There are many reasons why I am alive today and able to tell you this story – reasonable DNA and the absence of war and famine in Australia, come to mind. But sometimes it has been sheer luck, and nothing else, that has saved me from death, or worse. The night in January, 1981, where I drove drunk at high speed, with seven people on the roof of my car, was one of those.
I was called Donga back then. I would like to say that I gained that nickname due to an anatomical largeness between the legs, and at the time I certainly hoped that the moniker was interpreted by the females of my species that way, you know “he must have a huge cock!” But the truth is not so manly. The nickname was originally Donga Head, because that was what Kelvin Carlsson christened me. Funnily, he is the only person I can recall from back then who didn’t have a nickname. In 1975, I was the “new boy” at Barrenjoey High School, and by fate, Lonno had been assigned to show me around that school by the sea. Kelvin was in Lonno’s group, which had the recess and lunch land rights for the rectangle of grass in between A and D blocks.
Donger Head had been used on telly by some comedian, maybe Auntie Jack, or Paul Hogan, I can’t remember, so it was topical, and it landed upon me and stuck. Of course in typical Aussie fashion the nickname morphed, in this case by simple contraction, to Donga. It shrunk further to Dong, and then a German called Thomas, who’ll turn up later on my roof, heard Dong as Door – pronounced with a European accent of course.
I can’t resist adding in here one other episode of nickname morphing. I was playing a table top video game downstairs at Avalon RSL one afternoon. It was called Moon Patrol and by some quirk of nature, and loads of 20 cent pieces, I was the champ at this. Blocko was the champ at Guided Missile, Bode was number one at Dig Dug, but Moon Patrol was all mine. I had the high score, and this afternoon I had broken that and was still going. I was onto whole new frames, screaming across never seen before moonscapes and firing my weapons up and across at brand new enemies. A crowd gathered, the excitement grew. A chant of “Go Dong,” was rivalling the sound of the nearby poker machines. An elderly gentlemen, holding a middie of Resch’s at a perilous angle, joined in the revelry. He misheard the chant as “Go Tom,” and when he joined in the vocal encouragement, my circle of barrackers, immediately morphed Dong to Tom. It was hilarious, but of course it threw me right off, that’s my story anyway, and my moon buggy was blown to smithereens with no lives remaining. It didn’t matter, I had broken my own high score and being behind in schooners, had plenty of catching up to do. The point is that Tom stuck, and many people that I have met since that day, know me only as that. But this morphing was after the story I wish to recount now, and so for literary accuracy I will remain here as Donga.
In 1979, I acquired a VC. As I mentioned there was no war on, so my VC was not the revered military medal you get for courage under enemy fire. You had to create your own mayhem and disaster, and many of us did that in motor cars. So my VC is a car, and I was certainly available for selection in any action going on around the place. I purchased this beast out at Westmead for $600. I had it circled, with other potential four wheeled weapons, in the Trading Post. It was the first one we visited, I really wanted a car quick smart because the weekend was looming, and I didn’t want to impose too much on Tos (Anderson – Ando – Andos – Antos – Tosca – Tos) who had volunteered to drive me around the western suburbs in his yellow Sigma. So I became the proud owner of a 1967 Valiant Sedan, three on the tree with a 247 slant six donk under the hood. Man that thing could go. It was cream in colour and the VC has a certain style that I still admire today.
The mob I was hanging around with back in those days had the habit of waking up, wherever and with whoever, after epic New Years Eves, with their very first thought of the year being, “when are we going up the coast?” Usually this happened on the second of Jan, after just enough recovery time from those all nighters at the Palm Beach Cabbage Tree Club, where it was nothing to tongue pash any and every girl in your vicinity at midnight. The boards, mainly planks, were piled onto the roof racks of several cars, and a hotch-potch of camping gear was dumped into the boots of the same cars. We would rendezvous up at the tollway at Berowra. First stop was typically a back beach near Crescent Head – Racecourse, Pt Plomer, or Limeburners Creek. It was the start of a week or so, of beer, surf, failed attempts at picking up girls, and other miscellaneous testosterone fuelled shenanigans – like eating raw pippies dug up at low tide in the typical afternoon howling Nor Easter.
We got maybe as far as north as Noosa, before we would head back down to Sydney where commitments and responsibilities were waiting. I was playing in a band called Airforce and was finishing College, so I never dropped out and stayed up the coast at some Pandanus fringed heaven, like portrayed in the movie “Highway One”. Some of my mates had jobs, some even had girlfriends, so we all came back to the home turf of Avalon, that was paradise enough for us at that stage of our insular lives. We thought it would go on forever, that us bunch of guys would hang out every weekend and do surf trips every year till we died. It lasted for maybe four or five years before the cost of real estate in our home suburb sky rocketed beyond our meagre incomes and we spread far and wide to find affordable digs. We grew up and went our separate ways, as they say. But the memories and the sepia tone photos of us all, thanks to Daddio (R.I.P.), Creepy and Foy, with our long boards and long board shorts remain.
On those trips north we visited and enjoyed Crescent Head, Angourie, Treachery, Seal Rocks, Cabbage Tree at Noosa, the Pass at Byron and other iconic surfing meccas at a good time in history. A time before they became crowded and pretentious. A time when you could pretty much camp anywhere you wanted and be daggy dickheads. I like to think we were basically a good bunch of blokes who meant well and who did not cause anybody, or the environment, permanent damage.
It could of all ended, there and then, for some of us on that one night late on the trip of 1981, but we were lucky. The guys that came off the roof of my car could have been easily killed or seriously maimed. Of all of us perhaps I was the tinniest of all and never had to face the horror of hurting a mate due to my own stupidity. If things had been maybe just a fraction different on that night I could have even ended up serving a long sentence in gaol for manslaughter, or culpable driving causing death. If that did happen I wouldn’t be surprised that public outrage may have demanded a new law for reckless roof rack riding and called it “Donga’s Law”!
It was on our homeward leg that the incident took place. It was probably going to be our last stopover. Our stamina, and money, was running out. But we had one more big night left in us. We had stopped at Saltwater, just south of Old Bar which is on the coast near Taree. Like I said, you could pretty much camp anywhere, and I recall setting up our cheap tents under the paperbarks and banksias that line a lagoon that runs out to the sea – another idyllic spot. I recall that Bode (Body – Bodie – Bode) had a few cans of food left from his pre-trip shopping done at Franklins in the Barefoot Boulevard at Avalon. The combination of No Frills delicacies was pretty hard to stomach, but in total it probably came to less than three dollars. I know I partook. I know others shook their heads and faked nausea.
As the day came to a close, the thoughts of the weary, yet still adventurous, turned to the night ahead.
“Who’s up for the Bowlo?” enquired Blinky.
There were eight takers in all so the VC Valiant was the obvious choice of transport. Four in the front, four in the back – what else. Besides, speed was very important when you were going to get a skin full of booze under the belt. Foy, Goober and Burdo decided to give the bowlo a miss and of course they got a decent ribbing.
“Where’s your ticker?” “Come on you big sheilas!” “Last chance to get blotto.” “You know, you have to give your mates the option.” And so on, and so on.
So the takers were Donga (me), Booz, Thomas the German, Johnno, RQ, Bode, Moose and Blinky.
“Not so squeezy,” said someone in the back with a dodgy Asian accent as we headed out of camp.
The Old Bar Bowling Club had a rendered brick pillared gate out the front, which led onto a pathway between two immaculately manicured bowling greens. The single story building housed: the greenkeepers quarters, male and female locker rooms which were connected to the toilets, a hall/bistro, which no doubt served a traditional mixed grill, and of course the bar – all under one roof. The bar’s main function was to serve refreshments to the members, bowlers in neatly pressed white uniforms.
Bowling clubs are one small step above pubs, they have a dress code and you have to sign in. As well as the bowlers, a mix of semi-respectable blue collared workers and some local business people were having a middie or two before going home to the missus and the tin lids. On this night, the place had a nice warm congenial atmosphere. The riff raff who couldn’t be bothered with putting on a pair of shoes or a shirt, just for a drink, would have been at a pub somewhere in Taree; playing pool, swearing, spitting, drinking schooners between rums or bourbons, chatting up barmaids, slagging off about their own bitches, and if things went ape-shit, as they often did, ending up boxing on in thongs, out on the footpath, pissed as maggots. We knew this because we’d seen this brand of shenanigans at the Newport Arms public bar on many a Thursday night.
The pleasant rhubarb-rhubarb, of tall tales and true, ceased abruptly when us eight surfer types burst into the bowlo’s multifunction auditorium. The patrons peered over their beer tops at the sight of young people invading their precious after-work domain. Moose, tall and confident as always, walked straight up to the bar and ordered loudly, “Eight schooners of new thanks champ.” The club relaxed and breathed out, the din of male voices and clinking glasses rose back to its normal volume.
After two quick schooners each had been downed in no time flat, Blinky, who was setting the pace, declared,“Mystery shouts!”
“I’m in,” says Booz.
“You’re getting the first round then,” said Johnno.
Blinky slipped Booz a lobster and the smallest but thirstiest of us all proceeded to the bar concocting a nasty creation in his head.
He ordered a round of Tia Maria and tomato juice. I got in next and ordered eight Scotch and milks. This went on for as long as it takes for that sort of caper. The barman and the drinkers seated at the bar, shook their jealous heads in mock disgust. Our exuberance was hard to miss and infectious. By the time each person had a mystery shout, some containing more than one nip of spirit, and with this on top of the first two starter schooners, the number of standard drinks consumed per person was anyone’s guess. But it was 1981, and the term standard drink had yet to be coined, and the concepts of “booze buses” and “random breath testing” were exactly that – concepts.
No one seemed to blink an eyelid as we left the club, pissed rotten, and headed to the Valiant parked right out front – bold as brass. But you could bet your bottom dollar that some wise old bugger at the bar, sipping on his middie-with-a-dash, predicted that our night would end with some sort of trouble – ‘mark my words,’ he would say.
The sport of roof rack riding was not invented that night but it was, for us anyway, relatively new and novel. I have a vision of Blocko in his Cortina doing some laps around the grassy area near South Av with Booz Bear hanging on for dear life up top. And considering what happened to Booz at Old Bar this night, that ride at Av must have been prior to this.
Anyway, the road out of Old Bar back to our camp at Saltwater, from my memory, was only tar for a bit and then it became a well graded, blue-metal, mostly straight stretch of road carved out of coastal shrub. The alcohol induced inhibition and fearlessness was peaking. I know I was not holding back on the Valiant’s accelerator pedal and not one of my passengers questioned for a second the logic of climbing out the nearest window and getting onto the roof. Before I could say “Bob’s your Uncle,” I was the only one left inside the car.
Booz and Thomas the German, were on the bonnet. Bode, Moose and Blinky were on the actual roof, and Johnno and RQ had the luxury of the large VC boot to themselves. Everything was fine. The racket being caused by my fellow travellers on the roof was drowning out the mellow melodies of UB40 coming from my self-installed K Mart cassette deck. We liked to morph song lyrics, just like we did with nicknames, so I will say that I was singing “I’ve a bigger donga”, to the song “Ivory Madonna”, just as a tawny frog mouth owl appeared in the middle of the road up in front. I was no doubt pissed, but I wasn’t hallucinating. I eased off on the accelerator and had the good sense not to hit the brakes. I was studying Physics at the time so Newton’s Laws were relatively fresh in my somewhat pickled mind.
The decrease in speed allowed the headlight struck bird to just get itself launched, but unfortunately it clipped the very front of the bonnet. It’s hard to believe, but Thomas the German managed to pluck this poor bird out of the sky. In an instant, he had it pinned down on the roof of the car and was karate chopping it to the neck. I could here the banging happening right above my head as I steered the Valiant onwards and climbed back to cruising speed. I could also hear protests from the others about this act of violence being inflicted on this fine example of Australian Fauna.
“I vas just putting it outs of its mizery,” he claimed.
Fair point, but I suspect that the owl only just clipped the front of my car with a wing and would have likely survived. But that is history and so was this bird. Thomas the German, then stood proud and German-like, and faced into the 50 mph wind created by me and my car. He held the owl aloft, holding its two legs, and it’s lifeless but beautiful wings opened up like a kite.
Just as this weird and creepy act was taking place on the bonnet, Booz, in inimitable Booz fashion, decided to drop his pants and chuck a brown eye at us all – just for good measure. Bent over and with pants down to his ankles was exactly when the road sign appeared. A yellow diamond with a black arrow, curved at 90 degrees to the right, instantly triggered my adrenal glands to do their thing. I sobered up as though I had popped six Medislims twenty minutes ago.
My immediate task was to simultaneously decrease speed and negotiate the bend by choosing the largest radius arc possible without leaving the road. My efforts were in vain. Booz disappeared left out of my frontal field of vision the instant I turned the wheel right. Tom with owl in hands was not far behind. In my peripheral vision I was aware of dark shapes exiting stage left. My hearing seemed impaired, perhaps by my sympathetic nervous system prioritising my senses to best cope with the situation, but I do recall muffled screams of shock and fear.
When the Valiant finally stopped, swallowed by a cloud of blue grey dust, I jumped out of the driver’s seat with horror in my guts and visions of death in my mind. RQ and Johnno had linked arms, lied down on the boot and grabbed around into the back windows to hold themselves on. They were the only two that didn’t come off. In a state of panic we back tracked along the road. Moose was found first, he was hopping and yelping like a kelpie. He had some serious grazes, one of which looked like his ankle had been ground flat. He joined us as we proceeded on. Blinky was found next lying flat on his back in long grass off to the side of the road. He was repeating “Donga….Donga…Donga,” in his mystery shout, high pitched voice. But he was fine, not a scratch from memory. Next was Bode.
He was several metres further back, and also laying on his back in the long roadside grass. He had one set of my roof racks clutched firmly in his hands.
“The roof racks didn’t hack it, Dong,” he moaned. He too was OK. Booz and Thomas the German were still to be found and the vision of Booz, bare bummed on the bonnet, just seconds earlier, was haunting me. Thomas was found and was fine. He was groaning in German, but stoic. But where was Booz? He was first off the roof and was half naked, the little bugger!
To this day I bless my lucky stars. Booz was found, he had a decent gash to his head and a bum stripped of skin, and for a while he was semi-conscious. But two days later after a stint in Manning District Hospital, smoking Dunhills out the ward window, he was back to “match-fit” status, causing merry hell and drinking on with us all.
I know my actions that night were inexcusable and totally irresponsible. I know that if one of the bodies that flew of my roof had hit a tree, or a rock, that my whole life would have been very different to what it did become. I hate to imagine what the death of a mate, at my own drunken hands, would have done to me. Or, what a stretch in Long Bay with the bad men would have entailed. But it didn’t end up that way – and what a classic tale of youth on the loose in the summer of 1981.