The algebra road, part 1

Andrea Gunn
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A definite setback earlier in my life had to do with the results of the June 1963 public exams - I flunked algebra! Without the brass ring matriculation, university was out. By September, my three mates (Bill, Dennis and Paul) were at St. FX in Antigonish, NS, and I was home alone.

I took a second slug at algebra, the fall supplementary exam. Its memory is blotted out probably by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. The tragedy was followed up by a Christmas post office job, delivering parcels. Never forgotten are those fancy Virginia hams (from a USA supply company) delivered to the homes of numerous AND Company big shots.

In early January 1964, the Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOCC) came to town recruiting workers for its Labrador City operations. I and others wrote a test at the Unemployment Office, then above the High Street Post Office. We passed, and were hired on the spot. Within days we were on the train to IOCC's office in St. John's.

I was just 18, and my first time in St. John's. Memories of the trip include: squatty rooms at the LeMarchant Lodge; walking along LeMarchant Road with snow so high on the sidewalk (forever thus) we ducked our heads not to hit the tree branches; and a smelly greasy spoon restaurant near the Grace Hospital.

At the Grace, we had a medical, including a blood test called Wassermann. Decades later, I learned we were tested for syphilis. Yeehs! As young males, just out of high school, we could have saved them money on that test as sex only existed in our dreams.

With medicals and IOCC briefings over, we boarded an EPA flight to Labrador. The Goose Bay stopover gave us a taste of the up-north cold. At Wabush airport, our welcome to iron ore mining was immediate as the school bus picking us up had a reddish tinge on all its seats. Absolutely no concern for our good clothes!

The company bunkhouses were full so we were lodged in a bare-bones two-storey house with the toilets, sinks and showers in the basement; all other rooms were used for sleeping. I shared the living room. Its most joyous memory was the news from home - I passed algebra. Perhaps the only time I ever danced a jig!

Our first days had to do with company safety and jargon such as: a mishaviour was an infraction which serious enough could cause termination - being fired! Finally, we were issued work clothes and boots (pay deducted), and assigned either to the mill where ore was crushed or the pellet plant where ore was baked into marble size pellets. Many of us were assigned to the pellet plant.

Each morning we rose 6 a.m., washed and dressed. And out into strikingly cold sub-zero temperature darkness, we walked for 10 minutes to the company rink-size cafeteria, for breakfast (all

meals). How cold was it? The crunch coming from our boots on the snow sounded as if Bugs Bunny was eating a carrot in our ears!

At the cafeteria, we also picked up our lunch can, the meal form we filled out the day prior. Lunch can meal forms never changed, and months later, I couldn't stand the sight of pork or canned peaches.

From the cafeteria, we headed up behind the nearby bunkhouses to catch a bus to work. We stood around in the perishing cold waiting for the right bus. An awful freezing wait! Who cared?

At the pellet plant locker room (the dry) we don work clothes, mandatory hard hat, safety boots and safety glasses. Labourers wore green hard hats, which were quite appropriate as most of us out of high school were greenhorns. Being the lowest caste workers our lunchroom was in the deep bowels of the plant.

The labour crew was from all over the island and Labrador, and camaradrie amongst us jelled quickly. Our work tool was mainly the shovel and we worked all over the plant and outdoors. Our foreman was a very unpleasant, terrible little man. A crude four-letter word sprayed above the lunchroom entrance described him too perfectly. He seemed to be proud of it, unfortunately for us.

At our first day at the pellet plant, the big boss had words with us including an inference to sexual stuff to do in Sept-Iles, Que. Again, being a teen, what was that about? That first day I wore a red sweater, a total laugh as I immediately discovered the plant was notorious for its dirt, dust, cold, heat, wetness, smell and noise. All or some, experienced every single shift.

For the first seven weeks we had no day off, thus, all the overtime made the $2-something-an-hour much more attractive. However, all the darkness was somewhat depressing as the only time we saw daylight was through the slats on windows of the plant. The pellet plant in those early days was too much to handle for many workers - the turnover rate was extremely high.

The high quitting rate had its benefits as we were quickly moved from the bare bones house to one of the three bare bones bunkhouses. The rooms were quite small, barely space to get out of bed without touching the other fella in the next bed. Most memorable was the blue-coloured bedding - easier to hide the dirt of work.

I had never worked in heavy industry so it was a totally new experience. Who knew carpenters would work at the pellet plant?

Who knew one-person elevators - manlifts, existed? Who knew IOCC hired a private security company, the BIB (Barnes Investigation Bureau) to deal with such things as men (too long away from home) who got obnoxiously drunk in the uninviting bunkhouses?

And for the first time I experienced, direct deposit. Pay night meant hundreds of men lined up, a good hour for sure, waiting for their turn to get in the bank. Another awful wait in the freezing cold! Who cared? Surely not IOCC or the union!

Even if we wanted to drink, the legal age was 21, which meant the bar was out. So, we spent our free time at a restaurant(s), movie theatre and bowling alley. Never forgotten was seeing the movie - Days of Wine and Roses. And at the bowling alley we heard, over and over, the jukebox belt out the hit songs of two new British bands - The Beatles and The Dave Clark Five.

...to be continued (Life in Labrador City, 50 years ago as remembered by a then teenager, just out of high school).

Organizations: Iron Ore Company of Canada, AND Company, Unemployment Office High Street Post Office Grace Hospital EPA Barnes Investigation Bureau The Beatles

Geographic location: Labrador, St. John's, Antigonish Virginia USA LeMarchant Road Goose Bay Wabush Sept-Iles, Que

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