The Beaker People

The old plantYears ago I used to work for BOC - the "British Oxygen Corporation" or, as it was jokingly referred to at their Maydown plant - 'Butlin's 'Olliday Camp'. Maydown is at the bottom end of Lough Foyle between Derry and Limavady. Don't let the name deceive you: if there is a colder, wetter and windier place to work in, in all of Ulster, I wouldn't like to see it. Many firms had settled in Maydown - chief amongst them was the American chemical giant DuPont - which BOC supplied with acetylene gas.

Now, there are various ways to manufacture acetylene and some of them are no doubt clean, pleasant and easy to live with. BOC at their Maydown plant  had chosen to use the 'Wolf' process, which was noisy, smelly, cold and unpleasant. It produced about as much sticky horrible tar as it did acetylene and the filthy stuff got everywhere. The plant consisted of dozens of tall vessels interconnected with a jumble of tar covered pipe work through which the Atlantic gales howled at their leisure: all in all not a comfortable place in which to earn a living.

However, there were some compensations available to the hardy workforce. One of them was the fun you could have with plastic beakers. These ever-present drink containers were white, round, twice as high as wide and could be filled with anything, ranging from coffee, tea and coke to smuggled alcoholic beverages for those special occasions. However, their main use in the Maydown plant was not for drinking from, but to play jokes with. Jokes that were amazingly sophisticated in their elegant simplicity and multi-faceted social implications.

We all had to wear plastic safety helmets: green ones for the maintenance boys, yellow ones for production no-goodniks and pristine white helmets of a superior kind for supervisors and management types. At some time in the past some wit had noticed that the place was coming down with barrels of yellow grease - the kind of sticky stuff you pack into ball bearings and rub over all kinds of machinery. Grease - white cups - many-coloured helmets - it takes a genius to make the connection but someone did, and like so many great ideas it caught on instantly and its effects lasted for years.

Take this .....This is how it works: Pick up a white plastic beaker - preferably empty - liberally coat the bottom with a dollop of thick yellow grease and wait for a suitable victim to pass by. The higher up the social ladder the candidate is the better. Don't be too discriminatory though, at a pinch anyone will do. As the victim passes, sneak up from behind and slap the beaker gently onto their helmet. Because the grease is soft, the target does not feel the impact through their headgear. The grease is sticky enough to hold the cup in place during even the strongest hurricanes.

The fun is of course not in the action, but in the reaction of the victim and those delighted people fortunate enough to observe him. The luckiest beakered creatures would accidentally knock the decoration off their crown whilst walking through a doorway - favour the giggling environment with a knowing smile and declaim in a superior voice:

"Ah, why don't you all grow up! I knew all along that it was there"!

The verbiage may have been stronger at the time.

Others would prance about for hours sporting a coloured helmet decorated with a lovely white beaker, oblivious to the joy they were causing everywhere they went. At five o'clock in the afternoon, whilst changing to go home, the embarrassing decoration would finally be discovered in the locker room mirror.

 Often, whilst going about one's important duties,  one would get this funny feeling: "Why is everybody looking at me? Why does everyone  resemble a grinning  imbecile?" One would think deeply for a little while - and then suddenly remember where one was, yell: "Damn it all to be sure", reach up above and remove the sticky article with a superior smile.

This led to many people behaving in a very strange fashion. Whilst walking along they would perform a funny hand swiping gesture just above their heads every minute or so. The aim was of course to knock off any plastic beaker that might have been planted there since the last swipe. This rather famous BOC salute usually did the trick - but not for horizontally placed decorations.

I have seen people looking all around themselves for a long time and then say with a puzzled expression: "Are you people all stupid? What is everybody laughing about". After a while the truth would suddenly dawn, they would reach for their helmet with a curse and remove the offending article.

The shy or sly ones would suddenly realise what was happening, but stroll on as if nothing had. They would wander about for a while and then accidentally knock the plastic cup off, but never letting on that they had even noticed it. They of course became the most frequent victims of the prank.

The joke even worked with no white beaker at all. All you had to do was look at your victim, produce a secret smirk and pretend that you saw the famous decoration. If the other lifted the helmet to remove the non-existent article you had won.

There are few things more delightful than observing a man with a beaker stuck to his helmet, sneaking up behind another man to plant a beaker on his helmet.

You son of a .... But why stop at only one plastic container? With great ingenuity and considerable perseverance elaborate ploys were devised to distract the victim and plant additional decorations on his head-gear - some of them arranged in sophisticated geometric patterns - placed there by highly organised 'beaker planting gangs'.
I've seen self-important managers - leaders of men - confidently stride across the plant with a crop-circle of plastic stuck to their white helmets - totally oblivious of the fact that they had been endowed with a set of industrial antlers that made a total mockery of what little authority they had left. They would go about their duties - giving orders, assigning workers their job of the day and taking notes on little plastic memo boards - all the while the centre of a smirking conspiracy of silence. How some people kept their faces straight when they were being told off by an earnest looking man of importance, whose crown was decorated with a blob of grease topped by a white beverage container, I will never know.

Occasionally a lucky someone would score a brace. The sight of two people wandering side by side to the canteen, each with a white plastic cup stuck to his helmet visible to everyone but himself is something not easily forgotten.

Either of them could of course see the other's decoration, but each kept quiet about it so as not to spoil the joke. When they passed others, they would smirk knowingly and give secret winks looking in the direction of their be-beakered companion - totally unaware of how much they had in common with him. Both would subtly misunderstand the joyous reactions of their fellow workers and must have felt right old twits when they passed a truth-reflecting window.

This kind of joke was played on people for years and only stopped when the plant ground to a halt in 1980. They must have finally run out of lubricant!


If any surfing archaeologist looking for information about the beaker people - who lived in Northern Ireland many years ago - has read this far, you may like to know that you are the latest victim of this silly prank.


Return button

Return to the story index

Two Tudors

Back to the start