He was a stern man, crumpled and stern, or so he seemed to me. As manager he had his own secretary, Hazel who Dave said could eat an apple through a tennis racquet. Me, I thought she was lovely, and over time she provided me the little tips which feed into that little compendium we all keep in the back of our minds of useful and useless information that will someday be used. Ray didn’t smile a lot but when he did it was the twisted lip smile which might be interpreted as a snarl. Perhaps he was shy, but none at the plant was his equal, ‘cept maybe Ron. Ron, who was called after by Ray as he’d passed between Ray and a couple of juniors Ray was admonishing,

“You going far Ron?”

Quick as a flash, Ron turned in his grey lab coat and responded,

“No, not far in CSR!” and continued on and out the mezzanine door.

It made an impression on me clearly. I can still see the scene, as if it were yesterday.

As one of the juniors being admonished   for some misdemeanour that day such wit would never have come to mind. But it stayed with me.

I was being asked to explain the discrepancy in stocks of plaster that had accumulated over some time. It was a tense scene.

The weeks preceding I’d been riding the crest of the wave. Weekly production rates had been rising.

“Mr O,” I’d firstly reported, “We achieved 13.6 tonnes per hour last week, and as far as I can tell that’s a record output for the plant.” I was chuffed and it showed.

“So how did you do that?” Ray said, not even glancing up from the pile of letters Hazel had left there for him to answer. I had no idea really save for good luck. There were plenty of bullshit reasons to be trotted out but I thankfully saved these.

“We’ll see how it goes next week then Poon,” he said and I was dismissed. I was Poon; there was Russo [Mario], Page [Harry], McMillan [Dave] and Smith [Richard]. None of we lower ranks warranted a Christian name so I was not offended.

The week passed, stockes were checked and I eagerly awaited Chui [Albert] to calculate the tonnes produced based on the Gyprock board output, the reject accounted for and the storage stock difference. And there it was again. Yet another week of record high production of plaster, even topping the week before.

Eagerly I reported into Ray,

“Mr O, we cracked 14 tonnes per hour this week,” my excitement barely contained. There was nothing that we’d done differently that week, but if the sun was shining then who was I not to bask in the glory.

“Really?” was all he said. I felt a little miffed that he couldn’t share in my moment of glory. I was on top of the world. Such moments of triumph were rare, and though I didn’t know the reason why I really didn’t care.

The next week the plant was running well. The phone call from the foreman’s office seemed routine,

“What that? You’ve what!” I retorted.

“Yes we’ve run out of plaster” Tony replied. Tony was a recently promoted leading hand. Faithful in a puppy like way, he always aimed to please. A few weeks earlier he’d called me at home desperate for support.

“The plant’s stopped,“ he reported. I figured it must have otherwise why on earth was he ringing me at home?

“So what’s wrong?” I asked.

The line was quiet for a moment.

“Um, er, there’s something wrong somewhere” was his unforgettable reply. This became my mantra for many years whenever technical difficulties beset me I could always start problem solving steady in the knowledge that I’d always find somethig wrong somewhere.

Clearly there was something wrong somewhere right now I thought. Had we overused plaster?

‘Go check the bins back up the line then” I said.

“But we already have, they’re all empty” he said.

“What do you mean they’re all empty? Have you given them a good whacking on their shells to make any hang-ups fall, are all the vibrators on?”I asked.

‘We already checked’ he replied to my sinking heart.

“There’s gotta be plaster in the silo, what does the silo meter read?” I shouted.

“125 tonnes” he said,

“Well then there is plaster see!” I grouched.

I raced out to the silo. It was a massive construction on the tarmac in front of the large warehouse. Built of three steel rings the lowest of which was concrete filled as a foundation and two rings above each capable of 150 tonnes of plaster storage. A total storage of 300 tonnes. The top of the foundation layer had three airslides arranged to promote the flow of plaster into the production building.

It was an otherwise balmy day on top of the silo when I arrived. The steady whoosh of the pneumatic air-blasts cleaning the socks in the dust collector was all I could hear. The vacuum created from the dust collector made lifting the metre by metre silo lid impossible. I had the dust collector turned off, the noise subsided, the vacuum dropped and I eased the lid open.

Peering into the gloom I couldn’t see the bottom. Down I went and got and got an empty sample can from the laboratory and a long length of twine. With one end of the twine jammed into the sample tin lid, I lowered the tin into the darkness. Down and down it went. Firstly it was deeper than I thought it should be and then I swung the pendulum from side to side and then in a conical arc. The tin occasionally bumped on soft plaster, but for the most part it hung free. I realised that over the airslides the plaster had run out of the silo for use, however between the slides the plaster had lain for ages and sat there like a little Himalaya range for years.

I marked the twine at t deepest pit and then retrieved the can.

At the edge of the silo I dangled the plumb bob on the outside of the silo. It reached all the way down to the top of the first welded ring. The silo was empty.

Having completed his afternoon session with Jack Longley in the warehouse office, Ray came out into the sunshine, striding into the shadow of the silo.

I shouted down to him as he glanced up.

“Mr O, Mr O, the silo’s empty!”

And without breaking stride he replied,

“And there goes your record production rates.”

For years later many production trainees benefited from my embarrassment that day. They were always told to physically check stocks and not rely on the meters which had let me down so badly. The silo meter had lost two of it three counting magnets so that it was falsely recording only a third of the vacant space in the silo. The 120 tonnes recorded should really have been 20 tonnes.

Concord Plaster Mill has gone now, but not the lesson I learnt that day