Bungaree

Journal: 027

W&K Wedding Group W&K.jpg

A week or so ago Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed Reading Victoria’s Suburbs & Pieces page, “a new piece of writing each week, free and online, themed around a suburb or town in Victoria. From fiction to nonfiction, poetry to prose, the only constant was the titles.” (I’ll link you to Sue (here) and you can follow her links to Reading Victoria). Despite the 25 years I’ve lived in the West, my heart still lives in Victoria where I was born, grew up and raised a family. Bungaree is not one of the 20 or so Victorian places I lived in but it played a short, significant part in my life (and I in its!).


Bungaree is of course the name of a prominent Indigenous man, of the Kuringgai people north of Sydney, during the early days of white settlement. It is also the name of a farming hamlet, south of Ballarat on the old Western Highway, long since bypassed, green, damp, hilly, black-soil potato country.

In the early hours of March 27 – mum’s birthday as it happens – 1976, I was at the wheel of a Brown & Mitchell Kenworth, a big red truck towing a big red pantec trailer loaded with 20 tons of bagged gypsum from Adelaide to Melbourne. My brother B3, a young policeman, was with me because, well because he could be. Any chance to drive. We’d called in at Stawell caravan park before midnight, found the Young Bride out, with friends at the Glenorchy football club ball, in the long cream dress she got married in still seeing occasional service as an evening gown, so we pressed on.

Misty rain was falling as we crested the rise into Bungaree then dropped down into the long right-hander through the scattering of houses. A car was coming towards us, lights on high beam. I aimed to the left of it, backing off, unable to judge the sweep of the corner in the dark and the rain and the blinding light. The crunching of gravel told me I was off the bitumen and on to the shoulder. And still the car was directly in front. I pulled as hard as possible to the right. Crashed into, over the car, swerved out across the wide verge, skating on wet grass, steering, braking furiously, around a power pole, through the front verandah of a weatherboard house, the Bungaree Police Station and into the front room.

Where there were five people sleeping on mattresses, an old man, his son, and three children.

In the pitch dark the truck engine roared. The man trapped under the left front wheel screamed. Someone, the policeman came running from the back of the house, shouted at him to shut up, he did, at me to stop the noise, I tried. Forced my arm under the windscreen lying flat on the dash, to the key, which did not work. Shoved the truck into gear and stalled the engine. For a moment all was quiet. B3 said “I’m ok, are you ok?” (At some stage he also said “Happy birthday, Mum”, but now I don’t remember when) and, his door up against an interior wall, crawled out through the sleeper cab, around the roofing iron separating us from my left ear to his right ear and we both got out my side, over the old man quiet beside the right hand steer.

At that stage we didn’t know about the three kids. One was rolled up in a mattress, in the stumps of the house, under the front of the truck, one had run away out the back, and I guess the third one we missed. Anyway they were all ok, though you can only imagine their nightmares.

B3 and I left the policeman to his family and ran out onto the road, to the car. It was crushed all down the left side, knocked off the road into the table drain. The driver told us to leave him alone, let him sleep. He was young, coming home from a party, had just dropped off his girlfriend, and driving home to Ballarat, had pulled up on the road, on the wrong side, had fallen asleep, lights blazing.

Within minutes, as you can imagine, there were police everywhere. The car driver was taken to hospital where doctors, on strike about something, managed to not give him a blood alcohol test. B3 was taken to hospital to have his head stitched. At this point I discover I don’t know how he got home. The old man was taken to hospital where he died the next day of heart failure. Rescuers jacked the truck off the ankle of the trapped man and he was taken to hospital. I sat in the back of a police car, was questioned then left alone. Later, the depot manager from Adelaide on his way to Melbourne, had his worst fears realised when he saw the ‘B&M’ on the sides of the trailer sticking out of the wrecked house. He came over to where I was sitting. “Are you ok?” I was ok. “All right, stay here, you’re in charge.” And off he went.

Some time after daybreak we all went back to the Ballarat police station. I sat in the canteen. When a load of stuff from Bungaree was brought in I joined the policemen putting it in storage. But mostly I just sat. It was lunchtime before Don my mate came down from Stawell in his powder blue GT Falcon to collect me, bringing Laverne, his girlfriend, and YB.

We went down to Bungaree for a look then headed off home. “Are you ok?” YB asked. “Yeah sure.” “Today was the day I was going to tell you we’re breaking up,” she said.

kw B & M AndyCole-05b.jpg

Not my photo. It’s been on the net for ages and I’m pretty sure it’s my truck. At the coroner’s enquiry we were told that hitting the car had destroyed my steering, severed the airlines to my brakes and pushed the left front wheel back into the battery box. So I had no lights, no steering, no brakes and all my desperate maneuvers to avoid the power pole, to miss the house were illusory, without effect, without the possibility of effect. At a subsequent court case the car driver had his licence suspended and received a small fine.

Recently I discovered that school students had written an account of the accident (here). There are differences between my account and theirs. There were differences between my account and B3’s at the inquest. I have told the story as I have remembered it, or as I have remembered retelling it. I’m with Murnane, we don’t remember events, all we remember is memories.

19 thoughts on “Bungaree

  1. Is that you in the photo at the top, Bill? Had you only just gotten married? I’m not sure what it’s like in Australia, but I know that there is a perpetual argument about the dangerous driving habits of truckers due to the pressure of “time is money!” and the way cars drive around trucks as if trucks and cars drive the same way (cars pulling out in front of trucks, motorcycles driving on the line to pass two trucks, etc.) There’s a big push here to have self-driving semis, but then what would happen when the self-driving vehicle encountered a sleep kid in a car driving right at at?

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    • Truck drivers do do long hours, because that is how they get paid, because often we get paid for driving overnight but not for the loading we do during the day, because it’s the culture, we’re proud of our ability to work long hours, and because it’s intoxicating to drive all night when everyone else is asleep. And all that causes accidents which modern regulations seek to prevent. But idiot car drivers, and drunken idiot car drivers especially, are also part of the equation. As for self-driving trucks – modern capitalists believe robots are the answer to the inability to work cooperatively with labour. But if labour have no wages who will buy their goods? That is a question which is already presaging the end of neo-liberal capitalism. And that’s a good thing!

      The photo. My journals take the form of lightly fictionalised memoir. Let’s say it’s a generic 1970s wedding photo I used to illustrate the Young Bride’s dress.

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  2. Bill, what an amazing story and thank you for sharing it – I can imagine it stirred up memories you’d rather forget – and you keep driving trucks! Your memoir will be a doozy! My Dad’s first job here was driving a Caltex oil tanker for an owner driver with no power steering in those days. He did long hauls up to border delivering oil to hospitals –
    punishing hours, poor roads and plenty of drivers who shouldn’t! Mum’s nerves atangle until he came home. Thank goodness he never went through a serious trauma. I think it is a tough occupation/life and adds an extra strain on sustaining a relationship and family – well it certainly did for us that first year in Oz. Thanks again for sharing your story.

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    • Thank you Mairi. It never occurred to me not to drive and in in fact I was driving a borrowed truck for Don later that day. I was always jealous of petrol company drivers whose union had won them very good pay and conditions, a big factor in the oil companies handing their deliveries over to Linfox and Tolls and so on. And yes being away all the time puts big strains on relationships.

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      • Dad was in union but in those days because he drove for an owner driver he was almost regarded as a scab, not directly employed by Caltex and although he had the shirt, they wouldn’t let him share their table at truck stops – it took him awhile to get to know all the ins and outs and complications of the trucking industry then and I know he left because there wasn’t enough hours in the day to work at that job and earn enough to feed wife and 6 kids and keep the owner’s family as well but he had a few rows with some of the other union guys too. I remember as a 9yr old climbing on top of the tanker with my brothers as we washed it down and scrubbed all the dust and grime gathered on those trips to Mildura etc. I had a bad car accident when I was 16 – No seat belts then – I’ve never held a driving licence and cars are always my third choice of transport- Shanks pony no.1 and public transport no.2 😁

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      • Another mate in Stawell employed me as a tanker driver in the months after this accident but he could never get me permission to even enter the refinery, so he’d have to load and then I’d do the driving. Still, I don’t blame the unions – the bosses do everything they can to chip away at pay and conditions (we saw lots of that when the mining construction boom ended, though not with my boss, bless his black heart). My son doesn’t drive, doesn’t like sport – he’s very particular about which parts of me he takes after!

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  3. Wow Bill, that’s a story. Sorry about the old man but sounds like it was really lucky that so few were badly hurt.

    Love your point about memory… It’s so easy too to be convinced that what we remember is fact whereas in truth it’s only our individual perspective, which was not only limited at the time bit which changes with time.

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    • I was conscious that telling my story could trivialize what the people in the house went through. Especially as the policeman had just moved from a nearby town where he thought his house was too close to the highway to Bungaree which was set further back. And until I read the story the school kids wrote I hadn’t realised the old man, Mr Elliott was so badly injured – I thought we had missed him, but he must have been knocked to the side. What Gerald Murnane writes about memory probably isn’t new, but it is certainly worth thinking about.

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      • I love that students’ report – love that it was clearly a school local history project. What a great exercise for those kids.

        As for your story, you can only tell your experience. I wonder if that young man has any sense of what he caused that night by his poor decision making?

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      • I must have seen the car driver give evidence but I don’t remember it. The coroner and the magistrate were the same person so there was a feeling at the driver’s trial that we all had already told our stories at the inquest and so we sort of only told summaries the second time round, which I’ve often thought was part of the reason he got off so lightly.

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  4. B3 wrote –

    My remembering is not so different to yours.
    We had tea, you had a shower etc at Stawell, you didn’t need to be in until morning but you decided to take me home and camp in the truck or at my flat in Heidelberg rd. ( I had no idea where [YB] was or was not).

    I always thought we were separated by the base of the hot water tank in the ceiling.
    And that we had lost the front left wheel completely. (it was a long way from the initial impact with the car into the tiny little white house spot lit now in front of us, miles away.)
    I remember fiddling with the air wiper on my side, it going flat out or not at all.
    I don’t know how I got back to home either and I think nana was staying with mum & dad at the time. She insisted I go to Box Hill hospital to get the glass out of my face. (I did). & hands.

    Because I was already a (brand new) Policeman the Sergeant thought I would know how and what to complete a statement for what ever court process might follow. I didn’t, it was my first statement and the court case my first court case.

    I later met a girl who was in the house, she always thought the two blokes in the truck ran away. She must have seen us going over to the car [if the car was still on the road someone needed to stop the traffic].

    I’ve never forgotten that car driver saying Let me sleep. He admitted to having around 100 beers afternoon/evening/night at the court case, his or his brothers 21st or 18th.

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  5. Isn’t that interesting – the girl thought you had both run away. Just think that that’s the evidence she might have given in court and that might have swayed a jury. I’m not saying this was a jury case, just commenting on how inaccurate witnesses can be – it’s truly scary.

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    • It’s always worried me a bit that people thought we might have, but I think we did the right thing, and none of the hordes of policemen who turned up suggested otherwise. They were all very sympathetic and friendly.

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  6. I’m at a loss to know what to say after reading this story…for the second time now in 2 months. I couldn’t think of an adequate response in Feb & I still can’t now, but I did want to let you know that I have read your story and that it moved me. A lot.

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