Seeing I was probably older than Tom Taylor’s mother, he was vastly relieved but not overly surprised.
We had been enjoying a sensational beer (any cold beer in a cool pub in 40+ heat is sensational) and studying some unusual but uncaptioned black and white photos from Australia’s glorious sporting days. I thought I recognised a gangly racehorse, probably chestnut, but no one at our table knew its identity.
As the big bloke towered past I thought I would ask him. “Excuse me, I was wondering if you could help me.”
Tom Taylor turned but he had already uttered a dozen syllables to the bar attendant. The accent was a dead giveaway. He would not have a clue if that photo was of Phar Lap, even if the Americans were accused of murdering Australia’s most famous Kiwi racehorse.
Tom (pictured) is from South Carolina, which accounted for the broad accent. He turned out to be one of the most genial, funny corrosion engineers to entertain us. That was because we had never met a corrosion engineer before but we could understand why one was in Onslow.
Like Dampier, Onslow is approached on a roadway flanked by hectares of fields evaporating H2O from the sea. Close to 600 people work in the salt mine, with a 1.3km loading jetty at Beadon Point taking salt from the processing plant to ships where it sails away to become caustic soda, chlorine or soda ash and is then converted to paper, fabric, detergents and plastics.
As the second largest exporter of salt in Western Australia after Dampier, Onslow can produce about 2.5 million tonnes of salt a year. The industry is now being dwarfed by the giant Chevron Wheatstone gas project that will employ about 5000 people for about 15 years of construction, tearing apart the social and cost structure of the town.
However salt - or rather the rusting effects of it - had brought 28-year-old Tom Taylor on a flying visit to Onslow. He shook our hands, remembered all our names and chatted amiably – social tactics he learned from his politician dad, a Republican hovering quietly over the middle ground in the red hot conservatism of the Deep South.
Tom was hanging out at the Onslow pub waiting for a plane to take him back to Perth, where he has been based for a year. He had been flown up that morning to assess a corrosion problem that took an hour to sort out.
Tom never wanted to be a corrosion engineer and he advised us to look with great suspicion upon anyone who claims to have yearned since the age of eight to follow a career in rust busting.
“It’s a bit better than watching paint dry but not much.” Most metallurgists who were corrosion engineers “sort of drifted into” the specialised field, he said.
He had been involved in a much more exciting line of work, developing ceramic armour plating for the military, but in the end the US military decided against using it.
Being a rust buster was not too bad, however. It took him to some interesting places. He spent a couple of years in Saudi Arabia and in his time off relaxed in some idyllic coves on the Greek islands.
He loves Australia. “You guys don’t appreciate what you have here with all the open spaces, the weather, the scenery and the laid-back lifestyle.”
Tom Taylor wouldn’t mind finding the future Mrs Taylor in Australia but while marriage might be on the cards settling down with a family is some time off. Too much of the world waits to be explored and fortunately a lot of it is getting corroded. So who do you call? Rust busters.