Learning to Drive


When I was young, motor vehicles were not all that plentiful. Of course many of us wanted to learn how to drive. My father encouraged this, much to his sorrow later. He used to sit me on his knee and allow me to steer the old Fiat he owned at the time. It was a bright red with some of the polished brass controls mounted outside, on the running board. Really one magnificent vehicle, I wished I owned it today. I decided when I was about five, it was time to go solo. I loaded all the neighbourhood kids on board, and released the brakes and took off down the hill from where we lived. I didn’t get reprimanded for this short promenade as it was explained to him, he was part of the problem for encouraging me. However from that day I couldn’t wait until I got behind the wheel again, and in control. We were lucky to have relations on a farm down at Freshford Southland. There were many holiday visits, and I was delighted to be allowed to drive the farm tractors and their a car, a 1934 Graham-Paige. One tractor on the farm was a huge German single banger, I think it was called ‘Munctell’ or a name similar. It’s starting was an engineering feat in itself, as it had a blowlamp which you lit, then focused it onto a hot bulb which was part of the single cylinder. But as far as I was concerned it had a fault. It would run just as happily in reverse, which happened sometimes to me as I was lacking in strength to correctly spin the flywheel, which was how you started it, from a handle that folded out of the flywheel. I could always tell which was the right way when I got it running, by looking at the blind on the radiator to see if it was being sucked in or blown out.


While at home again and aged about ten with my brother and cousin, we all used to get up about 4-00am in the morning, walk out to Thompson’s Farm at Sawyers Bay in reservoir Road. Help with the cow shed cleaning up after the mornings milking, load the milk on board their willys 77 (This light truck was actually a forerunner of the Willy’s Jeep made famous during world war II). Then we would take off on their daily milk delivery run. ‘Bondie’ whose job it was to carry out this task, (This wasn’t his correct name, as all the Thompson sons had high fluten names, such as ‘Asquith’ which were never used). Bondie was a fashion plate too, as far as milk vendors were concerned, Jodhpurs, polished leather leggings, and open shirt and slouch hat. Because we did all the running, and we worked for free, we were then allowed to drive the small truck between customers. Bondie I also suspected was sweet on the cook at the Port Chalmers Hotel. I think she gave him a lot of attention which he craved, and a farmers breakfast, as he never came out of the kitchen for a long time. We boys then finished the milk run which was in the business area of the township. We didn’t have to worry about traffic cops back then as there weren’t any. I think there could have been one in Dunedin. I found out too that even back then, most police didn’t look for trouble and only really acted on complaints. They didn’t go around looking for trouble. We were busy delivering the milk and at the same time, getting valuable driving lessons.


I still remember they day I turned fifteen. I fronted up at Jim McElwee’s office with my five shillings the cost of a licence. Jim was the local carrier, fire chief, president of the RSA, and the man in charge of all transport matters for the town. I seem to remember that he also had something too do in starting a local museum in the pioneer Hall. He roared with laughter when I explained that I wanted a driving test and a licence. Why I have observed you driving around here for years. Give me your money. You don’t even need a test. I did get a test however when I turned eighty. During that Test my examiner said he would fail me because I stopped about two metres passed a compulsory yellow line painted on the road. I explained that this was deliberate, did he not notice there was a tree blocking our view. After it was over, he relented and gave me a pass. I came home and was still annoyed of having even to take the test with the stupid examiner. So I immediately sat down and wrote a letter to the Transport Minister the Hon. Ruth Dyson, complaining about the unfairness of the system and the actual requirement for these examinations as well as the monetary costs taking into account every one that got a bite of the cherry. The medical, the actual test, and the issue of a new licence and photo, which was only good for two years. Statistics didn’t support any need. She replied straight away, and thanked me for my letter. She added that they were doing something about the matter. She wrote again in a few months and told me in future that I would only require a medical every two years to obtain my licence. You actually do get some wins in life.


At eighteen I was called up by the Army. This wasn’t part of my game plan, and if I had a choice I would have opted for the Air Force. I actually made the move over sometime later, as soon as I had passed their pre entry flight crew exanimations. At this time I hadn’t actually even been for a flight in any Air Craft, and the only contact I had with flying, was with Model Aircraft I had built myself. It was discovered on arrival at camp there were only two recruits holding Heavy traffic Licences. One was Ralph Maxwell and the other myself. We were then given the task of training some thirty other recruits how to handle and drive a heavy vehicle, all of which had been conscripted from far and wide all over Otago and Southland. Trucks of this time were very robust, and all had crash gear boxes which took a bit of getting used to.


I have enjoyed my driving and the freedom it has given me. I will be sorry when the day comes that I have to hand my licence in.




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