An Unexpected Honour

Until I heard the siren I felt on top of the world. I had allowed myself three days for the trip from New Jersey to St Louis, Missouri, and was driving along the freeway enjoying seeing new places across middle America. It was the mid seventies.

The cop made me pull over, dismounted from his motor bike and declared “I’m going to issue you with citation from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” That sounded pretty fantastic: my initial apprehensions were instantly dispelled. However, I could not fathom out why the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had singled me out for this illustrious honour.

My brain went into overdrive and for a few moments I enjoyed the fantasy of receiving an illuminated address from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, complete with crest and some unctuous words of gratitude honouring my service to the State – something I would be proud to frame and hang on my study wall.

The reality was of course quite different. The cop handed me over a piece of yellow paper, sure enough headed “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” and on the next line the word “Citation”. As I read further it told me I had been fined $100 for speeding.

The cop gave me the choice of going before a judge in the nearest town or sending in the money by postal draft. I opted for the latter and was allowed to continue my journey.

A couple of days later I went to a post office in St Louis, bought $100 postal draft and posted it to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

On many occasions I enjoyed telling this tale in the course of socialising with various Americans , many in the mid-western Bible belt. Their response was always the same: “You didn’t need to pay. You are not an American. You could have easily got away without paying”.

This gave me the glorious opportunity to put on my most sanctimonious voice and smuggest smirk and reply: ” But I have not come to your country to break your laws”.

There was invariably a gratifying lull in the conversation as my loquacious companions moved into embarrassed silence.

ROBIN SEN

The Fox

I was sixteen and I was hungry. For two days I had lived only on bread and water and fruit filched from orchards. This was the flip side of hitchhiking through Europe and running low on funds apart from an emergency stash to get me to friends in Paris.

Dutch lad Wouter and I had met at a youth hostel the day before and agreed to travel together. We had got a lift in a truck just outside Grenoble and the driver had taken us about a hundred km north before dropping us off at an intersection a couple of km from a large village. We spent a long time hoping for another lift but nothing came our way. Looking back hitchhiking seems an idiotic way to travel and see places – I am left with distinct memories of hours hanging about by the roadside but only a hazy recollection of the sights I had set out to visit. At the time, however, it was a great adventure. Eventually we decided to walk into the village, keeping an eye out for fruit trees on the way.

Wouter, who was a bit older than me, was as broke as I was but generously shared his last bar of chocolate with me.

I remember it was a beautiful sunny September day and we walked through flat but agreeable countryside.

We spotted an object lying on the grass verge beside the road. As we approached it turned out to be a hit-and-run victim- a fox- newly dead as rigor mortis had not yet set in. At once I realised that our hunger problems were solved. No, not what you think. Even on an empty stomach, barbecued fox sounded singularly unappetising – not to mention utterly yukky.

I told Wouter that in England the authorities were dealing with a plague of foxes and were offering good money – about five pounds I believe – to anyone bringing in a dead fox. I was confident that there must be a similar program in France. All we needed to do was to take the fox into the village, find the local gendarmerie and collect our reward. Wouter was happy to go along with the plan.

In my hungry imagination a plate of steak and frites loomed tantalizingly close, followed perhaps by a creme caramel or one of those delicious raspberry ices the French were doing fifty years before anyone else.

We had to work out how we were going to transport the fox. We decided on an act of vandalism (such a relief to be able to confess after all these years). We broke down a sapling growing beside the road and stripped off its branches. This was how we were going to carry the fox. There was a further technical problem to overcome. How to attach the fox to our new pole? Wouter had a brain wave. Tie it on by the feet. No rope! Solution – use our shoe laces, one lace from one of his shoes and one from one of mine.

I must say we did a pretty good job with the fox upside down and front and back legs tethered to the pole. This we carried on our shoulders, one leading, the other following, just, we thought, like a couple of coolies (not a politically incorrect term at the time).

There was one downside to this arrangement – the fox was bleeding from the nostrils, leaving a trail of blood as we proceeded towards the village. Other than that the fox was in perfect condition – apart from being dead.

When we eventually arrived we stopped by a small bar. We were still shouldering our burden of dripping fox. Some old men were sitting in the sun outside and I must concede that, with the benefit of hindsight, we must have looked weird, to say the least. This was especially so as we both had a pronounced limp due to each lacking a shoelace. Asked what we thought we were doing, we asked the way to the gendarmerie.

“Why?” they demanded. With great self-confidence and bad French we explained we were going to claim our bounty for turning in the fox. At this the old men burst out laughing and one said something like”Sacre bleu. Ces etrangers sont absolument fous. Nous n’avons pas besoin de ces imbeciles dans notre village” (Trans: Oh dear, silly boys). “Allez vous en – fiche le camp” (Trans: Bugger off).

We were then advised not to go anywhere near the police station as the gendarmes were likely to run us in as vagabonds. Nobody paid a bounty for dead foxes in these parts.

One kindly old man did say that when he was a boy (must have been over seventy years previously) his folks would have skinned and eaten the fox but they didn’t do it nowadays. I still do not know if this was true or he just said the first thing that came into his head to soften our disappointment.

So off we trekked through the village with our sad cargo, which we dumped in the corner of a field.

And Oh! The luxury of having both shoes firmly laced once more.

ROBIN SEN

It was ridiculous

It was supposed to be a simple job. My daughter’s house had a leak in the roof. “No problem,” I said, “I’ll fix that tomorrow.”

It was a two-storey house in Newtown. It was obvious what the problem was: part of the lead flashing against the chimney had been dislodged and bent up by the wind, allowing the rain to get in.

All I had to do was climb up with a silicon gun, push the flashing back into place, and seal it with the silicon. Simple!

I took my ladder and leant it up against the back laundry wall. It was easy to climb on to the corrugated iron roof of the one-storey laundry. Then I dragged the ladder up after me and placed it on the laundry roof, so that I could climb up to the second-storey main roof, which I successfully did.

I clambered up to where the problem was, pushed down the bent flashing and applied a generous amount of silicon. Suddenly I heard a loud noise. My heart sank when I saw that the ladder had slid down flat onto the laundry roof and was now completely out of reach.

It was ridiculous. I was stuck. My daughter was at work; no one was home. No phone. I sat there on the top of a two-storey terrace roof feeling ridiculous. What to do?

Just then a schoolboy was walking past. I yelled out to him, “Could you please help me get off this roof?” He readily agreed, but there was a problem. Well, several problems actually. First he had to get over the fence into the backyard, which he managed to do with the help of some nearby milk crates. He then opened the back gate and brought in the same milk crates so he could climb up to the laundry roof to rescue the ladder. He then held the ladder up to the main roof, enabling me to climb down. What a hero he was!

I thanked him profusely but he said “No problem” and went on his way. I often wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t come along.

Yes, it was ridiculous. I have now sworn not to do any more roof jobs.

–IAN FERRIE

YOU COULD FEEL THE TENSION

It was one of those see-sawing games and you could feel the tension. It was a Rugby League football game between the mighty St George Dragons and the sworn-enemy Melbourne Storm. I had persuaded Margaret to come to the game and we were in a group of loyal St George supporters high up in the tallest Grandstand at the Sydney Football Stadium.

The Storm struck first, scoring their first try in the 7th minute. It was converted, making the score 6-0. It was a brutal game with heavy tackles, some legal and some not-so-legal. One by a Storm player saw a Dragons half-back stretchered off the field in the thirtieth minute. The tension was palpable with looks of determination on the faces of every St George player. When the next scrum went down, everyone in the crowd knew that something big was going to happen. They were not disappointed when the scrum disintegrated and a huge fight erupted, leaving the guilty Storm forward on the ground with a bleeding nose. One of the Dragons front-rowers was sent to the sin-bin for ten minutes so the Dragons were now down to 12 players against the Storm’s full team. Now the Dragons were really angry and played as if there was no tomorrow and scored against the formidable opposition. Score at half-time locked at 6-all.

Some people do not approve of football because it is so rough. They complain about the physical contact, the spilt blood and the violence, but the players want to play, the spectators want to watch and it keeps young aggressive men off the streets. They use up their energy training and playing the game that they love. It helps with mental health as well as physical health.

The second half started slowly, but a volcano was about to erupt. You could feel the tension as each player took the ball and ran with determination. During the next 25 minutes each team scored a converted try and soon it was 12 points all with five minutes to full-time. With all the tension another brawly erupted and two more players were sent to the sin-bin. St George managed to work the ball down to the Storm’s try line and in the last minute, as St George were about to score a field goal to win the match, Margaret said to me:

“You know, you can see the Harbour Bridge from up here.”

That was the last time Margaret went to the football.

–IAN FERRIE

THE MISSING LINK

Breaking into cars, kayaking in the English Channel and a glamorous Palestinian hijacker – they are all linked. Curious? Read on.

I had parked the little yellow Mini in the only remaining spot, nose against the wall, at the gloriously English-named Hindleap Warren, site of an outdoor adventure camp. Joining the other kayakers in the minibus, we set off for the trip to Newhaven on the south coast. It was a bitterly cold winter’s day.

At the beach we put on wetsuits made from recycled inner tubes and paddled out into the ocean. With no fast-flowing rivers in south east England we had to go out to sea to get a white water thrill. This was achieved by riding the wash of the cross-Channel ferries. Occasionally if things got a bit too rough we would “raft up”, with three or four kayaks side by side and held together by our hands. This made an unsinkable raft. Our leader, Jay, an ex-London detective, told us of others who had used this technique to paddle from Scotland to Iceland.

Jay served up lunch on the beach – sandwiches prepared back at Hindleap Warren and still frozen. Then into the water before the trip back.

On arrival at Hindleap Warren, I went to depart in the Mini but found my exit blocked by a car which had parked immediately behind. No sign of the driver.

Jay turned up and asked me for my car keys. I protested they would be no use in getting into the blocking car. However, Jay insisted. He took my keys and with some rapid movements opened the car door, entered and started the engine with the key and moved the car. I watched carefully to try to work out his technique.

I was then able to move the Mini. Surprisingly, Jay then asked me for the keys again, whereupon he drove the offending vehicle back to where it had previously been parked. We did not stay to see the look of amazement on the face of the other driver when they returned to see the gap where the Mini had been and wonder how it had escaped.

Later, I tried Jay’s technique on other cars but could never manage to pull off his sleight of hand. However I found it worked when an office colleague had left her keys at home and could not get into her filing cabinet. I used my own keys to copy what I remembered of Jay’s technique (which I will keep secret!!) and hey presto the cabinet opened. After that I became the go-to-guy whenever someone could not get into their filing cabinet. I also fantasised about a midlife career to industrial espionage.

Oh, and the glamorous Palestinian hijacker. That was Leila Khaled who on 6th of September 1970 had tried to hihack an El Al plane en route from Amsterdam to New York. Overcome by sky marshals, she was arrested when the plane touched down at Heathrow. Jay was the arresting officer. During the three weeks between her arrest and her release in a hostage exchange (from another hijacking) on October 1st, Jay and Leila became friends. Years later they were still exchanging Christmas Cards.

– ROBIN SEN

BALCONY SKIP

I watched a big truck reverse into the driveway with six inches to spare on each side. A hi-vis, gauntleted driver clambered down, connected chains from the crane and manoeuvred the heavy skip to the top of the load. In two minutes the crane was retracted. The driver climbed back up to the cab, half-turned, and waved to me with a smile and an unmistakable look of triumph. Then she closed the door and drove away.

William G. Allaway

THE TOFF, ENGLAND, 1963

Bowler hat, dark jacket, pin-striped trousers, briefcase, neatly rolled umbrella – he was obviously a toff. As he sat down he opened his pristine copy of The Times (in those days a broadsheet), intruding on the space of the people on either side and uncomfortably close to those opposite.

The other passengers sat on two bench seats facing one another, their clothing and their Suns and Mirrors marking them out uncompromisingly as working or lower middle class.

We were on a commuter train coming in from London’s south-eastern suburbs, passing through mile after mile of drab semi-detached two-storey houses.

As we approached the London terminus, the train slowed to a stop, whereupon the toff looked up, folded his paper and, briefcase and brolly in hand, opened the carriage door, exited and promptly fell out on the track.

Somewhat dishevelled and bright pink from embarrassment, he climbed back into the carriage and, pushing past the knees on either side, exited through the opposite door, intent on alighting on the platform that just had to be on that side of the train. Unfortunately, we had only paused at the signals, so he again fell on the track. The English are usually a reserved bunch, but on this occasion there were many smug grins as our puce-faced and dishevelled toff lurched back up into the carriage.

— ROBIN SEN