Fi­nal drive

Mau­rie Ste­wart hangs up the keys af­ter 60 years

Deals on Wheels - - Contents - Matt Wood writes

In my ex­pe­ri­ence, rolling into a de­pot with aching cheeks is usu­ally a symp­tom of a dodgy driver’s seat af­ter a long trip down a rough road. But as I passed through the gates of the Scott’s Refrigerated Freight­ways Melbourne de­pot in the wee hours of the morn­ing re­cently, it was my other cheeks that were in­deed aching – the ones on my face. And it was all Mau­rie Ste­wart’s fault.

I met up with Mau­rie in Ade­laide just two days af­ter his 80th birth­day on the eve of his sec­ond, and al­legedly fi­nal, re­tire­ment. Af­ter 60 years on the road, Mau­rie was hang­ing up the keys and leav­ing life on the high­way be­hind.

I had the priv­i­lege of work­ing with Mau­rie a few years back, so I was all too fa­mil­iar with the cheeky glint in the old bug­ger’s eye and his mis­chievous and, some may say, imp­ish sense of hu­mour. But I didn’t re­ally think that I’d pretty much laugh my arse off over a nine-hour pe­riod did I? I did.

Un­for­tu­nately, some sto­ries from that drive can­not be re­peated. One, for ex­am­ple, in­volved a novel way of mo­ti­vat­ing ware­house staff on a Fri­day af­ter­noon when he wanted to get loaded and home. But I can’t re­peat it. Suf­fice to say, it in­volved Mau­rie mak­ing tea.

Back in the day Mau­rie was a sign­writer by trade but, as a young bloke, he de­cided to chase a bit of ca­sual driv­ing work to bump up the pay packet. Fry Trans­port was based in Kan­ga­roo Flat on the out­skirts of the Cen­tral Vic­to­rian town of Bendigo. Ev­ery year the com­pany would put on ca­sual drivers to cover sea­sonal de­mand dur­ing tomato sea­son. Af­ter the har­vest, the com­pany

would keep on a cou­ple they deemed wor­thy of a full-time gig. And Mau­rie got a guernsey.

It was hot, heavy and de­mand­ing work hand­balling boxes of toma­toes onto the old Ford rigid he was driv­ing. But the ex­tra dol­lars (or should I say pounds) kept him mo­ti­vated as he then wres­tled the old banger to Melbourne. The boss then saw fit to throw him the keys of an R190 In­ter, though from what I know of Mau­rie, he was more likely to have nagged, pestered, charmed and oth­er­wise ha­rassed Bill Fry into sub­mis­sion.

TASTE FOR THE HIGH­WAY

How­ever, in re­al­ity, the pre­vi­ous driver of the In­ter had done his brief, which opened up a slot for Mau­rie. The job in­volved haul­ing loads of cord out of Brad­mill in Kan­ga­roo Flat to Syd­ney, Victa lawn movers to Melbourne, and even do­ing some fuel tanker work. This all gave young Mau­rie a taste of life on the high­way.

But the big high­way miles started when Mau­rie found him­self at the wheel of a Ley­land Beaver, owned by Fry’s, on con­tract to Ansett Ex­press. The big Pom­mie lorry ran a ro­tat­ing three-week stint do­ing a cou­ple of Melbourne-Syd­ney re­turns one week, a Melbourne-Bris­bane the fol­low­ing week, and then a Melbourne-Syd­ney-Ade­laide. Often this last stint ran through to Port Au­gusta to the rail­head that was Western Aus­tralia’s life­line in those days.

FAVOURITE MACK

By 1967, Mau­rie was be­hind the wheel of the truck that he still rates as his favourite to this day: a B61-711 Ther­mo­dyne Mack. Now driv­ing for Mil­dura-based trans­port com­pany McGlashan’s, Mau­rie was mainly haul­ing fuel tankers, though in those days the 211hp Mack could still found with a fridge van, or flat top be­hind it for a mar­ket or freezer freight run when needed.

The truck was Melbourne based and, over the years, Mau­rie de­liv­ered thou­sands of litres of jet fuel to Can­berra, Syd­ney and Ade­laide for Mo­bil.

“I just loved the Mack, it was a big truck for its day,” Mau­rie says. “It used to get up and go even though it was only nat­u­rally as­pi­rated. I just loved it.”

He says he loved the Mack so much that he taught his wife Pam to drive it. And it wasn’t long be­fore she’d mas­tered the quad ’box. Of course, he ad­mits that this was a rather sneaky way of man­ag­ing his fa­tigue: “She ended up a real good driver.”

Pam even mas­tered a one-handed style of work­ing the quad tranny rather than let­ting go of the wheel or hook­ing her arm through it.

FA­TIGUE MAN­AGE­MENT

When head­ing to Mil­dura, Pam used to pull up at Euronga and wake Mau­rie up so he could drive into the de­pot. But, for some rea­son un­known to Mau­rie, one night she de­cided to pull into the yard with­out wak­ing him up.

The first Mau­rie knew of it was when Tom McGlashan was yelling “What the f**ken hell do you think you’re do­ing then!” through the driver’s win­dow at Pam.

Mau­rie kept his job, though the boss’s part­ing shot was, “I should sack you and give her the f**ken job, at least she can get here on f**ken time!”

Af­ter that it was pretty much open slather. Even the lo­cal cop­per would pull Pam up and ask her for Mau­rie’s log­book.

LAST DRINKS

It wouldn’t be the last time Mau­rie’s mis­chievous ways would cause Tom McGlashan to swear.

One time Mau­rie was tow­ing a new food­grade tanker for the com­pany and haul­ing wine con­cen­trate.

The new trailer, how­ever, kept throw­ing too much weight over the rear-axle group, so a rear com­part­ment was added to keep the weight fur­ther for­ward.

The best times in trucking as a driver have passed.

Af­ter a few loads, Mau­rie found out that the bulk­head welds into the new dummy com­part­ment were leak­ing. It now con­tained an evil and highly al­co­holic brew con­sist­ing of brandy and wine.

So early that morn­ing, in the mid­dle of the Syd­ney Freight Ter­mi­nal, Mau­rie thought it might be a good idea to an­nounce that any­one with a bucket could help them­selves. The re­sult was a blind drunk work­force that had to be sent home. Very lit­tle freight moved out of Syd­ney that day.

Roar­ing down the phone, Tom McGlashan told Mau­rie to “get his f**ken arse back back to Mil­dura.” Af­ter be­ing told in no un­cer­tain terms that he was sacked, Mau­rie re­turned the truck to the de­pot and headed to the mo­tel to con­sider his fu­ture. A knock on the door hours later re­vealed a loaded trailer. Mau­rie and the Mack were still on the move.

“I was sacked for eight hours,” he ex­claims.

BIG JOB DESCRIPTION

The fol­low­ing years saw Mau­rie back on Ansett shut­tle work out of Footscray, be­fore cart­ing tetraethy­lene and gasethy­lene for Bram­bles out of Gee­long.

A stint as an owner-driver saw him own a cou­ple of W model Ken­worths sub­bied to Bram­bles, but the sale of the older rig and a nasty rollover with the newer of the two trucks gave Mau­rie the in­cen­tive to be back on a salary.

He can’t have been shy about a bit of hard yakka be­cause he was then tow­ing dou­bles of steel out of Hast­ings be­fore mov­ing onto more than a decade with Kalari pulling pow­der tankers.

He was then talked into do­ing some fridge work for ID Trans­port but, af­ter 12 months of never be­ing home, he ended up at Scott’s Refrigerated Freight­ways.

For a time he ran Melbourne-Bris­bane and even a bit of Perth. These last few years, how­ever, Mau­rie has been con­tent to stick with a reg­u­lar run be­tween Melbourne and Ade­laide.

And, as­ton­ish­ingly, in the mid­dle of that lot, he man­aged to at­tempt to re­tire for about three years.

PEO­PLE PERSON

But the cur­tain is now fall­ing over quite a dis­tin­guished ca­reer.

I rocked up at AHG’s Scott’s, Rand, Har­ris de­pot in Ade­laide to ride back to Melbourne with Mau­rie. AHG’s South Aus­tralian op­er­a­tions man­ager Greg Davis con­fesses that the old fella will be missed.

“It’s cer­tainly been en­ter­tain­ing,” he says with the grin and weary eye roll of some­one who knows Mau­rie well. In fact, while wan­der­ing around the de­pot with Mau­rie, ev­ery­one seemed to have a smile and a word for him as we walked past.

Mau­rie was be­ing spoilt; the re­turn trip to Melbourne was just one trailer, and a fairly light one at that. By mid-af­ter­noon we’d sad­dled up and we were hit­ting the high­way.

COOL HAND

Don’t be think­ing there’s any­thing dod­dery about Mau­rie be­hind the wheel, ei­ther. Those old hands may be spot­ted with age but they were as smooth and pre­cise as a sur­geons as he skip-shifted through the 18-speed ’box while we edged our way up Portrush Road.

He’s come a long way from the nights where he could watch the flames dance out of the front mounted ex­haust of the old B61.

Mau­rie is clearly full of ad­mi­ra­tion for his wife: “She’s al­ways been sup­port­ive of me driv­ing. She’s a great kid.”

In­deed, it was Pam who shoul­dered much of the fi­nan­cial bur­den and the stress of rais­ing a fam­ily.

“She took all the worry,” he says in a qui­eter mo­ment.

How­ever, that didn’t stop her from fram­ing Mau­rie for a speed cam­era fine a few years ago. It wasn’t un­til af­ter the fine was paid that he thought to look through his log­book to find he was driv­ing his truck in an­other state when Pam was caught in his car. Pam – 1, Mau­rie – 0.

PLANS AFOOT

Mau­rie ad­mits it’s go­ing to be hard to stop, but recog­nises that it’s time.

“I’m ready to go,” he says. “I don’t have any qualms.”

No doubt the spritely old bug­ger has some das­tardly plans afoot.

“I’ll have plenty to do. I won’t be sit­ting around on my arse that’s for sure,” he says.

Af­ter­noon turns to evening and dusk as we chase our shad­ows east, and Mau­rie re­flects on the past.

“The best times in trucking as a driver have passed,” he muses. “You could lose a day back when I was first running long dis­tance and it didn’t mat­ter. You were still on time.”

The hours roll by un­no­ticed as the un­print­able yarns tall and true emerge, and, in the mid­dle of the night, we pull into the Cal­tex at Ararat for a cof­fee.

“Any­way, you’ve been flap­ping your gums and ask­ing ques­tions enough,” he says and tosses me the keys to the K200. “You can bloody drive the rest of the way.”

CHOP CHOP

As I pull back out onto the Western High­way, Mau­rie tells me a tale that speaks vol­umes about the bloke. A few years ago he pulled into the road­house at Ararat on his way to Ade­laide, and, as he walked back out to his truck on that bleak win­ter’s af­ter­noon, he heard a bleat­ing sound.

It was a new­born lamb still coated in af­ter­birth, and it was wan­der­ing around the con­crete shiv­er­ing, call­ing for its mum. It had been turfed out of the stock crate that had been parked there ear­lier. Mau­rie took pity on the lit­tle mite and wrapped him up in his doona and put him in the truck cab. The lamb was chris­tened Chop-Chop and was nursed by staff in the Ade­laide of­fice be­fore he was again wrapped in Mau­rie’s doona. Af­ter a trip back to Melbourne in a warm K200 cab, Chop-Chop found a home with friends who have a hobby farm. He’s alive and well to this day.

As much as it’s clearly time to hang up the spurs, Mau­rie does con­fess that he’ll miss it.

“I’m sure there’ll be a tear in the eye when I park up for the last time,” he ad­mits.

I’m still amazed at how much en­ergy ra­di­ates out of the bloke. And just how much en­ergy he still has. He gets around like a bloke 15 years younger and shows no sign of slow­ing down.

It got me think­ing; we re­ally need to get the en­vi­ron­ment and cli­mate change sorted out, sooner rather than later. We need to con­sider what sort of world we’re go­ing to leave be­hind for Mau­rie Ste­wart.

I’ll have plenty to do. I won’t be sit­ting around on my arse that’s for sure.

1. It would be hard to cal­cu­late just how many kilo­me­tres Mau­rie has cov­ered over six decades. Suf­fice to say it’d be a lot! 2. Time to un­load and head home in the wee hours of the morn­ing

3. “It’s been en­ter­tain­ing”: Scott’s Refrigerated Freight­ways Ade­laide staff reckon they’ll miss Mau­rie’s hu­mour. Left to right: Jess Beu­ford, Kailah Green­well, Mau­rie Ste­wart, SA ops man­ager Greg Davis, Laura Dimes, Robert Mars­den and Michael Davis

4. The gear changes are as smooth as silk as we roll out of Ade­laide

5. Mau­rie’s trusty K200 takes a breather on the pads at Nhill

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