Were the 1970s-80s in the machine shop good or bad?

Dear Editor,

I must in return thank Mr Derrick Cummings for his pleasant remarks in response to my piece ‘Recalling Deslyn’s Parliament in Linden‘ (SN February 13), and also for his contribution ‘In addition to “Deslyn’s“ there were other parliaments dotted around the country‘ (SN February 17).

It was certainly a nice feeling receiving commendations from brothers on the Deslyn letter, even though some were upset that their names were not mentioned. But playing a most crucial, historical and incomparable role in the lives of residents of the mining town was the bauxite industry, of which the machine shop was a vital and major component. To chronicle the period of the ’70s-’80s in the machine shop, familiarly referred to as the ‘shop’ is no mean task, and would take at least a volume or two, for there are others with memorable, beautiful, glowing and strange stories to tell. However, here are some bits and pieces from that period. The shop in my judgment was the centre of gravity, the live wire that kept the bauxite industry buoyant, though every other department played a pivitol role in maintaining the successful operation of the industry. The shop serviced almost every department within the company on a regular basis, none of which could have functioned effectively without resorting to it. It was touted during the 1970s-80s as probably the largest, the best and most equipped in the Caribbean; it had an enviable reputation and was unmatched.

Comprised of several sections, all under a single shed constructed with a 10 ton overhead crane that traversed the length of the workshop, and which from time to time had to be assisted by grove cranes when under pressure it buckled. The sections were: machining/turning; fitting and millwright; blacksmith/babbit; locomotive, heavy duty; arc/oxy welding; plate working/fabrication, and tinsmith. There was also a planning, drawing and personnel office, a tool room/store and a payroll section. There were other sections which were too small to stand alone and so were fused into bigger ones.

But it was not just a workshop comprising massive intricate engines, all sorts of machines, components, parts of all types and description and iron/metal sheets covering an extensive area of concreted land where men sought employment to sustain a livelihood. Though that was the primary and sole reason for its construction, it seemed to be possessed of other attributes also. It had a kind of ‘vibe‘ which automatically came into play colouring behaviour and events. Thus, in a way, it was also a school where many hard lessons were learnt; where minds were shaped and strange and crafty characters were born; where young men /apprentices upon entering became acquainted with the vicissitudes of life – ‘cut deh teeth.’ The shop was a university, large as life playing out and unfolding before your very eyes; a remarkable place with remarkable and unbelievable characters, but still, all workers. I doubt if there was another place in the industry that was more popular, and even became notorious, fearful of men who ‘mouth bus.‘

It’s interesting to recall some of these characters, though some were only known by their nicknames. In the welding section were: ‘CR‘ Allicock; ‘Balgo‘ Lewis; ‘Balla‘ Crawford; Henry ‘Bath’ Paul; ‘Staumpo‘ ‘Coco‘ Caster; Reggie; Scottie; ‘Vulture‘; McKinnon; McRae; Jhaili; Lee Ting; Carlton Jordon; Dennis ‘Ten Ten‘ Narine; ‘Soldier‘ Benjie; Neville Henry; ‘Chine‘; ‘Senior‘; ‘Taitt‘; ‘Shaft‘ Merchant; Latchmansingh; Everton Clarke; Lennox Moseley, among others. All a bunch of top notch welders. Neville Henry’s number one desire was that of a sailor; to hear him talk about the sea and ships was fascinating. He knew every part of a ship and almost every main port in the world, and read adventure and western novels relentlessly. ‘Balgo‘ told jokes with a style that would make even a stone laugh till it cried. ‘Soldier‘ Benjie craved things military; often in his army uniform, neatness was his hallmark. ‘Senior‘ Taitt, I can’t forget; you had to be very careful how you looked at him and avoid laughing, because he walked with measured strides like a gunslinger, and inferred from your countenance what you were thinking about him. And I have never come across men from any other department who gobbled up books/novels more than welders like Neville, Balgo, Coco, Nicko, Scottie, McKinnon, McRae and Balla – all voracious readers who ‘burnt up‘ novels like wildfire. No matter how pressing the work, they made space for reading.

But there was also the odd personality. Maurice Noble – we called him ‘Masaba‘ – wore a Ho Chi Minh style green outfit perennially, kept abreast of BBC world affairs which he followed with eyes like a hawk, was more au fait with geopolitics and political science than many high-chested, swell-headed intellectuals. He knew the flag and capital of every country in the world; that was so fascinating to me, that it stimulated me into memorizing the majority of the countries and their capitals – yes sireee! Masaba was ‘bad‘; he knew the military might of frontline countries with puppet regimes and who aided and abetted them. Such people were defined by Walter Rodney as “Working class intellectuals.“

From fabrication were ‘Willo‘; ‘Shadow‘ Harris; ‘Davo‘ Burgess Huntley; Caralotte; Fitzroy Alleyne the money lender; Sammy Barker; ‘Dax‘ Thompson; Afrani; Squires; Leroy Rose; Eze Nelson, the costume designer; Jacob Braithwaite the wily trade unionist; Uncle Bell the philosopher; Cecil Baveghems, forever with some amusing real life story; ‘Bolt‘ Anthony, religiously punctual – he never took a day off, never reported sick, never made a complaint against anyone or anything, never begged for time off, and never departed before time!

Then there was ‘Bam‘ the overhead crane operator, and a masterful gaff man who held everyone captive during the night shift with his dramatic expressions and antics; he was endowed with a fertile imagination. There was the boisterous Randolph Cato better known as ‘Radio,’ with a voice that could wake the dead, always broadcasting news that was rarely accurate. Fred Paul the illiterate Islander, with the wisdom of the ages, whose logic and philosophy left you utterly flabbergasted; ‘Pipe man‘ the janitor; and not forgetting labourer foreman brother ‘Blackie,‘ confident and proud as a peacock, he prided himself in the thought that no labourer could have outwitted him – he was dead wrong.

Taking control of the blacksmith section were first and foremost ‘King Cow‘ Easton, the man who told me that he read a nine-page book that told him all he wanted to know about women!

He was a marvel, and seemed to have had more energy than a 35 ton locomotive. It was a miracle to catch him at rest; he worked equally hard for himself and the industry.

Amidst the clanging of iron, hammer and anvil stood ‘Englishman,’ so named because he backed the English cricket team come what may, and like Lord Kitchener he wore a hat that never left his head. He was an umpire and his cricket rule book was his bible that was forever in his pocket, and which he knew verbatim from cover to cover. He read it continuously and did fractions and maths equations during his spare time. Then there was ‘Merro‘ with a short fuse; he went into a tantrum at a flash, eyes bulging and fuming, you had to be on the alert since the scraps of metal that surrounded him grew wings instantly! Yet when in a nice mood his laughter was infectious and his entire solid physique shook. ‘Chungie‘ on the other hand was so much the opposite, petite and phlegmatic, standing just about five feet in height, smiling continually. It was near impossible to rile him up; he rarely spoke and when he did his vice was soft. A bit similar in temperament were ‘Sergeant‘ and Carl Thomas, both cool but energetic, whose mood you couldn’t trust, and so much unlike Stanley ‘Stalingrad‘ Humphry, always suspecting and calculating, planning his line of attack and defence far ahead for whosoever. And this was the gang that kept the blacksmith section going, making music as they deftly forged into shape white/red hot metals.

The locomotive crew consisted of Stephens; ‘Fat man‘ Bacchus; ‘Big George‘ Festus Waddell;
‘Mack‘; ‘Thomo‘; Jomo and Reid, among others. Those 18, 35 and 45 ton locos kept rolling because of them; whenever they were jacked up some 5-6 feet high on those four powerful jacks and men stood under them working, the onlooker’s imagination was set in motion – what if one of those jacks malfunctioned?

Turning/machining was comprised of superlative craftsmen in ‘Gads‘; Dennis; Joe Stephens; Fredrick Danny; George Jordon; ‘Padmar‘ Bacchus; ‘Breeze‘ Seymour; ‘Gun‘ Hodge; ‘Cutlass Joe‘; ‘Dabits; Vansluytman; Withlarge; Alleyne, and others. The batch in the fitting area boasted precision workers of the likes of artist/playwright Parry Wallerson; ‘Guitar Bugs‘ Arnold Critchlow, who never gave up on an argument; ‘Burnham,’ etc, and ‘Carrie.’  Bold and daring, Carrie read much and challenged supervisors and engineers alike at will, wrote to engineering firms abroad for books/manuals on new components/machinery, and thus was very knowledgeable.

And lastly there was the heavy duty section studded with heavyweights: Morris McKinnon; Elton Paul; Keith ‘Jesus‘ Moseley; Cedric Smith; ‘Private‘ Hoyte, the mathematician; ‘Django‘ ‘Puck‘ Blanchard; ‘Kochure‘; Brensford Seales; Compton Hall, etc.

The names mentioned above are only a handful of the approximately 300 plus workers who were employed in the machine shop. The few women who worked there were found mainly in offices, and tradeswomen and female apprentices became prominent by the mid/late seventies.

So this was the shop, where anything conceivable from industrial/ mechanical material to household items were mended and made by workers who possessed amazing skills. Oftentimes one was left pleasantly bewildered at seeing men regularly repairing and bringing back an entire mechanical unit that was said to be irredeemable to a mesmerizing near perfection. There was hardly anything beyond the reach of these fine craftsmen. Many a time workers from other departments upon passing were compelled to stop and gaze at some huge complex section/unit that was being assembled/disassembled, assisted by large grove cranes and front-end loaders.

Visiting dignitaries and heads of states to McKenzie-Linden had to have included on their itinerary, a tour of the machine shop as a matter of priority, where invariably they were recipients of various beautiful gifts crafted by men of consummate skill who took pride in their work. The eyecatching detailed Guyana map fitted with a penholder and made from stainless steel earned distinction, and there were also other ornaments and accessories of which the slick gents stainless steel watchband and cuff-links represented grand and priceless pieces.

Looking back now I think that the only things that were not made in the shop were glass and bulbs. I feel that the skills of the shop were capable of making a man out of metal with all internal organs in place if it was ever demanded of them – yes, they were that good – craftsmen extraordinaires. But to avoid being accused of being negligent let me inform you dear readers that the Demba/Linmine Trade School, the industry’s nursery, played a fundamental part within the scheme of things, by producing their fair share of quality apprentices – rough diamonds – who in turn were sent to various departments where they honed their skills.

And of course, I need to mention the lies, deceit, cunning, chicanery and hypocrisy that abounded, although such behaviour among common folks was expected; for some it was a way of life that embodied their very existence. In a way it became their fortress, a kind of defence in their struggle to cope against all the odds: frequent altercations between them and leadhands/foremen; shop stewards and management personnel and the preposterous admonishing of workers by their supervisors to leave their problems at home, as if they were robots.

There was the case of a cruel senior worker who told a young unsuspecting apprentice to pass him a hot piece of metal that was just burnt off with a cutting torch, and then callously said to him after he injured his hand, “Serves yuh right, yuh gon learn to pay attention.”   And the reverse to another apprentice who told such a terrible lie on his senior co-worker that he shed bitter tears. The General Foreman’s only response was, “Smallie, yuh lying pon this big man.”

And again I say this was the shop and the things that went on. There were countless more which in time will be told by others, yet for all that, it was a darling of a place to work; men longed for their vacation/leave to come around and before it was ended they were eager to return, like someone missing his/her family.

I know very little of what the machine shop is like today, having left there so long ago, but from reports I’ve heard, it would be like comparing salt to sugar. Then it comprised, as mentioned above, approximately 300 workers as against now with about 40-50, and many sections closed.  Now it is near impossible to obtain a roti-pan (tawa) that was a permanent item in every home in the community and which was made in the shop; or an ice pick that every club/bar and many homes were in possession of and also made in the shop; or even just to get a kitchen knife or cutlass sharpened.

Then you know for sure that ‘this time nah lang time,’ and that the table has swung a full 360°. And are we in better days?

Were the days of the ’70s-’80s in the machine shop good or bad?

Yours faithfully,
 Frank Fyffe

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