Cherie Howie

Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Photo recall: Muscle men dug deep to impress the girls

Sometimes things just don't make sense but you smile and get on with it. Thirty-eight years ago, Marsh Grey was employed to dig holes in some of Auckland's busiest streets so traffic light signals could be synced across the central city.

A grinning Grey was captured at work by a New Zealand Herald photographer, only his upper body visible as he dug out a hole that had been filled in the night before.

That's how it was back then - you dug a hole, did some work putting ducts in to connect the lights, filled in the hole, returned the next morning to dig up the same spot, and started your work again.

Grey was 18 and not long out of school but it didn't make much sense to him. And four decades later, it still doesn't.

"We thought it was a waste of time, it was stupid. But that's how it was then."

Cones and barricades could be used on the road but not the footpath, the Auckland City Council had decided.

So Grey and his workmates dutifully filled in each hole and spread plant mix over the top before going home each day.

"Sometimes when I walk down the street now I'll see cones and barricades everywhere and I think, 'Oh man, they would never let us do this'."

Still, Grey was happy on the end of a shovel.

For one, it was a great Saturday morning warm-up for his afternoon league matches with City Newton, the club to which he and most of his workmates belonged.

And then there were the ladies. Some would peer down and ask the young labourers to lunch. If not, the men still made sure they were noticed, said Grey, now a truck-driving dad of five and grandfather of 10.

"We'd do a bit of showing off to the girls, flexing our muscles."

Mostly they kept their heads down - the tangle of pipes and cables was labyrinth-like and city plans did not reveal every secret buried below the thick layer of asphalt.

That was why they were digging by hand in the first place, because of the risk of severing power mains. Work in Grafton Rd was the most stressful as the possibility of cutting power to the hospital cast an ominous cloud over their work, Grey said.

"We were told if we hit a pipe there it would cost megabucks."

Amazingly, his star turn on the front page of the New Zealand Herald cost him nothing but a bit of teasing from his workmates. And, happily, more attention from the ladies.

- Herald on Sunday

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