‘… that was one of the most valuable lessons as a young apprentice.‘
written by John Middlemiss, edited by Wayne Brown
It is a great honor and privilege…
… to be asked to write one of the first blogs on this site.
The problem is where to start – this year will be my 49th year in the industry, and I have been lucky to work in just about every department within our sector and cover a large geographical area.
I started back in 1970 as a very raw 16-year-old apprentice.
And have managed to work throughout the UK and Ireland and Germany / France / Italy / Spain / Hong Kong / Taiwan / China / Philippines / Malaysia / North America and Brazil (to name a few).
Well maybe not quite the Elvis look-a-like, but worth a shot.
As someone once said, “you have a bit of experience”- yeah, just a bit!
I’ve experienced everything...
From a two-stop dumb waiter (that’s a service lift for those not familiar with the term) to 80+ floor installations in Asia. From a 1kg letter lift to a 20,000kg goods lift, escalators, and moving walks. Plus all forms of power from oil to electricity – as well as water in those very early days.
I was born and grew up in Glasgow. It was like London, having high water pressure running throughout the city center. Those Victorians were pretty smart people. Sadly there were very few of the Water Hydraulic units left by the time I commenced 1970, but it was still a great thrill to work on the system.
Although changing the seal was a nightmare as you had to shut the water off within the building.
As I said, I started at 16…
and during the first two years, I spent time with various engineers on servicing call-outs and major repairs throughout Glasgow and the West of Scotland.
I also attended one of the local colleges – where 32 of us (all apprentices and all from the lift industry) commenced that first year. I don’t think similar numbers existed across the entire UK nowadays.
During those couple of years I became familiar with how to read electrical drawings and identify components. The ace up my sleeve was that I was doing “Norbit technology” within my college course, which had just come into the lift industry.
It meant I was in demand from the call-out guys who worked on this new-fangled technology. If I could trace the fault quicker, they could finish earlier and go for an ale or head to the “bookies”. The “bookies” was the original place where people went to bet on the horse races before online betting.
The company I started with is no longer in existence, bought out by some Finnish organization. Suffice to say that they were a very large organization and had not only lifts & escalators but also HVAC/ Electrical and Plumbing Divisions.
Anyway, during the first two years, I became popular with all local fitters and the other apprentices within the company. I didn’t have a problem working late and was always in early each morning, so life was good, and although I wasn’t “Jack the Lad,” I had a pretty good and easy time of it.
That was until the third year when I had some most valuable experience.
At the age of 18, I switched to a local construction site where we had successfully won all of the services work. It was a local hospital site, around 13 floors in height, with a quadruplex, duplex, and several goods lifts that needed installing.
The office supervisor told me to report to the site on a Monday morning and ask for the lift engineers’ chargehand – let’s call him Freddy.
So, on Monday morning, I stroll up with my overalls under my arm and safety boots on my feet. You didn’t get issued with PPE in those days. You had to buy your own, so most of us bought our overalls at the local Army / Navy store. All of us apprentices bought pilot overalls with zips everywhere and colored grey because we thought we looked trendy???
Upon reaching the site I went to what I thought was the builder’s hut and asked where the lift engineers hut was – no communal dining in those days!
I had gone to one of the other companies’ huts – the electricians, where there were around 25 guys all getting ready for their Monday morning start.
One of the lads pointed over to a white hut with huge toolboxes outside and said, “The nutters are in there.”
Manning up, I headed over and knocked on the door, which Freddy opened. “Ah, the new tea boy,” he said with a smile. He introduced me to some of the other guys on site, several of whom I had seen in and around the stores at various times.
Every one of them had huge hands, and when they shook your hand, you broke a small piece of the bone in your finger – well, that’s how it felt anyway.
Working with Willie and Alex, I learnt one of my most valuable lessons as a young apprentice.
These two guys were doing machine and diverter installations on the quadruplex. There must have been 12-14 guys in the hut that morning, and it wasn’t for a toolbox talk. They were planning their weeks’ work – teams making wiring looms for all the installations, a couple of guys doing shaft trunking, a couple of groups doing landing entrances and us, positioning machines/ diverter pulleys and their steels.
We are at the top of the shaft, and this is before they had builders’ hoists on the external parts of the building – so a long way up to the motor room.
Each day at least four times, excluding those times, I had to go and fetch something from a toolbox in the basement or head out to buy cigarettes or making tea – “bloody tea.”
As I was the youngest apprentice on the site…
One of my tasks was to make sure every morning that our urn (no kettles then) – was filled with water, and tea was on the hut table by 10:00 am. When I say the hut table, I mean upturned tea chests with a piece of hardwood around 1.5m square on the top.
After two weeks of this, I’d had it. I was getting pretty wound up and didn’t want to be treated as the “go-to guy” anymore. Every morning around 9:30, you would hear somebody shout up the shaft, “John, get that ……. urn on and make sure the tea is ready”.
So down the stairs, I would go. Fill the urn and set out the table with the fitters and mates billy cans—no luxury of cups or mugs then. Pour out the water and add the tea bag or two, depending on whose tea you were making (because everyone sat in the same seat every day in the hut). And leave the milk and sugar on the table. Go around to the bottom of the shafts and shout, “Teas Up.”
After two weeks of doing this three times a day (10:00, 12:30, and 15:00), I was “jack” of it. As well as making the tea, I had to wash out the billy cans, clear out the hut and restock the milk, sugar, and tea.
Thankfully nobody drank coffee on-site in those days.
Hatching my escape plan…
It was a Friday morning, and as usual, around 9:30, I got that now familiar call of “ John get that ……. urn on and make sure the tea is ready.”
So down I went, got the urn on, went into the hut and nailed all of their billy cans to the table, waited for the water to boil, put in their hot water and tea bags, went around to the shafts, and shouted, “Teas Up.”
As they all trooped into the hut, I scarpered (fled). Although where to I didn’t know as I hadn’t worked that part of the plan out yet. As I ran, heading towards the stairs, I could hear the crew yelling. “Get that big skinny ……… back here”. On that day, I was 6’2″ with a 26” waist and could run – how times have changed.
They caught up with me and it was one of my most valuable lessons as a young apprentice.
They took me to the top of the lift shaft and tied me to the scaffolding with a chain block and sling. I was left there, stripped naked with my private parts liberally smeared in green gooey hand cleaner, and left to reflect on my actions for the next 4 hours
Despite my initial screaming and protests, I eventually gave up. I accepted the humiliation of having almost every construction site employee make an effort to ascend the 13 floors to see me.
I’m just glad there were no mobile phones with a camera around then.
They were my family at work and socially. Sadly, most of those fitters and mates have passed away now. Over the years, I have made many great friends and comrades from within the industry. Like every tribe, however, some have their agendas, making it less enjoyable. That is a fact of life and just the way of things.
This is the story how I gained one of my most valuable lessons as a young apprentice.
So back to the beginning …
I am looking forward to speaking to you all again soon. John
Great story John, hope everyone enjoyed and I’m sure more than just a couple of us can relate to those times. Happy to hear related stories – good or bad. Leave your comments below.
Until then stay safe and keep learning!