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Letter From America: The Wafter

Ronnie Bray tells of his adventures in the rag trade, recalling the day when he became a wafter.

In a perverse sort of way, it was my own fault for being too trusting. When Matthew and I lived at 39 Lower Reins, Honley, a few miles out of Huddersfield, I felt I should get employment nearer home instead of making the daily epic journey to the village of Dobcross, on the border of the White and Red Rose Counties, so when I was made aware of an opening for a rag puller two miles towards New Mill, I went to see the elder Robinson of James Robinson Limited.

What had once been a dye house in the heyday of the textile boom following the Industrial Revolution, had bowed before the weight of overseas competition and devolved into a place where textile fibres were recovered and reconstituted from discarded garments.

Mr Robinson Senior, who was past retiring age, was taciturn, somewhat gruff, and had the air of a man used to telling people off. He showed me the rag pulling shed where two machines stood, one each side of the shed, connected to giant tubes through which the separated fibre of the pulled rags were drawn by vacuum into baling hoppers. The shed floor was home to mountains of old rags, coats, cardigans, sweaters, scarves, and every other kind of garment with which humankind is wont to adorn their frames, either for decoration or to keep warm in chill winter days.

These were the rags waiting to be pulled. The first task of a rag puller is to remove all buttons and zips, so that they do not foul the pulling machine. The rags had previously been sorted by colour to produce the right colour of fibre mix when pulled. I did not see any reason why I could not be a satisfactory rag puller and neither did Mr Robinson, who offered satisfactory wages, and I mentally saw myself with an extra hour in bed of a morning. After I had obtained from him an assurance of the plenitude of work, "Twelve months already in hand, and plenty of overtime," I struck his palm with mine and set off to Shaw’s (Pallets) Ltd., to hand in my notice.

My first few days as a rag puller went well with no untoward incident, apart from the definite feeling that I was eating and breathing acrylic fibres, which suspicion turned out to be true. That was remedied by my ascending to the office, housed in a separate building near the works entrance, and persuading the office manager that my health and temper would benefit from using a surgical mask, predating Michael Jackson and other eccentrics by the better part of thirty years. A box of masks was handed over.

The machinery hummed, as the rags I placed in the rear feed box were taken to the top of the machine by a linked feed belt before they were dropped onto another metal track that fed the rags toward the real working part, the ‘swift,’ a rapidly revolving drum into which were driven steel pins with flattened ends, ground occasionally to keep them sharp.

When the cloth came into contact with this rapidly revolving four feet diameter drum, the fibres were ripped from them like wisps of candy floss, then sucked into the baling hopper, cunningly lined with a huge plastic bag, so that when the bag was full, the top was folded over, and a vacuum tube stuck into the contents and the air drawn out, making a bale of some 300 to 400 pounds in weight, that was then taken to the warehouse and the whole process begun afresh with a new liner. The more bales wheeled into the warehouse, the happier Mr Robinson was.

Two weeks later, Mr Robinson marched into the pulling shed and announced that we were going on short time. That got my dander up and I reminded him forthrightly that he had promised me that there was a year’s work on the books and plenty of overtime, and that I had left a perfectly good job on his say-so, and that I was furious. He relented and said I could work forty hours a week. However, his eye was now firmly fixed upon me!

The machine I worked was relatively new. A company of textile engineers in Heckmondwike had made it. Its weakness was in the metal plate belt that received rags from the upper hopper and fed them forward into the swift. Sometimes, one side got ahead of the other and then the linked plates separated. Setting it right was a comparatively easy job, requiring only that the track be partially disassembled, straightened, and the tensioning bolts replaced and correctly adjusted.

I had performed this function several times since beginning work there, but when I was seen doping it by the curmudgeonly boss, he exploded in anger, warning me never to touch it again.

The machine, he explained from somewhere inside a cloud of blue smoke, was under warranty and all he had to do was to telephone the manufacturer in Heckmondwike and they would send out a fitter who would set it right under warranty. I exploded back that it took anything from one to four hours for the fitters to arrive, but that I could have the machine running as good as new in less than twenty minutes.

My words fell on closed ears. I was placed under an interdict not to touch the machine again with anything but a shoving stick under pain of excommunication! My last effort to render him conscious of my skills as a fitter was to inform him that as a mechanic I had kept the British Army going in the Middle East. I was grateful that he did not ask me where I had kept it going to, but he was immovable. He strutted like a man who knew he was right, and, technically, he was.

The next time the belt plates came apart, I reported to the office that the Heckmondwike fitters were needed in the rag pulling shed and left the machine alone. I took my rest in the strange silence of that usually noisy place, and was discovered at ease by my taskmaster.

"What are you doing," he asked as if he had found a poacher with one of his prize salmon.

"Waiting for the fitter," was my laconic reply.

"Don’t just sit there doing nothing," he said, spitting pins and feathers at me.

"What would you like me to do?" I asked, nonchalantly and with an air of uninjured innocence.

"Clean off the beams," he said, in as near a stentorian tone as he could muster, indicating with a wide arc of his hand, the massive beams supporting the quarry tiled roof of the shed. I looked at the beams. They were at least fifteen feet from the ground, and their upper surfaces were covered with an inch or more of variegated acrylic and wool dust.

"With what shall I clean them?" I said, beginning to sound like an old song.

"With a wafter," he responded, unconscious of how appropriately he had done so, as in the old song. I tried not to display my amusement.

"With a wafter?" I enquired.

"A wafter!" he returned with emphasis. I tried very hard not to look like Harry Belafonte and softly asked the question.

"What’s a wafter?" as I bit the inside of my lip hard to keep me from smiling out loud.

"A wafter? You don’t know what a wafter is?"

"No. Sorry." I apologised for my ignorance. After all, I had not worked in textiles for some years and the issue of wafters had not arisen then, so I was without illumination on the subject, but I was destined not to remain blinded by ignorance.

"You get a bit of cloth," he countered, with just the hint of exasperation creeping into his voice, "and you waft the dust off with it!"

All was clear. It was blindingly simple. Anything used to cause a draft, or waft, or air, could properly be nominated as a wafter.

Thus informed, my sense of the ridiculous refused to remain submerged, but a lot was riding on it doing so, and to that end I redoubled my efforts, biting the inside of my lip even harder. Had I been an eccentric millionaire working just to pass away my idle hours in pleasant pastimes, I might have bent double before him and rolled on the floor in a fit of near hysterical laughter at his grave explanation of a simple thing.

But I was not a millionaire, just a poor man in need of employment. Having seen to the completion of my education, the gentleman departed, for the time being and left me to fashion a wafter and get wafting.

Thus were my idle hours transformed into light duties dedicated to wafting dust from one place only to see it settle diabolically in another. And then, when that place was duly wafted, the dust obligingly left that place also to settle on another, until the fitters from Heckmondwike did what I could have done two hours earlier, and then the voice of machinery was heard again in the land.

I took time to consult with the fitter about the method I had used to fix the machine.

"That was the right way," he said. In fact, he confided, "There’s nothing to it. A monkey could do it."

I offered him a banana, which he refused and went whistling on his way back to Heckmondwike, while I ate the banana and mused on the possibility of hiring a couple of monkeys to do my work so that I could sit in the dust-proof shed and watch them through the Perspex window.

That was not the end of Mr Robinson ‘keeping his eye’ on me, but it is the only one worth repeating. I started ‘keeping my eye’ on Mr Robinson, and let him know that he was being watched. In a reasonably short time I decided that I had collected all the buttons I needed, and that my fortune lay elsewhere and took up employment as a welfare operative for Fairclough Builders at Shadwell on the outskirts of Leeds.

Yet, I have never forgotten how my life was briefly but profoundly enriched by old Mr Robinson and his wafters.

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Read more of Ronnie's stories:

http://www.2theheart.com/author_ronnie_bray
http://www.meridianmagazine.com/voices/011024summer.html

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