…What could one do for the kettle and the kettler were at ground level. The cook could only move that pitch as fast as the kettle could heat it up and melt the black tar into a gooey black sludge or black liquid paste and pump it up to the roof. Zal would pour it from a spigot into a bucket from where it would be moved by members of the crew to the next section of the flat roof. This was tough, hot and hard physical work. You had to wear gloves, boots and thick textured long pants, always, to prevent indirect scalding. When it was hot and humid outside, as it was everyday during the summer of 1968, hell seemed a luxury.
My job was to shovel gravel into a bucket that, when full, was drawn up to the roof via a conveyor. Once there it would be moved manually to where a fresh batch of pitch had been laid. The gravel would then be spread out over the tar to await curing then hardening to a gravelled white, charcoal glazed blanket of surface protection against all elements. My uncle liked to brag that one could depend upon him as he was leak proof. Watching this operation I could see why. When we were at full tilt that conveyor could turn 4 to 5 buckets in a line. We couldn’t always maintain that rate of pace for it was hard exhausting work shovelling gravel into those buckets but Zal, for some inexplicable reason, was always trying to get the most out of us. For all of his gruffness, his bravado, his hubris, and his profanity, his was a unique form of leadership. We all respected him. Perhaps it was out of fear but I think it was more out of valued appreciation for the dedication and loyalty he continually demonstrated for a job that was dirty and more than menial in its descriptive sense and less than compromising in its expected output.
My uncle was a self made man. He was full of life, confident, fun loving with a devious, mischievous charm. Yet he wasn’t the brightest lamp in the shed either, sometime operating at less than full wattage. An interesting sidebar occurred with my summer employment that almost cost him dearly. As a favour to my dad, he agreed to hire me for the summer at an hourly rate of one dollar and twenty five cents and hour. For me this was more than I had ever dreamed of making. Sixty dollars a week. I had arrived. This was my first real job and I was thankful for his largesse and his confidence in my physical ability and aptitude to meet the demands of the roofing industry.
When I arrived at the first work site I was greeted by the work crew and began with small labour related tasks, manual work. I was in awe of the other more experienced roofers but also with the other construction workers and skilled journeymen at this work site. During the first coffee break one of the construction men sat down beside me and sensing my trepidations struck up a conversation. Somehow, I think I told him how thankful I was in making a dollar and twenty five cents an hour. How great it was for school, spending money etc. He just looked at me, funny like, then got up and left. I finished my coffee and went back to work. Before Zal could scream for more pitch, sirens went off, scores of contractors, journeymen, labourers and the like came out of the work site and walked off the job like a swarm of carpenter ants leaving the nest for work, only in reverse!
“What’s up?” I asked no one in particular.
“Fucking scab work site” I heard someone yell. Another, then another, then others joining in, yelling, screaming. Everyone was off the site in an instant.
“What is going on” I thought to myself but dared not to go any further on site so as not to inflame the sensitivities around this work area. In a flash I was approached by a few older guys in white hardhats. They bee lined it straight toward me, then surrounded me and in no uncertain terms asked me to follow them… off site. I complied and followed then into a car park that was situated about 200 yards from the work zone. Stopping then stopping me they told me to “Fuck Off” and never to return here and show myself anywhere on this or any other union job site if I knew what was good for me.
“Okay” I whimpered.