Engineering Students were required to have a holiday job on a building site as training. I was taken on at a building site constructing houses, and involved in the supervision of the road and sewer contract, under the guidance of the Clerk of Works, whom I had run in with over the Orangemen. It was on this contract I learned to work in the most appalling weather conditions and the most important lesson of all, that disrespect would be shown to those in authority who displayed weakness in any form. I also saw how experience is worth a ton of theory.
The site was squarely on the tail end of what had once been a glacier in the Ice Age and now consisted of fine sand ground by the ice from the rocks over which it passed. The sewer was not merely being constructed in sand, it was in a feared ground condition known as running sand, – sand which has no stability and without warning can collapse burying men working in it, unless suitably supported. Digging sewers in running sand is both hazardous and costly on account of the precautions which have to be taken. Some contractors tend to take a chance, cut corners, in the hope all will be well and they will get away with it. Such was the case on this site, suddenly the wall of the trench, improperly supported, with a man in the bottom laying a pipe, collapsed without warning and started to build up round the man like sand in an hour glass. Without a second’s thought the foreman, standing on the side of the trench, lifted a shovel and projected it like a javelin at the man’s head, or so it seemed. Certainly, if the man had nodded he would have been cleaved. The shovel stabbed into the sand in front of the pipe-layer’s face and as the sand built round him it formed an airspace in front of his face and, for the time it took to rescue him, he was able to breathe. Experience, not theory had saved that man’s life.
The next lesson had its funny side, but where I was concerned it taught me that the men on the site, watch everything, particularly where it concerns authority, and it can be every bit as cruel as some of the men I had encountered in the Navy. The engineer in charge of the contractors, whom I shall call Jones, was a strange fellow. I have never found his equal since. I’m convinced he was divorced from reality and if the site staff, the junior engineers and the foremen had not been so efficient, he would have foundered long before I came across him. Building sites are as class-ridden as any segment of British society and the privileges are jealously guarded. At the bottom of the heap are the tea boys, errand boys who are learning to be labourers and then hoping to graduate to tradesmen. It is their duty to go for cigarettes, go to the bookies on behalf of the men, buy food, make tea and work on the site, in that order of priority. They are cheeky, full of
fun and more than tolerated by the men on the site. The engineer, Jones, would come on to the site, no matter what the conditions were like underfoot, dressed in light trousers, fine shoes, a smart suit and colourful tie and then proceed to pick his way from dry patch to dry patch as he continued down the site, like someone doing the balancing act on precarious stepping stones in a fast flowing river. It was both predictable and inevitable that the tea boys would not only see him as he progressed, they would come out from the various corners in which they had been concealed and would then follow him down the site in a line, imitating his every move and gesture and then, like Grandmother’s footsteps, they would stop and appear nonchalant should he turn. This performance was more than a bit of fun, it was an expression of what all the men felt about Jones. I believe the tea boys would not have had the temerity to ridicule the man unless they
had heard comments by the men during meal breaks, it was then they knew they were on a winner.
There was one slightly vulgar story concerning Jones which was going the rounds. Apparently he was doing his site inspection when he came across a man in the bottom of the trench digging. Each time the man shovelled up a load of earth and threw it on the side of the trench he grunted. Jones stood watching him for quite some time and when he could resist it no longer he accosted the man. “I say,” he said in superior tones. “Is it necessary to grunt every time you use your shovel?” The foreman and the ganger were aghast, what the man did while digging was of no consequence, how much he dug and how well, was all that mattered. The man stood up slowly, stabbed his shovel into the loose earth, slowly turned and looked up at the engineer. He was well aware who he was, no one on the site was otherwise. “Wha’ ja say?” Jones had to repeat himself. The man looked at him for a moment as if he was examining something new to his experience and then said, “If you was digging this, every time you lifted the shovel you’d shit yourself, when I lifts it I grunts.” With that he turned and went on digging. “I want this man sacked.” Jones told the foreman, but the man was not sacked. Ask a silly question, you are likely to get a silly answer.