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Monday, December 13, 2010

Doing the right thing: postscript

You can see from my last story that at the age of 6 or so, I coveted above all other material possessions a car that you could sit in, move using pedals and steer with a steering wheel. In fact, I probably would have been perfectly happy with a Fred Flintstone model and pushed it along the ground with my feet, as long as the steering wheel worked. Come to think of it, the engineering of a steering wheel for the front ‘wheel’ of Fred’s car indicates that cavemen must have been a lot more advanced than we give them credit for, if they got that to work.

   Bimbo Brown had a red, pedal-powered, tin car with a working steering wheel. The only place he could really drive it was on their concrete path to the gate from the house; about three metres I would say. Cars of this type were designed in the 50s for rich kids who had acres of driveway, or a quiet suburban street they could hijack for personal use. Calliope was just not that sort of place in the 1950s, and Bimbo’s house upstairs wouldn’t have more than two metres of clearway for car racing anywhere, but at some Christmas he must have wanted a pedal car and of course, a car he got.

   Then again maybe his mother expected him to want a red tin car with a real steering wheel and bought it anyway, oblivious to the fact that three metres of straight concrete path with no place to turn at either end was not the ideal racing circuit for such a vehicle. Nor were these models designed for cross-country pedalling; you just got bogged in grass and would have need leg muscles of a Tour de France cyclist to negotiate the terrain. I know. I tried it on their kikuyu lawn when he finally gave me a drive of it, and it’s like trying to ride your bike on heavy dry beach sand. Hopeless. Call in the Auto Service to help dig you out.

   OK, I admit it. I was jealous. You may have got a hint of that already, as you’re a discerning sort of person, I know, and I can’t fool you all that easy. Bimbo Brown had a car he didn’t really want and left out in the rain and Queensland sunshine to deteriorate, while we had at least eight metres of wooden verandah wide enough to swing a cat or turn his red tin pedal car the other way on the car’s turning circle alone. Using the steering wheel for its intended purpose, no less. I could have driven that car for hours non-stop on our verandah, coming in only for a change of tyres and a jam sandwich. Well, forget the tyre change at the pitstop then. Sometimes I get a bit carried away, I know, but envy does that to you.

   I mean, he did look pretty silly on the rare occasions he drove his vehicle on the path at his place, having to get up at each end, turn it around like people wearing their horses do on stage, and continue the unexciting journey to the other end – only to have to repeat the operation there in four seconds. Was that living – really?

   So, I had a think about this. I must have been about seven and the hankering for a steering wheel vehicle remained both strong and unfulfilled. Bimbo’s red car was starting to fall apart, from wicked neglect. Wheels were coming loose and it certainly needed a grease and oil change. In fact, it had never received its first 500 mile service as far as I could see. Worst of all, the steering wheel was getting unstable and was starting to crack. This was to me a tragic waste.

   I decided to make an offer on the vehicle. Now I did this in full knowledge of its poor condition, and the fact that driving it home across the creek, the ploughed paddock between his house and ours and the steepish hill up to our house presented significant obstacles. Gelignite Jack in the Redex Round Australia car trials faced fewer difficulties than I did, and he had a full maintenance crew to back him up – all I had was a small adjustable spanner and I wasn’t even very good at using that.

   So, picture the scene. Bimbo’s parents were down at the Diggers Arms having a beer and we had his almost-vintage car on his concrete path, and he was about to be acquainted with my offer. I had one shilling and ninepence, but at a pinch could use a table knife to extract three more pennies from the piggy bank to bring it up to two shillings if required. (The twenty cent coin replaced the two shilling piece, or florin as it was sometimes called, if that’s any help to you in estimating the generosity of my offer.)

   We were pretty much home alone, except for Bimbo’s older brother Malcolm who was upstairs with not the faintest interest in what we were doing, making some sort of whip out of a dried bull’s penis. Now I know you are going to think I made that up. I didn’t. I don’t care if you do, it’s the truth and I stand by it. What’s more I saw it as he was whipping it about earlier in the day, and it was a quite nasty weapon. He didn’t call it a penis, though. He used a four-letter word we weren’t allowed to say and it’s not proper to repeat it here. But then both Bimbo and Malcolm used all sorts of words in everyday speaking that would turn your hair grey; ones that Dad only used when the bull turned round in the crush before dipping.

   ‘The car….’ I said to him. ‘You don’t really want it, do you?’ Bimbo looked non-committal.

   ‘I’ll give you one and nine for it.’

   I thought it a fair offer, considering the rebuilding I might have to do and the relocation challenge. 

   I mentioned that we were home alone because I want you to picture the scene, as I said before. Bimbo, on hearing my offer, got out a ten pack of tailor-made Ardath and lit one up with a silver cigarette lighter he’d got from god-knows-where. He didn’t offer me one as he did get into a bit of trouble resulting from that other smoking incident, and wisely excluded me from the joys of tobacco ever more, for which I was grateful.

   He stood there, left hand stroking his chin, gazing pensively at the car, dragging lazily on the cigarette, and I got this vision, as clear as if it were etched into my brain, of Bimbo three or four decades down the track. It wasn’t just the sight of him in this pose with the smoke in his mouth; it was the words.

 ‘Nah, Den. Nah. She’s.... she's just too old tuh sell, mate.’

‘Nah, Den. Nah. She’s.... she's just too old tuh sell, mate.’
Illustration by Watto

   Shortly after, "she" was despatched to the rubbish tip. I did eventually get my own car with a steering wheel. It was a Datsun 1000 I bought brand new in 1966, but after driving it up and down to Brisbane scores of times, the thrill of the steering wheel did finally wear off, I have to admit.

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