My errant employment experience recalled by Roger Knight
Following one’s retirement, it becomes compelling to review our employment history, sometimes in the minutiae. This for the most part entails our mainstream employment, our chosen career path and not necessarily the jobs we should never have been hired to do, because we were either untrained for them or lacked the skill to do them.
Two of those jobs that I bluffed my way into readily come to mind. Due then, to I suspect, youthful exuberance that generated a false omnipotence, enabling me to think that there was nothing I couldn’t do, and if I couldn’t, then I would just wing it for as long as I could in the hope that I would eventually master the necessary skill.
The first of these, was that of a concrete block layer. Having already laboured on several construction sites, I had seen concrete blocks being laid which seemed straight forward enough. Encouraged by this, I decided to borrow a few masonry tools, which I secured to the handlebars of my motorbike and headed for the new Bank of Butterfield building in Hamilton Bermuda.
The foreman on the building site looked me up and down. “How long you been laying block for man?” he said. Lying, I said, “a while now”.
“O.K.” he said, “I’ll give you a try.” He directed me to an open space on the fourth floor where a wall needed to be built. Alongside me was a Jamaican mason who was obviously the real deal.
We both started building our walls together. He has laid at least three courses compared to my two and not only that, they were straight and evenly laid compared to my uneven and lopsided wall, that looked like a dog’s dinner compared to his.
Panic had now set in. I had managed to cut my hand in trying to keep up with my opponent and blood had trickled into the wet mortar as I didn’t have time to stem the flow. The game was up, the foreman paid me for my time and again asked me as to how long I had been on my tools. The answer was clearly evident in my failed attempt to build a simple concrete block wall.
My bluff had lasted no more than two hours. The result was a disastrous embarrassment, an ignominious failure, possibly my first.
Undeterred, a year later I was in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. I had seen a job advertisement for a carpentry supervisor for an Australian construction company who were building accommodation blocks for the University of Papua New Guinea. There was no trade test, just a few questions and I was hired.
This was an entirely new cultural context for me, as those I had to supervise were Papuan carpenters and labourers, mostly stoned on chewing betel nut which reddened their mouths, spoke only Pidgin English and smoked anything that was combustible.
I therefore realised very quickly that if I was going to survive in this job, that rather than coerce them into doing something they were reluctant to do, I would bribe them with my Craven A Black Cat duty free cigarettes that I had an abundant supply of instead.
This worked for a while, building form work in time for the next concrete pour.
My bluff seemed to be holding. I hadn’t managed to get beaten up, as the payroll manager had been, because some of the workers believed that he had short changed them. The Black Cat cigarettes were keeping my men on side and me in one piece and the work was getting done.
This was too good to last. There was even when I think back now, a sort of bonding event that may have taken place.
On finishing work one day, my girlfriend’s father who usually collected me failed to show up. The men were being transported back to their camp on the back of an open flat bed truck. On seeing the truck approaching me, I waved it down and extended my hand to one of the men to haul me aboard. This created a combination of consternation and amusement, a white boss man in their circle!
Unfortunately, my rudimentary carpentry skills were not up to building the form work necessary for staircases, which proved to be my achilles heel. These had to be precise and strongly supported by numerous props to bear the immense weight of concrete.
My first attempt folded like a pack of cards. My employer was becoming skeptical about by carpentry ability. I decided to try and copy the design that an Australian carpenter had built in another accommodation block nearby. I realised how flawed my attempt had been. It was as though I had built mine back to front. Much as I tried to rebuild it, the cat was out of the bag. My time was up. All 10 days of it. The carpentry charade was over.
I suppose I can console myself by recalling, notwithstanding some possible close calls, lasting a lot longer in the jobs I was actually qualified for.
The moral of this story, if there is one, is stick to what you know best if you want to keep your ego intact.