this (labour­ing) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Les Sobey Re­view wel­comes sub­mis­sions to This Life. To be con­sid­ered for publi­ca­tion, the work must be orig­i­nal and be­tween 600 and 650 words in length. Sub­mis­sions may be edited for clar­ity. Send emails to this­life@theaus­

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’’.

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