it all indeed, though I was, the whole time and ever after, a most useless sparky.

Must have been two hundred boys started work that day - no female apprentices for another year or so - most of them not knowing what their trade would be. There'd been an exam in early spring, that we'd all passed, but trade choices were dispensed by rank - the higher you'd scored the likelier you were to be granted a trade you preferred. There were a ton of trades available - can't remember them all now, and some may even be extinct - but the big three were Electrical Fitter (sparkys), Mechanical Fitter (meccys), and Shipwright (chippys). Or if that didn't take your fancy you could be a Joiner (carpenter), a Boilermaker, a Welder; or even a Pattern-maker, who'd carve patterns for castings in the Foundry, a Sailmaker or a Rigger.

What do I remember of it? A boyish excitement, that stayed. A large black toolbox filled with gleaming tools that, sure as the sun never shines on Cowdenbeath, did not. Of being introduced to the clock, and clock-cards to be stamped in and out; to the Recorders whose job it was to read the cards and tally time and MULCTs; to the ubiquitous green overalls we all had to wear, and the complaints of a militant protestant boy who insisted he'd only ever wear white. And our instructors, all idling their time till retirement teaching teenage boys to cut and crimp, and all the rest. All white-haired and easy prey... old DH with his hearing aid that never worked; or old AS, all Captain Mainwairing, with a son in the Hong Kong police; or my first instructor, TS, who chewed his nails to the knuckle. These guys, how they survived a month at that job I'll never know: when things blew up they were always so shocked, and confused. Never worked out that it was us doing the whistling, not the hearing aid; or that it was us who'd screwed the lock on their office door so they couldn't reach their fiercely-screaming kettle, spewing all that steam. Only one of them, gravel-voiced ST, the oldest too, knew what to expect, had seen and swatted every trick there was, the only one never taken by surprise. Who laughed all the same.

Aah. Long, long time ago. But for now, it's back to work.


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