On And Off The Rails (Part 5)…..almost at the end of the beginning

October 10, 2009

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…..so 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…..like 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



4 Responses to “On And Off The Rails (Part 5)…..almost at the end of the beginning”

  1. Jayne said

    You write so well, involving and invoking the senses – giving us all some insight. I can almost smell the cattle-trucks, feel the tension of, and subsequent wariness, with which ‘DSD Wagons’ were approached and worked-on……..

    • Mark Craig said

      Thanks Jayne…..just that time is not on my side at the moment…..trying to fit this in when I get a chance. I must say I am enjoying it though.

  2. Jayne said

    Very cathartic indeed…..and I am delighted that we benefit from such fascinating recollections, it is marvellous.

    Do, please, continue to make the time available for this project……we wait in anticipation of the next chapter

  3. bill said

    i remember the tags 235435 appy platerwelder 81 to 85 your story brings back memorys the wagon shop was the place i hated . i have met a guy by the name of Jack P a garlic eater who is ex Rhodesia Railways

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