Friday, 14 March 2014

A CANBERRA BOY ON AN AUCKLAND BUILDING SITE


A CANBERRA BOY ON AN AUCKLAND BUILDING SITE


by Dave Wheeler
     
   I’ve known several blokes who have been called “Gibbo.” One  who I grew up with in Canberra and also played rugby with for many years was named Brian Gibson. Unfortunately he died in or around 1982 in a car accident, which was tragic. He was a very nice bloke and I am not saying that because he's no longer with us. I know nobody who disliked him.
   Another Gibbo I knew was a large and powerful Maori bloke who I worked with when I lived in New Zealand. He had the surname of Gibbons. I can't recall his first name as nobody used it. Australians and New Zealanders have a tendency to abbreviate given and surnames and sometimes put vowels on the end because it seems to make them easier to say. I suppose it comes down to laziness.
    The Gibbo I knew in New Zealand was also a very nice bloke. I will refer to him as Maori Gibbo for the rest of this yarn as opposed to the Canberra Gibbo. Maori Gibbo and I worked on a building site near Karangahape Road in New Zealand in early 1972, which was when I first lived in New Zealand. I was in my 20th year at the time, aged 19.
   Sometimes stray thoughts of Maori Gibbo come to me, and when we remember people we knew many years ago we tend to imagine them looking like they did at the time. I still picture him as aged around 40, which to me is now relatively young. It dawned on me however that if he still has a pulse he would be in his 82nd year, which means there's a good chance I missed his tangi.
   I regret not having kept contact with Maori Gibbo after I stopped working with him as we got on really well and I never thanked him for what he did. I am indebted to him because he kept me amused during the 8 hour day, which made an otherwise extremely boring job far less boring than it would have otherwise been. He at times made it very enjoyable.
   In elaborating; I never enjoyed most of the labouring tasks I was given on building sites. I did get some relief on the Auckland site when the cement trucks arrived and we had to carry concrete in wheelbarrows up planks, as the physical effort got my endorphins pumping. Relief however also came when Maori Gibbo entertained me. He had a very sophisticated sense of shit-stirring deadpan humour and was a great raconteur. I would go out of my way to encourage his misbehaviour and we both pushed the boundaries because of our shared need for stimulation.
   
    Come lunchtimes Maori Gibbo would come out with yarns, and many of them were about his mad Aussie mate. I believe every word he said. I was always able to pick a bullshit artist a mile away, and his stories flowed and were consistently believable. He also did not alter them in the slightest when they were retold. I often think of the old Queanbeyan adage, “One can become a better dart player the more one practises dart-throwing, but one’s skill in telling lies decreases in proportion to the number of lies one tells.”
   In regard to the subject of mad Aussies, there were a lot in New Zealand at the time, and I met several. At that time Aussies and Kiwis could fly to each other’s countries without a passport, which resulted in there being a constant exchange of criminals. Australians who had the police on their backs would go to New Zealand to lose the Aussie cops and New Zealand crim’s would fly to Australia to get New Zealand coppers off their backs. Maori Gibbo’s Aussie mate fell right into the "Aussie criminal on the run" category.
    I can recall one lunch time when Maori Gibbo had me in tears of laughter after describing to us how he went to the beach with his mad Aussie mate who swam right out into the sea. Maori Gibbo saw from the shore his Aussie mate’s hand go up, giving a signal that he was in trouble and needing help. Maori Gibbo immediately told a lifeguard, who swam out the great distance and dragged the Aussie all the way into the shore. 
  The Aussie ratbag remained passive during the whole procedure, but when he got to shore he said to the exhausted lifeguard, “Thanks for that mate. I could have swum back by myself but I was a bit tired, so I thought I’d get you to take me in.” The lifeguard went off his brain.  It was a terrible thing to do but I've always laughed at off humour.
   Our lunch times were sometimes interrupted by an old Pakeha (Caucasian) pensioner named Brian, a WW1 veteran. I should have had more conversations with the WW1 veterans I knew during my youth as they no longer exist. I was told that Brian had had a very eventful life, although I never asked him about it, but having experienced the hell of WW1 there was no way anyone could say his life had been uneventful. He told me he had fought at Gallipoli and I presume his “all expenses paid overseas holiday” also covered the battlefields of France.
   Brian was hired for only a couple of hours a day to clean the sheds and make the tea. He must have had a good brain and had used it a lot during his working life because retirement obviously bored him shitless and he craved stimulation that was more intense than cleaning out the sheds and making the tea. For this reason he would sometimes pick arguments. I’m not sure if his wife was alive at the time but if she was I would not have envied her.
   One lunch time Brian stood outside the shed which was used by Maori Gibbo, a couple of other carpenters and several of us labourers. He pounded on the door with his fists for no reason other than to get a reaction and to deliver us a menacing stare. In a light-hearted manner one of the carpenters said to him, “Piss off you old cunt.” He replied with a scream; “You’ll be an old cunt yourself one day!” 
    After rituals of that sort were complete he had our attention and would engage us in some sort of conversation about work or life in general. He was a lesson to me to the extent that I became aware of how important it is to keep the cogs turning, and it is part of the reason I like to write.
   Maori Gibbo, being a carpenter, was once asked to do some sort of work on the corner of a temporary fence surrounding our job and I was sent with a Samoan labourer to assist him. As we were on the outside of the fence and away from the eyes of bosses I began mucking around doing stupid things with my Samoan workmate without taking enough notice of the flow of traffic that was coming very close to us from around the corner. All of a sudden Maori Gibbo grabbed my stupid 19 year old body from behind and pulled it violently off the road. I am glad he was such a powerful bloke as well as a judoka, because his combination of power and technique ensured I moved rapidly enough to miss a car I had not seen coming. If it had not been for Maori Gibbo’s quick reactions I may not be writing this yarn.
     Sometimes Maori Gibbo would make models out of clay of people doing things of an obscene nature and leave them at really obvious places around the site. He would also shape with clay very large penises and leave them in the same sorts of places. It may sound childish, but because he was very good at it and because he left his work in places where “important” visitors to the site were confronted by them we had many belly laughs.
   Some of the visitors took offence and it angered our bosses, but of course Maori Gibbo with his deadpan expression said he knew nothing about his artwork. I think they suspected that I was the culprit because I was less skilful at hiding the fact that I was shit-stirrer.
   Maori Gibbo would also throw mud at people walking past when they were not looking in his direction. He would then return to his work with a deadpan expression on his face and point in the direction of other people so he could blame them for what had happened. 
    One day he threw some mud at a bloke a few years older than me, a very large full-blooded Pakeha named Graham, who was working for a contractor. When Graham turned around Maori Gibbo pointed to me. The said Pakeha had a dirty look on his face but said nothing. He knew it was Maori Gibbo who threw the mud but he would not have dared say anything to him even though he saw no humour in the situation.
   I had spoken to Graham on a few occasions before this and had seen him interact with others. I could tell he was a classic bully and coward who would only pick on people he thought he could beat up. He thought he knew his place in the pecking order and tried to exercise his position when interacting with a smaller Pakeha labourer named Gerard who had begun work with us. He took an immediate dislike to Gerard and began putting shit on him regularly for no reason. I witnessed it happen a couple of times and I did not interfere because Gerard gave it back and Graham could not match his wit.  
   I could see by the way Graham walked and moved that he could not fight, and having sparred briefly with Gerrard, who had done a fair bit of amateur boxing as well as some judo, I was 99% sure that if things ever became physical between Graham and Gerrard, Graham would come second despite being significantly larger than Gerrard.
   Yet despite having a quicker mind than Graham, Gerrard, who was a nice bloke, expressed his frustration to me about the way Graham had been having a go at him and he told me he wanted to bash him but was hesitant to do so because he did not want to throw the first punch and be found guilty of assault. He had also applied to be a copper and having no criminal record was essential. 
  After Gerrard had told me about his frustration I unfortunately put my voice into gear without checking with the brain and suggested to Gerrard that the best way to set Graham up for a bashing and to not get into trouble would be for him (Gerrard) to pretend he was scared of Graham so he could slowly build up Graham’s confidence to the point where Graham would either begin swinging at him or challenge him in front of others. 
   When that occurred, I told Gerard, he could either bash him on the spot in self defence or accept the challenge and meet him somewhere where they were by themselves, and bash him there. It was a tactic I had used on several occasions which I'd found to be a lot of fun, although it would not be a tactic I would use today as there are alternatives.
    Why I should have thought before offering such advice was because had I have just shut up eventually Gerard would have put Graham in his place without having to use physical violence. Why this would have occurred is because  under certain circumstances when their is friction between two young male humans who are without an audience they usually establish by way of the confidence they show or do not show who is the top dog without it coming to blows. Male dogs behave in a similar way, hence the expression. 
     Of course it is all unnecessary because all people have to do is be civil and empathetic towards each other in the first place, and if there is a problem they should be able to talk things out. But that is not in the nature of many people and some people like Graham get a sadistic thrill by humiliating or physically damaging others. And sometimes they force us to play their games.
    
    But, instead of staying out of it and letting nature take its course, I had encouraged Gerard by telling him how he could go about getting away with giving Graham an unnecessary hiding. It took a while for me to learn to think before opening my mouth, and I made a concerted effort to do so after I left that building site.
   Sure enough the setup began to look like it was going to  work. Gerard pretended he feared Graham and the more he pretended to fear him the more abusive towards Gerard stupid Graham became. Gerard should have been given an academy award for his acting ability. 
   Where the plan went wrong was that eventually Gerard tired of acting, and as he had warrior genes he could only hold back for a certain amount of time. He had hoped that Graham would have thrown a punch at him or challenged him sooner, but it did not happen. Graham just continued to insult Gerard and Gerard's anger continued to increase.
   Obviously it was going to come to a head, but when it did I was not present, although I did see the aftermath of the event and what occurred was relayed to me in detail by several observers.  At the time it occurred I was trying to start my Indian Scout motorbike, as it was after knockoff time and it had been giving me problems due to it having an intermittent sticking carburettor float and an intermittent electrical fault.
   The incident occurred in the lunch sheds when Graham and Gerard were getting their gear before going home.  While one was coming in and the other going out Graham called Gerard a nasty name, and Gerard, who could contain himself no longer, walked up to Graham and delivered to him a very hard slap across the face. Apparently Graham, who could see Gerrard's confidence and feel the weight of his slap, just stood there like a stunned mullet and did not say a word.
   I saw Graham walking off the site after the event. Half his face was red and inflamed but the whole of his face carried a sheepish and disturbed look.  
   It all turned out okay. Neither Graham nor Gerard suffered any permanent physical damage as a result of my advice, the bosses did not know about what happened and Graham was put in his place. We never heard a peep out of Graham after that, although I doubt the incident was enough to turn him into a good bloke. He probably only tried to bully very old men, very young boys, quadriplegics and people with very advanced cancer after that, just to ensure the odds were heavily in his favour should a physical conflict arise.    
    There is no shortage of Grahams in this world. It’s such a pity they are not sterilised once they become old enough to reproduce.
   Not long after the slap the owner of the company had a heart attack on the job and died before our eyes. I described the incident in “Tales of a Canberra Boy.”
  The 1972 photo above shows me with my mate Blackie Blackburn from Wellsford who is on the back of my Indian Scout, which was the motorbike I was trying to start at the time Graham received a very hard slap across his face.
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