Rattlesnake

Los Angeles, California

1976

I had not been long in Los Angeles, when I met Dale Williams, and through him, at a Saturday night party, Tom Anderson.  Tom had an asphalting company and when he heard that I was looking for casual work, he offered me a temporary job.  The schools were on summer holidays and he had just started a contract to resurface the playgrounds of eight of them in Long Beach.  He needed somebody to follow behind his crew and clean up the mess they always left in their wake.

So, on the Monday morning I turned up at Tom’s yard, where he gave me the keys to a big pickup truck, tools, a large can of solvent and the address of the first school, where I was to meet the foreman, who would show me what to do.  After most of an hour’s drive to Long beach and ten minutes of briefing, I was on my own.

I had to trim the edges of the asphalt and load the surplus onto the pickup truck and take it back to the yard at the end of the day.  Once the truck was full, I spent the rest of the day cleaning the tar marks off the concrete edging and paths, using the solvent and a stiff brush.  It was hard back-breaking work and the solvent gave off strong fumes in the hot Californian sun.  Each school yard took me about two days to clean and I was happy to have three weeks of paid work ahead of me.

When I had finished, Dale offered me a similar role as an odd-job man.  He was a real estate developer, with a foreman and a secretary and he built houses for eventual sale, sub-contracting all the trades.  When I was there, he was building a small apartment complex in Santa Monica and a large house in Malibu.  He had also recently bought a burned-out plot north of Malibu, the house having been destroyed in a bush fire; all that remained was the concrete slab.

So, for the rest of the year I went back and forward between the sites, clearing up and doing odd-jobs.  At one time, I hired a pneumatic drill and towed it up to the burned-out site overlooking the ocean, and broke up parts of the slab that would not be required in the new design.  I drilled holes in the concrete and inserted bolts to retain the wood frame.  Not being accustomed to working with a heavy drill, I could still feel the vibrations hours later.

On another occasion at the house in Malibu, I dug an 80 m trench out to the main road, to contain the electricity cables.  It was that feat that earned me the affectionate title of the ‘human back-hoe’.  And one of my proudest achievements was building the road from the gate up to the front door, using perforated concrete slabs, filled with compost and sown with grass seed.

Dale had found that the fire insurance on the Malibu property would be greatly reduced, if the hillside behind the house was cleared of scrub bushes, up to a minimum distance of 50 m.  That task took me a several days.  There was no shelter and the temperature was around 40 C.  The bushes had to be dug out and tossed down the steep hill for later disposal.  At one point, I was reaching into a bush to pull it out, when I heard a loud rattling sound and spotted a huge snake poised to strike me.  Without thinking, I sliced it in half with the spade which I had in my other hand.  I carried both halves of the snake down to the house and the workers watched it with fascination, as both halves crawled around the yard.  They told me that it was a diamondback rattler and one of the workers cut off the rattles.  It had six rattles, so was at least six years old.  Each year when it sheds its skin, it adds another rattle.  I buried the head, as it can strike up to one hour after being severed from the body.

rattlesnake_striking-img
A rattle snake poised to strike, with the rattles raised and vibrating

Clearing the hillside created an enormous pile of brush.  Dale obtained permission from the local fire authority to have a bonfire on a Saturday, providing that a water hose was laid on.  So, that Saturday I spent almost an entire day feeding the fire, until all the brush was burned and all that remained was a small pile of ashes.

Those months that I spent doing labouring chores were unforgettable and the modest amount that I earned allowed me to extend my stay and experience the local way of life. I loved being in the open air, especially in the beautiful southern Californian weather. The hard work certainly toughened me up, but most nights at dinner, I could barely lift a knife and fork, my knuckles swollen and stiff from the lifting, carrying and digging, especially when I had been working with the pneumatic drill.

Yes, I have such fond memories of my stay in California and I feel forever grateful to Tom and Dale for having given me the opportunity to participate in it.

 

 

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