“I have mixed feelings. Anger, anxiety, disbelief, and acceptance take turns alternating in my mind. Nostalgia.
“[…] I remember my first day as a trainee […] being yelled at in front of the entire shop by an older man in my first year, ‘Allyuh ‘oman only trying to take man wuk!’ We are friends today.
“[…] My father worked on the cat cracker during his tenure at the company. The older men joked that a particular piece of equipment was my ‘brother’ because it had been my dad’s baby.”
The following Letter to the Editor was submitted by Satira Maharaj, as she contemplates her last work day at Petrotrin; and the nostalgia of two generations employed at the State-owned oil company:
Today, 30th November 2018, is my last day at Petrotrin. Tomorrow, 1st December 2018, is my birthday. I was born at the Petrotrin Augustus Long Hospital in Pointe-a-Pierre, on December 1st 1986. It is fitting.
I began working at Petrotrin on 1st December 2009. I have spent exactly 32 years affiliated with this entity in some way or the other, and exactly nine years working there.
I have mixed feelings. Anger, anxiety, disbelief, and acceptance take turns alternating in my mind. Nostalgia.
I remember family weekend trips to the narrow strip of sand they called the Yacht Club. Come to think of it, I have never seen a yacht there. I remember the first time my dad took us to the pool. It was so large, so wonderful. I swam there off and on for my nine years as an employee. I have not been able to bring myself to swim since Petrotrin announced its closure.
I remember going to the ‘summer’ camps on the compound. Sometimes we would take a maxi from St Mary’s junction and my dad would meet us at the entrance to the compound. We swam and sailed and surfed. My sister played golf and tennis. We met new people.
The children who lived on camp all knew each other before. They all attended the St Peter’s school on the compound. Some spoke with accents. They were privileged and they knew it. I am privileged too, of course. I have a university education, and a middle class upbringing with two parents and a supportive extended family.
I remember, as a teenager, dreading my medical appointments at the Augustus Long Hospital, where I was diagnosed with childhood migraines and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
I remember my first day as a trainee. My niece was born that day. She is my birthday baby. My parents picked me up after work to visit her at the hospital.
I remember being yelled at in front of the entire shop by an older man in my first year, “Allyuh ‘oman only trying to take man wuk!” We are friends today. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. It is a powerful strategy. My superintendent at the time taught me that.
I remember going to buy steel-toe boots for the first time. There were many styles for the men, and exactly two for the women. Our group of trainees joked that we were the highest concentration of females in the refinery. I remember one, then two, then three female superintendents.
I remember my last day as a trainee, wondering if I would be hired back.
I remember making friends, finding mentors, developing new skills and perspectives. I remember the first time I climbed a sixty-foot vessel. I remember standing at the top of the cat cracker and surveying the land around me. I could see the other industrial units around me. The breeze was strong this high. The people on the ground were too small to see.
My father worked on the cat cracker during his tenure at the company. The older men joked that a particular piece of equipment was my ‘brother’ because it had been my dad’s baby. In the distance, I could see the Naparima Hill and the communities that grew organically around the oil sector in the southland for the last hundred years. The perspective from the top of the cat cracker was amazing.
I remember being bullied, being told that I was ‘too sensitive’ when I found the strength to speak up. I remember deaths of men I had grown to know, respect and like.
Their names deserve to be said. Padarath died from brain cancer. I found out about his funeral too late to attend. Karan Soondarsingh died from heart problems—exacerbated in my opinion by the stress of the job. We spoke about the Ramayan and Bharatanatyam dance, postpartum depression and making sacrifices for the job.
Bagirath Singh died of cancer. He took me along on site visits to scope out equipment before we even began doing work on them. He was a calming voice with lame jokes. “How I spoke? Like a wheel!”
He used to play cards with my father. That little group nicknamed my dad “Ethics” after an incident where someone ‘hung the jack’, prompting my father to declare “You all have no Ethics!”
Today will also be the last day of work for the sons of Misters Karan Soondarsingh and Bagirath Singh. Will we, this new generation, develop the cancers and illnesses of the generation before us? Have we been inhaling these chemicals long enough, or have we been ‘rescued’ in time?
I have not escaped entirely unscathed. I remember being diagnosed with diabetes at the Petrotrin medical centre. I stared at my test results and messaged my sister with shaky hands.
Women with PCOS are at higher risk for diabetes. I wish the doctors had explained the link when I was still a teenager. Cortisol levels (the stress hormone) has been proven to raise blood sugar. I wonder if my work environment has contributed.
I remember when my boss subsequently tried to get me declared medically unfit to work. I rarely speak about this.
I remember that other children got to see where their parents worked. Of course, children were not allowed in the refinery. I did get to see the office eventually. It was larger than I expected. I even got to understand what he actually did for a living. My sister and I had wondered about that for years.
Once she asked him who was his boss. “Stanley.” My father is a man of few words—unless he was expounding on a topic he was particularly interested in, or had a few drinks in him. Today will also be the last day of work for Stanley’s son.
I remember my Form Six graduation. It was held at the Petrotrin Club Ballroom. We could see the pool outside the window. That was also a time of nostalgia, for I would soon be leaving my homeland to go to university abroad.
Someone at Petrotrin once shared a remembrance: “I remember when your father was trying to decide if to send you to Florida.” But wait nah, didn’t I choose to go to Florida on my own?
I have realised that a parent’s work can be more subtle than we realise. The gentleman continued, “I remember when you was writing Common Entrance. Your father used to bring your past papers and correct them (at) lunch-time.” These people have long memories.
I saw some examples of these memories recently, at an information session for retirees. They came in their numbers, with grey hair, no hair, shaking hands. They came with wheelchairs, walking sticks, glasses, hearing aids. They came, men and women. For of course the work of the women cannot be discounted.
Those wives, who dutifully sent their husbands to work with crisp, clean shirts; hot lunches; and limbs and life intact. Some of the men returned home with dirty clothes; some with injured or missing body parts. These men and women built the physical and psychological foundation of the entity we know as Petrotrin.
The retirees came, with loud voices. They had been promised life-long care under the Petrotrin medical system, and now they were being offered two years coverage under a very limited Sagicor health plan. They too, spoke of their memories.
There are many more memories, individual, generational and communal, from people whose lives have been created or changed within or because of this entity.
Today, 30th November 2018, is my last day at Petrotrin. Tomorrow, 1st December 2018, is my birthday.
I will be thirty-two years old, and officially part of the unemployed, (supposed) youth of the nation.
Anybody have a wuk, link meh.
Editor’s Note: Anybody wishing to contact Satira Maharaj can do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.