37. My Inroads Into The Workforce As A Landlubber When Leaving The Merchant Navy.

With the insight of the freedom experienced in other parts of the world, my main aim and endeavours were to find some way for my family to have a free and unrestricted life as not experienced in South Africa. My first function establishing myself ashore was to obtain employment at Lansdowne Hotel in Claremont as a barman, which was obtained through my connections with Mr Nicks of the Athlone Hotel. Here too it was again dealing not only with the elite type of customers but also the rough, tough element of society from Lansdowne and Claremont. You had to have hair on your teeth and balls to go with it if wanting to keep a lid on your bar and the rowdy ones. When taking over that bar I established rules that had to be adhered to or get tossed out by the ear, actually. I didn’t tell them how to dress or what unsavoury language wasn’t allowed because I wouldn’t then have had many customers. However, three rules applied; to leave their weapons with me when entering, which I did a spot search occasionally, no smoking of dagga (marijuana) on the premises, which I knew there was a seller doing that, and all physical fighting was to be taken outside, which there were some beauties. Growing up in Athlone and associating at times with the ‘skollies’ there and in District Six, gave me an insight and understanding of them and them of me. What also did me in good stead was my youthful art of self-defense learned and at times my rough and tumble in bars overseas when in the Merchant Navy. Yes I tossed quite a few out on their ear at the bar for ruckus behaviour when it didn’t sit right with other customers.  In any case when they returned to ask forgiveness with a please Mister Harry it was always accepted until it happened the next time again. I also ran a slate (drinking on tick) whereby squaring the account up on pay day suited the bread delivery drivers who were regular daily costumers after doing their bread runs. Plus there was also a fafee (Chinese gambling numbers game) runner who took numbers from customer on a daily basis, and while waiting would run up a tab that he would square on Saturdays. Now because I worked the morning shift, lived in Woodstock, the China-man that ran the fafee lived in Gympie Street in Woodstock, and to save the runner of going all the way from Claremont to there, I use to take the numbers played plus the monies to the China-man, which earned me some bucks. Another something I did during quite times in the bar was to sketch and draw my customers with their permission.  And then draw funny cartoons around it depicting their type of life-style with captions, which they saw and were agreeable with, that I put up within my bar area. The owner liked that because it attracted more clientele through the customers bringing their friends in to view them and they also became customers. The ‘rookers’ (rough tough guys) of Claremont really took a liking to me because when having a ‘gang’ jol (party), I was asked to operate not only their bar but to also join in with them, and it also extended to braai’s and birthday parties. The thing that struck me was the respect shown to their women no matter what a hard time they were given by them, and then it would be a bokkie (sweetheart) this and a bokkie that.  The only ‘problem’ was that were females there that wanted to be my bokkie too, but because of wanting to keep my peepee (penis) in my pocket and because those guys didn’t like anyone messing around with their stukkies (women), I rather kept my hands in my pockets and played pocket billiards.

Then after one year in working in that position I was promoted to Off-sales Assistant. That position though eventually turned into a nightmare for me. Part of my after hour duties; off-sales closed then at 6pm with no weekend openings, so I had to check all incoming returns from deliveries off two vans and three delivery bikes plus all float-monies and cash received from customers. Now bear in mind those were the days in South Africa when Oom Tas and Virginia fortified wine was  bought by the 3 and 6 gallons, and so was Libertas sweet wine with an also ran Commando Brandy in 3 gallon jars by all smokkel (shebeen) houses. I was also in charge of the liquor order books on which I had a permanent list of all the Pangs and Sissies (Men and Women) of the smokkies that I would write up their liquor orders two weeks in advance in. Now the reason for that was because there was also a daily restriction so it had to be stretched out over time so that when the books were inspected by the Liquor Board there would be no discrepancies for Hotel Management to be fined or lose their liquor license. The smokkies were also business savvy because of bottling those down with an addition of water, which none of you smokkie customers would have known about when consuming it there instead of takeaway bottles that were bought sealed, or diluting the sweet wine with fortified wine per bought bottle.  Another of my duties was to see that the empty jars returned corresponded with the ones deliver or the customers would be charged for the ones not returned on their next delivery. And then there were also the delivery boys who were always looking to make a quick buck on the side because of been skelm (thief). Hell they were dealing with a professional who knew all the sleight of hand tricks that they tried to implement. Trying to replenish to customers their order of liquor that was supposed to have fallen off the truck or bicycle and broken while on delivery didn’t cut the mustard with me.  Especially if the returned jar or bottle’s seal wasn’t intact on the neck of it, which the liquor distributors would then replace gratis. This is what they use to do in cahoots with smokkies. They would occasionally crack open the jars of wine or brandy bottles at the smokkies in a bucket that would be fine sifted of all glass and then re-bottled for use. If successful in receiving another one gratis, they would split the value difference.  I did think it was clever what they did, well I thought it was, and at times would let them get away with it because they were overworked and under paid. Now I wasn’t a mister-goody-two-shoe either, because been in that position I was very aware that the firm was making a killing in their turnover by ripping off the public in subtle ways, so I did too. They never paid me any over time when having to wait late at night for the return of the deliveries, so I never paid for any booze after that because I would knock off from their stock to supplement my liquor stocks when knocking off at night. I mean to say I was the one to do their monthly stock taking and I sure knew how to cook the books in my favour as they did theirs.

Then one Friday night I really thought my goose was going to be cooked when I was held up at gun point in that back-yard. I had consolidated the receipts and monies that had balanced, packed it in the canvas bag provided, locked up the store and was going towards the back gate when a figure emerged from the shadows. Thinking at first that it was the manager of the hotel coming to check up if everything was all right, wasn’t, because it was an African brandishing what I thought to be a gun and demanding me to hand over the canvas bag. My nightmare had begun. In a situation like that I was no hero so I handed it over with my heart beating ten to the dozen. In that split second when he stepped out of the shadows to take the bag I recognized him to be one of our former employees who had been a cleaner there. Not wanting to show any recognition of him in case he would have taken it further, I waited for him to leave and then hastily made for the hotel where I reported the holdup to the manager. The police were called in and they searched and inspected the premises but were unsuccessful in their endeavours.  The next day I was again interviewed by a detective from Wynberg who strangely enough surname was also Lorenzo, which I found out later was a distant relative, that wanted the full description of the gunman and if I would recognize him if seen again. I had seen and known the cleaner for the year of  my working there as a barman and had at times chatted with him, so I had no doubt that it was him because of him also knowing the layout of the hotel and its workings, which I confirmed to Detective Lorenzo. Then out of the blue the next day he came back, while I was at work, with the owner, to advise me that they had arrested the cleaner and that I was to go with him to a line-up so as to identify him. To me this wasn’t part of my job description and it must have shown because the owner poured me a double shot of brandy to ease my nerves.  In those days you didn’t stand behind a one-way mirror to identify a miscreant but right there face to face.  When told to identify him by stepping forward and touching him on his shoulder I had no doubt that it was him. However, because of his slightly hung head and feeling sympathy for him I voiced that I was sorry.  Now here’s the thing that really perplexed me because I was again interviewed but by a different detective who wanted to know if I had given the right description of the gunman, with also the remark that the Africans all looked the same to him, because the cleaner had a water tight alibi that they couldn’t break. Well to me enough was enough and I sort better pastures to break away from there.

Because my thoughts had been along the lines of going back into the furniture trade I began making inquiries for the possibilities of it. However, because of wanting to ease myself into it due to my long absence away from those skills learned, I searched for employment in which I could do that. My employment as a tradesman was at S. Stone and Sons in Gunners Circle, Epping, where they manufactured show-wood and upholstered lounge suites, tables, chairs, beds and mattresses. Like on the merchant navy I took to it like a fish to water although having been that long out of the trade. It was almost like riding a bicycle where you never forget how, and it all came flooding back. Management noticed my quick grasp of the intricacies of the vast amount of various furniture modules that were assembled, and the different methods employed by me for a proficient expeditious output. Through proving my versatility in all facets of manufacturing I was soon promoted to charge hand, and it eventuated because I was adamant to make good my resolution to Joan to be trustworthy in all of my endeavours.

The upholstery section in a complete separate division and building of that vast factory was on a bonus system, but he wood machining and assembling sections, which were in a different section but in the same building, were not. The upholstery sections output was exceeding the assembling sections because of their bonus incentive, and down time by them was not fulfilling orders. I was not aware of that set of circumstances until approached by management who inquired where my dexterity and efficiency in my work methods had been acquired. My relating how saw me in the owner’s office where I had to again reiterate that my seven years in the merchant navy had been one of self-discipline, adjust-ability, competence, quick-wittiness and no procrastination. He then advised me that the assembling section was the bottleneck that was holding up ongoing production in the upholstery section, and that the employment of further workers in other sections would eventuate if the assemble section was introduced to an incentive bonus system. That to me at first was an unrelated solution. His further interpretation though was money music to my ears, and when he suggested that I take a crash course in its execution to familiarize myself with the concept that I readily accepted.

When having accomplished that, my permission was requested to stop watch time me on timber component parts assemble to its completion of a timber framed lounge suite after management first explained to the assemble section what its format was for. There were those who embraced it because they saw the benefits for its introduction, and there were others who it was unacceptable to because they were tardy in their work ethics. That led them to involve the shop steward who at their insistence tried to negotiate a wage increase instead for increased production. Knowing that if that occurred we who were the diligent workers would still be the only ones to produce at an increased capacity, and that the rest would be also reaping the benefits at their slack pace, I conferred with the upholstery section. I discovered that a more substantial wage could be earned through the bonus system than receiving a pittance increment, and that even with overtime reduced, which had become a necessity in our section to try an alleviate the bottleneck, the bonus system would compensate for that. With all that information gathered, I passed it on to those who indicated to the positive aspects. On the other hand, it all came to a head while the others and the shop steward were still pushing for an increment. I indicated one afternoon at knocking off time when we were as usual into overtime, that my time with my family was more precious to me than working overtime, packed up, clocked out and had more than half the workers do the same. Doing that two afternoons in a row saw the shop steward blow up, resign for having been undermined as he put it, management introduce a bonus system, the industrious reap the benefits, the slack arses leave, and I excelled by becoming the highest paid incentive bonus worker. It was a Godsend because I purchased a house in Vanguard Estate soon after.

S. Stone and Sons were shipshape though as when been on the Merchant Navy, and the assemble section was in full production and operating like a well-oiled machine with me in charge. I also received an award for the most outstanding worker for that year, and the only one in my section to be requested to work at overtime in the upholstery section when backlogged with orders before the Christmas holiday period. Also, I was selected to construct a dis-mountable complete new stand of lounge room size with interior and exterior fixtures for upcoming furniture shows in all main capital cities of South Africa. The firm was also progressing in leaps and bounds, and had bought over a kitchen cabinet manufacturing business. The amalgamation of the two saw staff and workers transferred where appropriate needs were required, and the owners having to divide their time to their new commitments and to travel overseas to procure diverse furniture designs. That resulted in the owners employing a Production Manager with qualifications direct from England. What they didn’t know and realize then was that his impeccable references didn’t state that he was adept at manipulation.

As soon as they left him in complete control while away, he had his home completely renovated with timber fixtures, fittings and furniture by conning those who were involved in it’s manufacturing that it was part of his employment deal. He next utilized his new found authority and to cover his tracks by installing one of his mates as manager of the woodworking and assemble section. The consideration of that was to dismiss the charge hand in that section and myself so that he could show the owners on their return that he had reduced costs, and not for us to be there for the obvious reasons. Of course reasons also first had to be obtained to dismiss both of us, and that’s when his contrived scheming came again into operation. The wood machining charge hand told the manager to stick the job when told he was to become a working charge hand, with me though they tried a different approach. The manager advised me that the Production Manager had come to the conclusion that my section was over staffed and I had to pick three workers that were to be dismissed. Nobody had ever been dismissed at that firm and I reminded him of that, and also advised him that my position as a charge hand didn’t carry that authority and that either he or the Production Manager should do the honours. I was dismissed for insubordination.

The following months saw me employed at Louw and Halverson in Cape Town’s docklands in the capacity as a shipwright, until being told by a follow worker that the owners of S. Stone and Sons had been inquiring to my whereabouts, and to pass on the message to get in touch with them. I couldn’t for the life of me see what benefit would be derived from that as my earnings were applicable when employed there, and I had already been selected by the foreman for intricate, difficult boat customers tasks, which were challenging and rewarding. On receiving a second invitation my curiosity was aroused. I was received with courtesy and friendliness by the owner who after having coffee ordered for both of us proceeded to inquire about my well-being and employment in the boat building industry. While relating all of the positive aspects he waited with decorum until I had finished. He must have known someone who was or had been employed at boat building because he described all what he assumed was the negative features.

He knew about the strenuous lifting, maneuvering and machining of solid jarrah timber used for the construction, and the laborious chip adze trimming of the boats framework ribs and any excess boat construction overlaps. The labour intensive work of planking the boats exterior while dangling over the side of it in a swaying bosuns chair as the boat bobbed on the water. Decking the complete boats deck while bent over continuously and to wood-plug all the screw holes in the beating down sun or rain in the same position. Constructing hatches while either dangling by a safety harness or balancing precariously on cross beams while struggling with a heavy-duty electric drill gun to bore twelve inch deep bolt bore holes through the hatch into the deck so as to secure them, and while trying to maintain ones footing at the same time so as to not plunge down in the bowels of the boat. All in that order; yet, to me that had been the easy part. I had done all of that, was past that stage of initiation that gauged my capabilities, and was then working on the finer features of the boats that required preciseness and quality that would satisfy the customers, and was due for a forthcoming increment that I retaliated with. His request that I consider coming back because the firm required someone with my capabilities and expertise made me ask the question of why then was I dismissed in the first place. He answered my question with the question of what the reasons were for the Production Manager to dismiss me. He saw my surprise and puzzlement, and when asking to summon him to the office so that I could tell him to his face, he smilingly said that it wouldn’t be possible for he had dismissed him and related the very reasons that I was aware of.

When telling me that I had been unfairly dismissed and that the firm needed a role model like me to encourage and motivate the rest of the workers as I had done before, the first thing that came to mind was that he was offering me my charge hand position back. I was sorely mistaken; for he went on to fill me in on an act just passed by the Afrikaner National Government whereby all authoritative positions had to be replaced by a White. If employed there again, an Afrikaner who had been one of my workers and a dumb one at that who had to be spoon feed was going to be my ‘baas.’ Telling the owner that it would be impossible to work under those conditions and why, and at a reduced wage, caused him to negotiate a compromise. Now because he wanted me to motivate the workers discretely by my example into a better work ethic and to aid the Afrikaner with my wood working knowledge in the same manner, I returned there after he offered me my former charge hand wage as an incentive for part of the deal.

Image

Lansdowne Hotel, Claremont, Cape Town, now.
Right – the White and non-white bars. Left – the White and non-white liquor off-sales.
The holdup occurred at the back of the hotel.

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