Friday, October 20, 2017

The Hitchhikers

Those of us who joined the RAAF as apprentices were meant to be at least 15 years of age and younger than 17 at the time of enlistment. There were a few on my intake that had not reached 15 and possibly one who had passed 17. We were too young to drive and on $12 a week in 1967 we didn’t earn a great deal. Poverty is the word that comes to mind.

After the first six weeks during which we were confined to Base we were allowed out Friday after work, Saturday and Sunday with strict 2300 hours curfews on each night. It is about 10 kilometres from the Base to the centre of Wagga Wagga and I can’t recall any public transport, although there may have been. So the only option we had was to walk from our barracks, down the main drag and out onto the highway and stand there with our thumbs held out pointing in the direction of Wagga Wagga.

Generally we had little trouble getting a lift. There were plenty of older RAAFies on the Base, including trainees and staff, who were happy enough to give us a lift and, of course, the obliging passing motorist. I remember the time a couple of us were picked up inside the Base by a Sergeant General Fitter Instructor. As he turned left onto the highway after leaving the Base with quite a lean on his car he informed us that he had been a racing driver. In fact, if he were to be believed, he had lived a varied life - so many years doing one thing and so many more something else. One of our number worked out he must have been at least 120.

The most memorable hitchhiking experience I have probably came in the first half of our second year. My room mate Shorty and I decided to make the trip to Canberra. While we could have worn civies by this time we decided to wear our uniforms - long-sleeve drabs (khaki) with tie. This was our summer dress and we reasoned the uniform would help not only reassure the prospective lift of our good character but also elicit a degree of generosity from the passing motorists.

No doubt we left reasonably early. The distance from Wagga Wagga to Canberra is around 160 kilometres and we planned to return that evening. Our trip to the National Capital must have been uneventful as I can’t remember it. We enjoyed the day and late afternoon we decided to head for home. And this is the memorable bit.

We stood on the side of the road waiting for a kindly passing motorist. To say traffic was light was an understatement - it was almost non-existent. But finally our patience was rewarded. It wasn’t long however before our driver announced he was heading in a different direction than we were and so he left us on the side of the road. We waited and waited and not a car passed. At long last there was hope. It was the same gentleman. Again, we travelled further towards our destination but it was not long until he again announced he would have to leave us. Once more we waited, not even the sound of a car and the sun moving even lower on the horizon. Our friend eventually returned, only to repeat the exercise a little further down the road.

And there we stood, the shadows growing increasingly longer, no sound of any human activity and the evening growing colder. Summer uniforms didn’t come with jumpers, coats or any other garment to keep the wearer warm. We were looking at a long, cold, lonely night without food or water, not to mention the inevitable disciplinary action that awaited us when - assuming we survived the ordeal - we returned to Base for breaking curfew.

At last it came, the sound of an approaching vehicle. Spirits rose. Believe it or not, we were picked up again by the same gent and we made it home before lights out. Now I can’t remember if our friendly chauffeur took us the rest of the way or not. But as I reflect on the story I can’t help but wonder if he was not a responsible person who went out of his way after the third time to make sure two boys made it home safely. Whatever the case may be, there are two old blokes many years later who will be forever thankful for that man’s good will.

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