Briefcase and Headcase

imagesWhen you are given a briefcase for your 14th birthday, filled with plastic bag samples, packing tape and some electronic calculators, you begin to wonder what happened to all the fun things that other 14 year old’s received on their big days? My birthday, my 14th, was special. We were given a task at school PE that day, and one that I hated. I was supposed to run 4 miles with the rest of the class, but I disliked long distances. I was a sprinter. Not many in any class, at any of the schools I went to, could catch me and I was completely deceptive for my size and build. Other boys used to look at me while we stood on the start line ready to dash that 100M to the finish line. The very first time it happened, I was 10. We lined up, and the usual abuse, started by the school ‘jocks’, rumbled past my ears like a train off its tracks. When the teacher shouted GO, I was so far ahead of everyone, some of the boys just stopped half way, thinking there must have been a false start. Not even Robert Torrance, who would go on the play professional football, and was probably the most gifted athlete we had at Thornliebank Primary school, could get anywhere near me. Mr. Middleton, sensing he may have made an error, lined us all up again, and the second time, I was even further ahead, having loosened up and relaxed somewhat. A third attempt followed shortly after, and, I was at least ten yards ahead of second place finisher David Barnett. My elevation in status, after some shocking abuse for being so fast, was extreme. Suddenly I was the go to man on the school relay team. Completely out of character and without hesitation, I became the man to beat, only no one could. I ran the anchor leg in every race we participated in, until David accidentally put a running spike through my left foot while we were messing around before a race one afternoon. This placed a temporary halt to my ascendancy, and one I would soon overcome with vengeance.   But, sprinting was it. I couldn’t keep up with the long distance guys, because although I didn’t quite know it at the time and even though we had no one professional enough to explain or coach us, I had fast twitch muscles, not slow twitch, and I was born with speed, all natural. My daughter has the same gift, and she has a similar build to the one I had at that age.

We were all lined up at Eastwood High school and given the route. We were off, and my heart was pounding. I was fit, but my mind said, NO LONG DISTANCE. I cycled, I walked, and I golfed, but running more than a mile was a no go. I just wanted to belt it out, not pace. I had no clue how to conserve energy. GIve me a straight flat line of about 100 to 400M and no one could beat me, anything more than that, and I failed. This day however, a boy called Jamie Harvey, also a good athlete, decided to run with me. I have no idea why he did this, but after one mile he was coaxing me round the streets of Newton Mearns, and urging me not to stop and to get to that finish line without a break. We ran the 4 miles in half an hour, not too fast, but for the first time in my life I’d completed a long distance circuit without needing a break, without walking and with great ease. I was chuffed to bits, (read proud), and couldn’t stop smiling all week. I will never forget Jamie for what he did, and often wonder where he is today. If it wasn’t for him, my athletic life and prowess would have been different. Again, right place right time. It was a springboard to greater achievements in later years, but of course, I didn’t know that yet. I began running every night round the streets of Giffnock, where I lived. I bought a bright yellow track suit and a pair of Inter 5 star shoes, and I ran and ran. Everyone laughed at me as I passed them on the streets of Glasgow each night,  as they stood outside the pubs and Fish N’Chip shops, and now, those who were laughing are all doing the same thing I was then, running to keep fit. I had the bug, I had the confidence and I had the goal.

My briefcase was heavy, and as I opened it up, I asked my father why he’d given me such a shitty gift. “You’ll see” he said. With that said, I was off to school, and the next available holiday was easter. Soon enough, Easter arrived.

There was a machine in my father’s warehouse, at the back of the office building where he’s based his company, called an Overprinter. This machine was about 12 feet long and flat at one end. At the other end there was a huge cylinder, onto which we attached a rubber plate. The purpose of the machine was to print plastic shopping bags in very small numbers for shopkeepers who couldn’t afford to buy millions of pieces. The machine used a hand fed technique, where one man would feed the bag in through the top and another would ensure that the bag came out the other end with the design printed on the bag as straight as humanly possible. It was archaic, but it worked. As the cylinder turned, the rubber plate, which had the design embossed onto it, hit an ink well and the ink then covered the rubber and printed the bag as it passed through the machine. I was offered the position of chief feeder of bags, Richard was my boss. I had no choice in this matter, and so, every Saturday, and often on Wednesday nights after school, I could be found, with Richard, in this ante room, occupied by a machine printing plastic bags and an odor of solvent so strong, we could be higher than a kite within 10 minutes of starting it up. The solvent was a necessary evil, used to control the thickness of the ink and sometimes used to get drunk with by alcoholics who roamed our Glasgow streets in search of their next high. I have to tell you, in the 1970’s it was acceptable having this odor eat you alive, but now, health and safety people would close this plant down in 5 seconds and sue all management for child endangerment and probable homicide. I wasn’t earning more than 10 pounds a week, Richard was probably earning less than double that, but, we did what we were told and we printed and we got on with it, no questions asked. This was an education. This was tedious. This was experience and this was certainly a huge pain in the arse of a job that had to be done by someone. Boss’s son? No problem! Ideal candidate, no questions asked and no threat ever of a law suit. In the 1970’s we believed a law suit to be nice clothes that the Sheriff wore in cowboy movies!

Up until that Easter break, I’d spent many days learning how to print bags, and now it was time to learn how to sell them. I was given a bus pass, a train pass and a pair of new black shoes to match my birthday gift, and with one simple act, a boot up the back side, I was off out into the big bad world, as a naive, innocent 14 year old, to try and make a living. Everyone said I had no chance. They even took bets as to how long I would last before some headcase physically assaulted me for being obnoxious, but, it never turned out that way as you will see.

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