First half of 1974…..

It was after one of my trips to PomPom that Joe Le Roux called me into his office as I walked through the entrance to the single quarters.

I was knackered and didn’t feel like an ear-bending session which this was probably going to become.  Joe was the quarters Chief Warden and his job was to make sure the accommodation and environs were kept in pristine condition and seemingly ready for a higher beings inspection.  I wondered what I had fucked-up.

Highly polished (and dangerous when wet) red verandas fronted all the rooms, fallen jacaranda blooms were raked only in one direction, and window panes glinted black in the moonlight, reflecting ghostly images.  Ornamental stones were white-washed monthly and tended to blind one during the day.  There was an army of labourers working for him and they earned their pay twice over.  Trees and shrubs were trimmed as to look like topiary works of art, grass was cut with edges trimmed to perfection, and the ablution blocks always smelled of Dettol and moth-balls.  None of the taps leaked.

He was on night shift this specific occasion and as was his custom he was outside polishing his immaculate light green Vauxhall Victor.  I am sure he had more feeling for this car than he had for his wife, at least it probably got more rubbing on its body-work than she did.   Joe and I were great friends and often when I finished work at a reasonable time I would take a shower and go into Joes office.  We would play cards till midnight while he recalled tales of his rather interesting life on the rails.  It helped to pass the time for both of us and Bella would also join us now and again when Keith was working away firing the beasts up to Victoria Falls.  We were a happy trio in those days.  He often bought goodies from home to snack on and which he always shared with me.

Joe was a good man and I will always have fond memories of him.  There are not many like him.

Vauxhall Victor similar to Joes

Vauxhall Victor similar to Joes

Railway Workshop Complex, Bulawayo

The image above shows the close proximity of the single quarters to the workshops………I never seemed far from the noise and smells of where I worked and I am reminded of that Dire Straits classic, Industrial Disease.  Pretty grim really now that I think about it, and not very helpful to ones social development.

Joe took me into the office and handed me an official looking brown envelope that was addressed to me.  It had been rubber stamped with something to do with Rhodesian Army Headquarters.  I sat down next to Joes desk and wearily opened the envelope.  He made some tea in a pot for us and opened the faded Tupperware containers that held his supply of sugar and powdered milk.  Joe poured the hot liquid into immaculate white porcelain Rhodesia Railways cups, and stirred the steaming dark brown mixture with a brightly shining Rhodesia Railways teaspoon.  He sat watching me quietly as I read.  There was no need to tell him what the letter contained…..he had seen them too many times before from my predecessors.  I folded it neatly and placed it back in the envelope.

As I sipped the sweet milky tea there was a brief moment when I knew that my life as I knew it was never going to be the same again, and how much I would miss Joe……and yes, perhaps all of this that surrounded me too.  It had become my comfort zone.   All young men awaited this type of correspondence… least those of us who had the will to fight for what we believed in and had not run off to some cushy South African University using their parent’s money and connections.

I dipped a Marie biscuit into my tea and the soggy piece broke off as I tried to take a bite.

There was no time for reflection now, only the knowledge that I was to report to Llewellyn Barracks (Depot, The Rhodesia Regiment) for twelve months National Service as part of Intake 139 later in the year.  There was no fear….nor any great surprise.  It was the way things were in Rhodesia in those days you see, as if it was the natural progression of a young mans tertiary education.

Except the only thing they were going to teach where I was heading was how to kill the enemy…..and hopefully how to be one of those who survived.

I asked Joe for the cards and dealt us two hands…….clinging to normality but somehow sensing I had discovered my destiny.

Still early 1974……….Mpompoma repair siding, just outside Bulawayo.

Having got my revenge on the tosser Journeyman (the one who locked me in a fuel wagon) by setting fire to a piece of oily rag hanging out of his back pocket with a cutting torch, successfully slow-burning a smouldering hole through his overalls, knickers (he was probably a cross-dresser) and backside, it was again time to move to another assignment.

This time I was sent out to a place called Mpompoma (also known as PomPom).  It was quite far from the Mechanical Workshops and we went there in a big grey Rhodesia Railway lorry into which I loaded all my kit.  I felt very important in this lorry, leaning out the window in my grubby overalls and whistling at the chicks as we belched vile smelling black diesel exhaust smoke on our way out of the city.  I was even set loose on these missions without a Journeyman, although to be honest after the first year I worked just about full-time on my own.

Mpompoma was some kind of railway repair siding and I never could quite work out what the purpose was of fixing wagons there and not in the main workshops.  For an apprentice plater-welder this was also a bit of a dodgy place for a number of reasons.  Firstly my main task seemed to revolve around always being out in the blazing Rhodesian sun in full welding gear, and fixing something that someone else had managed to fuck-up through severe and probably malicious negligence.

There is a part of all wagon construction known as the coupling channel.  For the uninitiated, the coupling is that hook like contraption at each end of a wagon or locomotive that hooks into the coupling at the end of another wagon or locomotive when they are shunted together.  The wagons are then coupled or “hooked” together automatically and will happily follow each other around the tracks for as long as there is something pulling them.  Unfortunately couplings probably take more abuse from locomotive drivers and shunters than any other part of a train.

A typical coupling

A typical coupling

As you can see from the above photo these couplings are robust bits of kit and they have to be.  They are also very long and stretch back into a closed cavity under the wagon known as the coupling channel.  There is also the mother of all springs inside the cavity to cushion the effects of the old in and out motion.  The next picture shows how the coupling moves into the coupling channel.  Note that the square metal section behind the coupling moves in and out of the coupling channel and the mother of all springs dampens this movement.

Coupling channel

Coupling channel

The problem with this rather clever design is that when any overadventurous locomotive driver or shunter couples to fast (known as a rough-shunt), the whole coupling assembly can become quite pissed-off and deform inside the coupling channel and get stuck.  It then becomes a steel projectile under high tension, held back by the mother of all springs with nowhere to go.  It just begs someone to climb under the wagon and release the pent-up tension.  This is where my job came in and was dodgy work for a number of reasons.  Firstly these wagons were on a perfectly serviceable stretch of railway line that was quite clearly in use.  There was more than one occasion where I had to rapidly extricate myself from under a wagon, banging my head in the process because something big and black was moving up the line I was working on.  I always made sure I was on good terms with my trolley boy on these jobs and I had to trust him to (a) stay awake and keep a sharp look-out, and (b) warn me if something was on my work line and moving towards me.  He could get rid of me easily if he had a mind to.

Secondly the main mission under the wagon was to release the spring tension first, and this was done by cutting the spring itself with a cutting torch, which showered you with hundreds of bits of red-hot molten metal and sparks as usual.  This was due to the contorted positions you had to get into normally face-upwards, making your nose and mouth great targets.

There was always a terrific bang when the spring was finally cut….undescribable unless you have experienced it and pretty scary.  This was normally also accompanied by an extra shower of rust, encrusted dirt, and whatever animal parts might have become lodged in the coupling channel…..oh yes, they were everywhere.

Any attempt to remove the coupling before carrying out the above operation could possibly result in a very pissed-off and seemingly ballistically charged coupling ejecting the channel and comprehensively impaling you and your Jack the Ripper apron to any adjacent wagon.

Needless to say we tried to avoid this scenario as far as possible to dodge lengthy Health and Safety accident investigations, and the loss of any no-claim bonus you might enjoy on your life insurance.

Mpopoma Siding

Mpopoma Siding

After these trips we always got back to the Mechanical Workshops after dark.  Only the overtime crews working.  The days out at PomPom were long, hot, and tiring.  I would clean and lock up my kit and begin the long, slow walk back to an empty room.  The canteen was already closed for the night, there wasnt even that to look forward to……just the next day of the same thing.

Early 1974…..Rhodesia Railways Mechanical Workshops, Dodgy Substances Department.

I refer to this entry as the start of the  End of the Beginning because that is what it was.

1974 was to be a significant year for me and was to play a major role in shaping the rest of my life. I did not know it then but within little more than a year I would be turning my back on all that had gone before.

There was a place in the Mechanical Workshops that I will refer to as the DSD or Dodgy Substances Department.  The area where this department was located was out in the open and quite a distance from any other human habitation.  As the name implies, this is where we worked on railway trucks and tankers that were used to transport hazardous materials.  This could anything from petrol or diesel, unmentionable chemicals, and even sulphur.

I used to work overtime in the Dodgy Substances Department to supplement my meagre income.  It was an interesting place to say the least  and the place I first met, confronted, and defeated my phobia number one.

Railway fuel tankers are similar in design to the petrol trucks you see driving about on the roads.  Except they are much bigger.  They quite often have holes in them, not always by design.   These additional and unplanned orifices could be the result of accidents, or damage by some form of negligence.  They also made nice targets for the Communist Terrorists (CT’s) (referred to as Gooks from here on) we were fighting in Rhodesia at the time.  They liked to shoot at them with their RPG 7 Rocket Launchers as they looked really quite nice when they exploded and burned.

In all cases the tanker would come to us at the DSD for assessment and wherever possible, we repaired it.

Imagine this scenario: Fuel tanker arrives at DSD…..fuel tanker has not been completely drained of dodgy substance…..welder must weld inside tanker……interesting yes?

So the first thing was to ensure all residual fuel and fumes were removed from the tanker before we worked on it.  This involved the introduction of various pipes and gasses into the tanker which were supposed to neutralise any inflammable or other toxic and therefore death producing substances.  This was indeed very kind of our health and safety department.

Once everything was considered safe it was time to get into the tanker via an opening at the top.  This was easier for the little fat fucker because the hole at the top is much bigger than a firebox doorway.  Once in the top you climbed down a pre-positioned wooden ladder.  It was dark inside these trucks and you needed a lead-light to show you where you were or you could become a little disoriented.  I had an assistant who would sit at the top opening to make sure everything was OK and he would also lower down all the kit I needed to patch the holes.

On one particular day the Journeyman I was working with decided he was going to take the piss.  First he switched of my lead-light and then slammed the lid closed at the top of the wagon.

I was now in complete darkness.  And I mean pitch black… black that you can actually feel it clutching you firmly.  It was at this point that I realised I was a claustrophobic.  This is not the best place to find that out but there was not much I could do about it.  I refused to call for help and for the top to be opened.  I simply sat down and waited.  As I waited for the piss-taking Journeyman to get bored with his silly little games, strange thoughts began to go through my mind… what if they forget about me here?  What if this was not a joke and something had gone wrong outside.  What if they take the wagon away and fill it with fuel…..lots of whats.  You really do have to steel yourself against screaming out, generally making a big noise, and going a little berserk in these situations.

I was putting on a brave front but if the truth be told I was almost shitting myself……but I overcame the urge to void my bowels…..and contented myself in only farting a few times instead.

After what seemed quite a long time to me the top opened and the prick of a Journeyman (also on overtime and not my regular one) peered in and asked if I was alright.  I asked for my kit to be passed down.  I decided that it doesnt help to comment to idiots…….  I got on with my work, making a mental note that my revenge would be sweet, ruthlessly executed, and painful.  And it was.

Another job we done at the DSD was stripping down Sulphur Wagons for rebuilding.  Sulphur eats away the metal construction of wagons eventually and they need to be repaired quite often.  This was an open type wagon so no tosser Journeyman could lock me in a dark tank.  However the kit we used to blow the sulphur encrusted rivets away that were holding the wagon together was quite interesting.  We used to wear a shroud over our upper body with a huge helmet that made us look like deep-sea divers.  There was also air supplied to us in the helmet as we needed to avoid inhaling the burning sulphur.  This was not pure oxygen though (for obvious reasons….Kabooom!), and merely a stream of cool compressed air.  We also had what we called the Carbon Arc electrode….”Charbons de Gougeage”.  I remember these things to this day and they were state of the art in 1974…..long pieces of carbon encased in a copper tube that was held in an electrode holder that we used……a strong jet of air blasted down when we struck the arc and all the molten metal from the rivet heads was blown away in a huge spray of sparks……very much like a huge firework display.  The smell was terrible as the sulphur burned with an eerie yellow glow all around and on more than one occasion I found myself surrounded by dozens of evil looking blobs of the smouldering residue.

Cutting steel with carbon-arc

Cutting steel with carbon-arc