this (labouring) life
AT the start of winter in 1952, a mate and I sought work on the Snowy Mountains HydroElectric Scheme because we shared a common love of the mountains and of skiing. Being winter, they were not putting on any workers, so we got jobs in Canberra. Each Friday evening, we’d get a mate to drop us off on the outskirts of Canberra and hitchhike with skis and packs to Cooma. There we’d go to the railway yards, select a carriage of a train at the siding and take up residence in a first-class compartment with an ensuite. We’d use our spirit stove to brew up a drink, spread out our sleeping bags on the leather seats and go off to sleep.
Next morning we’d get the stove going again, have breakfast, hitchhike up to Perisher Valley and ski for the remainder of the day. The night’s accommodation would be in a mountain hut. Sunday morning was spent skiing and hitchhiking back to Canberra that afternoon. No out-of-pocket expenses except for food.
One weekend the chief electrical engineer for the Snowy scheme saw us skiing and asked would we be prepared to join the scheme so that he could use our skiing ability to form a ski patrol. I don’t think there was a ski patrol anywhere in Australia at the time so we would have been the first to be offered such positions. We accepted of course. He placed us at Perisher camp in the proximity of the Snowy River at an altitude of 1500m and we were employed as builder’s labourers. We heard nothing from him regarding ski patrolling and didn’t pursue the matter. Skiing was for enjoyment. We had a motto at that time that if work interfered with skiing, then give up work. We were living in the snowfields and skiing every weekend. Serendipity!
We were working on the construction of a small diesel electric power station to provide supplementary power to the Guthega construction camp. One day they were pouring concrete foundations and a stocky Irishman, about 175cm tall and 175cm across the chest wheeled a barrow underneath the chute of the concrete mixer. He got a load of concrete and wheeled it up the planks of a wooden ramp. At the end of the ramp he lifted the handles of the barrow, released his hold, nonchalantly changed his grip and caught the handles when the barrow was vertical. The barrow discharged its contents into the pit. It looked so easy. Anybody could do it. Then it was my turn.
Now a builder’s barrow is a serious piece of heavy earthmoving equipment, especially to a guy 165cm tall. Being a quick learner, I positioned the barrow under the chute. When the barrow was full, I grabbed the handles and heaved. Nothing happened. I tried again and with great effort managed to lift the load but, alas, the barrow refused to move forward. Once again I heaved and with a supreme effort, managed to obtain forward motion. With the ramp ahead I increased my speed, and mounted the ramp. There was a slight problem because as the barrow wheel rose up the ramp I could no longer see the planks so I was flying blind. When I sensed that the barrow was at the top of the ramp, I used my remaining strength to heave on the barrow handles and released my hold to change grip. The concrete flowed into the foundations, closely followed by the barrow. In fact, independent observers say the barrow and its load went in as one unit. My contribution to civil engineering was to redefine the meaning of the term ‘‘reinforced concrete’’.