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In an abandoned brick yard just outside Australia’s capitol city of Canberra, an old man makes his way tenderly over piles of debris. A towering red brick chimney casts a shadow across his path.
Vern McMullen worked at the Canberra Brickworks as a forklift operator for more than 14 years. Now retired and breathing through an oxygen mask he needs for his emphysema, McMullen occasionally stops to touch a crumbling wall or stare at the remains of the abandoned factory, reflecting on his hard knock life as a forklift operator there more than 50 years ago.
“Everything was done by hand,” he said, remembering trucks hauling piles of the brickyard’s distinctive red bricks to work sites all over eastern Australia. Upon arrival, drivers would then have to unload their bricks by hand, which was backbreaking work even for hardy Aussies.
A Youngster from the Outback
McMullen first arrived at the brickyard in 1962. Unlike many of his co-workers, most of whom were raised in the relatively metropolitan city of Canberra, McMullen grew up in the bush country, where he was put to work as a young boy “sniggin’ “, an outback term for pulling felled logs out of the bush using heavy machinery.
While the work was dangerous and difficult — especially for a underage boy — it actually gave McMullen experience he used to his advantage. By the time he was 19, he got a job driving bulldozers up and down primitive logging roads in the Snowy Mountains as part of a project to build a hydroelectric dam.
If that job was dangerous, McMullen’s next one was even worse: Backing locomotives into train tunnels partially dug into the side of mountains. Once he arrived at the end of the line, McMullen’s job was to point a bright headlight on the tunnel’s rocky walls so other workers could see bore holes where they would delicately place highly-explosive gelignite.
One of the First Forklift Operators
By the time he showed up at the Canberra Brickworks looking for a job, McMullen was already and experienced heavy machinery operator. Although he was practically still a boy, he was given a job driving a forklift — something that didn’t go over very well with men nearly a decade older than him who were still hauling bricks by hand.
“The old blokes screamed seniority, they never had a forklift ticket,” McMullen said, using an Australian slang word for a forklift license.
“It was like winning the lottery, getting my ticket,” he said.
Dangerous Work in Hellish Conditions
Back then, working in the brickyard was seen by many as a death sentence because of the heat of the ovens and the dangerous conditions. McMullen’s friends even tried to talk him out of taking the job.
“They said, ‘You’ll get burned to death in there, Scrubby’ ” McMullen said recently in an interview with the Canberra Times. His friends called him ‘Scrubby’ because he was from the outback, he explained.
“They were from the city, they were all scared,” McMullen said. “I was from the bush. I would have a go.”
Undaunted, McMullen spent years driving his forklift, using it to load coal hoppers and to haul bales of bricks into the brickyards’ fiery kilns for baking.
Driving His Forklift into the Kilns
McMullens son, Malcolm, said he still has vivid memories of visiting his father at the brick works as a child.
“You’d feel the heat come out of the kiln, like water coming over the top of you,” he said. “He would tow in a big fan with the forklift and circulate air inside the kilns.”
Now, As McMullen walks through the ruins of the old brickyard, he stops every few yards to take fresh oxygen from the tank that he is now uses 16 hours per day.
Although the events he remembers happened more than half a century ago, to McMullen it seems like it was only yesterday.
You can take the forklift driver out of the brickyard, but as it turns out, you can’t take the brickyard out of the forklift driver.