Sticks in the Mud

It had been hours since our last drop of water. The sun beat down with the kind of unobstructed severity you only find in places like Australia, where the ozone layer is as thin as the day is long. The air tasted of rusted dirt, kicked up from the soil compactor we were driving. Occasionally, a thick waft of bitumen would blow over from the freshly-laid road next to us. We’d be on roller duty after lunch. “Ugh…”

Your editor didn’t always enjoy the life of an internationally sought-after raconteur, dashingly-handsome bon vivant and unapologetic, sometime epicurean. Surprising, yes. But nonetheless true.

When he wasn’t enduring a thorough miseducation at the hands of his local state university, your editor, as a younger man, earned a sunburn and some extra dough doing manual labor for a local “workforce service company.” Basically, the outfit provided able bodies for “project-based workforce solutions.” We were, in other words, the hired help, rented out to do the bare-knuckled grunt work on projects both private and public. We lifted sheet metal one week…drove steam rollers and soil compactors the following week…piled scaffolding high into the infinite southern sky the next. Once we spent a whole month trudging around the endless expanse of a newly-felled melaleuca forest, digging up, picking up – and later piling up and burning up – sticks, logs and other debris. Decaying wood leaves air pockets under roads, you see, which can later lead to potholes.

“Can’t have that,” the boss would say, before driving away in his air-conditioned 4WD, kicking up still more dust.

That particularly exhausting experience actually inspired a saying our father still uses when we occasionally, absentmindedly complain about a relatively simple obligation.

“Hey, it beats picking up sticks, doesn’t it?”

In addition to this recurring nugget of wisdom, life as a manual laborer furnished us with all manner of extracurricular insights. Not least of these was an up close look at the vastly different realms of public vs. private work.

Depending on rank, physical attributes and one’s penchant for unabashed obsequiousness, work was divided amongst the crews every morning, with the cushiest jobs going first to the brownest of noses, and the “blister work” to the remaining, layabout brigade of half-stoned slackers, part-time students and impudent ne’er-do-wells. As a full-time student, therefore unable to show face each and every A.M., your editor was ranked somewhere below this last group.

Happily, we went about our workaday, studyanight activity with pleasure. One of our first jobs was with a small, private marquee company. The foreman (Johnno? Robbo? Or was it Bazza…or Gazza?) took one look at our lanky frame and promptly decided it would best be deployed in the position of “lifter.” Hour after hour we spent hoisting metal framework into place, then struggling under its weight and the belting sun as the more agile members of our crew fumbled around with brackets and screws, generally taking their own sweet time to fix the bars to their appropriate positions. Within a couple of days our lily-white hands had been transforming into densely calloused mitts. By the end of our stint, we could have caught a set of keys tossed from the fifth floor, no sweat.

The work was lousy…but the pay was ever-so-slightly better than our friends made working retail. Besides, we were outside, exercising while they were cooped up in the mall, enduring that vague, fake light that always makes it feel like 4:55pm. And at the end of the week, when the boss handed us our direct-deposit receipt, showing that our wage had been deposited in the bank, those extra few cents-per-hour added up nicely.

The long weeks passed with a series of equally-physical labor…over which a series of equally-churlish bosses presided…

“These sheets of metal on this side of the field. I need them on the other side of the field”…

“Those pallets of tiles on the bottom floor of the worksite…they need to be on the top floor”…

“See that swimming pool-sized hole there?”


“That’s because you haven’t dug it out yet”…

The work was tough, but honest. The companies were mostly small outfits, often with only a handful of permanent staff. They hired laborers when the jobs came in…and didn’t when they dried up. Many were family businesses.

A short time later, we found our self in the somewhat unusual position of being first in for morning roll call. Maybe the waves were good that day. Maybe there was a prize-fight the night before and the lads had been out drinking. Or maybe everybody else just forgot to set their alarm clocks. Either way, we were there early. And alone…except for a couple of newbies. After a good deal of watch-checking, foot-tapping and length-of-the-office pacing, and with ill-concealed reluctance, the workforce service boss assigned us a job with the Roads and Traffic Authority, RTA. Public work. Council work. Government work.

We drove our ‘81 Toyota Corolla out to the RTA depot, half expecting a cranky boss to be waiting at the gate, ready to write us up for tardiness. But when we pulled into the driveway, there was not a soul to be found. We waited five…ten…fifteen minutes. Nothing. Nobody. Finally we decided to check around the back of the sheds. Maybe the trucks had already left? Maybe the workers were already dumping bitumen into potholes, perforating the road because insolent underling hadn’t properly cleared away all the wood before rolling out the fresh tar.

Nope. The trucks were all still there. Sleeping giants. Great, hulking machines sitting idle, the dry Queensland breeze filling their traybacks with dust and leaves.

Sometime later we heard voices coming from around the front. They were laughing and obviously in no hurry. Over the next half hour or so, the crew sauntered in…lunch boxes under arms…wide-brimmed hats on heads…shiny new work boots on feet.

After the general yahooing and tomfoolery settled down, a stout, older man moved lazily toward the front of the room. (Johnno? Robbo? Or was it Bazza…or Gazza?) Smoking a cigarette, the boss read slowly down the list of names, grouping workers together, seemingly at random, as he did so.

Half an hour later, we were in the truck, with four other fellows, on our way to repair some guardrails along a deserted stretch on the back highway. About half way there, the man in the passenger seat pointed to the clouds gathering overhead. The others nodded and smiled. We pulled in at a little bakery for some chocolate milk and pastries, clearly in no hurry to get to the site.

“Morning boys,” said the lady behind the counter with a familiar smile. “How ‘bout that weather, eh?”

“Looks ominous,” said the driver, wearing a wry grin.

We camped out there for another quarter of an hour, maybe more, until the rain started falling in full, heavy drops.

“Well, that’s double time,” declared the driver. “We get penalty rates when it rains,” he explained to the only new member at the table. “Time and a half if we’re on the way to a job and have to turn ‘round…double time if we get stuck in the rain while we’re workin’.”

A few weeks later we were transferred back to the compactors, working on a private estate development for some company or another. It had been hours since our last drop of water…and the sun was glaring down from above. The work was tough. Steam rose off the bitumen as the piping hot drum smoothed it into place.

By this time, we’d finished our useless degree and had grand plans to travel abroad. The road ahead looked uncertain. But certainly, it would be honest.

Enjoy your weekend,

Joel Bowman,
for The Daily Reckoning