The date was Monday 5th December 1960. I was fifteen years old and it was my first day as a working man. A few weeks earlier I had been a schoolboy in my last year at Cairns High School, Junior Class 4A1. I had not been a very attentive student during my last school year, always finding it easier to be distracted by anything which took me away from lessons and study. Remarkably, of the eight subjects taken during my two years of secondary school, I managed somehow to get passing grades in all of them in the final Junior Examination and even scrambled a couple of A’s, and a B. The A’s were for the two Maths subjects we did and for that I was grateful to the wonderful Jock Menzies, who had bullied us all into working harder for him than we might have done for some of the less "engaging" teachers. He certainly terrified me for two years.
So there I was on that Monday morning, in my shiny new Yakka Size 3 navy-blue overalls, the legs of which had been taken up the night before by my Mum, fully equipped for the mile or so ride on my Malvern Star down Draper Street (trouser legs tucked into socks, handlebars pointing up, not down) on my way to starting life as an apprentice fitter and turner at Northern Australian Breweries. It was the first day of a five-year apprenticeship as a fitter and turner and I had absolutely no idea what it was that I would be fitting and turning or what a fitter and turner even was.
The brewery was somewhat of an institution in Cairns. It was owned by Carlton & United of Melbourne and was the home of Cairns Draught Beer, famous from Mt Isa to Coen and all points between. It was one of two or three places in Cairns where a young man could start a trade. If you weren’t working at one of the sugar mills at Gordonvale or Hambledon, you were at the brewery, the local railway workshops or the boilermakers and shipbuilders down at Smiths Creek, NQEA.
Every year the brewery took on a number of new apprentices and 1960 was a good year for employment. There were six new starters that year, four mechanical apprentices, an electrical one and a carpenter. The other fitter apprentices included the quiet and serious Ron (who I never heard say a bad word about anyone), tall blond Hughie (there is a sad story to tell about Hugh, but that comes much later) and big gregarious Brooksie. Ron and Hugh were from my year at school; Brooksie was also from the same school but a couple of years ahead of us.
The Brewery was a major employer with a large maintenance and a construction workforce. As well as a beer racking facility which supplied all the local and regional pubs with 18-gallon kegs of Cairns Draught, there was a bottling plant, an engine room and boiler house, a full-scale workshop and a drawing office. I was assigned to the bottling plant where I found myself working with an amusing and friendly fellow called Bobby Ward.
I spent my first day at work learning what was needed to keep a bottling plant running. The plant had been in operation for about ten years or so and according to a little article I recently came across had a capacity of 500 dozen bottles an hour. The main point of focus in the plant was the bottle washing machine. A large noisy monster, with a wide conveyor and two operators on upturned crates feeding dirty bottles into the machine at one end with the clean bottles coming out the other end and then on to the beer filler and bottle-top putter-onner, otherwise known as the crowner.
Every so often one of the cleaning brushes would get caught on something inside a bottle. The spindle would bend, there would be a grinding scream of broken glass and the machine would be stopped. This was a signal for the maintenance fitter (which soon became me) to crawl into a small space inside the machine and replace the damaged brush – making sure not to rip open a hand or a finger on a jagged edge somewhere. This was made more interesting and challenging by the steady stream of hot water which drained from the upturned bottles above your head, down the back of the neck, soaking your clothes and making you squirm as you worked to get things quickly going again because naturally production must not be delayed - a far cry from messing about with pipettes and burettes in the school physics lab or writing boyish comments on my copy of As You Like It.
I was a proud young man, that first day when I got home from work, new overalls covered in oil and grease, grubby fingernails and my hands raw and tingling from the trisodium phosphate powder used to scrub away the grime and seemingly about two layers of skin. I’m sure my mum had a good meal waiting for me when I got home – maybe shepherd’s pie followed by apple crumble.
The brewery was a great environment to start out as a working man, and I was to find there was no better place to learn a trade. Gordon Williams was the workshop superintendent, a delightful, no-nonsense down to earth man who cared about each of the apprentices as if they were his own sons – and knew like any good father-figure when we needed praise, and when we needed a kick up the arse.
The first few weeks of working life are full of rich experiences. I had no idea for example, that grown men could curse so much. My brother and I were obviously sheltered from this at home because my only experience of coarse language was at school, where we boys (never the girls) all accepted foul language as part of our culture – it was big time to swear! The worse I ever heard my father say was, “Blind Old Riley!” to which my mother would say, “John, I wish you wouldn’t use that expression.”
It was not until many years later that I learned that when he was at work as workshop superintendent at Cairns City Council, Dad was as good as anyone when it came to ripe language. Apparently a favourite characteristic of his, when confronted by a stripped timing gear from an overworked engine or some similar mechanical problem was to push is hat back, scratch his head and say, “Well fuck me up a gum tree!”
Cairns in 1960, only fifteen years since the end of the war, was far different from the multi-cultural tourist conurbation it is today. As yet, there were no parking meters or traffic lights - although such challenges to our simple lifestyle were not far away. The brewery was full of rich characters whose personalities still resonate with me many years later and I am relishing the chance to write more about them in another post.