Sunday 1 June 2008

Life on a wheat bin

I partly paid my way through uni by working on wheat bins over the Christmas break.  That meant heading east as soon as I had finished my last exam, as harvest time inconveniently coincided with exam time and then holidays.  I usually started in late November, and if I was lucky, finished up a week or so after the new year.  Six to seven weeks of work on a wheat bin was enough to put enough money in my pocket to last me at least halfway through the year - I think I cleared $600 - 700 per fortnight, and that went a long way as a student.  

(Sorry, I can't edit HTML for crap these days, and can't figure out how to kill the underlining without rooting the whole page).

All of the places that I worked in were one-bin towns.  That is, the town consisted of the wheat bin and almost nothing else.  One of them was a metropolis by wheat bin standards - it had a pub/petrol station about 1km down the road.  

The accommodation and working conditions at the bins was pretty basic.  Air conditioning - ha!  Even though the mercury hit 40 on a regular basis, the only concession to the heat was to put an extra roof over the top of the weigh-bridge shack that I worked from.  We loved in dongas, slept on beds with chicken wire frames and thin mattresses... and don't get me started on the water.  However, compared to life as a grunt in the Reserves, it was luxury - sheer luxury.  TV was a distant memory - none of the dongas had a TV, which would have been useless as there was no reception.  VCR's would not have been much good as the nearest video hire store was about 100km away.

I didn't even get to read a lot of books - the light attracted billions of bugs, so I usually cooked dinner and hit the sack.  Most of my time out there was spent on my own - the bins that I worked on had a staff of 4-5.  There was me on the weigh-bridge, another person at the sampling shed and then 2-3 blokes down at the bin itself, where the unloading was done.  The samplers all tended to be local farm girls doing seasonal work, so they went home at night.  
The guys on the bin were permanent, although they roamed from bin to bin as the season required.  They tended to live somewhere in the district, so they went home at night as well.  At most, one might hang around and have a stubby with me after knock off time.  

I kept my sanity by catching goannas and feeding them flies (of which there was definitely no shortage).  

How would one survive today?  There was no phone - the nearest phone was a pay phone at the pub miles away.  I had to stock up on frozen and tinned food once a week when I went back to Perth for a short break.  No TV, no internet - no nothing.  

Not surprisingly, the fulltimers were either complete drunks or bible bashers.  I got invited out by both.  The bible bashers were a lot nicer, but at that age, I preferred to spend my time at the pub if I could.  One bloke that I worked with had such a strong need for a regular drink that he bought himself an ex-pursuit XD Falcon (I can't find a photo of one, so the XE will have to do) so that he could get to the pub at lunchtime in the shortest possible time.  

I used to hear his car fire up about 5 seconds after noon, and he would be gone in a cloud of dust, heading for the pub.  It was especially loud since he drove it into a drain the night I arrived, and ripped part of the exhaust off in the process.  He preferred to spend his money on beer instead of fixing the car.  Blokes like him put their cheques on the bar at the end of the week, which paid off the tab from the week before, and they then started drinking on credit from that point.  We drank using the tried and tested country system - we either had a tab, or we started the night by putting say a twenty on the bar.  As soon as your glass was empty, the barmaid would refill it, take your money and then return the change to your spot.  She kept on doing that until you ran out of money, or you put your glass down on its side, indicating that you'd had enough.

Putting it down upside down indicated you were looking for a fight.  That happened every now and then.  At that point, you'd swear you were on the set of Sunday Too Far Away.

Working on the bins cured me of smoking.  I got incredibly trashed at the pub one night, went outside to have a Winfield Blue, and passed out from head spins on the lawn out the back.  I woke up at dawn to find that my hair was full of axle grease - the drunks that I had been drinking with decided to teach me a lesson for piking.

If you've ever smelled ancient axle grease, and tried to get it out of your hair, you might understand why it scarred my psyche sufficiently to make me give up the fags for good.  Just like that.

Licencing laws were a bit lax out there as well.  We tended to get a bit rowdy some nights - one night, we started stealing the pub, one part at a time.  The publican got mad and called the police.  They arrived an hour or two later, which was some time after closing time, and they simply told us to return all the stuff that we had "stolen" (in reality, all we had done was move it into the car park), then the doors were closed and we carried on drinking - with the police sticking around to have a few beers as well.  A mate who was a cop out that way told me once that most of the bullet holes in traffic signs out in the country are the result of cops doing a bit of late night target practice with their weapons.  After drinking with those blokes a few times, I can well believe it.  

Practical jokes were always popular, and many of them included snakes of one sort or another.  A truck pulled up one day at my weigh bridge, the driver got out and he tossed a snake into my lap as I sat there doing paperwork.  I just about hit the roof as I jumped up, then I noticed that it was rather dead - he had run it over with his truck, and the head was hanging half off.  I picked it up by the tail and spun it around, and as I did so, the head popped off and all the guts flew out and hit the laughing truck driver and his mates in the face and chest.  Blood continued to fly out of the headless snake, decorating the inside of my shack with a dotted line that could have been labelled "cut here" to chop the weigh bridge into two sections.

Of course the district manager had to walk in the door at that moment, which I thought meant the end of my short career on the bins.  Thankfully, people who could add up and subtract were in short supply, so I got to keep my job.  The truck driver had no hard feelings, as I simply gave as good as I got.  That seemed to be the important thing.

No comments: