Friday, March 27, 2015
V5 N 25 Part 7 The Lawler Chronicles, Dial M for Murder
1961, THE SUMMER OF MY DISCONTENT
Episode II: Dial “M” for Murder
What to do? More to the point: what to think? We had driven over 2000 miles from New York, and I had hitched some 200 miles from Clovis to Abilene, only to be told by Denis that there was no job waiting for us. The coach had left on an overseas tour with a US track team, and the college dormitory was closed for the summer. We had sacrificed a quarter of the summer competing for the college at the Nationals, and we had both performed creditably and trained hard through the entire track season, and were counting on that job. What’s more, if we hadn’t been assured of work back in Abilene, we would have stayed in the northeast and looked, at least initially, for work in the ‘Big Apple.’
We felt bitter, resentful, and totally forgotten and unappreciated. Should we get Dick Sorkin to write another article? But, no, that hadn’t worked too well the year before. Besides, we weren’t exactly down to ‘a banana and a dime.’ We had a couple of hundred dollars ─ largely from cashing in our airline tickets. Still, our emotions were running haywire, and our first reaction was to investigate a transfer to another college or university and ‘red shirt’ for a year. We called Al Lawrence at the University of Houston to see if Johnny Morris, their coach, would consider that. Highly unlikely, we were told. Four more Australians were joining the team the next autumn, and Johnny didn’t need two more mouths to feed, especially since we would not be able to compete for twelve months. We considered several other options, but quickly discarded them all. Having been suspended during the previous school year wasn’t going to look too good on our application form. Anyway, I wasn’t all that interested in transferring. I now had other interests besides running.
But all was not lost. Although the school and the coach had failed to find us much-needed work for the summer, the ‘note-taker extraordinaire’ was busy at Hugh Bowie Jewellers canvassing the customers who came into the store, asking whether they knew of any summer jobs. I’m supposing that a disgruntled boyfriend with little or no money wasn’t the most exciting prospect for the coming school year, even if he did have an NCAA medal and a Penn Relays watch.
“Bingo!” Charlotte hit the jackpot and added another credit to her ever-increasing allure. The customer in question was a Mexican fellow (That’s what we said in those days) in his early twenties. I think his name was Martinez, but am not absolutely certain. He was making regular payments on an engagement ring (one good recommendation), and he came dressed in labourer’s gear (another hopeful sign). It turned out that he was the foreman of a clean-up crew working night shift on a construction site. There was, he said, immediate work available in his crew for two males who were (as she affirmed) strong, willing, and able. Charlotte didn’t bother finding out any detailed information about the job except that it paid a $1 per hour; nor did we, when we called him later that day and said we were ready to start that night. Our problem was solved!
Or so we thought. Actually, we weren’t all that “strong,” if the truth be told. A favourite track team tale was that once when Denis attempted a bench press in the weight room under the track stadium, he had to lie immobilized for some time, unable to lift the bar from his chest until he got some help from his mates. I had no problems working out with the bar myself…provided it didn’t have any weights on the ends. And I guess we weren’t particularly “able.” True, we did last a week as labourers at one stage, when Topp Lambert, a local builder, gave a few of us on the track team a week’s work during our first Christmas break helping to build the control tower at the Abilene Airport. Denis and I had trouble moving the scaffolding, let alone bricks or anything else heavy, much to the amusement of our fellow team mates. But we were certainly “willing,” and as this summer job was paying only $1 per hour, we considered one out of three ain’t all that bad. Besides, the work, as best we knew, was only clean-up duties on a construction site.
The job was some twenty miles east of Abilene, and as we had no transport, Martinez agreed to pick us up in his car each night and get us back to Abilene. I guess we should have suspected something when we were hired sight unseen and given limo services to and from work.
The construction site was a circular hole in the ground, sixty feet in diameter and 200 feet deep. It was referred to as the ‘underground silo.’ The floor at the bottom of the shaft was covered with heavy mechanical and electrical equipment, and a square steel frame of seven inch girders, horizontal, vertical, and diagonal, stretched from the top to the bottom, surrounded by a walkway about a yard wide. We were working on a launching site for an intercontinental missile. Once our clean-up was complete, this huge deadly weapon would be lowered into the silo and attached to the steel girders. Atop the silo were two five foot thick concrete doors, hinged at the side, which, when closed, were flush with the ground. Here is a diagram of the kind of site we worked on.
There were a number of these rocket-launching sites under construction on the outskirts of Abilene. Dyess Air Force Base was located in Abilene, and it was thought that the missiles were to protect the base. But the silos were huge; too big, I thought, to house weapons to be used for intercepting incoming missiles or for attacking aircraft. My best guess was that these little babies were pointed at Cuba and addressed to Fidel Castro. In those Cold War days Fidel was enjoying his sabre rattling and bad-mouthing America, and his Russian friends were only too happy to back him up. The Cuban missile crisis, remember, happened the following year, in October 1962.
Of course, our speculation as to what might be the target was of no concern to Strategic Air Command. The job of our team of eight was to crawl along the steel girders, chipping and wire brushing rust flakes and concrete in preparation for a final coat of rust-resistant paint.
The shifts were ten hours, with a thirty minute break in the middle. Cleaning the horizontal and vertical girders paid $1 an hour. But cleaning the diagonals, we discovered, paid $1.50 an hour. The extra fifty cents was offered because work on the diagonals was without the benefit of a safety belt. Why this discrepancy existed was a puzzle. The crew of eight was issued with only four safety belts. So if you arrived at work after four of your colleagues got there, you had ten hours of work on seven inch beams without a safety belt. Why? The answer was simple. This was Texas. Not many unions in the Lone Star state in those days.
By good fortune, Martinez, a very amiable person, liked to arrive early, so Denis and I were always belted up by the time the rest of the crew came on site. The composition of the crew of eight deserves serious scrutiny, the need for which will be revealed as the tale unfolds. As well as one Mexican and two Australians, there were two black workers and a Dutchman. I have no recollection of the remaining two. I think the Dutchman was working his way around the world and could speak very little English. Of the two blacks (and I use this word as it was the polite way to refer to African Americans in the 60’s), Joe was the more swarthy of the two and a fun guy to be around. He was always laughing and joking, in his mid-thirties, married, and had ten kids. His soul mate was a paler version and lacked the charm of Joe. He spoke to no one except to Joe, and then only occasionally. It quickly became pretty clear to us that he was not an adherent to Dale Carnegie’s theories about how to win friends and influence people. And I doubt he’d read the book. He was surly and menacing. Never did know his name, but I referred to him (very quietly) as “Surly Face.”
What was particularly interesting is the international representation on this crew. I would have thought these bases were top secret. Well, maybe not “top,” but why would you allow a bunch of foreigners to wander around (or more aptly, crawl around) a missile site? There were no security checks anywhere. How did they know we weren’t snooping around the equipment at the bottom of the shaft or marking the location of the site on a map?
To say that the job was unsafe would be an outrageous understatement. Four safety belts for eight workers who, once they stepped off the walkway, were expected to work five straight hours on seven-inch girders, before and after the half hour break ─ all over a drop of up to 200 feet ─ does not exactly represent the epitome of safe work practices. We learned sometime later that five members of a similar clean-up crew were killed when one of the concrete doors became unhinged and fell into the silo, collecting the five workers along the way. There was also a report that two crew members fell to their deaths at another site. Not surprising. In the last few hours of a ten hour shift you are tired, and a tired worker is more likely to be careless. Those of us who had safety belts had to attach them to the girder and drag them along as we crawled. There were times when we became too weary to endure the constant drag of the belt, so we uncoupled ourselves for awhile and walked along the narrow girder. I find it difficult to believe, looking back at that time, that I would choose to do such a thing, with certain death below my feet, not once a night, but several times in a shift.
On the fifth or sixth night of work, Surly Face, our sole volunteer to clean the diagonals in order to pocket the extra fifty cents per hour,
arrived for work as usual. That night, while on a diagonal girder, he lost his balance and fell, but he managed somehow to twist his body and propel himself across the corner, latching onto the adjoining beam. He said nothing, but he was visibly shaken by the experience.
The following night he arrived for work as drunk as a skunk. The diagonals, remember, had to be cleaned without a safety harness. Normally, no one would dare to challenge him for this privilege ─ least of all me. But it was obvious to all of us that it was certain death for him to attempt the diagonals in his condition. As usual, I had taken possession of one of the four belts. So, in my one and only conversation with Surly Face (a strictly one-way conversation), I gave him my belt and said I would do the diagonals for one night. I still don’t know exactly why I did it. I didn’t like him one bit. I suspect that if we had been in a war zone and he’d been injured, I may have put my head down and kept running. Maybe it’s that I’ve always had an aversion to blood, anyone’s blood, not just my own. I’m a fainter, and it was plain to me that I was going to see him smashed to pieces on the equipment far below us if I didn’t intervene.
So I did the diagonals and survived, without the additional fifty cents per hour, I might add. Surly Face lay most of the night on a horizontal girder securely strapped with my safety harness. We parted that night at the end of the shift without a word being spoken by Surly Face to anyone about what had happened.
But the next night as we arrived for work, he came up to me and said, “Hey you.” (I guess that was his best attempt at a polite greeting.) “If ever you want someone killed, call me.” I wasn’t tempted to think he was joking. Surly Face never joked. This was a serious offer, a genuine “dial ‘M’ for murder” offer. At the break Joe came up to me with his usual good-natured smile and said, “He means it. He’s killed two people that I know of.”
For a fleeting second there, I did think of Bobby Mack, who beat me at Penn, and the coach, for not getting us a job, and the guys on the track team who strung a dead snake in the crotch of my track suit pants in the locker room. And much later, in the sordid world of commerce, I did sometimes wonder if his business card was somewhere among my US memorabilia. Never did know what happened to Surly Face. Suspect he wasn’t around long enough to make good on his promise. Joe, on the other hand, I know about. Before Denis and I finished our career as missile silo cleaners, Joe had left town in a big hurry, as Martinez told the story, to avoid a very angry husband. I guess Joe’s affable nature was enjoyed by others besides his work mates. I’ll say no more.
As the facts of the job Charlotte procured for us began to emerge, her joy rapidly diminished. For a start, we worked in opposite time zones. Charlotte spent her days at Hugh Bowie Jewellers while I was snoozing, and I was doing my circus act on the girders all night. Not exactly a perfect schedule for a budding romance. Still, it was money in the pocket, a mammoth $10 a night! Imagine that. Difficult, tiring, and dangerous, and the gross earning before tax was $10 per night. Herod’s slaves were probably on a better pay package when they were building the Temple in Jerusalem. He, at least, had to feed his workers. Denis and I always took our midnight snack as well as our own coffee. Never was a strong supporter of the union movement, but once you experience their complete absence, you’ve got to see that they are necessary.
It was all about to come to a startling finish. On the tenth night (No weekend off for good behaviour, by the way; this was a seven-night per week job.) the foreman Martinez and I were to perform the final pre-paint cleansing of a horizontal beam very near the top of the silo. To this point we had been wire brushing and chipping the rust and concrete off the girder, but the final application was steam cleaning with a high- pressure hose with the attached nozzle held two inches above the surface and aimed three inches ahead of your front foot. The nozzle was made of a heavy metal, probably brass, and was about one foot in length. It had to be heavy for the operator to effectively direct the strong jet of steam onto the girder. As the operation proceeded across the girder, the hose was carried across the shoulders of both the nozzle operator and the second member of the crew, two yards behind him. Both men were uncoupled. There was no safety harness, as both operators had to walk the beam unhindered. I don’t remember whether we drew lots for this assignment or if I was simply told what had to be done. I’m fairly certain I would not have volunteered. I was the nozzle man.
I started to edge my way across the twenty-yard expanse with the nozzle in my hands, looking a little like a novice tight rope walker. Martinez followed close behind, carefully supporting the hose on his shoulders so that its weight wouldn’t unbalance me. All went well until we reached the end of the beam, which butted into a vertical girder, forming a right angle at the joint. As I said earlier, “able” was one of the requirements for the job, but “able” I was not. Common sense should have been enough to make me realise that a high powered pressure hose expelling a jet of steam is going to give one heck of a kickback when pointed 2” from a 90 degree connection of two steel girders.
And kick it did!
At this point in my life I had already had two near-death experiences, both occasioned by jumping on and off moving trams. The first time, I was twelve and in the company of two future rugby league legends, Reg Gasnier and Peter Diamond.
In the days when trams were the major form of transport in Sydney, one of the truly great joys of our youth was hopping on and off them as they were coming to a halt or heading out of the tram stop. The tram tracks ran mostly down the centre of a major thoroughfare with cars passing on either side in opposite directions. The trams of the 1950’s vintage had two important components for tram jumping: first, a running board of some nine inches in width, along the entire length of the tram, and second, vertical hand rails on both sides near each door, as I remember, about eight per side. The technique of tram jumping was to run alongside, parallel with the track, until your speed matched that of the tram, then you grabbed your chosen handrail and launched yourself onto the running board.
Why tram jumping was never an Olympic sport baffles me. It required skill, agility, and daring to execute. And the greater the speed, the more demanding and rewarding it was. If you had asked me in those days, I would have said it’s sad that kids today do not have the benefits of jumping on and off trams as we did in the days of my youth. As a grandfather, I’m not so sure. The picture below gives a graphic example of our obsessive target.
I believe that, for my age group, I was an exceptional tram-jumper. But as with all physical endeavours, there was an element of risk attached.
The year was 1951, and the state schoolboy football team of which I was a member had just finished a training session, so we were heading home. At the major intersection of Oxford Street and Flinders Street, just opposite the Darlinghurst Courthouse, the trams slowed to make a right hand turn into Flinders Street. We loved to grab them at that point, just as they began to accelerate. I should explain that the selection of your handrail is all important when jumping a tram, so you have to be looking backwards as you run alongside. I was leading a ‘mass boarding’ of the teammates going my way and was approaching the ‘launch stage.’ What I failed to notice was a shallow hole dug by a maintenance crew, and I went down hard. A pile of excavated soil heaped beside the rails kept me from rolling under the wheels. But it was perilously close.
Undeterred, I remained an active participant in tramming. And at the age of fifteen or sixteen, I tested my skills alighting from a tram on Anzac Parade, Kensington, early one evening. Jumping off trams was less demanding than boarding. You only had to hold your balance when your feet hit the ground running ─ no handrail to grab or running board to aim for. To make it more challenging, you could jump from the tram while facing the rear of the tram, opposite to the direction it was headed. It wasn’t easy, and it couldn’t be performed at speed… not a feat for the fainthearted.
I executed the backwards dismount perfectly and held my balance as I ran backwards for a couple of yards. The only flaw was that I had jumped off the wrong side of the tram into oncoming traffic. I was whacked on the left arm by a car and spun around, crashing onto the road beside the car. I wasn’t seriously hurt, but the driver was badly shaken. I assured him that I was okay, and, not wishing to have to explain my action, I took off at a gallop and ran 200 yards up the hill toward home. At the top of the hill, in front of our apartment building, I passed out. Shock, I guess. (In view of this confession, it’s hard to believe, I know, that several years later, I won the Dean’s Award when graduating at ACC, a kind of celebration of maturity and intelligently applied common sense. Just as well Dean Beauchamp wasn’t there in Kensington that afternoon.)
I never did tell my parents. I didn’t think they would want to know that their one and only son had executed a perfect backwards tram dismount from the wrong side and was hit by a car. The one legacy I have from this adventure is a small lump on my left arm where the car struck me that day (as shown in the picture below).
Only recently my doctor put that nearly sixty year old lump under close scrutiny. He decided it was nothing to worry about but offered to remove it for aesthetic reasons. “Nah,” I said. “Helps me to remember not to jump on and off moving trams.” He couldn’t see the logic of my response, as trams had not been operating in Sydney for the last 50 years and are unlikely to be reintroduced during my life time. But I digress.
When the high pressure steam hit the joint, the kickback was a shocker! The nozzle flew up past my face with me still holding onto it as my body bent backward and my knees buckled. What followed was rapid, but to me it was like a slow-motion sequence in “The Six Million Dollar Man.” I released the nozzle, now above my head, as my feet left the girder. In a frozen frame I would have been parallel to the beam, facing upwards, with my head now pointed towards Martinez. I began my attempt to execute a 180° backward twist in midair. In all modesty, the routine could only be described as a “perfect 10” for artistry and degree of difficulty. I performed the twist and hit the girder square on. Somehow, I managed to get one leg and one arm on either side of the beam and entwined it in a loving embrace. I clung to that girder like a limpet mine, quivering like a jellyfish.
But the drama was not over. Martinez was in trouble. When I let go of the nozzle, it passed over my head and dropped into the pit, pulling the hose down with it. Martinez, with the hose still over his shoulder, was jerked forward, straight onto the girder, the only thing between us and the bottom of the pit. His was a well executed belly flop but lacked the artistry and difficulty of my performance. And there we were, both super-glued to the girder, with our noses almost touching.
It took us awhile to collect our thoughts and to figure out the best way to get back to the walkway. I’m sure Martinez was making a private vow about ever hiring any more Australian Gringos. He didn’t have to dwell on that for too long though. Once we had managed to scoot back to relative safety, I informed him that my promising career as a missile silo cleaner had come to an end and resigned. Denis did likewise.
So, let’s see… ten nights of dangerous work netted us ─ actually, grossed us $100 dollars each ─ plus a contract to execute anyone of my choice.
Back in Abilene our employment agent at Hugh Bowie Jewellers was too distraught to continue her job-seeking endeavours. I suppose a poor male companion is preferable to a dead one. The lack of work was further complicated by the fact that our free accommodation was about to end. Bill Woodhouse had kindly provided us beds (note the plural form please) in his rented apartment, but he was leaving Abilene, so our abode went with him. Denis decided that he would use his well earned wages to pay for a bus ticket to California. He was a fully accredited member of Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters Union, which controlled employment in the fruit canneries, so he was reasonably certain of several weeks’ work. I had no such certification, and I couldn’t risk my small bankroll on a trip to the other side of the country without it. Of course, had I been a person of devious disposition, I could have tried my luck back at Hubbard Paints and told them that I had been dishonourably discharged from the Marines. But, no. Wouldn’t do. Instead, I fell back on my old Aussie mates in Houston. They assured me that by various non-specified means, they could feed and bed me for the rest of the summer break.
I suppose I could have stayed in Abilene, proposed marriage to Charlotte, and lived off her generous summer salary of 75c an hour at Hugh Bowie’s, but I doubted that an unemployed, car-less, soon-to-be-declared bankrupt NCAA champion with a shiny medal was all that enticing. So, we parted on the very best of terms. Within two weeks of my arrival in Abilene, I was again on the highway, my thumb pointing this time in the direction of Houston.
Next: University of Houston’s ‘most wanted’ (and a disallowed world record).
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