…Continued from Part 1
Ok, so we were in the middle of nowhere, standing next to my dead station wagon; not a dead kangaroo in sight, and the only thing to do was wait. The first (and pretty much only) rule of outback travelling is to stay with your vehicle when things go wrong. Many times over the years people have broken down (or pitted car against kangaroo and lost) in the outback, then wandered off in search for help. This is generally accompanied by dehydration, then heat exhaustion, then death. I could never understand how some idiot could drive for hours, or days, through the outback, encountering almost nothing at all, before breaking down and deciding to walk off looking for help, thinking there might be a fucking McDonalds just over the next hill.
I decided to go for a walk down the road to see if I could find help.
“Are you fucking mad?” said my girlfriend, quite sensibly.
“No, look up ahead. Does that look like a driveway to you?” I asked her.
We both squinted up ahead a few hundred metres to where a small section of the dirt road seemed (to me) to have been flattened out on one side, as if vehicles had regularly entered or exited the road at that particular point.
“Ah… bullshit,” said my girlfriend, quite sensibly. The chances of us having broken down anywhere near a station house (or ranch, in American) were slim to none, as some of the stations out in these parts are the size of small European countries.
I went jogging up the road anyway, and… well, fuck! It was a station! Better yet… it was a very small station! I jogged back to within yelling distance. “Stay with the car, I’ll be back soon,” and turned around again, jogging up the road and down the driveway to the station house, which luckily was only about half a mile from the road. It was also fortunate that17 years ago I was 17 years younger and had the ability (or willingness) to jog. For a couple of minutes, at least.
I was physically and emotionally drained, having been awake for around 20 hours. My beloved lime-green station wagon, Kermit, was severely injured at least, as I had stupidly pointed it at a giant phantom kangaroo, leaving us stranded in the outback. I was now becoming increasingly hung over as a result of having gone to work the previous night (people tend to show their appreciation of pub musicians by presenting them with alcoholic beverages). I had an angry girlfriend, no food or water, and very few cigarettes. I stopped jogging.
Reaching the main house I knocked quietly on the front door, then again a little louder. I heard sounds of shuffling and confusion, then a middle-aged woman appeared at the door. She stared past me, looking for my vehicle. The woman seemed bewildered rather than annoyed, that a bedraggled, dreadlocked young man had materialised from thin air to wake her at 6:00am on a Sunday.
I explained my situation and the nice woman called the RACQ (Queensland’s version of America’s AAA). Then she told me to come inside for coffee and breakfast, as the guy with the tow-truck wouldn’t be arriving for a while. Coffee and breakfast sounded like the best thing ever, but I valued my life and explained that I had to get back to my girlfriend who was waiting at the car about a mile away. I did trouble her for a bit of drinking water, to go, and almost asked if she had any cigarettes in the house but refrained… she’d been helpful enough.
I wandered slowly back up the hill to my girlfriend and car, the former being pleased to hear that help was on its way. I gave her some water. Her mood lifted. This was nice. About an hour later help did arrive, kind of.
This guy was a nut job. We quietly stood back for a moment, debating whether he was drunk or merely incompetent. Turns out he was both. This was going to be an interesting ride back to town. It was amazing he’d managed to drive this far and find us in the state he was in, which was the kind of state that requires the majority of cognitive processing be spent avoiding falling over. In absolutely no condition to drive, this idiot was going to attempt to tow another vehicle (with my girlfriend and me in it) over 100km back to Longreach. His wife was there too, presumably to keep her inebriated husband from falling asleep at the wheel. She was still in her pyjamas.
The guy didn’t have a tow truck. He’d brought a standard 4WD, and his specialist towing equipment involved a length of rope, which he doubled in half for extra strength. He staggered about, tying the front of my vehicle to the back of his while his wife stamped, spit, swore and abused him for getting her out of bed to drive to the middle of nowhere on a Sunday morning. Eventually he had the rope securely tied, though the two vehicles were now separated by only about 15 feet. There would be slight issues associated with this, as we realised when the guy began to tow us, as a drunken idiot would, on the dirt road back to town. He was driving as if he had already forgotten, or just didn’t care, that there was another vehicle connected to his, by a single rope. He kept swerving, and periodically braked for no apparent reason. This was a problem. The braking system on a 1976 Holden Kingswood, when travelling at 100km/h without a motor, could be accurately described as almost non-existent. Every time this idiot braked, I had a tenth of a second to literally stand on my brake pedal in order to avoid rear-ending him. This in itself was a nerve-wrackingly dangerous exercise because I knew that if I did hit him at speed whilst in this position I would personally connect with the back of his 4WD just after being catapulted through my own windscreen… Then of course he would take off again. The tow-rope pulled violently taut each time, and with it I hoped not only the front half of my car.
We made it back to Longreach. My girlfriend told me I should have let us hit him when he braked, for which we then could have easily sued him for negligence and got more money than my car was worth. I was exhausted from the non-stop concentration required to not kill us both, and although I could have sued him for being a moron, the fact that he was also drunk meant that he would also probably lose his job, maybe do a little jail-time… I didn’t want to destroy the poor bastard’s life. It looked like he was having a tough enough life as it was.
Back in town, and with more gigs booked in exotic far-away places that nobody has ever heard of, I needed to figure out what to do about Kermit. Luckily I had a mate that loves fixing old cars and rebuilding motors. There’s a lot of practical ingenuity in the outback. There has to be. I went to the pub to find out where I could find this friend (in outback towns, any local pub is about the best place to learn where to find someone).
I ordered a beer (as you do) and the owner of the pub, another mate of mine said, “Hey, have a look at this! It just arrived from South Australia!”
He showed me a yellow can of beer. It was called Duff. It wasn’t red like the fictional beer brand from The Simpsons, and it didn’t have The Simpsons’ Duff beer logo, but somehow it still looked very familiar. I had a can of Duff. It actually wasn’t bad!
We laughed about the Duff beer and how its makers were probably soon going to hear from some American lawyers, that country being the somewhat litigious place it is. I bought a carton of Duff, found out where my backyard-mechanic friend Ned probably was, and went to find him.
Ned wasn’t hard to track down (nobody is in a town of 3000 people) and he was more than happy to bring Kermit back to life. Fixing cars was his hobby anyway, and he was good at it. The promise of free beer was just a bonus. He came over to my place and set to work putting the old wagon straight by an ingeniously simple means, which I’d never have thought of. He found an appropriate length of strong wood and simply wedged it between the back of the engine bay and a car jack, which he wound until the crumpled front of my car had been pushed forward to its original position, more or less.
I’d never stopped to think about the words ‘panel beating’, which I came to realise, at least as far as Ned was concerned, is a very literal term. In central Australia functionality beats aesthetics every time. He manically thrashed the front end of Kermit with a heavy iron mallet in one hand and a can of Duff Beer in the other, casually explaining through the sound of metal on metal that the objective was simply to get the old girl running again (yep, like most old cars, this Kermit was female. I mean, how many people do you know who have a car called Harold? I also once had a Toyota Corolla called Lola, but according to the Kinks (1970), Lola was actually a transvestite… It is indeed “a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world”…) But I digress.
Ned had also removed the irreparably buckled hood and everything else that needed replacing. We grabbed a few more cans of Duff from the fridge and took his truck across town to a junkyard and helped ourselves to a few used parts that he assured me would do the trick, more or less. A couple of old headlights, a radiator, distributor and an old brown hood cost me about fifty bucks, plus twenty for the beer we drank. By the next afternoon Kermit wasn’t looking too pretty but she was running again.
I drove down to the pub to buy another carton of Duff, this time to keep. I thought it might be a good little conversation piece, and maybe even worth a bit of money later (this was the mid-90s when The Simpsons was still a very popular and very funny TV show). My mate down at the pub had had the same idea. He told me he had only one carton left, and that he was keeping it.
Of course, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Corporation, which owns The Simpsons, did very quickly find out about the rogue South Australian Duff Beer and immediately ordered all remaining stock to be recalled and destroyed. After just a few days the beer was never seen again. I was furious with myself for having drunk those cans with Ned, and also very pleased I’d had the semi-drunken foresight to save the last few cans, just in case. These cans of beer were now extremely rare. Not long after, a carton of Duff was sold to an American collector for $13,000. Oh well, easy come…
To add insult to stupidity, Kermit, my buckled old friend only lived another six months. It turned out the punishment laid on by that massive phantom red kangaroo was just too much for the old girl, and in a small but very loud explosion that scared the hell out of me she threw a piston early one morning in northern New South Wales. Luckily enough, this happened less than an hour away from my brother’s place. I’d been visiting him at his university in Lismore, where we’d also met up with our father. Dad came out to the next town, where Kermit and I had been towed. This time there would be no return. Dad, half jokingly pointed out an old hearse for sale at the used-car lot I was now stranded at. It had more than enough space in the back for my work equipment. For a laugh we took it for a test drive, and it ran pretty well (hearses tend to be well maintained… you ever seen a funeral procession parked by the roadside waiting for the AAA?). With my old man’s help we traded in Kermit, and I drove the old ’72 Ford hearse back home to Queensland, 1200 kilometres away.
My girlfriend at the time was less than pleased (closer to livid) when I pulled into our driveway in my lovely three tonne, 19-foot foot long silver hearse. I hadn’t told her about it. She was not a religious person, but she was quite superstitious and she hated it. She called an old guy from the Salvation Army to come to the house and bless the car, to get rid of any ghosts or evil spirits that might now be hanging around outside our kitchen. I thought this was hilarious.
“Of all the places to haunt, what kind of empty life would a person have to live to decide to haunt their funeral car?” I asked her.
She brought the old guy around anyway. He was good-natured, and didn’t seem to mind me giggling while he put a happy-spell on the old girl (the car, not the girlfriend), whom I’d named “The Silver Bullet”, because she was silver, and slow.
I drove old Silver around Australia for the next three years, covering just less than 100,000 kilometres, and not a single thing ever went wrong with that car. Not so much as a flat tyre. My (by then ex-) girlfriend always said that was because she had had the car blessed. I thought it might also be because of its prior maintenance and upkeep. They never get driven too fast and they’re kept clean and tidy. If you’re in the market for a reliable old car (and have plenty of parking space) I highly recommend picking one up.
I always kept a soft spot for Kermit though, and by a freakish coincidence my father saw her parked in Sydney about a year later, by then with Tasmanian plates (with her beaten-up lime green body and ill-fitting brown hood, she couldn’t have been anyone else). I was glad to hear she was still kicking. After all, she did cost me ten grand worth of beer that one time.