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FLAMES IN THE GUTTER.
I grew up in a real hick town on the east coast of Australia. The town was between Sydney in the South, and Brisbane in the North, but slightly closer to Brisbane than Sydney (actually at latitude 30. 17. 47. S.). The Great Pacific Highway, from Sydney to Brisbane cut squarely across the Town’s almost unnoticed, main street. If you were a truck driver, which I was at one time, you may have observed the hotel on the left (North / West corner), as you slowed for the intersection, and that was it. To make of me more of a Country Bumpkin than the Hick Town conspired to do, was the fact that I actually lived on a farm 10 or 12 kilometres out of town. Under these circumstances, excitement was difficult, but not impossible to come by. I was soon to realize that the minutest opportunity must be snatched up immediately it presents itself. Well you may have guessed it. The name of this hick town was Coffs Harbour, and the name of the main street was High Street, and the name of the hotel was The Coffs Harbour Hotel – appropriately enough.
At first blush you may wonder why the town has the word Harbour in its name, as it is well inland from the Pacific Ocean, and no sign of a harbour. But further exploration reveals, there is a harbour 3, 2 kilometres east of the Pacific Highway, complete with jetty, breakwaters, and railway lines. But even then it rarely saw a ship alongside. As an aside, for you modern kids that think the latest, coolest thing is “Jetty Jumping”, let me tell you it has all been done before. Even on horseback. And that reminds me – we even had regular horse races around the end of the jetty, from north side beach to south side beach. I was lucky enough to own a few good horses at the time. But that is not what this story is about.
The High Street was unusually wide for a hick town, and ran slightly downhill to the east away from the Pacific Highway. Stormwater was caught by means of the 8 inch high kerbs on either side of the street, and channelled into the storm drain system further down the street. Reverse-in angle parking, was the fashion of the day, with plenty of room to drive out again in either direction. Most cars then were high enough to hang their tails over the kerb to varying degrees. The whole town was basically only one block long, at this time.
The aforementioned hotel at one end (west), and a Movie Theatre at the other (east).
This is what the High Street looks like now. I notice the road marking accuracy could be improved. The hotel would be over, and behind the photographers left shoulder. The theatre would be in the far distance on the left.
Now the customs in this hick town at this time frowned on such activities as Sunday drinking, and showing movies on Sundays – the reasons for this escape me now. Remember no TV in this town at that time. This did not preclude people from having “Cooler Boxes” in their cars, and breathalyzers, and blood taking were unheard of. So, all in all, there were no real difficulties, or inconveniences.
On the odd occasions when Mondays were declared holidays, it created unusual opportunities for some excitement, or at least something different. The Movie Theatre would announce that there would be a showing of a popular movie or two at midnight on the Sunday night, which was actually 00h00 hours on Monday morning, and therefore not frowned upon. This was still outside drinking hours, but the “Cooler Boxes” would take care of that. I should point out that I myself was not, and never have been much of a drinker, but it was only good manners to have a coldie or two in your car for your pals and lady friends, if they wanted to sit and chat for a while. There were basically two main groups in this town – “Rockers”, or “Surfers”. I personally alternated between the groups as it suited.
On this particular Sunday night, the next day, Monday, having been declared a holiday, and, as was the custom, the theatre management had announced a midnight screening of a popular movie, or two. Hours before the screening of the movie the street was buzzing. The queue to purchase movie tickets was anxiously active. The café attached to the theatre was packed with milkshake sucking patrons of all ages, but mostly younger folk. Those who had purchased their movie tickets, and sucked themselves to a standstill, were casually window shopping in their considerable numbers without a care in the world, all relaxed, and looking forward to their movies, due to start in an hour or two. Others, mainly of the Rocker persuasion, were cruising up and down the street in their hot-rods, squealing their tyres, drinking beer, and generally making a racket. I was sitting in my car, which was nicely rear-in angle parked, further from the theatre than necessary, with one or two other ticket holding people, watching the scene go by, probably sucking on a beer as well, and chatting in general. Certainly not looking for trouble – but!
The available High Street parking was filling up quickly from the theatre end, towards where I was parked. Parking spots were diminishing by the minute. Just as I made this observation to my car-mates, one of the Rocker’s screeched to a halt in front of me, and then screeched tyres again as he reversed into one of the few remaining park spots on my immediate left (the downstream side). This was normal show-off behaviour, but the following loud crash was very abnormal. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot had happened ? We waited. The hot-rod crew waited.
Eventually the hot-rod crew disembarked from their vehicle to investigate. We listened, but before the hot-rod crew could formulate a conclusion, and plan of action, I detected the strong, unmistakable, and out of place aroma of gasoline. I could easily guess what the plan of action would be before I heard the panicked words of the hot-rod crew “Kenell mate, the f-u-k-e-n tanks broke, an the petrols pissin out”. The hot-rod driver then kneels down to confirm the diagnosis, thinks for a couple of seconds, and then makes an instant high level decision – “Ya right mate. Kennoath, we gotta get ome for all the f-u-k-e-n petrol runs out. Git back in the car – wer off. Basted”. A few seconds later (but all too many seconds have passed), the hot-rod fires up, the tyres screech for the third time, and the hot-rod squeals off down the street towards the theatre, hosing out a trail of fuel as it went. And all would be well, except, about five seconds before the hot-rod driver made his instant high level decision, I had also made another instant high level decision. However, my instant high level decision was flawed, as I only partially considered the consequences to follow. I very clearly envisaged a streak of flame following the hot-rod down the street, which would very surely come to the notice of the driver in his rear view mirror. I was curious to observe if the hot-rod could outrun the pursuing petrol flame. To this end, I threw a lighted match into the sheet of petrol where the hot-rod had been temporarily standing, and watched with satisfaction as the streak of flame raced after the hot-rod, as if it had a mind of its own, and wanted desperately to catch and consume the mother-lode still in the tank. It was quite a spectacle, while it lasted, but disappointing when it fizzled out just past the theatre. The hot-rod had won the race, I guess as it picked up speed the petrol was dispersed and diluted to such an extent the flame could not keep up.
The anti-climax to the chase was immediately replaced by another brewing climax – just warming up. My car-mates, and myself were aware that something else was happening. There was a surge of mass movement in the street. What could this be all about ? Surely the hot-rod, and now fizzled out flame streak could not have caused such a stir in the by now hysterical mass movement. To my horror, the consequences of the other part of my ill-conceived high level decision now presented itself in no uncertain manner.
The gutter at the kerb-line on the theatre side of the street was a raging wall of flame under the petrol tanks of all the neatly parked cars, while their drivers were on the other side of the street window shopping, or in the café slurping up milkshakes, or still in the ticket queue.
Bloody hell, what have I done!!?? Those of the window shoppers who could see their car, at least knew what to do. Those in the café could sense the panic in the street, but did not know why, or what to do except panic along with all the others. Those in the ticket queue probably had a better sense of what was in progress as part of the queue extended onto the footpath, but did not know the extent, nor did they want to lose their place in the queue. My car on the other hand was the first car on the upstream side of this disaster, and therefore safe from the flame. But what to do?? There were men, women and kids running in all directions, some had forgotten what side of the street they had parked their car, and were running back and forth in confusion. Others had already got to their cars, and were driving out, but uncertain which was the safest way to go, or from whence the flame had come. The café had deserted itself mid slurp, and the ticket queue was being haphazardly disbanded adding to the confusion in the street.
I surveyed this chaotic scenario in bewilderment for some time, before it dawned on me that this could lead to trouble, although no further damage or injury seemed likely, and the wall of flame becoming less fierce, infact it had died in places. I also felt certain the hot-rod would be blamed, as it had been noisy, and must have attracted some attention with its squealing get-away. Notwithstanding all that, I still decided it would be safer, if I actually were not there. I suggested to my car-mates that we should all go home, and I would drive them – loose tongues, and all that. But they had tickets, and the midnight movie was about to start, and they wanted to stay. Well, I could not stop them, only ask them to keep their eyes and ears open on my behalf, and say I had gone home earlier, and was not there.
The aftermath, as I heard it was almost a non-event. The café owner complained of an inordinate amount of milkshakes, and Ice-cream Sundays spilt on his floor. The movie theatre management complained of patrons wanting to watch the films without a ticket, saying they lost them in an incident earlier in the evening. There were no other repercussions.
However as a few weeks went by, it appeared to be unsubstantiated common knowledge, that it was I who threw the lighted match. But my car-mates knew I could just as easily blame one of them, and as no formal accusation was ever levelled at anyone, it was mutually and silently left at that. Like a hand grenade – once it is thrown, there is no proof as to who through it.
—— RIDE HARD, SHOOT STRAIGHT, AND SPEAK THE TRUTH. ——