Jim Furlong: By the Sweat of Man’s Brow

It hasn’t taken long to reach the finish line in a working life; but what a ride it has been! A lucky man am I to be able to say I worked on the Newfoundland railway passenger service. A young man all spiffed up in black pants, white shirt and a starched white CNR jacket. It wasn’t appreciated at the time, but when talk starts of the lost railway I feel privileged. I worked on the trains and worked as well in an office job over on “the team tracks” in the freight yard. Old railway people will know where that is.

On the Fish Plant Floor

Also, fortunate but only in retrospect to have worked on the fish plant floor. I know what it’s like from six at night till six the next morning with a half hour to lunch in the cook house. Bologna and beans one night; fish stew the next in an endless rotation, that with the work, can make you old in a hurry if you aren’t careful. I worked on a big BAADER skinning machine that was so loud you could talk only to yourself. 

There was no relief. The fillets kept coming down the line… forever. There is a lesson there somewhere. I also worked on the “boning line.” With a knife and deft fingers, you cut bones out of the fillet and threw the fillet up into a metal tray. When the tray was filled you used the back side of your knife to tap on the conveyor to let the counting man know you had completed a tray. Come Mr. Tallyman; tally me bananas. 

I am glad I had the chance to do that and one summer a chance to work “at the liver.” That was helping render down the cod liver into oil. The man I worked with, Tom Joe, drank a ladle of oil every day.

Flinging Around Bottles

Factory work I know well. Bennett Brewery was a part of my education. Loading trucks; flinging around empty bottles; there was also “candling.” That is looking at bottles of beer passing before a light to make sure there is nothing foreign in them. You could only do that a half hour at a time or you go mad. Everything around smelled of beer, but that’s okay, I was from the neighbourhood. The smell of the west end of St. John’s on wet summer days was part lilac, part beer from two breweries and part fresh bread from Mammy’s Bakery. 

The other west end neighbourhood big time employer was the Horwood Lumber Company and I spent three summers there. Working in a lumber yard is nice clean work. New wood smells great. It stacks nicely in pounds and it doesn’t complain. Sometimes now when I go out to Kent or Hickey’s up the shore, I get a hint of a scent that is very much from the past. By the way, when you work at lumber your hands get all calloused. You don’t need gloves. 

This was all a long time ago.

NTV’s Jim Furlong can be reached by emailing: [email protected]

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