The closure of Whakatu Freezing Works changed the social fabric of this region in ways that are still being felt today. Thirty years on, in this, the second chapter of Ngahiwi "Navis" Tomoana's The Sounds and Songs of the Slaughterboard, he shares memories of a place where he worked and played.
My first job was as a string boy. Off to the clothing store, having climbed down the ladder where I'm handed white overalls, gumboots, towels and T-shirts.
"Can you use a knife?"
"Yep, course," I replied, having been told to always say yes, and he handed me a pouch which had a knife, a steel mesh glove and a metal rod with a plastic handle.
"What's this thing for?" I asked. He snatched the pouch back and said, "It's called a steel dopey, you've never used a knife before, have you? You're going stringing".
So armed with a roll of strings instead of a knife, I walked and dodged through shouts of encouragement and heckling through wet, warm, lamb carcasses, got a squirt from a hose right up my bum to cackles of delight, and was led to the grading end of the chain to be shown by the slickest stringer out, how to bind the neck and the two front hocks together in the blink of an eye. Willy was his name, and he had to slow down 100 times, before I was able to string my first carcase. Success!
Then the next one nudged me in the back, then the next in the bum, and before I knew it, there were about 10 carcasses all stacked up and ready to fall on the floor in a heap, and Willy had disappeared!
I looked around and every face I saw was ready to burst out laughing.
"Can't use a knife, can't use a string, I'd better find you a broom!", the leading-hand said.
I got stuck in, but the stack didn't disappear, it got bigger! Then through the meat mountains came Willy, and he "stringed me up" until I was back in sync with the chain, but over the next 10 minutes and 75 sheep, I slowly got stacked up again, and all of a sudden it was smoko-break, so I worked through smoko to catch up and with much relief, I cleared the backlog before following the rest of the labourers into the dining room.
I stopped in my tracks, and holy hell... the sheep were coming down the chain again, bearing down towards the grading block.
I skidded to a halt, spun on a sixpence, went back to my string station, and had a two or three minute gasp before I was into it again. Six times I got stacked up in the next two hour run, and six times, Willy came to my rescue from his number-1 chain, while others covered for him from their own chains.
I was learning about Whakatu brotherhood, big time! Although there was keen competition and rivalry in each job, with taunts and tests, there was also support when "newbies" were learning the ropes in earnest.
Even the boss came over and said, "go and have a five minute break," and took over stringing, and just as well, as I was busting!
And before I knew it, the day was done! I strung the last carcass, straightened my back, stretched out the sore hamstrings, buttocks, back and neck, and did a silent "whoop-whoop!" I even got a few pats on the back by the old hands. No sooner had we stepped off the chain, then the cleaning gang with their rags buckets and steam hoses splashed and hissed across the slaughter board, chasing us off.
I joined the stream of workers to collect tomorrow's clothes, then headed for the locker rooms and showers. I'd never seen so many naked men before, in all shapes and sizes, sturdy and stacked, flabby and saggy, craggy and cut. Then a booming voice thundered through the locker room, "Cara Mia Mai..."
It was Sky (his real name is Rangi) Tareha, doing his end-of-the-day ritual, rent of a Roy Orbison classic, to the dog howls, moos and boos of everyone else! Mine was a quick shower to get the blood off my face and fat out of my hair before grabbing my bike and pedalling home, full of awe and horror that I'd have to do another full day tomorrow! That night, all I dreamed of was sheep carcasses coming at me at 100 miles per hour, slamming into me with piles of meat on the floor, and I was getting laughed off the chain, all knotted up in s*****y old string!
Next day at work with very tender hands, I managed to get "meated up" only five times all day, but still was not able to have a whole smoko.
After a week or so, I could keep up and even wander off for a look around a bit, and then catch myself up again.
I knew I had graduated as a stringer when I helped a new stringer catch up several times on his first run, because that's what you learn here, you are part of a huge family, whether union or company, brown, black or white, Christian or Muslim, kangaroo or Kahungunu!
You have a whanau of around 2000 people, whether it's your first day or your last day. Two weeks later, I was jumping up on a trimming stand to learn those jobs with a knife and steel, cutting out cocks, skirts and pleurisy, while keeping my own chain going, learning how to ticket and the various grades of sheep and lambs, and some jobs on the viscera tables.
I learnt to hoot at any mistake another worker made, then help them out. I learnt to give others a break just as I was given many, throw the old hand full of water here and there, and admire the Willys of this world, with a rough and ready competence (he went to jail during that season for car conversion, and I've never seen him since), and I was continually chided by Harry Lyver and others to not come back next season.
But I did. For 16 more seasons before the closure in 1986, which was 30 years ago. A stringer to waterslinger!
Production, Production, Production
These were the 3-Ps of Whakatu - production, production, production! I started work in October and in the build-up to Christmas, things hotted up in more ways than one!
Farmers wanted their lambs done to catch the British Christmas/New Year roast season, so Saturday mornings were worked, and at odd times, an extra half an hour a day.
And of course, there was the ever present battle for supremacy of kill with Tomoana.
So from November to Christmas, Whakatu roared, fending off all other freezing works in mutton lamb and beef kill tallies.
This daily and yearly rivalry between sheds led to the inter-works sports, where rivalry on the chains could be matched through rivalry on the sports fields, pool tables, tug of war boards, surf casting clubs, tennis courts, and so on.
Whakatu reigned supreme in the tug of war throughout the country, which spurred interdepartmental rivalry at home.
There was the annual 10km relay and group run, where the first 10 finishers from any department, were the winners.
We got that competitive that we started running half marathons and in 1984, 50 of us ran the Rotorua Marathon.
Through this titanic team effort, another titanic struggle was taking place, where the union and company sparred and shadow-boxed over every issue, from chain manning to piece rates, from overtime to the introduction of new technology, from halal kills to women working on the chain, to one-outs, to new hygiene regulations, and even to the texture of the toilet paper available!
The issues were too mind-boggling for a string boy to worry about, but these wrist wrestles were no less fevered than the combined efforts themselves.
For if talks failed, kills would slow or stop, and nobody, anywhere wanted that, because other companies and unions watched Whakatu with intense jealousy, to predate on stock numbers if there was a stoppage, and to see what implications changes in work practice would have on them, because Whakatu was a trendsetter in many arenas of industrial law. So, with the excitement of the pending Christmas, there was also a nervousness that things could just snap, putting all sides at risk, missed mortgages, HP agreements, bank loans and school fees buggering up the holidays.
Both sides were sensitive enough though, to know the midpoints, so that the kills, tallies and records tumbled and rumbled on, largely unaffected.
But there was another, larger, hidden battle taking place in the corporate boardrooms of freezing companies, who were determined to decrease the killing capacity in the North Island freezing works by up to 10 mutton chains and a full beef chain, as farmers and land use changed from sheep and beef to deer, dairy, grapes and orchards.
And Whakatu was the target! Wattie's, Weddell Crown, and Richmonds were the stalkers.
The build-up to Christmas in the meat industry also coincided with shift work in pea and tomato harvesting in the canneries, main shearing, asparagus picking, forest harvesting, fruit thinning and vineyard work.
Most freezing workers had at least a part-time job elsewhere, many had two jobs and some had three jobs.
For five seasons in a row, several of us picked asparagus from 5am to 7am (using miner's lamps), and then went to the slaughter board from 7.30am to 4.30pm, then off to the shearing sheds from 6pm to midnight.
Others would do the canneries or pea harvest shift from 6pm to 2am, while others swapped their knives for chainsaws and headed into the nearby forests till around 9pm at night, during Daylight Saving.
Weekends were full of pruning, thinning and shearing. Many of the butchers had other trades too, and would double up on weekends in their respective areas.
And this was a must for most of us, as we knew our season at Whakatu was only six months on average, and we had to pluck the duck while it was there!
So if there was a hiccup at the works, many of us would trade knives for tractors, hand pieces, hammers and hoes. If you were making, say, $600 per week, then you could easily double it, or more with the other jobs.
Everyone was doing it, including the union-based enterprises, such as the Whakatu Afforestation Project and the Whakatu Deer Farm investment. Others formed show bands and played regularly in Hawke's Bay's vibrant pub scene.
Harry Ruk and the Rukupos, with brothers Dick, Bully and Heperi, were at the forefront, closely followed by Moella and the Blue Moon Band, Don Hutana, then Lambeth Bennet formed the Emanon, but many other musos kicked in too, such as Tony Ngaranoa, Popeye Edwards, Tawhi Otene, Denny Dixon, Johnny Robin, Peter Reo, Charlie Hart, Johnny Cunningham, Guy Kerikino, the Two Dogs Renata and Jeff Beacham, Kui Atkinson, and many others.
Dad played in a golden oldies band from Moteo, Harry Brown and his Band of Renown.
Other than work, many were hunter-gatherers, bringing in deer, pigs, goats, fish and other kaimoana.
Trailers of mussels, sweet corn, rewena bread, mutton birds, kahawai, spuds, kumara, watermelon, corned beef, firewood and whitebait, would be outside the gates after work, with the goods selling like hotcakes.
But there was the other side of the tracks too, where some of our whānau worked to live, not lived to work. We loosely referred to them as the "koretake gang", who would regularly knock off work on payday, then not to be seen till the following Monday. They earned enough in two and a half days to keep them in smokes, dope and beer, for the rest of the week.
They were gun butchers, boners and beefies, but preferred not to push their talents too hard. Fortunately, there was only about a dozen or so from the whole workforce, but they were well known to everyone on the plant, and were every bit as vital as the rest of us.
Throughout all this frenetic energy, nothing could eclipse the overall optimism that transcended Whakatu and all the associated businesses, for at peak, 2000 workers earning an average of $500 per week take home pay, then $1 million per week was going into the local economy.
Add the associated businesses and a multiplier of three, then it amounted to $3m per week, a figure that never really emerged until the place shut down. We might all have behaved differently if the importance of Whakatu to the regional economic wellbeing was highlighted to everyone involved.
Silent Night, Holy Night...
Out of 300 men, mostly Māori, there just had to be some good singers amongst them, and the slaughter board was no exception!
Some of those voices could lift roofs and drop bloomers on the spot! Bill Bennett the union president, or the Godfather, had a bass voice that dropped well below freezing point, and could rival Ivan Rebroff, the great Russian singer.
Abe Phillips could out-sing John Rowles, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdink and Frank Sinatra before breakfast, and Abe's wife Makere, a great singer herself, was one of the "First Ladies" to work at Whakatu.
Sky Tareha's baritone voice was so strong that when he sang, people lined up for his autograph, because they thought he was the greatest of Aboriginal singers, Kamahl, and they actually looked like twins!
Sir Howard Morrison once worked on the chain, but competition was so fierce, he ended up singing alongside the three Whatarau sisters, Rona, Isobel and Virginia, who were called the "Clive Trio".
Add to these three voices all of the other 300-odd wannabes and the women who eventually worked beside us, and you had enough decibel power to eclipse the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Black Nativity, the English at Wembley, and the Welsh at Cardiff Arms Park and it was sweet as!
You just leaned back, opened the lungs and let the sound erupt from the mouth, just like singing in the alps!
Silent Night was the slaughter board anthem, followed by Come All Ye Faithful. Then came two other favourites which were Old Black Joe and Daisy... "I'm coming, I'm coming, for my head is bending low, I hear the gentle voices calling, Old Black Joe!"
And, "Daisy, Daisy, give me your heart so true, I'm half crazy, all for the love of you, it won't be a stylish marriage, I can't afford a carriage, but you'd look sweet, upon the seat of a bicycle built for two!"
These four songs running off each other caused chaos amongst the other departments, because there was no set organised time for singing, and people hung around all day for that moment when somebody would ignite the musical flame.
There was no choir master or lead singer. It just happened with a nod of the head or raised eyebrows, and then we would all chime in.
It was stickers trying to out-sing the leggers, who out-sung the flankers, who trounced the brisket punchers, who dealt to the pelters, who were drowned by the washers, who were trumped by the gutties, supported by the labourers, including the string boys! And then it would reverberate the other way as well!
And that is my enduring memory from the first time I heard the singing, sweet thunder as a string boy, to the legging table 16 years later.
Stringer to singer! Thoughts of sore hands, monotony of task, union company battles, pushy bosses and domestic affairs all meant nothing, as Māori and Pakeha men, women, bosses and workers, Chinese, Dutch, Polish and Muslims all sang together, and in natural harmonies.
Some of us tested our voices, as we were sucked into the musical vortex, and we called ourselves the "stringer singers," but sounded more like mouse-squeaks amongst the hearty harmonies!
All other departments came to a halt, and flew upstairs to experience the phenomenon, power and wairua of the singing.
Office staff and executive managers arrived from nowhere, and whānau hung around waiting for the magic.
Traffic outside even came to a halt, to listen to the haunting sounds of Whakatu! And after each song, you would get the drumming of knives, the banging of basins, the cheering and yahooing of spectators, and the toot of horns from cars, trucks and even shunter engines.
And then it was over within five to 10 minutes. And that was long enough to leave an indelible mark on people's hearts and minds.
Even Prince Tui Teka and Billy T James visited and joined in the singing, on separate occasions. A couple of times, the legging tables broke into "Ka mate, ka mate," but the effect was so violent on the tables themselves, with wobbling and shaking from the stamping, it became unsafe, and all haka were banned!
One year at Christmas, there was a sing-off between Uncle Taanga and Dawdy Nikera over the chain loudspeaker system, and it was about who knew the most Christmas songs!
There were bets going everywhere, from money to pies at smoko.
They went one-for-one, starting with the classics, like Silent Night, then First Noel and so on, until they had sung about 15 songs each, right down to Jingle Bells and I saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus.
And then suddenly, there was silence. Dawdy had sung the last song, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, and Uncle Taanga was stumped!
And everyone started cheering for Dawdy, and when Uncle Taanga sang Happy Birthday To You, we knew he'd lost the plot and was clutching at straws, and the game was over.
So everyone went back to doing their own thing, money changing hands, pies on the offering for some, when Uncle Taanga finished with the line "Happy birthday to Jesus, happy birthday to you... hip hip hooray, hip hip hooray!"
So through the din, backslapping and shouting, "who's your Daddy?!", money went back the other way, as well as the pies, and the two contestants both hongi-ed and shuffled back to their labouring stations, leaving us all the happier and richer for it. I think this was the first karaoke competition in the world!
Ngahiwi Tomoana is chairman of Ngati Kahungunu iwi Inc.
NEXT WEEK: There goes another carcass.