‘WATCH out, Grandad!”
The cheeky sod grins as he sails past me; peddling like crazy to catch up to his apprentice mates.
I’d stopped to fish out a pill and slip it under my tongue. I didn’t want to end up like my mate, Jim Harvey, who dropped dead during a night shift last year.
Margie and me, we’ve got plans. For years, she’s dreamt of taking me home to England, and showing me the sights of London, where she spent her first few years. It’ll be the trip of a lifetime, sailing on one of those ocean liners. Imagine us lined up on the deck like royalty. She’ll be in her best hat and gloves, waving; I’ll throw streamers to the girls.
“Take it easy,” my doctor said. “There’s not enough blood getting to your heart, so it’s short of oxygen. That’s why it’s giving you grief.”
Oxygen. If I’ve heard that word once recently, I’ve heard it a hundred times. You see, they’re building an oxygen plant at the steelworks to supply the new Basic Oxygen Steelmaking (BOS) furnaces which will make open hearths a thing of the past.
Technology’s the way of the future. Any fool can see that. No more wrestling with the plug to release a stream of molten steel. The BOS furnace is on pivots and tilts forward when you’re ready to pour into the ladle. They reckon it will increase production by 50 per cent and make steel-making cleaner and safer. Not only that, instead of taking 10 hours, you can tap the steel after only 40 minutes.
It’s a no brainer, as far as I’m concerned. Less hot, dangerous work with only our woollen shirts and pants, and leather aprons, to stop us getting burnt.
These union blokes are whistling in the wind. They’ve called us out on strike six times during the last month alone. It makes my blood boil. How can I plan for the future if I’m constantly dragged into the past?
I said as much to the union delegate, the other day. He looked at me in disgust. “Listen, old timer. If you don’t mind losing your job, that’s fine by me. But I’m here to represent young family men with their whole working lives ahead of them.” A gob of spit landed on my boots. “Half you workers will be given manual labouring work on reduced wages, but mark my words, that’ll only be ’til the hue and cry dies down. Then you’ll be out on your ear.”
Technology’s the way of the future. Any fool can see that. No more wrestling with the plug to release a stream of molten steel.
Now the angina has me in a vice. I loosen the sweat rag around my neck, put my hands on my knees and imagine winding its jaws apart.
I feel an arm around my shoulder. “You OK, Ron? You’re not looking too flash.”
The pain’s eased a little now. I smile at the bloke we call Singlet, cause he’s always on your back. “I’ll be all right. Just give me a moment to catch my breath.”
“You take your time,” he says, “then come and see me in my office.”
I straighten up, pick up my crib tin and head through the gates.
Looks like that union git’s right, after all. One moment of weakness and Singlet’s decided to dump me in the koala sanctuary, where the old and the injured are sent to serve out their time.
To tell you the truth, it’s Margie I’m worried about. All her life she’s cared for me and the girls. It was her who got me thinking about the future when she insisted we let our Susan stay on at school. “Things are going to change, Ron,” she said. “One day women will be allowed to do all kinds of work – like I did during the war. Susan’s a bright girl. She needs to become a teacher … or a nurse.”
She was right. Now, there’s no work in Newcastle for young people without qualifications. The other day, there were 200 girls queuing up for one junior sales assistant position. And some of them had finished their Leaving Certificate exams.
Clever girls like our Susan. She’s the one who encouraged me to master the newfangled slide rule we use for calculating quantities of raw materials at work.
My ticker has settled down now. I take my time climbing up the stairs to Singlet’s office. I’m resigned to my fate. I know I am yesterday’s man.
“Come in,” Singlet says. “Take a seat.”
I brace myself for the inevitable.
“As you know, Ron, we’re installing new BOS furnaces which are going to greatly increase our production and our demand for raw materials.”
“We need a much more efficient way of managing operations. Now, you know this place inside out and I wondered whether you’d be interested in working with the chaps who run the computers. They’re mathematical whizzes but they don’t know all the ins and outs of steel production. You seem to have an instinct for these things. I’ve watched you calculate something on your slide rule and you know instantly whether the answer sounds about right.”
I look up surprised.
He grins at me. “They don’t call me Singlet for nothing, you know. I’m constantly looking over people’s shoulders.”
Turns out he’s not such a bad bloke, after all.
“It’s a short-term position, I’m afraid. It’ll probably take them about six months. And then, who knows?’
A wave of relief flows over me. Six months will take me past my 60th birthday and, with a bit of luck and a new office job, I might get to see Buckingham Palace, after all.