In life one always remembers your first … cane at school, girlfriend, kiss, sexual experience, car In life one always remembers your first … cane at school, girlfriend, kiss, sexual experience, car and for me it’s an excavator. Here is my story.
Not too long ago on one of “Ronnies Road Trips” through Victoria I came across and old machine that had seen much better days sitting in an old quarry.
Now we have all had those “life defining moments” … well this wasn’t one of them but it took me back to a time when it was.
I was being a “sticky beak” catching a sneak look at a working quarry and admiring all the new screening plants, crushers, plant and equipment when I came across an old HOPTO Excavator which lay idle and in a serious state of disrepair. Although this HOPTO was a 550 and not a 700 I was no longer interested in the new gear I made a beeline to the old girl sitting in the yard.
ON REFLECTION :
My thoughts immediately went back to those old Moomba to Sydney Pipeline days of 1974.
You see, back in ’74 I was struggling to get a good long term construction job. The Builders Labourers Federation (BLF Union) was running rampant and we spent good time on strike in the construction industry in NSW. Times were hard and with “many weeks on the sideline” money was tight.
I was working on the construction of the Wallerawang Power Station No2, freshly married but with little cash to make headway when I heard from a few mates out Cobar way that they were looking for blokes to work on the construction of the Moomba to Sydney Gas Pipeline and the remuneration was claimed to be excellent. Days were long at 12 hour shifts, 6 weeks on and 10 days off … get your own way there and back.
For a young bloke in desperate need of cash I could see no reason why I shouldn’t give it a go … after all I used to be a professional Roo Shooter out that way and I knew that country well.
At this time I was living in the Wallerawang Caravan Park, playing football with Lithgow Workmens Club and battling it out against the Lithgow Shamrocks and had good mates from both sides … one in particular was Bobby Jakeman who just happened to be my neighbour and workmate (even though he was the current First Grade Shamrocks Half Back).
He was in the same position as me financially so over a couple of beers we decided to have a crack at this Moomba job.
Being pretty cocky and bullet proof we had no hesitation in driving out to a construction camp out near Mt Hope located about 150 k south of Cobar. Saipem were the constructors of this section of Pipeline but to my dismay we were advised that there were definitely no vacancies but were told to try the Australian Pipeline Construction Camp located down on the Lachlan River at Booberoi some many kilometres to the east.
We didn’t come prepared to camp out for any long term, my old EH Holden sufficed as accommodation with a tarp wedged in the offside doors and pulled across the roof and out to form an awning held up with rope and broken mulga branches, and old esky with no ice, 2 sleeping bags, matches, a frying pan, cast iron pot, billy can, canvas water bottle, some army serving plates, no spare fuel and my old Roo shooting 303.25 rifle to shoot some fresh meat (just as an emergency).
After all … we were young and ready to work … should only take about 2 days and we would be set … famous last words if ever I heard some.
We eventually found the APC camp and walked into the camp office to announce we were here to answer “all of your prayers” however to our dismay we were given the “Bums Rush” and told to go to Sydney and submit your job application … no one was to be engaged from site.
We left the camp very disheartened, drove out along the dry dusty dirt track until I found a suitable camp site some miles away from the construction camp and off the road some 50 meters. We set up camp to suit a longer than expected stay. I had no fuel, enough food and water for 3 days, no intention of driving to Sydney but a willingness to give it a shot every time we saw a foreman’s ute drive back into that APC Camp.
The days passed so slowly, food ran out, water was gone, fuel was so low but we kept going back to the camp and enquiring about work only to be met with the same answer. I did however make contact with a few of my old Cobar mates, (Patty Jermyn and Onkers Brown) who put a good word in for me to the Yank bosses in charge. The Floods of ’74 were pretty severe and construction delays at that time were heavy causing some men to seek alternative employment so we were hoping our luck may get better.
I was fortunate enough to knock over a rabbit and a small kangaroo which I cooked up to fill some of the voids in our stomachs and along with my mates who would pinch food from the mess, supply us with water and fruit and slip it to us on the way to work early in the mornings, we were able to hang in for 7 days out on the track.
YANKS TO THE RESCUE
Early one morning a Toyota ute drove in to our camp and an ageing, old, lanky Texan hopped out and introduced himself as P J Hall … Ditch Boss.
Hall claimed he hadn’t seen fellas live in such poor conditions for years, said we had “lots of spunk” and offered us a job the very next morning due to a couple of blokes failing to return from their leave breaks..
Bobby Jakeman and I were in, signed up the next morning, fresh beds, showers, heaps of good tucker and most importantly we were on the payroll … you bloody beauty !!!
We were both engaged on the Ditch Crew which was responsible for the suitable and timely excavation of the 300 mile plus trench and worked alongside a team of Victorian operators running Cleveland Bucket Wheel ditching machines and the Warner and Swasey brand of “Hopto” 700A Excavators all of which were imported from the States specifically for this Project.
These HOPTO Excavators ran in at about 35 ton or so, running a screaming GM motor and more levers, both hand and foot controls, than a fleet of old Bucyrus Cable Draglines. Imported from the States particularly for the Moomba to Sydney Gas Pipeline they were state of the art at the time albeit KATO excavators were making a big inroad into the Australian market through Thiess Bros.Needless to say I fell in love with them and often wondered what they could be used for outside their current use of excavating of trench for Pipelines.
THE FIRST OF MANY
Never having operated any machinery before other than a rifle, rabbit traps and some fast cars I pushed hard to get into the HOPTO crew and eventually “suck holed” my way in as a “grade checker or swampy”.
The job itself was easy as my role was to ensure enough trench was pegged straight, trench dug to exacting depths, any high trench due to rock was clearly identified for the blasting crew to deal with, my operator (Bob Ridley … RIP mate) was “baby sat” in the best possible way by me cooking lunch and smokos for the crew, machine greased and fuelled up and cabin and glass cleaned (well … as long as it lasted anyway).
In return all I asked from Bob was that he taught me the basics of operating the old Hopto and explanation of the finer points of operation namely the “how and why” … after all I planned to become an operator and eventually get onto one of these babies myself.
Persistence and luck play a lot in your favour if you push hard enough for your goals … mine came when my old mate Steve Parsons, who was the main HOPTO operator for APC, was stung by bees and had to have a good long break to get over the effects of the stings. I had been refusing to get off any machine I could get my hands on in an effort t to gain competency and came under notice of the Ditch Boss, he decided a poor operator was better than none and gave me the opportunity of running Parson’s machine until he returned.
The rest is history, APC purchased a few more excavators as we headed up over the Blue Mountains near Goulburn, I became a permanent fixture on the HOPTO’s for the duration of the job, learned so much from a multitude of skilled and unskilled operators, was part of a crew responsible for digging the then longest pipe trench in Australia some 1300 kilometres from Moomba in SA to Sydney in NSW and I owe so much to a Lanky Yank named P J Hall whom held faith in a couple of cheeky young Aussies, a team of good mates that I still keep in touch with after more than 40 years and the replacement Ditch Boss who, at the time who gave me a big break, namely Tom Ford from Canberra.
55 Excavators later and a lifetime of memories … the old HOPTO was my first.
This industry has provided me with memories of so many great blokes, great machines, great jobs and great times and only strengthens my belief that we are still in the best industry one could imagine.
Us old blokes have long handed the reins over to the new generation of high-tech operators and engineers and can only admire the massive technological changes we have witnessed in our lifetime.
To the young blokes coming through … “I can only hope that one day you can look back on the industry with as many fond memories as I have, it is great to have you all on board”