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Today's quote:

Friday, November 6, 2020

"Youth is a blunder, manhood a struggle, old age a regret"


It was Benjamin Disraeli who is supposed to have said this. I have reached old age, and should start to regret, but I don't. I have made mistakes - many mistakes! - but when I think of the frailty of human nature, of the pitfalls that surround us, and the crazy world we live in - I was going to shorten it to 'the vicissitudes of life' but I didn't want to confuse you, Des! - , I merely wonder why I did not make more mistakes.

One thing that I have noticed is that, whereas during all those past struggles I hardly ever looked back, I now look back all the time. As there is no future to speak of, I live in the past, before the struggle began - a harking back to youth which, alas! has departed for ever.

An email received from an ex-colleague of my days on the Bougainville Copper Project makes me think that I am not so different from others:

"Until old age caught up with me very suddenly - it sneaked up on me without my realising it - work had been everything to me. I was in demand and there was one project after another. Altogether, it has been a successful career, all thanks to my time on Bougainville.

A lot of people worked there for lots of reasons; dollars were probably the main reason. I had just spent a year living in a boarding house in Melbourne run by Jews which was all right except that the cooked dinner was beef schnitzel and mashed potatoes every night, so a change of food and scenery was enough for me to sign up.

Engineering-wise there was a lot of "new" technology on Bougainville with little back-up information which taught me to innovate. Thanks to my time there, I enjoyed a working life which I would never have dreamed of."

And can't we all relate to this? I certainly can! After my first and futile attempt to rent a furnished room with a family in a Canberra suburb - I spotted their Jewish menorah on the sideboard before they spotted my German passport! - I also had moved into a boarding house - click here - with an also very predictable menu - "if it's Chicken Maryland, it must be Friday!" - after which I went to Rabaul where I shared a house with two other chartered accountants - click here.

I'd gone to Rabaul just for the adventure on a much reduced pay and an even more reduced menu because, as each one of us took a turn in doing the weekly shopping, when it was the turn of the other two, they merely bought a leg of lamb and spent the rest on beer.

I had answered a similar ad when I worked and lived in Rabaul, except mine gave Bechtel's Kieta postal address to which I replied. By return mail, I received a return ticket to present myself at Panguna for an interview which I did and, as they say, the rest is history ...

When the local newspaper, the POST-COURIER, began carrying ads for audit personnel on the Bougainville Copper Project, I applied and was invited to fly across for an interview in September 1970. I was hired on the spot, returned to Rabaul to give notice, and within a few weeks was back on what was then the biggest construction project in the world. Woo-hoo!

For more revealing photos, click here

Seeking adventure had been my main reason for coming to New Guinea, seeking more money was an added reason for going to Bougainville - I went from $2,000 to $7,500 a year, plus full board and lodging and a beat-up Toyota Landcruiser - , but it was the professional challenges that kept me there for several years.

"Auditing" meant checking contractors' monthly progress claims against contractual terms and conditions. Those contracts had been written not by accountants but by engineers in far-away Melbourne, often with little or no regard to the practicalities on the ground.

Pitting our brains against those of the contractors' representatives whose aim it was to make the most of a once-in-a-lifetime chance, interpreting contractual clauses and, where necessary, pushing through essential contract changes which could save vast sums of money, made those long ten-hour days often seem not long enough.

Of course, there were those to whom Bougainville was just a great disappointment. There was one who had arrived on the island and, taking one look at those cloud-covered mountains behind which Panguna was supposed to be, refused to leave Aropa airstrip and took next morning's plane back out. Another one, having scored the much-coveted trip to Bechtel's Melbourne office to hand-deliver the monthly batch of computer punched cards (remember punched cards?), was never seen again. This act became known as 'doing a Joslin' (take a bow, Frank!) Then there were those who, having run up an adding-machine striplist from 365 down to zero which they taped to the wall behind their desk, would each morning cross off another number. Not many endured this agonising mental torture long enough to reach the longed-for Day Zero.

As for me, and a select group of others, we revelled in the challenges, in the comraderie, and eventually in the opportunities that, thanks to our time on Bougainville, came our way on other projects and in other countries.

As my former colleague wrote, "Altogether, it has been a successful career, all thanks to my time on Bougainville." And so say all of us!

Googlemap Riverbend


P.S. For more on the Bougainville Copper Project, click here.