In Control by Mike Cavanagh
I’d arrived in Auckland airport then hitched to somewhere along a road south from Hamilton on New Zealand’s North Island. Low rolling green hills, black and white dairy cows, and a cool autumn wind blowing from the east. I was on semester break from Uni, having somehow convinced my dad that I needed a sabbatical (and suitable finances to support such) and a couple of weeks in New Zealand would be just the ticket to recharge my studious batteries. Things we tell our parents, eh?
I’d arrived with a threadbare, army surplus great coat and my old boy scout, khaki canvas backpack and not much of an idea about anything really; but this was 1972 and my hopes for successfully hitching rides were high.
Now, sitting on my pack, after a fruitless two hours during which time only four cars had zoomed past, I was staring at the road, hopes not so high. I heard the truck before I saw it; a raucous rattling, metallic cacophony that invaded my reverie. I looked up. Barrelling towards me was a greyish, battered three-ton truck showing scant regard for whatever the speed limit was and even less for the safety of the forlorn hitchhiker in its path. I stood up, grabbed my pack and stepped back well off the edge of the road, then a few more steps into the long grass to provide as much room as I could for the truck to pass.
Gravel and dirt shot out from the side of the road as the truck careened past, clanging and rattling mightily, and even at my much-stepped-back distance, I was soon coughing and spluttering, thankful for my army surplus great coat as gravel chips pinged into it with merry abandon, only to fall back disconsolate and ineffective. I was still dusting myself down when I heard the horn. It was a strangled sort of sound reminding me of Leo Kottke’s description of his own voice as ‘geese farts on a foggy day’.
I turned around and saw the ramshackle truck backing towards me. Oh blimey, had he just realised he’d missed me and was coming back to finish me off? Images of Peter Fonda’s demise in ‘Easy Rider’ flooded my mind. The truck stopped and a waving hand came out of the driver’s window. I could just make out the face in the large driver’s side rear-view mirror as I heard a young man’s voice call out.
“Sorry about that, bro! Hey, ken I give you a left?”
A ‘lift’, yes? OK – all thoughts of near-death experience gone, I grabbed my pack and trotted down to the truck.
The driver opened the passenger door and I climbed up into the seat.
“Hi, me name’s Kehvun.”
Kevin was a young Maori man, solid build and maybe mid-twenties. Big brown eyes and a beaming smile. Just for the moment though, my attention was less on ‘Kehvun’ and more on the steering wheel in front of me. I glanced across and yep, there’s was one for Kevin as well.
“Yeah, bit weird, eh?” Before I could comment he continued “I do contract work for the Department of Main Roads, and this is a road line marking truck, so we have dual controls. You know, so it’s easier to see what’s happening when we’re marking the wrong side of the road, eh?”
“OK, of course. Makes sense.” Then turning to shake Kevin’s now outstretched hand I added “I’m Mike.”
“Hi Mike. Glad to meet you. Sorry about nearly collecting you back there. Never meet much along this road and with that coat you were pretty well camouflaged.”
Gee, now why hadn’t that occurred to me before now? Here am I trying to hitch a ride and meanwhile I’m cleverly camouflaging myself!
I laughed. “You know, I’d never even thought of that.”
Kevin laughed. He now seemed like a really nice bloke in fact.
We chatted in loud voices as Kevin drove the rattling truck along a some clip. The large open back of the truck was chockers with spray painting equipment, tools and metals boxes and canisters, the whole lot making an inglorious racket as the old truck barrelled along.
Kevin was heading a fair way south, down to Lake Taupo, some 170kms along my way. Sweet, I was finally making some headway.
After chatting away amiably for some time, we settled into a comfortable silence; well we stopped talking; anything but ‘silent’ in the rattling truck.
It turned out that I was lucky that Kevin came along. My last ride had dropped me off on a side road and Kevin only came this way about once a month.
I was drifting off watching the countryside swirl past when I looked up and saw a sharpish, dipping bend in the road approaching. ‘Hmmmm.’ I thought. ‘Think we’re travelling just a bit fast to take that safely.’
As we neared, Kevin showed no signs of slowing down. ‘Bloody hell!’ Before I knew it, we were careening into the dipping, ever decreasing radius bend, the truck shuddering and fishtailing as the rear tyres slid out to hit gravel. ‘Bloody hell, what is this madman doing?’
Then calm as all get out, I heard Kevin’s voice.
“You can take your foot off the accelerator anytime you like bro, eh?”
Instinctively I pulled both feet off the floor, not knowing what the hell he was talking about. Immediately the truck began to slow, righted itself and we came out of the bend on the road and at a far safer clip. I looked down at the floor.
There in front of me were dual foot controls – brake and accelerator. In my growing apprehension I’d inadvertently pushed down on the floor with my legs, as you do. Result being I’d been flooring the accelerator more and more as I tensed.
Safe and sound as we came out of the bend, Kevin and I laughed.
Oh boy, did we laugh!
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