Warning: this story has nothing to do with sailing.
Here's a story that needs to be told. We have been in Newcastle for the last few days and many amusing memories are flooding back. I have purposely left out the names of my five accomplices on this journey from the past. I don't have their permission and I don't think it will detract from the tale.
Picture the autumn of 1969 and we had just surived the summer of love. We were six apprentices from AIS Port Kembla (pre BHP) ranging in ages from sixteen to seventeen and a half. Only one of us had a car licence. We were all mad keen surfers obsessed with finding the perfect wave. When not surfing we spent our time looking for a laugh and adventure. All we lacked was a set of wheels. The only car we had access to was a mate's 1957 VW Beetle. We had loads of laughs fitting ourselves into it, not to mention six surfboards on the roof.
I guess its time to introduce the main player into this tale. I was with my dad one day when he dropped into a service station at Dapto to buy some fuel. There I saw the surf wagon of my dreams! I didn't know what type of car it was but it looked great! My head was filled with images of perfect surfing surfari's that could be had in this beautiful two tone green beast. And remarkeably it was For Sale! For only $120.00. I couldn't beleive the price: thats right $120.00! In 1969 five of us were first year apprentices bringing home the princely sum of $36.00 per fortnight. My older friend was a second year apprentice and he was earning at least $48.00 per fortnight!
The wonders of Google, an exact replica!
I told my Dad that I was gonna buy the car. He called me a bloody idiot and laughed about it all the way home. Funny how dads are eventually right about such things. But the thought of the 1948 Oldsmobile would not leave me alone. It bounced around my head all week. The following Saturday morning down the beach I excitedly mentioned the car to my mates. We decided right there and then to drive out west to Dapto to see the Beast! When the other five saw her it was all over, red rover! We quickly came up with a brilliant plan. Put in $20.00 each and have joint ownership. I won't go into the pains and subsquent problems of joint ownership here. I won't elaborate on the fact that none of our parents would let us park the Beast at anywhere near their houses. Luckily one guy lived in a large block of flats and we were able to park it close to there.
So the green Oldsmobile became a regular sight around the beaches of Wollongong and the Illawarra area. Every Friday and Saturday night we would park in the Main Street of Wollongong. If there was a sand dance at the Port Kembla surf club, thats where we'd be. Needless to say it was the Beast that was the chick magnet and not the young clowns inside it. Things always looked promising until the girls got a good look at the scraggly assortment of skinny, sun bleached, sweaty palmed,pimply youths inside.
In desperation it dawned on us that we needed a real plan. Surely there must be a town somewhere where the girls won't care what we look like? It was Friday night in the car park at the Open Hearth Hotel in Warrawong. We had just consumed our one long neck beer each. We were under aged and had to get someone else to buy the six beers for us. Out of the blue one of the mates mentioned Newcastle, because it was just like Wollongong only north. Giddy with excitement of the great unknown we set north for Newcastle immediately!
The surf wagon of my dreams was also to become the Beast of my mechanical nightmares. It was very temperamental when it came to starting, and really only start when it felt like it. It had an intermittent electrical issue with "the battery". The unique design of this Oldsmobile positioned the battery not in the usual position in the engine compartment, but on the front passenger floor. It was skillfully covered with a half inch rubber mat. Two great cables came through the firewall to connect to the engine. This was a really good arrangement for the front passenger who used it as a foot rest. Not many other cars could boast of this feature. The great disadvantage for the front passenger was that he was the one that had to fiddle with the connections, pull on the cables, jump up and down on the battery till it kicked over. Failng this the only other method to start the Beast was the tried and true method, the clutch start. Five scraggly skinny sun bleached sweaty palmed pimply youths trying and to push start a 20 tonne car.....
The second problem with the Beast was rain. The engine was called (from memory ) a flat six. This meant that the spark plugs were sitting on the top of the engine, unlike today with the plugs out to the side. The problem was that everytime we drove through a decent puddle the water it would splash into the engine compartment and pool on the plug sockets, immediately stopping the engine. We could quickly remedied this by doing a complete towelling down of the engine and a thorough spraying with RP7. In about two hours we were operational again.
Its was around 10pm when we left the W'gong that Friday night. It took us around two hours to get to Sydney. We pulled into the first service station we saw. (A real service station were they came out and did everything. Petrol was around 20 cents per gallon) "Fill her up with oil and check the petrol" our seventeen year old driver told the attendant, with authority in his voice. The Beast sure could burn oil!
We continued on into the night. After a while we discovered that no one knew how to get from one side of Sydney to the other. Three and half hours later we emerged at Hornsby, and felt proud of our progress. We had also had two more oil and fuel stops during that time.
Our favorite album at the time was Cream's "Wheels of Fire". We would enjoy the music by assigning instruments to each other, while someone took lead vocals. You had to do the instrument imitations with various mouth movements. This is a bit like the hip hop guys today that make all the noises with their mouths.
One of our favourite tracks was "Pressed Rat and Worthog". That song had duel french horns so I hope you can imagine how good we all sounded. "Selling atonal apples and amplified heat, and pressed rats collection of dog legs and feet". (Deep and meaningful).
On we drove singing and instrumenting. As luck would have it the rain started falling on the Pacific Hwy halfway to Newcastle. It rained and it rained and the road got wetter by the minute. We began to start thinking that it might be a good time to slow down in case we encountered a puddle. Too late! Splash , swoosh and stalled again! I won't bore you with the details but we managed to drive into the Nobby's beach car park at 6.30am on Saturday morning. Eight and a half bloody hours after leaving Wollongong.
All was not lost, for at the end of the rainbow was a perfect surf with hardly another soul in sight. A Four foot north east swell, brushed clean by a moderate westerly breeze. Heaven! Tired as we were from our epic journey we surfed ourselves silly for the next 3 hours. We all eventually staggered out from the surf and commenced the surf's post mortem "hey did you see the third wave I got?" or "what about the tube I got on my fith wave" and on it went.
Very tired and worn out as we were it was time to get some nourishment! In those days the traditional after surf meal was the tried and tested can of creamed rice. It was not uncommon to find a cartoon of creamed rice cans in the boot of the Oldsmobile and turned out to be a lifesaver once. We snuck Meggsy into the drive-in, locked in the boot, so that he didnt have to pay. Unfortunately we forgot about him. When someone eventually remembered three days later, we rushed to open the boot and found him happily eating his way through the rations of creamed rice. So there we were at Nobby's Beach, feeding ourselves and discussing with excitement what a great idea it was to come to Newcastle. Nothing could go wrong now could it? Well yes,it could and it did! We failed to notice a dark blue Falcon Panel Van with a blue and white police sign on the top. We all turned our heads at the sound of two doors slamming, almost simultaneously but not quite. It was kinda like a ricochet effect. Two bloody great big coppers with beer bellies and ruddy complexions were headed our way. They looked like two T V extra's out of Division Four. It's not a pretty sight seeing six scraggly, sun bleached, sweaty palmed, pimply youths trembling with fear, but those two bastards seem to enjoy it. "RIGHT . Who owns this heap of shit?" yelled the biggest cop. Relief swam over our faces, because he couldn't be talking about the Oldsmobile , the greatest surf wagon ever to ride the Pacific Hwy. We all turned to see what car was behind us, secretly laughing inside thinking that some poor bugger's gonna cop it. Imagine our horror when there was no other vehicle in sight. "I'm talking to you lot, you long haired gits". Well that did it for us, not only did he insult our car, he insulted our hair. We answered in unison. "WE DO!". Now in 1969 you didn't need a university degree to get into the police force. This answer seemed to stump our trusty law enforcement officers. They turned away and spoke amongst themselves. When they turned back the mouthpiece said, "Today is your lucky day. We're gonna drive around the block, and if you're still here when we get back, we will run the lot of you in!"
Easy we thought, got out of that one easy! We scrambled into action quickly tying the boards to the roof racks, and piling our gear into the car. In we hopped, ready, quick lets get out of here. Key in, turned on, kick over... But NOTHING! Bloody thing wouldn't start! A quick fiddle with the battery connections should do it. Unfortunately I was in the front passanger seat, wondering if sweating and electricity mix. Lots of fizzing and popping coming off the battery terminals, lots of sweat pouring of my body and I'm gonna die I thought. The cops will be back any minute, and it looks like its another clutch start. There we were pushing the bloody Oldsmobile out of the carpark and down the street when the coppers came around the corner. We just kept pushing past them, and our combined fear generated a surge of herculean strength. The Oldsmobile was doing thirty klms without the motor running. I remembered that I managed to glean a look at the coppers and I swear that they nearly ran off the road watching us.
The rest of the day was eneventful and our tiredness made sure of that. We spent the rest of the day lolling around Newcastle beach taking turns sleeping in the car or lying around the beach. All was not lost because it was Saturday and we were convinced that tonight would finally be our big night out.
Some locals told us that there was a dance on at some hall at the western end of Hunter St. The headline act was The Dave Miller Set. We were already big fans of this band and they had a hit song called Mr Guy Fawkes (anyone remember that one?). We had seen them perform in Wollongong several times. Not only that but their lead guitarist was John Robinson, who was Australia's answer to Eric Clapton at the time. They did a great cover of Cream's "Crossroads" which happened to be off the live version of the Wheels of Fire Album. We couldn't wait.
The Dave Miller Set.
We arrived at the dance hall at about 6.45pm full to the brim with a dinner of hambugers with egg and bacon, and our rationed one longneck beer each ready for action. There were people everywhere lining up to get in and we managed to get a parking spot in Hunter St about a half a klm from the hall. In we walked at around 7pm, fashionable late, to make the greatest impact. Its hard to explain to the younger generation today what these dances were like. There was no alcohol allowed, there were tables and chairs down the back end of the hall and a dance floor up near the stage area. It all finished at 11pm so you could be home in bed by midnight. But we were so fashionably late that there was nowhere for us to sit. We took to casually slouching against the side wall, scanning the room for some spare seats. Then one of my mates yelled out that there were six girls sitting by themselves and spare chairs at the table. This mate was smart, because he could still count to six whilst being under the influence of one longneck. "Go on Lovey, you do it. Go and ask if we can sit there!". I never thought of myself as a group spokesperson, but having two sisters I was qualified to talk to girls. I immediately began to sweat, fearing rejection and ridicule, but I wanted to look like a hero to my mates. I strode over in my most confident stride, while trembling inside. How to break the ice?
"Hi" I said. I was met with six blank disdainful stares. On I pressed because I could feel the glares of my five mates burning into my back. "My name's Glenn, and my mates and I have driven all the way from Wollongong to come to this dance!" They all looked at each other in disbelief and then their spokesperson said "Wollongong? what's Wollongong?" I quickly retorted "You know Wollongong, its just like Newcastle only down south." The girls all burst out laughing, and I started to turn away. I would have to walk the "walk of shame and ridicule" back to my mates. Then I heard, "Did yous drive here?" "yea" I replied, thankful for the reprieve. " So you got a car?" "yea" I said, having used up most of my vocabulary in the introduction. "Ok then yous can sit here". I quickly planted myself in a chair before they changed their minds, at the same time waving my dumbstruck mates over to join me. How can this be? No girls have ever let us sit down with them before. Maybe, just maybe this trip to Newcastle was a great idea after all!!!
We had a great night in that dance hall, dancing, singing, sipping on our cola's and amusing the girls with our quick wit and repartee. They even danced with us. It was a great success even though we were still wearing the same clothes that we left the Gong in on Friday. The girls turned out to be trainee nurses from the Newcastle hospital and they were great. They actually seemed to be enjoying our company. At 11pm it all came crashing to a sudden halt and it was time to go! The hall quickly emptied,and we all started piling out onto Hunter St. Someone grabbed my hand. It was the girl's spokesperson. She whispered to me "Let's go look at this car of yours". My palms started sweating at this intrusion. Girls don't usually want to hold my hand. I felt out of my depth. Unbeknown to me the other five had paired off as well, so that there were all twelve of us romantically strolling down Hunter St towards the waiting Oldsmobile. As we walked down the street the girls started playing guess which car the boys own. We went past some mean looking EH Holdens which I think they wished were ours. Finally we reached the Beast, the world's greatest surf wagon in all her glory. She had 6 boards still on the roof. We were worried they might have been stolen by now. The girls squealed with delight when they laid eyes on the two toned green Beast. Infact the girl I was with suddenly dropped my hand and pulled me in close to whisper to me "You guys are so cool!" I saw this as a quick opportunity to wipe my sweaty hands on my Lee Cooper jeans. Oh wow, some girl just called me cool! Another oportunity lost! In we piled, all dozen of us. Beleive it or not there was room for another six with a push. The plan was to drive to Newcastle beach but the girls lived at the Nurses Home at the hospital.
"Everyone aboard" called out our driver. "Yes" the rousing chorus greeted him in reply. " Lets go!" Click, click,,click nothing! The bloody car wouldn't start again! I must admit those girls were good sports. Out they hopped in all of their Saturday night best , along with the boys to push the Oldsmobile up and down Hunter St for a clutch start. I realised that this car had a mind of its own. It took over a half an hour to start. So the moment was indeed lost and we drove the girls back to the hospital. They only just made it for their midnight curfew.
With car still running we decided to get a jump on and drive back to Wollongong that night. We made it as far as Norah Head, before exhaustion caught up with our designated driver. We laughed and joked the whole way about the girls who let us sit with them, and danced with us and how they had to help us push start Oldsmobile.
One scraggly sun bleached sweaty palmed pimply youth.