On And Off The Rails (Part 1)

September 3, 2009

January 1972……Rhodesia Railways Mechanical Workshops, Bulawayo.

There were four of us that year. Apprentice Plater-Welders, a grand title indeed.  I was just 17.

We were youngsters straight out of school with apparently not enough academic intelligence to go and get a Degree….lepers compared to the likes of the goody-goody, lardie-dardie-old-school-tie-up-your kilt brigade. You know the ones I mean.

We had ended up in the Welding Shop, a place of alien odours, bright blinding flashing crackling arcs, hissing and spluttering gas flames, flying sparks, clanging metal, phantom wankers, and swearing Journeymen.

The other three were there because they wanted to be….me for the simple fact that my pass rates at school were so bad that I was considered only good enough to melt two pieces of metal together after cutting, bending, and banging them into strange shapes. Being absolutely atrocious at mathematics of any kind, anything slightly numerical would ensure a panic attack of immense proportions, guaranteeing I would never hold a brain surgeons qualification.

I remember Titch Tyzack well. A small man as his name implies, he was the Welding Shop foreman and a true gentlemen who treated all of us with great respect and I don’t think I ever saw him lose his temper once. He issued us with all our new and shiny kit…..oxygen and acetylene gauges with black and red pipes to go with them, chipping hammers, wire brushes, long welding gloves, welding helmets and goggles, and a full length leather apron that was supposed to protect us from going sterile with radiation but actually made one look like Jack the Ripper out on one of his evenings walks around Whitechapel…..aaaah yes and some spats to cover our new and shiny brown safety boots, presumably to stop our victims blood splashing on them during the gut-slashing process.

He also gave me 6 little pieces of triangular aluminium……on it was stamped a number….728775……my employee number…..and they were held together by a special spring clip. I felt very important indeed as these were the currency of the technical stores….with them I would be able to draw all the tools I needed…..as long as I exchanged each tool for one of my precious little discs.

We guarded our discs well…counting them carefully each day, auditing them against the amount of tools in our wooden lockers….much evil could be done with them in the wrong hands.

The time had now come for us to meet our Journeymen, the person who would be our mentor for the next year at least. For those of you who don’t know, many of the Journeymen working in Rhodesia at that time were from foreign and often strange lands. Some of them smelt of garlic.  Others had greasy faces. I was destined to be put in the capable hands of a man named Jack Crilly, a tough as nails, broken-nosed Welder from Stockton-on-Tees, who had served his time at the Imperial Chemical Industry (ICI) facility. Jack did not smell of garlic…he was also not greasy….this was very useful as he needed to get up close when he spoke to me about something I had fucked up…..not because I was deaf or anything like that…..it was just so freaking noisy in the workshops that at times it was easier to speak in signs.

During my time as an apprentice I would also be nurtured by a probable ex-IRA gunman who also taught me to play bridge at tea times, a South African who liked to make out he was an underwear fashion photographer, and a Rhodesian who always seemed to be on another planet.

So the scene was set for a great five years….or so I thought.

Rhodesia Railways 20th Class Garret: One Mean Mother Locomotive

Rhodesia Railways 20th Class Garrett: One Mean Mother Locomotive

5 Responses to “On And Off The Rails (Part 1)”

  1. Gayle said

    Bridge at tea? For somebody with bad maths….it is a good way to learn, to be subtle and devlop a killers instinct. You did well……..

  2. fatfox9 said

    ….never thought of it in that way before…an interesting observation

  3. Mandy said

    Hi Markie 🙂

    Wow, I am learing alot I have not known – love you lots xxxxxx Keep writeing …………

  4. Rob said

    Hi Mark,
    I’m also old & usess now 63 years. I rid my MTB muti-suspension bike to keep fit. I average 300 Km a week.
    I remember all the old times in the Bushes. I was with all the 3
    Engineering squds & then finally finshed up with 3rd Umtali area.
    Left 1 April 1981 . Ended up in R/Bay RSA. Getting ready to retire
    in May.

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