THE GOLD RUNNER

It was called the ‘Gold Run’ and every member of the staff at the mining company was expected to share turns taking the month’s gold production to the mainline train station at Raposos. This was a distance of about 18 kilometres and, as the company had built a miniature train line from where the gold was extracted and refined in Nova Lima to Raposos, it was not an onerous task, but it was not popular with those on the rosta as it wasted the better part of a day.

The mining company was losing money and so, at a cost-cutting meeting the company accountant proposed shifting the transport mode from train to plane. The railway people charged one half percent of the gold’s value whereas taking it by air from the newly opened Pampula airport in the State capital, Belo Horizonte would be a considerable saving. His suggestion was that staff members should take it in turns to fly down to Rio de Janeiro with the gold and stay over-night before returning next day.

This idea was far more popular with the ‘Gold Runners’ than the train ride and I hoped to get an early place on the rosta because the accountant, Rodney Collens was both a friend and my bridge partner. But to no avail. ‘Sorry Bill, there’ve been certain conditions and I can only put you on the third run,’ Of course one could see why. This was in the 1950’s and the gold mine was situated in what is known as the Highlands of Brazil; remote and isolated. The idea of an all-expenses-paid trip to Rio de Janeiro was an alluring prospect, and the stories of the first ‘gold runner’ made the wait seem all that longer.

When it finally became my turn I found that the routine began as it had been on the previous system. I turned up at the Refinery office and was scrutinised through a sliding hatch before locks were turned and bolts withdrawn from the inside. The Refinery manager, Dave Finlay, the gold assay supervisor Albert James and Gerry Lee from the accounts department were all waiting in the office where, on a table, lay the bars of gold, all numbered and identified, two large cedar wood boxes with leather straps for carrying, scales, wires. sealing wax. an identity stamp and sheets of paper with the details of each gold bar.

With my arrival the proceedings began. One by one the bars of gold were checked by all in the room and, on being approved the item was ticked off on the manifesto and, wearing cotton gloves, Albert placed ┬áthe bar into one of the cedar boxes. This was repeated as many times as there were gold bars. 40 kilos was considered to be the maximum weight to carry – 20 kilos in each box – and so the bars averaged 2 to 3 kilos each. With all the bars in the two boxes Gerry and I were asked to sign the various manifesto copies. A copy went into each box, one stayed in the office and Gerry and I received a copy each. Special bevelled lids were slid into the box tops, wires threaded through small holes in the boxes and sealing wax heated to secure the wire-ends; after which the company stamp was pressed into the soft wax. There was an almost visible releasing of tension when all the precautionary steps had been completed; the relaxing of the four of us was palpable.

‘All ready?. Dave Finlay asked me. ‘All ready.’ he picked up a phone. ‘senhor Pires. Ouro esta pronto.’ A few minutes later the sound of a car stopping outside the door preceded a knock; the hatch was drawn back and Jose Pires, the chief of company police was identified. The door was opened and I hoisted my heavy load and moved outside. Two guards with rifles were sitting on the back seat of the waiting car, the chauffeur at the wheel and the police chief was standing by the door. He greeted me, ‘todo bem?’ ‘todo bem.’ I loaded the boxes on to the floor of the passenger side and sat in the just vacated seat. Pires closed the door. ‘Pronto?’ asked the driver. ‘Pronto.’ and we set off on the dusty, dirt road, over the mountains to Belo Horizonte.

The two guards accompanied me to the foot of the plane’s steps and, once aboard, with my two boxes stowed under my seat, all I wanted to do was relax. It had been an ordeal. But my neighbour was an American, and not just that, he was the sales manager of an Insurance company doing the rounds of the South American offices – as he readily informed me. When he had opened up to me, he paused, expecting reciprocation. When it was not forthcoming, he employed direct methods. ‘And what do you do, sir?’ ‘I work in a mine.’ ‘Ah, fantastic, where’s that, sir?’ We were some minutes airborne so I pointed downwards and said, ‘right where you can see those hills.’ ‘Great, and what do you mine?’ I thought that I would probably have to lie sooner or later under the barrage of questions he was throwing at me, but decided that this was not the question to begin doing so, and merely said, ‘gold and silver,

His enthusiasm increased with this information and more questions followed. ‘You’ll excuse me , sir, but it is so interesting.’ It was when he asked about the method of mine despatch of its gold that I found it unnecessary to lie, I described the railway routine to him – two armed guards with me on the miniature train; waiting on the Raposos station flanked by the guards until the smoke from the approaching train was seen and arrival of the massive steam engine filling the little station’s space; steam hissing from a valve; a door in the guard’s van sliding open and the guard watching as I staggered in with my load. He signs the piece of paper I hold out to him, waves his flag to the engine driver before stepping back into his van. Then the explosion of steam getting the train started on its 400 kilometre journey to Rio. I hear the bolts closing in the van as I turn to go.

All this was related piece-meal to my eager listener and, prompted by his intermittent questioning, I launched into the mine’s history. Opened in 1857; the gold originally sent in a bullock cart with a wagon-train to Rio or Parati, taking up to two weeks before it could be shipped to London. The railway was laid in 1879. I did not have to lie and I invented nothing, only concealing the present method for shipping the gold. Some questions I needed to weigh carefully before replying and all the time my heels were touching the boxes of gold beneath my seat.

Our one-sided conversation never flagged and when we landed at Galeao airport I moved into the aisle to let him pass. He held out a hand, ‘Well, it sure has been an interesting flight for me, sir. I’d just love to see some of that gold you’ve been talking about,’ He reached into a pocket, ‘my card if you are ever in the States.’ I accepted it and he waited, but with no card coming from me, ‘well, goodbye, sir.’ His feet were inches from the gold he was so thrilled about, I thought as I waited for him and the other passengers to clear the aircraft before making my way down the steps trying to look as though I wasn’t carrying two 20 kilo boxes, and not succeeding too well.

I’ll be glad to get rid of these, were my thoughts later as I waited at the Panair desk, putting the boxes down with a foot against each. Expectation changed to slight irritation after the elapse of half an hour. I know this is Brazil where punctuality is a word with variable meanings but the Banco do Brasil shouldn’t be so disorganised as to keep the mine gold waiting half an hour in a dangerously exposed public place. The irritation turned to something like alarm when an hour had passed. Something must be wrong. I wobbled my way along a concourse and saw a door marked PRESS ROOM and pushed my way in. A few idle reporters were lounging about over coffees – evidently it was a slack day for celebrities passing through Galea. ‘Can I use the phone?’ One waved an arm to an instrument. I rang the operator and was told it would take up to an hour to make my connection. My evident frustration must have triggered off the group’s earlier decision to leave and, alone in the PRESS ROOM I could not even go for some refreshment but continued waiting and wondering if my odd way of walking had attracted any undesirable attention.

The phone rang. ‘senhor Collens por favor.’ A wait and then a voice I recognised. ‘Rodney,’ I burst out, ‘I’m at the Rio airport and no one is here to meet me.’ ‘Oh, the silly sods must have forgotten. I’ll give them a ring.’ ‘Rodney -‘ I yelled, but he had rung off. I don’t know what I wanted to say but the idea of having to wait another hour for his call to reach the Banco do Brasil and another wait on top of that…… I fumed on.

Standing nervously again by the Panair desk was another waiting game. ‘Senhor Mason,’ sounded at my shoulder. I jumped and turned to see a man about my age smiling and holding out his hand. I did not smile back and reluctantly shook the proffered hand. ‘I’m Paulo from the Banco do Brasil. I have a taxi outside.’ That’s Brazil when the chips are down I thought. Charming – but they don’t feel they have to apologise for a fiasco.

N.B. It is only re-reading this blog on 10th June 2014 did I suspect that it was my friend Rodney who had forgotten to advise the Banco do Brazil about the Gold Run that day, and if so, a belated apology Paulo.

14-8-1957