Onions, he knew his onions.
Strange phrase, I know it’s meaning who else does?
Grumpy, cantankerous, obdurate, offending were all ways he could be described. Was it the sweat stained canvass floppy sunhat he insisted wearing inside and out covering a balding carcinoma covered scalp, or the knowledge within which was most attractive to me.
I couldn’t tell.
He had as his office a dust laden and paper strewn cubby hole office on the mezzanine floor of the plaster mill, Concord Plaster Mills. Built during the World War, the second one in 1942, its construction echoed its times. Concrete and brick, but mostly concrete of an era when lightening a structure to save effort or materials was unheard of. Or maybe a direct hit with several tonnes of TNT. Solid, like the men who cajoled tons of plaster from its bowels. When it was built metrification was not even contemplated. Mechanical gates and chutes operated by sinewy human muscle power, mostly migrant’s muscle who manned the plant post war.
He lived not far from the plant somewhere in Ryde on land which had not been squeezed by the urban sprawl and on it he grew onions of which he was proud. A strange thing to be proud of I thought but his foremanship at the plaster Mills didn’t define him. It was his onions.
Thinking back now over the forty odd years since past, it’s the onions I recall. Lessons learnt from him about technical aspects of plaster making, brattice plaster, hardwall plaster, mine plaster, pottery plaster and curse of curse plaster for plasterboard manufacture are all forgotten. What of the man do I recall?
Pulling off his boots after a day’s toil in the change room alongside the HR office, he could always be seen there right on knock off time. Though his going home clothes were barely distinguishable from his work clothes his demeanour on exit said one thing, I’m off now to do what’s important. It’s that which remains.
He started earlier than all of us office types. There at the crack of dawn for the change off of night shift he stayed abreast of everything that happened in his Mill. No amount of electrical then electronic monitoring said more about what was happening in Cec’s domain than what he intuitively knew. Being in harmony with the rhythms of production came from continually prowling the plant, listening to the creak of straining equipment understanding the stresses the plant could take. Most of what I learnt from Cec was by observation, his way of being, and his experiences. These were hard won, requiring a closeness of men, awkward for insular Cec and near impossible for a young Chinese lad to develop with a grumpy Anglo man.
But we worked at it, and slowly after various trials and many mistakes a grudging acceptance developed, both ways. Long hours in the Plaster Mill, I learnt the lessons that only experience can teach. It was as though the apprenticeship I’d served under Arthur Collins at Brunswick Plaster Mills at Tinning St Brunswick Victoria continued. Brunswick though had been brown coal briquette fired whereas Concord was oil fired. It was hot and dusty work, very dusty but the days were career young and enthusiasm undampened.
Slowly the years passed and oil gave way to gas, the plant reshaped for the volumes of plaster now required for plasterboard. The proportion of niche plasters requiring art and craftsmanship slid down the production schedule. The need to know more about styling the product diminished till the plaster mill was merely an adjunct to a plasterboard plant.
And with this decline knowing how to craft plasters for customer’s specific needs gave way to producing tonnage, now metrification had arrived, for the plasterboard plant. The care factor diminished, the onions shrivelled and one morning in the change room as he pulled on his boots for a day’s unsatisfying work he died. Vale Cec.
Onions, he knew his onions.