Maurie Stewart hangs up the keys after 60 years
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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