My grandfather’s stories about his years working at the Sydney steel plant are full of colourful characters, men who were as much a source of entertainment for him as he undoubtedly was for them.
There was one of Duncan’s bosses, who was married for 21 years without having any children. Then he changed milkmen and his wife had a baby. The baby was born when he was at work. When he called the hospital he asked, “Is it a boy? No? Is it a girl then?”
Another guy from the plant got married and the morning after the wedding he made his wife a delicious breakfast. She said, “It’s beautiful!”
“Yes,” he said, “and that’s how I want you to do it from now on.”
There was the Polish guy they called John Boy, who said, “Half the fellas driving cars these days are women.”
Then there was Hector MacMullin. The guys at the rail mill used to feed the stray cats that would hang around. Someone wanted to leave food for the weekend; to make sure there was enough, they left two bowls, one for each day. Hector MacMullin asked, “What if they eat Sunday’s food first?” So Duncan wrote SATURDAY on one bowl and SUNDAY on the other, and that satisfied Hector.
There were other characters, men whose names I don’t know. But there was one name I heard in more than one anecdote. It was the name of a man who didn’t appreciate Duncan MacLeod’s wisecracks. One night, in fact, that man decided he’d had just about enough.
Art Hunt was the physical opposite of Duncan MacLeod. He was tall, dark, strong. He was a supervisor at the rail mill, and was respected by his peers and the men working under him. At least, they respected him to his face. Most of the men there really did respect him, because he was just that kind of person — friendly, likable, helpful, reliable — but because he was black he had to put up with the reality that some of the white men who worked under him secretly loathed him. They were all nice to his face. All of them except for Duncan MacLeod.
While most other white workers at the rail mill waited until they were out of earshot to insult Art, Duncan MacLeod would do it out in the open where everyone — including Art — could hear him loud and clear. Most of the time the insults were very general in nature, nothing to do with race. Sometimes, however, Duncan would pick on Art’s appearance, like the time he said that when his supervisor smiled he looked “like a Klondike bar with a bite out of it.” Everyone laughed at Duncan’s jokes, at least until Art glared at them. Then they’d shuffle off, smothering chuckles.
“Didja hear what MacLeod said to Art Hunt?”
“Jesus b’y, he’s some lippy, that fella.”
“He’s right cocky. He’s lookin’ for a puck in the mouth.”
“Oh, it’ll happen soon enough.”
‘Soon enough’ came soon enough. One night, Art barked an order at Duncan; Duncan snapped back. Whatever it was Art had told him to do, Duncan told him to do it himself. That was it.
It happened fast but everyone had been waiting for it; within seconds dozens of men swirled around Art and Duncan. The workings of the mill couldn’t stop — not with molten steel constantly coming through, to be shaped into rails — but somehow everyone was watching Art Hunt and Duncan MacLeod. Everyone was going to see the mouthiest man in the mill get flattened. Maybe with one punch. Most likely with one punch.
Art was not a violent man, but there he was, hurtling himself at Duncan, one powerful fist raised in the air, taut and trembling like it had a current running through it. He stopped at the bottom of the stairway Duncan had been ascending and reached out with his other arm, grabbing his prey and jerking him down a couple of steps.
This was it.
“You’re gonna look awful stupid,” snapped Duncan, “lying at the bottom of these stairs with me standing over you!”
Art’s fist came down…and gave Duncan’s shoulder a playful punch. His other hand released its iron grip on Duncan’s shirt. By this time Art was already laughing, a big laugh that echoed around the mill. After a few moments he caught his breath and spoke, still smiling from ear to ear.
“You’re alright, MacLeod!”
As the two men walked off together, laughing and punching shoulders, the rest of the men remained behind, unblinking, mouths agape.
“Now what in the name of Jesus just happened there?”
“I wish I knew, b’y. I swear that MacLeod has a horseshoe up his arse.”
And so began a friendship that would continue to baffle most of Duncan’s coworkers for years to come. They would see the Mutt and Jeff-like duo walking along the steel plant’s roads together, laughing, calling each other names, even hurling racial slurs at each other, with no punches thrown except those of the playful variety. And their coworkers couldn’t figure it out. At least, their white coworkers couldn’t.
One night, Duncan was invited to a party in Sydney’s black community in Whitney Pier. He took a friend along with him; they ended up being the only white people at the party. Duncan’s friend was visibly nervous the entire time. He had reason to be nervous, as Duncan found out when the host of the party took him aside.
“What did you bring that fella here for? We don’t like him.”
“Why?” Duncan asked.
“Because he bad-mouths us all the time.”
Duncan laughed. “What are you talking about? I say bad stuff about you all the time too!”
“Yeah, but you say it to our faces. And we know you don’t mean it anyway. You say stuff like that to everybody. You’re alright, MacLeod.”
There was probably another shoulder punch here. Then the host added: “You know, when we take over the world someday, we’re gonna let you live.”
I’m not sure if that nervous friend ever attended another party in the Pier, but I think Duncan MacLeod may have been to one or two. It was probably his buddy Art who invited him every time. The last invitation from Art came several years after the two had first become friends, years filled with jokes and laughter and an understanding that few understood. Duncan accepted that last invitation with a heavy heart. It was one of Art Hunt’s final requests before he died: Just a few more moments with his friend for all those years at the rail mill, Duncan MacLeod.
Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod is a series of posts on my MacLeod ancestors, based on a combination of research and stories told to me by my grandfather, Duncan MacLeod. To read other posts in the series, click here.