Trade skills in any field, whether it be film work or construction, demand doggedness and persistence. I learned this the hard way when I started work at fifteen, at Waverley Creek south of Mount Isa. I could already drive a car but it was here I started driving trucks on construction work. The first truck I drove was a Leyland Comet, single axel, 5 speed box with a splitter; both the brakes and the starter were long gone. I’d already mastered the Caterpillar 922 end loader and I could run the crushing plant.
When I was sixteen we got a bright red tandem drive Diamond Reo, but what sorted the ‘men from the boys’ on this truck was it’s quadruplex transmission. A Quad box was two gearboxes in tandem; the first had five and the second ‘joey’ or auxiliary box had four, so it was a 5×4. In practical terms it gave thirteen useful gears but five of the changes required both boxes be changed at the same time, and that took two hands, and also the engine revs had to be perfectly synchronised because these were ‘crash’ boxes. I knew none of this initially, until one day a labourer on the job said he’d show me how to use the boxes properly. I was skeptical of this but I gave him a shot. It turned out that he’d grown up driving B61 Mack Thermodynes with Quad boxes; in less than 100 yards he took it through though about 9 lightning changes and didn’t snick even a tooth; my eyes popped; I quickly mastered the art of double handed shifts. Most of this construction work was short haul and off road, so I got a lot of practice on those boxes. There were few drivers in 1970 who could thrash a Quad box, and today almost none. After initially disengaging the clutch to gain motion in the lowest gear use of the clutch was abandoned; all changes while in motion were made simply on synchronised revs; the moment of synchronicity demanded lighting speed and an ear for the revs; and frequently both hands.
I moved onto semi-trailers then; another tandem drive Diamond Reo, which I later had resprayed in blue while I was picking up a Caterpillar 613 Scraper in Brisbane. This was an early Fuller ‘Road Ranger’ box with a thirteen speeds; a single stick with 5 in the bottom, then a range change and four in the top with a splitter.
The day I turned seventeen I drove 80 miles into Winton in the Reo with the Quad box; the local Copper was suitably awe-struck and wrote me a licence. The next day I went back with the Semi and the 13 speed ‘Ranger. Same Copper; “You were here yesterday!” and me “Yair. But I want the semi licence today” You couldn’t get a ‘semi’ licence unless you already had a ‘truck’ licence; mine was a day old but I had it. After that I drove to Brisbane and half of Queensland in that semi; all kinds of roads and places there were no roads at all.
We got a Kato Crane, a proper crane, mounted on a B Model Mack Thermodyne and I loved the crane work; before long I’d taught myself to use all 4 sticks at once; and it came with a Triplex box which is a 5×3. Same story; you did a double handed change all the way up going downhill and then all the way down again going uphill; the Earth isn’t flat. I did some spectacular lifts with that crane; I took it to Kajabbi and once you’d crossed the sandy bottom of the Flinders River-bed there was no more road to Kajabbi I took it down to Duchess when it was barely a goat track; 80 miles in 10 hours; I’ve never forgotten taking it through the Selwyn Ranges.
There were other things; Caterpillar Scrapers, Graders and Dozers, and Dodges with ‘Jimmys’ and a beautiful AEC Marshall before British Leyland broke their own Company with poor service. Those years were hard and wonderful; I learned self reliance; and I learned precision, doggedness, attentiveness and patience. I didn’t learn them all at once, and I didn’t learn them easy.
My father died when I was twenty-one; the next day I picked up his ball point pen and I never drove those trucks again. There were 24 men to pay, jobs to finish; my long adolescence was over.
Film and Documentary requires discipline, and the ability to rub shoulders; and it requires an understanding of backstory that can only come from experience in life.