The funniest thing I ever saw.
16th April 2018
I thought I'd write down the funniest thing I ever saw in my life. Unfortunately it requires a lot of back story. Sorry about that.
Age 21 I worked for a welding inspection company (MAPEL) at the McDermott's oil platform construction yard near Ardersier, Scotland. This was 1982.
It was a huge site built on sand dunes with massive metal buildings, giant cranes, fork lifts etc. In wet weather it was a quagmire, in the summer a dustbowl.
There were two types of inspectors employed by MAPEL. The first were Ultrasonic Testers. UT men. They carried oscilloscopes round and looked very technical.
The second were Magnetic Particle Inspectors. They used horseshoe magnets, paint and iron oxide ink, and generally looked a mess. I was an MPI man.
The UT men were paid much more, and MAPEL decided they should have smart, fitted blue Dickies overalls whilst the MPI men got bog-standard green boilersuits.
This was never explained to us. As we'd often say, "Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to MPI.".
There was an additional delineation within MPI men. The ones who tested unfinished welds were known as 'hotcheck boys', and were the lowest of the low. I was a hotcheck boy.
A hotcheck took place as follows. When two pieces of steel had been welded together from one side, it would be partly gouged out and ground smooth from the reverse side before more welding.
More often than not, this would be two pipes or 'tubulars' which were being welded together lying flat. These tubulars might be 10 metres long and 2 metres in diameter, which you could walk through, or 500mm which you'd need to crawl.
The reason it's called a hotcheck is the steel near the weld is at welding temperatures. We're talking properly hot - hundreds of degrees.
Most of the pipe you crawl up is a reasonable temperature but as you get to the weld it becomes ridiculously hot. So you'd wear gloves and kneel on asbestos sheets.
There would be a big fan at the end of the pipe with a four inch diameter hose pumping cooling air around you.
The gouged and ground weld is a circular shiny groove in the pipe. You place a horseshoe magnet across the weld and then puff and blow coloured iron filing powder onto the weld.
Red dyed powder was common, but we used yellow stuff. If there was an invisible crack in the shiny weld, one side would become a north pole and the other south.
As you puffed powder on the weld a bright yellow line would appear if there was a crack, as the filings stuck to it. Of course the weld goes right round the pipe, so you'd have to puff the powder overhead as well as on the 'floor' of the tubular.
Within half an hour of starting work you'd be sweaty, covered in yellow dye and stuck like that for the rest of your 12 hour shift.
The company had a tea-shack / portacabin where we spent time between jobs, playing cards, reading Exchange & Mart and generally getting the craic.
So I'd sit there drinking tea from a polystyrene cup looking like Pigpen from Peanuts beside all the smart, clean UT guys discussing their next Golf GTi or Audi Quattro.
There were two hotcheck boys on the shift - the other was Johnny 'Two-Soups', a dumpy red-haired ex-military chap with a bushy moustache and a twinkle in his eye.
The summer of '82 was very hot, which was an issue for the UT guys who wanted to continue to look cool as they posed round the card table checking their investments in the FT.
They were resourceful though. They'd opened all the top windows and outside one end of the cabin had a welders fan set up with the 4 inch hose stuck through one of the windows.
It blew a steady stream of cool air through the cabin, and they could all drink their tea in pleasant comfort.
As I sat there with them, ruminating on how little I was paid in comparison, the door opened and Johnny 'Two-Soups' peered round.
The cabin was about two feet above ground level, so his yellow-coloured head was at around handle height. He looked around, then directly at me. His expression was shocking.
It was almost impossible to work out what was going on. His eyes were watering, every muscle was twitching and his moustache was jiggling up and down, quivering at the end.
Nobody else noticed, but after a few seconds I realised he was desperately trying not to explode with laughter. He beckoned me with one finger, then disappeared.
Intrigued, I got up from the bench. As I exited the door Johnny was heading around the end of the cabin. I followed him around the corner and everything became clear.
I remember what happened in slow motion. Poised over the inlet of the welders fan, Johnny held a polystyrene cup brimful of yellow hotcheck powder.
Sensible me, I opened my mouth and started to shout "Noooooo...", but it was too late. Johnny tipped the whole cup in.
We simultaneously turned to look at the cabin in a mixture of horror and excitement. Nothing happened, nothing happened, then... Poof!
Clouds of yellow smoke billowed out of all the top windows and screams could be heard from inside.
Another second passed then Bang!, the door flew open and a dozen UT men clawed at each other to get out first, eyes and noses streaming, coughing and retching, their faces, hair and pristine Dickies covered in yellow.
Two Soups and I lay like twins in fetal positions in the sand, crying, unable to stand due to the convulsions of laughter we were suffering.
My last memory of it is crowds of UT men over us, kicking us with their steel-toecapped rigger boots, and neither of us feeling any pain, just laughing.☝