prose

Vlado Bulic: Brodosplit

The Brodosplit I know is in my family's photo albums. In the two most important ones - the white one and the black one, which were the first things packed whenever we moved, and finally settled down in Split's Sućider neighborhood, in an apartment Ma and I got from Brodosplit. In the white one are photos of my parents' wedding, and in the black one photos of my father's funeral.



 In the white one is the photo over which Ma and I always pause she in a white wedding dress with a hat, looking like a French actress, my old man's next to her, and behind them the shipyard's carpenters holding glasses - Mr. Iško, Mr. Perasović, Mr. Bafa, Mr. Ćarija, Mr. Laura, and there's also Nikola, a tall young man with a moustache, a spot welder assigned to the carpentry shop. If I had to name that 1978 photo, I'd call it "Optimism".

The black album was made four years later. On the photos is a sad cortege going through the village, and in the crowd you can pick out almost all the people from the previous photograph, there's the whole carpentry shop, there's the shipyard workers from the other shops as well. They came with the buses of Brodosplit's union, the same buses in which many years later they came to the funeral of my mother's father, who died in the "Dalmacija Dugi rat" ferrous alloys factory. Brodosplit and its workers were with me and Ma through all our misfortunes, and the word "Shipyard" was always pronounced with awe in my house. 

The old man left me a wooden rifle and a wooden knife - toys he made me in Brodosplit's carpentry shop, he left a wooden model of the Santa Maria which to this day sits on the sideboard in my birth house, and he also left folding doors in the house of one of our cousins. A family legend says that the old man, in the mid-Seventies, when the first folding door appeared in the carpentry shop, hid from the bosses after the end of his shift, took them apart, measured every bit, studied it until the wee hours of the morning, and then fell asleep and awaited the next working day in the shop. That's how the cousin, who was then building a house, got the first folding door in the village and the surroundings. The old man made them from scratch, and they work to this day.

In the first grades of elementary school, the teacher would ask us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I would always say I wanted to be a carpenter, work in Brodosplit and one day make a folding door just like my old man did, the best of all the shipyard masters.

I don't know how Santa Claus found out about that, but that year, after a pageant in which all the shipyard kids got presents, in my sack was a set of carpenter's tools - a small hacksaw, a file, a measure and a hammer. After the pageant we went for cakes. There was mother, her colleague auntie Sanda, Mr. Rajko from the pipe fitters, their Zoki and Željka, and me. I looked at my gift and couldn't wait to get home and try out my tools.

I still haven't made a folding door. My greatest carpentry success is a napkin stand that's still in the apartment, somewhere near the photo albums. That's the only thing I've made in my life that I can take into my hands and feel. It's a wonderful feeling.

I got into the fenced area of Brodosplit the first time during the launch of the Amorella. My cousin Lenko smuggled me inside in a Jadrantrans FAP truck. We go through the gate, and in the distance you can see the Amorella. The steel monstrosity was sitting on the ramps, waiting for the rope to break, for the bottle of champagne to come flying at her, for the sirens to go off so she can slip into the sea. And my heart was bigger than she was.

Tomorrow, in class, I'll talk about being here, in the Shipyard, how I watched the Amorella going into the sea. Amorella was the talk of the town. 

We got out of the FAP truck, went to the stage, and waited. The Shipyard was full of kids, retirees, people in their everyday clothes. Everybody smuggled themselves in somehow, like me in the FAP. Evrybody's looking at the Amorella and waiting for her to go. Any second now, any second now, people whisper and the tension grows. The champagne bottle flies, smashes, the sirens go off, people freeze, their mouth half-agape, watching that steel monster obediently slide down the ramps, and a wholly spontaneous minute of silence occurs. And then applause. It goes on. And on.

They applauded my Ma, auntie Sanda, Mr. Rajko, Mr. Toni, Nikola and all those people from our black and white albums. All those people maybe got out of Split three times in their life, but as my teacher said, their metalworks, their pipes, the curtains sewn by my Ma, are sailing the seven seas.

Shortly after my father's death, Brodosplit hired my Ma. As the widow of their worker, she had an advantage in employment. She worked as a cleaner in the management building. A family legend says one of the bosses caught her going through some paperwork and mockingly asked her: "Whassup, girl, don't tell me you know that stuff?!" to which she impudently responded that she had her education, that she was a trained seamstress. What followed was a sentence of his that's repeated in my family as a proverb: "School ain't gonna hold the broom!" Soon she was transferred to the position of pointer, and then as a seamstress, into the carpentry shop, among my father's friends.

That's how I went on my first serious trip. Ma smuggled me into the union trip across former Yugoslavia. More precisely, no one from the shop had anything against the late Ivan's boy tagging along. That's how I went through Plitvice, Jajce, Tito's Drvar, Petrova mountain, Jasenovac and lots of other places whose names I no longer remember. That's how I met Nikola, that tall spot welder with a moustache from my parent's wedding photo. And his friend, the big kidder Mr. Žile. While the others were seeing museums, honouring the partisans and the war dead, Žile, Nikola and me were cruising these roads of the revolution looking for pinball machines. I played a few games with Nikola in almost every one of these Tito's towns. He was a legend to me.

That's how a third album started forming in my family - the colorful one. In the late Eighties, Ma and me, the widow and son of a deceased worker, got from Brodosplit an apartment on Sućider, and soon she and Nikola got married. It was a small, but cheerful wedding. Auntie Sanda and Mr. Žile were maid of honor and best man, the guests mostly shipyard workers, and the photo of their wedding with me and the four of them could have the same title as the one from my old man's wedding - "Optimism".

But instead of optimism came the Nineties. I remember them because of air raids, shelters and fearing for Nikola and Ma while brodosplit was being shot at from Lora. But I also remember nice things - I remember a new member of the family, today the prettiest college student in Split and beyond, and I also remember Nikola's overtime.

I'll never find out how much overtime Nikola put in to buy me my first computer. I only remember him and Ma getting up at around six, having coffee, that shipyard coffee, thick like pudding, and then heading out to Brodosplit. Ma would come back around three thirty, and Nikola would regularly stay until seven. Then he'd eat dinner, watch the news and fall asleep after half an hour. His only fun was the pinball game I installed on my new computer, just for him.

Whenever I read a newspaper article claiming the shipyard workers are lazy, and lately there's been more and more of them, I remember Nikola and get the urge to find the author and beat the shit out of him in front of the whole newsdesk, then the editor-in-chief, and then his editor-in-chief.

Nikola worked in Brodosplit since he was eighteen years old. He racked up a full forty years of work experience by retirement, forty years that man got up every morning, drank his thick coffee and went to his welding machine. So today my sister could be what she is, so today I could be what I am.

When in 2001 I showed up at home with the story that I'm giving up on electrotechnology and going into writing, Ma cried. Nikola didn't say a word. He never said a word over the next five years when I was calling from Zagreb and begging for cash. I knew each time I begged meant more overtime, another one of Nikola's shipyard days from 7 AM to 7 PM. But I gambled anyway. Nikola gambled with me. I gambled away five years of my life, days and days of Nikola's work to write that fucking novel, and not once did Nikola ask me when I was going to "start doing something normal". In the end it paid off, the novel got published, it got good reviews and a couple of awards, and the critics flattered me as the first representative of the cyber-generation in our literature.

If we believe that flattery, then the conclusion is self-evident - the first representative of the cyber-generation in Croatian literature was created by Brodosplit and the overtime work of Nikola Zebić, a spot welder in the carpentry shop.

A few years back, Nikola's mother died. The shipyard had fallen on rough times in the meantime, so rough there was no more union bus to take the shipyard workers to the place where Nikola was born. But they came anyway - in personal cars, public transport - the people from our photo albums were here again.

After the funeral, people talked about the situation in Brodosplit, and one of them, the steward in one of the shops, shared his misery with us. He got a task from the boss to pick two people that had to be fired. "Who do I give it to, these kids what's on their first job, the older folks waitin' on retirement, masters in their prime?" In the end he told the boss he can't mae that decision, even if it means getting demoted from the position of shop steward. "I don't want people to curse me", he says.

A few months later, I saw his photo in the newspaper. Jadranka Kosor was out front, he and his colleague in blue overalls were in the background. He served as an illustration of a shipyard worker. His story, unfortunately, didn't fit into the photo, or the text it was illustrating.

September 22nd 2010, and I'm waiting for Ma at the Brodosplit exit. The column's already forming, those with the signs are out front, among them the one saying "My old man and my mother were shipyard workers". Soon, mother and auntie Sanda show up, and with them the whole carpentry shop. "I just knew you'll come". Ma says, delighted. Auntie Sanda's happy to see me too, and Mr. Rajko, and Mr. Jure, and the other shipyard workers from our albums. Ma takes my hand and we head towards the County office, protesting to save the shipyard. Behind us, the carpentry shop, all those faces I had already once seen marching in a column, on the photos. Depressed, just like today. And for a moment, I feel like I'm at my father's funeral.

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