First half of 1974…..still in the Workshops…..but only just

It was around about this time that I discovered I had an extreme fear of heights and anything to do with ladders, scaffolding, or ropes that had to be climbed.  Previously I had worked at heights and although experiencing a feeling of being drawn to the edge of whatever I was on top of at the time I seemed to cope.  Suddenly that all changed and I began avoiding any task that involved taking my feet off the ground except to sit on a bar stool or get into bed .

I was to find that this phobia would haunt me many times in the years to come, but somehow I managed to defeat it through sheer single-mindedness to complete the mission or simply a sense of pride in front of my Muckers.

My last months before my National Service was due to begin were spent in the Diesel Shop (part of the Erecting Shop) where our diesel locomotives were repaired, serviced, and armoured-up against explosive devices placed on the tracks or a small arms ambush by the Gooks.  Many of these attacks occurred, especially down the Rutenga/Beit Bridge way.  The diesels were used in those areas where steam was not practical due to a lack of water for their ever thirsty boilers.  From my recollections I do not recall any steam locos being attacked by the Gooks…..they seemed to take great delight in shooting/blowing up our diesels though…….maybe because there was a lot of nice smoke and flames generated by the fuel firing up.

Working in the Diesel Shop was a kind of prestige job actually.  You didn’t just get posted to the Diesel Shop….oh no.  You had to graduate by serving time in the noisy-sooty-greasy-oily steam loco shop and dead meat wagon shop first.  I think that one of the reasons for this was that compared to other parts of the workshop complex the Diesel Shop was eerily semi-silent and clinical.  Sure there was a lot of noise and at times the strong smell of diesel fuel could be quite overpowering but nothing quite like the steam workshops.  It was like being in a different world all together.  It is worth mentioning that diesel locos also have cow-catchers and diesel fuel is inflammable so the old fire and burning meat scenario was extant.

Rhodesia Railways General Electric DE2 having a chat with a 15th Class Garrett

Rhodesia Railways DE2's in tandem-late 1950's

Rhodesia Railways DE2's in tandem-late 1950's

It was about this time we started to get involved with a strange device known as a Cougar.  The Cougar was designed to ride shotgun for sensitive freight loads and passenger trains.  I do not think they were very successful but a good try by the Rhodesians to save lives and property.


Ocassionally we would get a real fuck-up arrive in the Diesel workshops……something that had resulted from a Garrett and a DE2 saying howzit to each other on the same piece of track.  Now its quite fine to greet one another if you are passing on different tracks.  However it is quite a different matter if you are travelling in opposite directions on the same track.  It normally results in blood and train-tickets being spread far and wide across the Rhodesian bushvelt with much wailing and screaming.  Unfortunately people normally also die in this type of incident.  Not very nice at all and blokes like me would end up cutting the wrecked iron horses into moveable bits for transportation to the the knackers yard.  The picture below shows a Garrett 15th Class and a DE2 having a close encounter that resulted in severe damage and injury.

15th Class saying howzit to a DE2

15th Class saying howzit to a DE2

It would soon be time for me to move on and there were a number of things that needed to be done before I took a few weeks off prior to National Service.  There was equipment to be handed in, documents to sign, wills to be made out, and a place was needed to store my few belongings.  All in all I was not looking forward to leaving my little room in the Single Quarters after all.  It had become my comfort zone in more ways than one.  There were the farewells to Joe and Bella…..and expending the last of my meal coupons.  I never seemed to have much cash so there were no lavish farewells.  Just a few beers with boys, handshakes, sincere farewells, and instructions to look after myself.

On my last day at work I went over to see Mr Tyzack, said goodbye and shook his hand.  He was such a nice person, always giving encouragement at just the right time.  He told me the time would fly and I would be back before I knew it.  He was right about time flying, but as far as coming back he couldnt have been more wrong.

I walked out of the welding shop and up to the main gate, passed the steam locos being prepped for stripping, and short-cutted through the fitting shop with its spinning lathes and milling machines.  I was concious of eyes on me as I passed by and I wondered if I would ever see this place or any of these people again.

At the main gate I took my clock-card out of the holder and punched myself out.  I looked up at the sky…….it was starting to rain.

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



On And Off The Rails (Part 4)

September 27, 2009

Location: Rhodesia Railways Mechanical Workshops, Bulawayo

Still in the Erecting Shop, 1973

I would like you to meet my Erecting Shop Journeyman.

His name was Brian Kelly and he came from Ireland.  I am convinced he was an IRA hit man but this was probably my overactive imagination at work, but he did strike me as a dark horse whose passive and quite nature merely concealed his other side.

Brian was a great guy, spoke with a wonderful Irish accent (obviously) and we got on really well although I made a number of serious fuck-ups while I was with him.  We will not discuss them at this time.

The ten o’clock tea-time was reserved for playing bridge in the Erecting Shop welding cubicle.  We had our own little hide away where our wooden lockers were.  Brian spent many frustrating months teaching me the game.  He had a lot of patience with me and I think I got the hang of it in the end although I still don’t really know what “vulnerable” and “rubber”means.  Anyway during tea time we used to sit around a steel table we had made and four of us would drift away into a make believe world of soft carpets, cigar smoke, and waiters dressed like penguins.  We really were a quartet of grand gentlemen in our oily, sooty overalls, greasy safety boots and chipped tin mugs that burned ones lips whenever a sip of tea was taken.

Brian’s wife also made the nicest mince sandwiches which I used to readily devour, normally not having anything of my own.

One of the jobs I was taught by Brian was a boiler tube replacement.  This was a bitch of a job and involved first the cutting out and then the welding back of up to 400 tubes that form the steam making heart of a steam locomotive.  The idea was that once the boiler was safely on its stands, the welder, in this case me, would climb inside the firebox and cut the old tubes out using an electric arc.  Quite a mission as you have to get the arc inside each tube to cut it out and the arc would flash all over the place.  If you have never welded electrically you wont understand what I am talking about but try to imagine it anyway.  Once they were all out the boilermakers would come and clean everything up and new tubes would be fitted which I then had to weld back in.  A long and back-breaking process, done in isolation and under a strict time scale.  Once all the welding was finished the boiler tubes were pumped up using water pressure so you could see any leaks in your welding.  And then it was back in again to seal off any water spurts.

In have to say here that I was complimented by Jack Crilly on my ability to carry out positional welding much better than the easier and normal flat welding.  This is quite strange as positional welding means upside down or vertical up/down welding and normally takes ages to master.  I got it right within a year and found it quite an accomplishment.  Boiler tube welding was all positional stuff and tested a welder to the limit both physically and technically.

I have never been a small lad.  In fact I am what you would call over average in build…..overweight or fat actually.  I was known as the little fat fucker in the workshops.  Getting into the boiler was always fun and getting out even more fun as a persons body expands when hot….I jest not with you here.  And it is really hot inside a boiler that is being welded.  The sweat literally pisses off of you.  Remember you are wearing elbow length fireproof gloves, your Jack the Ripper apron, boots, spats and your overall.  Oh yes and you have a welding helmet and cap on as well.  The cap was to stop any welding sparks burning the shit out of your exposed head which resulted in intense pinpoint pain, swearing, and the sickening smell of your own hair and flesh on fire.

If you do not manage to get your kit on correctly, some sparks do manage to get inside your overalls and I had one rather painful experience of a blob of molten metal coming into contact with the side of my dick….I have the scar to this day.  Lucky, lucky.

Sometimes blobs of metal got inside my boots….very painful too and you just have to grin bravely, swear, jump about, and wait for the bit of metal to cool down while being in direct contact with your skin.  There is no way to get your laced-up boots off.

As in the wagon shop there was also a graveyard for weary locomotives…..those fire breathing monsters that have come to the end of the line.  This was also a sad place where once proud giants of the railroad found their final resting place…..out in the open and unprotected from the elements.

It was an undignified end for these truly wonderfully majestic machines, and my love of and fascination for steam locomotives remains with me to this day.

Rhodesia Railways 20th Class Garrett.....what a majestic beast!

Rhodesia Railways 20th Class Garrett hauling a passenger train.....what a majestic beast! There is a more than even chance I worked on this grand old lady.

Rhodesia Railways locomotive graveyard, Bulawayo

Rhodesia Railways locomotive graveyard, Bulawayo

Inside a locomotive boiler showing steam tubes

Inside a locomotive boiler showing steam tubes

Boiler tube plate where I would cut out and weld back the tubes

Boiler tube plate where I would cut out and weld back the tubes

Inside a boiler

Inside a boiler

On And Off The Rails (Part 3)

September 26, 2009

Towards the end of 1972 and early 1973…..still in the Rhodesia Railways Mechanical Workshops, Bulawayo

Second Mission: The Erecting Shop

I know what you are thinking.  Erecting Shop.  What a strange name and why would they call it that?  I thought the same myself and of course this part of the workshop complex was always going to be rife for a whole lot of strange comments.

So why is it called the Erecting Shop and what debauched activities take place there?  Patience dear reader…..all will soon be revealed.

Towards the end of 1972 I was told that I would be transferred away from the Wagon Shop.  My destination was not made clear at that time as there was a lot of shuffling around going on.  A large majority of the Journeymen and senior apprentices (3rd, 4th, and 5th years) were spending more and more time in the bush on Territorial Army (TA) call-up duty, and this was putting a severe strain on those of us who either had not yet been called up for National Service, or those that for one or other reason were unable to serve in the Rhodesian Army.  I suppose that this was when I first realised that one day I would be going on call-up and others would have the pleasure of cutting up smelly meat wagons.

To be very honest I was extremely sad to be leaving Jack Crilly.  He had become like a father to me and mentored me in everything I needed to know about my work and more importantly, about life itself.  He treated me as his son.  As an apprentice I never earned much money.  In my first year I took home 77 Rhodesian Dollars per month.  Out of this I had to pay for my lodging, buy clothes, and eat.  I had moved into the Railway single quarters in Raylton, the railway suburb right next to the workshops and staff canteen.  So I lived in the shadow of where I worked and the sulphur smell of burning coal was ever prevalent.  Each month I bought my little book of meal coupons and that’s where I basically ate all my meals.  Not bad food, but pretty much the same menu each day.

I got to know quite a few of the married personnel who had their houses next to the single quarters and ever so often I used to get invited round to someones house for a real supper of hot beef stews, hearty vegetables, and guavas and custard.  One couple I became very attached to was Bella and Keith Harris.  Keith, a giant of a man with a heart as good as gold, was a locomotive fireman…..the tough guys that shovel coal into the ever-hungry maw of a steam engines firebox.  And dear Bella….what a wonderful person……she just had a way of making me realise what it must be like to have a real home.  Wonderful people who never had too much of the good things in life but shared what they had.

Back to the Erecting Shop.

Erecting Shops are places where things that were previously un-erect (not flaccid as in penis, but rather dismantled) are re-erected.  Normally this process involved enormous machines.  In this case huge black steam locomotives.  Great big Beyer-Garrett monsters that could haul thousands of tons of cargo up and down the many miles of Rhodesian rail tracks.

Beyer-Garrett 15th Class

Beyer-Garrett 15th Class

These were massively powered beasts that prowled Rhodesia’s open spaces taking goods all over the country and over the borders as well.

Life was quite hazardous in the Erecting Shop.  What you have to understand is that Rhodesia Railways locomotives could weigh between 30 and 120 tons depending on the model, and when it arrives at the workshops it is still on its bogeys, or wheel units.  So it is easy to move about with little shunting engines or winches.  However one of the first things that has to be is to remove the bogeys.  The only way to do that is by lifting the whole locomotive into the air and pushing the bogeys away.  The locomotive, suspended on huge overhead cranes was then lowered onto giant stands.  It would remain there for at least 21 days, the time it took for a full strip and rebuild.  Rhodesia Railways were known to be one of the most experienced organisations as far as this type of work was concerned.

I have described the removal of the bogeys as if it was a really simple activity but in fact it was an extremely precise and dangerous operation.  The first thing that is done before removing the bogeys is that the sanding pipes must be cut off using oxy-acetylene cutting equipment.  Sanding pipes are used to spray sand onto the rails in front of the main driving wheels of a locomotive when extra traction is needed, for example on steep inclines.     This cutting of pipes was one of my jobs and again rotten meat comes into the story.  You see there is a thing called a cow-catcher at the front of all locomotives and their job is to catch cows standing and minding their own business on the track…..basically a massive fast moving 100 ton meat tenderiser.  The problem was that the now mushy cow normally got caught up under the locomotive after being hit and bits of pieces of processed meat and bone ended up being sprayed up the front bogey assembly that included the sanding pipes.  So we are back to the 3000 degree flame burning minced up rotten beef.

Lifting a locomotive in an Erecting Shop

Lifting a locomotive in an Erecting Shop (non-Rhodesia Railways)

A typical Erecting Shop

A typical Erecting Shop (non-Rhodesia Railways)

Rhodesia Railways Erecting Shop

Rhodesia Railways Erecting Shop where I worked as an apprentice Plater-Welder

On And Off The Rails (Part 2)

September 14, 2009

January 1972……still in the Rhodesia Railways Mechanical Workshops, Bulawayo

First Mission: Wagon Shop

The Wagon Shop was exactly what the named implied.  It was where one would find all types of wagons in various stages of construction or destruction, depending on the activity taking place.   Any wagon that needed repairs of any description including complete rebuilds from the frame upwards came to the Wagon Shop.  Some of the ones that arrived were in advanced stages of decomposition due to either plain wear and tear, high-speed shunting operations by overzealous locomotive drivers, and in extreme cases; collisions, derailments and/or terrorist action.  Clearly some of them would never hear the clickety-clack of the rails again.  In most cases things could be put right with the correct application of brute force and profanity…..but there were of course the instances where they were so bent and twisted that they were scrapped for being beyond help of any kind and sent to the graveyard.

It is important to remember that at that time there were heavy sanctions imposed on Rhodesia so the scrapping of a wagon was considered a very serious decision to make.  Apparently a person needed superhuman powers of perception and outstanding academic qualifications to make such decisions.  This person was known as the Charge-Hand…..  basically because he was in charge of all the hands that fixed the wagons and he knew what our grubby fat fingers, big heavy tools, and heating torches could and couldn’t do.  I remember him quite well.  A pleasant person most of the time as I recall.  Unfortunately he used to lose it when under pressure and this seriously impacted on his personality.  I used to watch him walking around with a piece of chalk in his hand, writing all kinds of messages for us to read on the side of the newly arrived wagons, detailing its fate……repair, strip, rebuild, cut.  And when he was in a particularly foul mood, probably for not getting his leg over the night before, he even wrote the dreaded “scrap” word……gleefully grinning whilst condemning the mute subject of his frustration to the knackers yard…….a shadowy, sinister place that was always cold, damp and dripping.  There seemed to be a sadness about the wagons that were laid to rest there……the wicked wind whipping and whistling through their lopsided frames.

I would like to describe two specific types of wagons that remain vivid in my memory.  None of my reasons for remembering them are good.

Refrigerator Wagons:

Refrigerator wagons are used to keep meat carcasses and other perishables cold in transit.  Obvious you might say.  However you need to bear in mind that if the cooling unit breaks down between Wankie and Bulawayo in mid-summer, a refrigerator truck quickly becomes a microwave oven and whatever you were trying to keep cold rapidly begins to decompose into an array of unpleasant odours, strange, slippery, evil coloured liquids, and sodden cardboard boxes that fall apart when lifted, thus spilling their now vile contents all over the show.

It is important to understand at this point that when a cooling unit breaks down the whole refrigerator truck would be sent for repairs so that the entire wagon could have a quick service.  I dont need to tell you where they came to…..but I will anyway…….the Wagon Shop.

If you have never had the good fortune of being the first person to open one of these wagons after it has been standing in the sun for a few days,  it is going to be quite hard even for me to describe the sickening stench of rotting beef, pork, or lamb that has turned green, blue, and yellow, and has strange pus-like secretions leaking out of the various orifices that such animals have.  I do not think I need to elaborate further at this stage as any normal person reading this should have gotten the idea by now.

Try to visualise the following:

Refrigerator wagon comes in for repairs……the first thing that happens is that it gets stripped down.

One of my tasks as a Plater-Welder apprentice was to cut things up with extremely high temperature flames using a combination of oxygen and acetylene gasses.  I used to enjoy doing this eversomuch.   The problem here was that these trucks had a double skin with insulation in the middle of the inner and outer layers.  This insulation was highly inflammable……do you get the picture?  A really horrible yellow smoke, that was also toxic, was produced when this insulation caught fire.  Secondly, when pieces of rotten meat and old dried blood inside the wagon came into contact with a 3000 degree Celsius flame they naturally began to cook….right in front of my face……..burning rotten meat smell is very different from burning fresh meat smell.  So there was none of this tummy rumbling, mouth watering Sunday afternoon barbecue/braaivleis aromas wafting about….none of that at all.

Cattle Wagons:

Cattle Wagons have the opposite job to Refrigerator Wagons.  They also look different.

The main functional difference is that one type (Refrigerator) carries dead animals that sway gently on their stainless steel butcher hooks according to the camber of the tracks and appear to be taking part in some kind of synchronised swimming exercise.  The other (Cattle) carries live, snorting, snotty, dribbling, very pissed-off bovines, who probably know that they are on Death Row, so also try to get their last hump in on the way.  Live cattle also void their bowels and bladders in these Wagons.  Which is the root cause of my bad memories of them.  Basically the same reason as the Refrigerator wagons…..3000 degree flame in contact with dried or wet soggy cow-dung and urine…….you have the picture and are hopefully imagining the aroma……not like marijuana at all.  I have forgotten to mention these wagons were mostly made from wood…..flame+wood=fire=burns to body parts.

There were times when I thought that being in the Wagon Shop was punishment for some long forgotten sin.  I was to find out quite soon that there were far worse tasks than cutting up rotten meat, being gassed by flaming toxic insulation, and slipping on fresh, smouldering cow-dung.

And I was also to discover very quickly, the two things that scared the living daylights out of me.

Rhodesia Railways short cattle wagon

Rhodesia Railways short cattle wagon

Example of a Refrigerator Truck (not Rhodesia Railways)

Example of a Refrigerator Truck (not Rhodesia Railways)

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… 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… 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