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The Apprentice – 70s style

A long time ago, in a work environment far, far away….

The year was 1976. It was autumn, and I was in the second year of my apprenticeship with Post Office Telecommunications – or BT as it has now become.

The beginning of that September saw me transferred from Exchange Maintenance to the Overhead and Underground unit, or Poles and Holes as we called them. Apprentices were rotated through every specialist section of BT telecommunications, so that they are exposed to all aspects of the business.

So far, I had enjoyed working with Subsciber Installations, Planning, Exchange Construction and Exchange Mintenance. I really wasn’t looking forward to working at the industrial end of the business -especially not during the onset of winter!

On my first day of training with them, I strolled into the Telephone Engineering Centre in the sleepy West Sussex town of East Grinsead,

Opening my locker, I pulled my tool kit out, and whistling tunelessly, made my way into the restroom to grab some breakfast, and meet my mentors, before we set off into my next adventure.

I barged into the brightly lit rest room, which was noisy with laughter, and hazy with cigarette smoke. Damn – I just loved the smell of Old Holborn.

I poured myself a cup of tea from the enormous aluminium tea pot, gulping some down as I waited for my two slices of toast to pop. I had to quaff it reasonably quickly as it would have stripped the enamel from my teeth otherwise.

I used the opportunity to discretely assess my new team mates and trainers.  In the far corner, sat a small and wizened man, whose leathery skin contrasted starkly with his silver-grey hair, which had been buzz cut to within 2 millimetres of his scalp.

He was chatting loudly with a man of simply enormous proportions, whose bulk leaked like decomposing blancmange into every crevice of the chair he was sitting in. 

They were known to all as Laurel and Hardy.  The smaller of the two was Jim Smith, and Mr. Blancmange was Bert Handy. I had heard through the grapevine, and from other apprentices, that they were both real characters, but Bert was also “A bit of a Perv.” Whether or not this would prove to be true remained to be seen.

I glanced again at the pair, and was rewarded to see Bert insert one large and grimy finger into his nostril, and enthusiastically start what looked like major excavation work. He didn’t even stop talking to Jim, who seemed oblivious of the fact that Bert was so avidly picking his nose. 

So it was that I started this new and somewhat uninspiring part of my training.

The Old Bedford box lorry

My days consisted of driving out to some country lane, somewhere in the wilds of Sussex, looking for faults, or renewing spans of cable.

I had developed a simple routine to avoid the discomfort of wearing my armoured wellies all the time. I left my boots in the box section of the lorry, and simply sat on the bench, placing a foot into each wellie in turn.

The box section of the van contained all that a crew needed to perform its duties, from cables, joints, s calor gas burner, a bench with a vice and a whole spectrum of tools on racks on the inner walls.

The job was frequently a messy one, as the cables were filled with a vaseline type grease to prevent water penetrating the cable. When this was cut, or we were crimping joints together, this messy stuff would get everywhere.

The company had thoughtfully provided hand cleaner, and a couple of large pans for cleaning purposes. They were large and had a long wooden handle – for all the world like a Wok on steroids.

I had been soundly berated a few days after joining the section for preparing hot water for hand washing in the red handled pan. To be fair, I hadn’t been told otherwise.

It seems that the pan with red insulating tape wound round the handle was NOT used for hand washing, but for relieving oneself when working away from public lavatories. such as residential roads, and parts of town centres that had no public conveniences.

Everytime one of the lads needed to go, they would simply discretely climb into the back of the truck, use the red handled pan, and then empty this into the gutter, sluicing it away with water from the jerry cans on board.

So, cutting a long story short…

Once Laurel and Hardy got to know me, they used to fool around and joke.

On this particular morning, they were both very quiet, and I picked up an air of supressed anticipation.

I found out about this, when I sat dowm, popped my size nines into my wellies, stood up, and then face planted myself on the floor.

The rotten sods had screwed my wellies to the floor of the truck!

Oh, how I laughed.

Now, I am not a venegful person by any means, but my nose took a bit of damage in the incident, which caused much mirth and hilarity back at the yard. However, every dog has his day, and I planned my retaliatory mission with care.

The next day, we bumped and groaned our way into the back lanes around Hartfield, eventiually parking up not far from the place where A.A. Milne wrote the Winnie The Pooh stories.

Pooh Bridge near Hartfield in East Sussex. Yes, it really exists, and you can play Pooh Sticks there.

Without delay, we set about locating the fault, and preparing the new piece of cable.

Bert straightened up, and slowly made his way back to the van, whilst Jim and I carried on crimping connectors onto the cable.

I watched as Bert climbed the steps and disappeared into the van, closing the door behind him.

I mentally counted…

“One, two three…” I reckoned it would take about six seconds. “four, five, six, seven….. ARGGGHHHH – You bastards!”

He came rocketing out of the van with the pan in his hand, slopping liquid everywhere. He bent and emptied it into the gutter, and advanced up the road in a very threatening manner.

His overalls had a horizontal wet line running across his upper thighs – in fact he appeared to be soaked in a broad stripe about two inches wide.

It’s amazing what a 1/16th drill can do if applied to a red-handled pan in a circular fashion.

Jim just looked at me. “You nutty bugger!”

Bert was still fuming by lunchtime, but I think he forgave me later, when his overalls had dried out.

There is a further episode to this ongoing battle of wits (or should I say half-wits) but that willl have to wait for another time.

Go Well….