ACCO Twinsteer

Journal: 099

When I decided to stop being a cadet journalist at $44/week – and when my father gave my address in New Farm to the Federal Police – I hitched up the Bruce Highway intending to find a driving job and got one at the first place I tried, Marrs Carrying in Nambour, just 100 kms up the road. I got a flat, single bedroom, one of four in a row along a short driveway, and in a couple of days I was given a trip to Brisbane in one of Marrs’ old C-series International furniture vans, picked up the Young Bride and our little furniture, and brought her back to our new home.

Alan Marr was a big, angry man, a former POW on the Burma railway, and he got through employees pretty quickly. But his sons, big like him, weren’t so bad and luckily Danny, the older, took a liking to me and YB and so I got on ok.

A lot of our work was bringing building materials up to Maroochydore where they were just beginning the process of digging the canals and putting in subdivisions. We brought up all sorts of freight to Nambour; did furniture removals throughout the Sunshine Coast; and three trucks, the elite, carried fruit from central Queensland to Sydney and Melbourne.

As well as home base in Nambour, we had a depot in Eagle Farm and every night the last truck out of Brisbane would load up all the bits and pieces off the dock and take them back to Nambour to be delivered. Then, in the morning all the drivers, sometimes as many as 10 or so, would turn up at 6.00 am. All of us would line up beside that ‘last’ truck and sometimes shoulder to shoulder to fit us all in, would pass items from hand to hand until the truck was unloaded. No man could be seen to be unemployed!

If there was a flour truck in from Dalby, one or two of us would be deputed to go down to the bread factory to unload twenty ton of 120 lb flour bags. The driver would drag each bag to the edge of the trailer, tip it onto our shoulders and we would run -yes run – it inside and lay it on the stack, running up the sides of the stack as it got higher. Grown men would wilt and walk away, but I was pretty wiry then and once you got into a rhythm it wasn’t bad work.

Soon anyway I was promoted to a long-distance job running beer and and building materials to the new mining town of Mooranbah, inland of Mackay and about 600 miles or 1,000 km north of Brisbane. My truck was a ‘butterbox’ ACCO towing a single axle trailer, with a carrying capacity of 12 ton. That’s an ACCO pictured but a twin-steer, which I’ll get to later. Mine was single steer and single drive. The engine was a trusty old Perkins diesel putting out 130 HP. By then, 1972, American trucks had 240 – 300 HP motors and even the Europeans, mostly Mercedes at that time, had 205 HP. So progress, with a top speed of 48 mph, was slow. But on reflection it was a good truck in which to learn my trade.

Well, except for the brakes! Sadly, after a few pumps, the old ACCO had no brakes at all. You learnt to approach corners and other difficulties slowly. And usually, halfway down a long decline, you would let her rip, while you revved the engine and built up brake pressure again.

YB and I had the second flat along. In the first were a couple of guys, Spot, who was a barman at one of the hotels, and a tall awkward guy, Nebo. One night we had all been drinking around our kitchen table and I had gone to bed. After a while I could hear tall, awkward guy trying to persuade YB – 18, friendly, and good looking – to come next door with him. I chased him out, and we all stayed friends.

Still, she always came with me on trips. I liked being with her, and it was amazing the friends we made along the way because people liked talking to her. If we had to, we’d sleep sitting up, our heads on pillows in the corners or leaning over the engine cover. But often I would arrange the load, especially if it was beer and soft drinks, so there was a space on the deck where we could stretch out on furniture packing.

The coast road, the Bruce Hwy, was pretty primitive back then, narrow, barely two lanes, and all the river crossings single lane ‘bridges’ just above the water, with a log along each side to stop you driving off.

Summer of course is rainy season, and the water coming off the coastal range would flood all the creeks and cover the crossings. You’d check the level wasn’t above two feet, aim at the road on the other side and head right in. Going into Rocky there was a long stretch of river flats and the road had a big curve, so if it was under water there was nothing to aim for and the police would close it, or sometimes guide us through.

Towards xmas, YB and I went up on a Sunday. There were roadworks north of Gympie and they were a quagmire. There should have been a grader to tow the tucks through but the driver had gone to the Sunday session, so we had to wait. Eventually he turned up, not particularly worse for wear, and we got going, up to Moranbah, unloaded, and home without incident. That should have been our last trip for the year, but the boss had loaded up another ACCO, a petrol-engined twin steer tray with ten ton of beer, for us to take straight back. So off we went.

We got to Gin Gin, outside Bundaberg, that evening and there was a queue of cars and trucks waiting to cross the river which was a bit over two feet. Eventually, a couple of trucks came through southbound and we set up a convoy heading north. I was about third, tucked in behind the truck in front so I wouldn’t splash water on my engine, and particularly the distributor. We got through ok but no-one followed us. The truck behind had run up on the log side and was stuck there. I heard later, up the road, that it was 24 hours before they got a crane to lift him off and re-open the road.

There was more rain on the way, so YB and I made a run for it. The Bruce Hwy between Rockhampton and Mackay was then inland of it’s current route, as the map shows, running north from Marlborough. There were some good roadhouses along there, derelict now. We made it as far as Boyne River where there were already a couple of trucks pulled up with huts and another with oranges. The river was at two foot six, so we went inside to have breakfast and wait for it to go down. That evening it was at eight feet and we’d all backed up, and the next morning it was sixteen and rising. We were stuck there three days, eventually about 50 trucks and a heap of cars. The roadhouse tried to ration what food it had, and otherwise we lived on oranges and my beer, resting in the shade of the huts and playing pontoon. I was selling the beer at 50c a stubby, hot. People would keep coming up to me and YB giving us money. Another guy up the back in a Peters Ice Cream truck told me later he was chilling the stubbies and selling them for 60c. I wish he’d told me at the time!

When we finally got to the Moranbah pub, the publican just laughed and charged us Brisbane cost price for the shortages, so we made a whacking profit. Back in Nambour, friends, a couple from Moura where we also did deliveries sometimes, had arrived to spend the break with us. The guys next door broke a louvre and let them in. YB and I were back by Xmas Eve and we all went to the drive in, at Maroochydore or Caloundra, I forget now, and sat on the ground on rugs and drank the night away.

Running away to the Circus

I’ve been reading Jess White’s essay on disability in KSP’s Haxby’s Circus, in the ALS journal. It’s years since I read Haxby’s Circus. I didn’t like it much and of course now I can’t say why. KSP’s initial inspiration for the novel was when she was helping her doctor brother out in northern Victoria and an injured circus performer was brought into the surgery. But it didn’t really take shape until she was married, living outside Perth and she was able to spend some weeks with Wirth’s Circus, travelling with them on their special train through the wheatbelt – up the Midland line to Geraldton, across to Mullewa and back down to the main east-west line at Northam, 100 km east of Perth.

I’ve never been on a circus train, or seen one that I could remember, but I have been in a circus convoy.

I already told you that at the beginning of 1972 the Young Bride and I drove up the east coast from Melbourne to Brisbane with Peter and Ruth and took a couple of rooms in a divided up old Queenslander in New Farm, a few km downriver from Brisbane CBD. YB and I were broke. I got a few days work laying turf along the new freeway and then followed up an ad in the paper to line up for a job with Ashton’s Circus.

Doug Ashton, then fiftyish, came along the line and picked out all the likely young men, including me. We were to work some days in Brisbane, I forget now where they were set up, and then set off on two or three weeks of one-nighters around south-west Queensland. For $25/week and keep. Keep being a bunk bed in a caravan and endless helpings of stew.

My first piece of luck was that I told Mr Ashton that I had my own van and that I was married. He said he would find something for YB to do AND we would get $37/week – between us. Once we got moving YB was made ‘governess’ and would go over to Doug’s daughter’s (Jan, I think) van and supervise the kids.

My second piece of luck was to be made electrician’s mate so that when the other labourers were flat out in the heat lugging the seating and scaffolding, my job would be to lay out the extension leads from the generator truck. Each night of course was the reverse, and I’d coil up all the leads and then wait till the others had finished and power down the generator. Usually we’d sleep where we were then take off in the morning for the next town.

The caravans didn’t usually run off the generator. At every new town a search party would go out, an unsecured power point would be found and that would run the whole encampment. Walking round the vans in the early morning in bare feet you’d feel the electricity crackling through the frost on the grass from every loose or damaged extension cord..

On the way into a new town we’d dress up in clown suits and walk in and around the trucks as they paraded down the main street with the animals in their cages and the three elephants standing free on their low-loader trailer. I’d grab some white gloves and a papier mache policeman’s helmet and direct the traffic.

At night the other guys would have sets to move and so on, but I would sit in a little booth watching the show and changing the music cassettes. The (real) clowns would come in to Elvis Presley’s It’s Now or Never and if you think I never want to hear that again you’re right.

YB had to wear a tutu and some feathers and as each new act entered she’d strike a pose – you know, one foot forward, arm raised. She was still bleeding a lot, so was constantly terrified, and in the end that was why we gave up and went back to Brisbane. Though the old van was making some pretty odd noises too.

I don’t remember most of the acts now, the elephants must have done something, and we had tigers for a while, and trapeze. The youngest of Doug Ashton’s daughters was a hefty girl and she’d galumph around the ring standing on a cart horse. We had an old strong man, who pulled his caravan with a hearse. He’d once had an act with the daughter where he hung upside down and the daughter would do tricks sitting on a swing he held in his teeth. But they had to give up when she made his nose bleed.

The tiger tamer, Jan’s husband I think, was a European and he was training pigs which were pretty clever, though I don’t think they impressed our farmer audiences. The only other performer I remember now was the oldest of YB’s pupils, 10 or 11, who was so flexible she could turn herself inside out so that her torso was between her legs and her head was way up her back.

After a week or so we went down the coast to Surfer’s Paradise. We had a big sandy block not far from the beach. One of the trucks got bogged and Abu, the oldest elephant, was hitched up to it to pull it out. Years later there was a court case in all the papers because one of the labourers had been annoying Abu and she stomped on him and killed him.

After we got the tent up we got a cyclone warning so we had to double up all our guys. Then we went down the beach and watched the palms bend flat in the wind and the surf eat away all the sand. The tent survived ok.

After a week or two doing towns in the hinterland and out past Warwick, we doubled back to Ipswich. And I’m pretty sure it was from there YB and I tossed it in and went back to New Farm, which we ended up taking over from Peter and Ruth. To raise the big top, you’d lay the two centre poles on the ground, spread the tent out over them, with the two steel-ringed openings lined up with the top of the poles; then I would lay out all the fairy lights, so that as we hauled the poles upright the lights would be hung, above the tent, between them.

This last time, I did something wrong, and when the tent came up the lights were lying along the canvas. Doug Ashton just looked at me and said “up you go.” So I shimmied up 60 feet of wooden pole, out through the ring at the top, walked along the peak of the tent between the poles, hooked up the lights where they should be. I could see across Ipswich, across the suburbs, to Brisbane CBD in the distance. And then I looked down, down that 60 feet of wooden pole. It was a long way.

But there were ropes all along its length, and I’m still here, so it must have gone ok.


Jessica White, Losing Sight of Billy: Moving Beyond the Specular in Haxby’s Circus, Australian Literary Studies journal, 23 may 2022 (here). It’s a special issue on disability, with lots of interesting essays, including one on deafness (list of essays)

Peter & Ruth

Chapter x in an ongoing story

Bromley was a liar, not mean or vicious but unable to tell a story without embellishment or invention. He was Peter’s roommate at College the year I was there, and with me, one of only four or five high school boys in a sea of privileged grammarians – Melbourne Grammar, Geelong Grammar, Trinity Grammar – the Premier’s nephews, scions of department store families, boys whose fathers were surgeons or lawyers or bankers or graziers, rich boys from Hong Kong and Malaysia, the brother of the boy who roomed with Prince Charles. One boy whose grandfather was a famous general had a car with the number plate ‘1’. Another boy had an XK 140 Jaguar. I had a pushbike. Bromley had a trumpet.

The College had a number of residential blocks of varying ages around a big grassy quadrangle. Ours was relatively modern and we freshers had our rooms on the bottom floor; pairs of boys, from different schools, with a small bedroom each and a shared study. Peter and Bromley, studying respectively electrical engineering and medicine, didn’t get on, probably after one too many of Bromley’s stories, or maybe the trumpet, and so divided their study in two. Crossways. Bromley got the door and Peter the window.

Bromley came from a large provincial town in the Western District, and I remember after one term break, him telling a long story about hitching a lift back to Melbourne in a Kenworth truck pulling a low loader, tacitly acknowledged as a lie, but important in that it indicates that he knew even back then that a story about trucking would impress me. Of course, I failed first year Engineering and for most of the following year a truck driver is what I was.

My best friend, RT, had the study across from mine, and he, like most of the boys, stayed in College for a second year, while I had a room in a terrace house nearby in North Melbourne. Then in third year we got a house together, first in Carlton – which the Premier’s sister bought for her daughters – and when we (I) didn’t get on with them, in the city, behind the Windsor Hotel.

Bromley by then was living in an old terrace house in the same block as the Royal Women’s Hospital, so only a hundred yards or so from the university, and sharing with Rob, a boy I knew from Engineering. Visiting them one day in August I met their new housemate, dropped out from a suburban high school, and persuaded her to come and live with me, which she did for the next five years.

That year, the year after the Moratorium, I’d lost my licence and had gone back to uni to do first year Arts – Maths, Philosophy, History & Philosophy of Science, and Arabic – mixing mostly with the guys from SDS. I’ve discussed before that the SDS women, although sound in socialist theory and the anti-war movement, had their own agenda in Women’s Lib.

During the year I had been an office boy in an engineering firm, then after the exams I started factory work, stacking sheet metal as it was cut into shapes to make tin cans. The Young Bride was working in a city office and we got our first car, a Commer van – a sort of ‘Kombi’, but made in England, and nearly as rusty as the one pictured above.

I was getting summons from the Federal police, at my parents’ address luckily, in relation to my being a draft resister, and was in imminent danger of spending the next two years in jail. Our plan was that come christmas we would spend a couple of weeks driving up the east coast, ending up in Brisbane, and out of the way of the police. Initially Rob was going to come with us but somehow, and I hadn’t seen much of him in the intervening years, that turned into Peter and his girlfriend Ruth, a nurse.

You know my priorities. I put my books in boxes in rows down one side of the van and laid a mattress on top. I drove and the others rotated between the bed and the passenger seat. We had a top speed not much over 40mph so it was a leisurely trip. We’d stop at all the beaches and swim. Ninety Mile Beach we had almost to ourselves and spent a lovely afternoon skinnydipping. A couple of passersby had to look studiously at their toes.

I don’t remember now how we got through Sydney; just stuck to Highway One, through the city and out over the bridge, I guess. At Byron Bay YB left our purse behind, with all of $25, so Peter had to finance us the rest of the way and into a couple of rooms in an old divided up house in New Farm, a couple of suburbs upriver from Brisbane CBD; and next door to the Valley, Brisbane’s hotspot of vice.

Peter and Ruth got the bedroom and YB and I got the couch. One morning Ruth woke us laughing. She dragged Peter out into our area and made him demonstrate what had her and soon us in stitches. Peter could raise and lower his testicles independently and make them dance.

YB and I got work with Ashtons Circus, touring south west Queensland – that’s another story, Melanie – and then when YB got ill and the van was close to dying, we went back to New Farm and did other jobs; took over the house; Peter went back to uni while Ruth stayed on for a while; I got a journalism cadetship, working 4.00pm to midnight. YB and I would spend all day walking around the Valley, or mixing with the other tenants in our house – a truck driver mate of mine, and a mate of his who lived with a couple of prostitutes; another young guy who had the back half with his mother.

Eventually I got my truck licence back and we moved, first to another house whose address my father gave to the police, and then up north. After a year, and the end of conscription with the election of the Whitlam Labor governement, YB was missing her family and we moved back to Victoria.

I saw Bromley for the last time three or four years later, in Ballarat hospital where he was an intern. YB and I had split up, I was unhappy, had taken a bottle of pills. Bromley laughed when I told him, saying I should have known 50 Mogadon was never going to do it.