When I turned 70 last month, several friends remarked over a drink that they felt it amazing we had all made it across these years in one piece. We swapped close-call stories. Here are mine.
- Hepatitis A
When I was 10 living in Bathurst, I became very ill. Our doctor came to the house and diagnosed hepatitis A. My urine was very dark, I vomited ferociously, felt more wretched than I had ever experienced and was jaundiced. A boy at my primary school died from it. Our doctor told my distressed sister that I got it because I didn’t wash my hands after going to the toilet. He probably left out the part that the local town water supply was inadequately chlorinated. She developed compulsive handwashing for a few months. I found the taste of fat and cream repulsive for years afterwards and ever since have never enjoyed drinking too much alcohol.
- Acute appendicitis
When I was 13, my mother and sister went to England for three months on a ship. I stayed home with dad. One day he bought a huge bag of cherries home, a very rare treat. I ate lots, swallowing the pips so I didn’t need to interrupt the gorging. The next day I went to the school sick bay with bad pain in my guts. My appendix was removed the next day. I kept the morbid gray slug in a jar of formalin on my desk. It was filled with lumpy cherry seeds. Had it ruptured I may have got sepsis. But the good news is that I’m unlikely to ever get ulcerative colitis.
- Fanging around Mount Panorama race track
In late high school I had an older friend, Tony Mulvihill, who was three years my senior, an immense difference at that age which mesmerized me. He drove a grey Ford Anglia, a sedate vehicle mostly favoured as a second car by wives from the period to carry the shopping home. But Tony steadily souped it up. He had it lowered, fitted tramp rods, “fats” (wide wheels) with chrome go-domes, twin carbs and a sports muffler. Seat belts were not compulsory until 1971, and I don’t remember them in the Anglia. I’d often join him for a thrash around the nearby Mount Panorama race track, something I didn’t tell my parents. One day he nearly lost control of it in the infamous “esses” at the top of the mountain. The car broadsided toward the crash barrier, but he gained control. While at school, I knew three kids who in died in road crashes. Tony went on to race Holden Commodores. I’ve never had so much as a rear-ender in 53 years of driving.
When I came down to university in Sydney in late 1969, in the first year I several times caught the train to Penrith and then hitch-hiked to Bathurst to see mum and dad. I was picked up once by a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. The lone driver had a thick eastern European accent. When he saw I was wearing a Vietnam war moratorium protest badge, he began haranguing me angrily about the evils of communism. He was shouting and menacing. With thoughts of him dispatching the long-haired commie scum beside him, I jumped out at a traffic light in one of the Blue Mountains towns.
In 1973, I was hitching with my first wife Annie on a highway in Germany. We wanted to go to Koblenz to get a train to Cologne. Two Turks picked us up and we conversed in bad German about our destination. But they soon turned off the highway and drove us deep into the Black Forrest where eventually we came to a deserted brick factory. About 20 more Turkish men appeared in the upper floor windows. To read the full details of what then happened, go to page 29 (A bad end at Bad Ems) of this collection of short stories.
I owned three motorbikes in my early 20s, a Honda 90 step-through, a Honda Benley 125, and then, hey why not, a Triumph Thunderbird 650. I took a spill on the Thunderbird turning onto the Sydney Harbour Bridge off Falcon Street in the rain, the bike slid in the wet toward cars in the adjacent lane with me following behind donating skin to the road. Soon after I heard a road safety researcher on the radio say that the average motorbike commuter in Sydney could expect to be hospitalised about once every 18 months. I decided that my motorcycling days were soon to end. One of the local motorcycle gangs kindly took my welfare into account and stole the bike from my Glebe backyard soon afterwards (full story from p12 in Undergraduate Housing.
Triumph Thunderbird 1966
- England to Australia on the smell of an oily rag
In 1973, I set off with my partner in penury to travel overland from England to Sydney. It was pre internet, pre credit card and pre mobile phones. We had our paltry cash in money belts around our waists. That would trick ‘em. We hitched to Brindisi in Italy, ferried across to Greece, then took local public transport to Calcutta where, riddled with diarrhoea, we took a junk charter flight to Perth and then tried to hitch across the Nullarbor to Sydney. From Turkey to India, and especially in Afghanistan, there was lawlessness everywhere. We saw fellow travelers raped by soldiers, junkies selling their blood and traveled in decrepit buses and cars that were death traps. But we made it. Full story at page 34, The life you (don’t) choose
- Transporting bricks
I needed to demolish a brick retaining wall in our garden. So I borrowed my brother-in-law’s box trailer and car with towbar. I stacked the bricks in the trailer, but then took a phone call where I needed to drive the car without the trailer to something that seemed more urgent. So the professor of public health set about unhitching the full trailer from the towbar. The huge weight of the bricks of course caused the back of the trailer to thunder to the road at the split second the towbar was uncoupled. This caused the triangular metal section that connects to the towbar to fly upward. It missed my jaw by millimeters and would have literally knocked my block off.
Undeterred, and immediately wiser, I made a cup of tea and set about unloading the bricks from the trailer to enable me to re-couple it to the towbar. That accomplished, I refilled the trailer and set off on the 17km journey to a clean fill dump at Homebush Bay. Whistling dixie at my step-by-step progress through the day’s challenging tasks, I was tootling along the M4 when the trailer full of god knows what massive weight of bricks began to fishtail the car. With an instant vision of the car flipping with the weight and the bricks’ momentum crashing them all on top of the car, I slowed the car like a conductor would direct a full symphony orchestra from the overture to the andante. The fishtailing stopped, the bricks were dropped off and I lived to tell the tale.
- Falling off a ladder
When your gutters need cleaning, what do you do? You get stuck in and climb up a ladder and clean them out. The sad details about older men falling off ladders in Australia are here. So I got up onto the flat skillion back roof of the house, cleaned them out and then began to climb down. The ladder lurched to the side and I crashed to the ground, wrenching a leg in the rungs as I fell. I landed on the ground between the back of the house and the raised edge of a deck. Had I landed on the edge of the deck, I may have broken my back. A torn meniscus and a few weeks hobbling while it healed.
- Missed by a bus
When my granddaughter was about six, I was driving her from her parents’ place in Rozelle to our place. We traveled across the bridge that crosses over the goods rail lines between Lilyfield Road to the Western Distributor approaching the ANZAC Bridge. There was a red light as we got to the Distributor, with our car being first at the lights waiting for them to change to green. When the light changed I put the gearstick into first and proceeded. I’d gone a few meters into the intersection when from right, a large empty bus flew through the red light on the left inside lane nearest to me with no effort to brake. When he saw me, he swerved and braked to the right. He must have been doing at least 60kph and missed us by less than a metre. Had I been slightly more forward, the full impact would have happened in my driver’s door, the car flipped and both of us would have been almost certainly killed.
So at 70, my charmed scorecard reads like this. Never broken a bone. Never been in an ambulance. Never been in a car crash. Never been caught in a rip. Never attacked by a dog, bitten by a snake or venomous spider. Never even been stung by a bluebottle. Never had an adverse reaction to a drug. Never had cancer, heart trouble. Nothing. Lived a blessed life. Here’s to the next couple of decades.