THE LONG HAUL: SITTING DOWN WITH AUSTRALIA’S MOST EXPERIENCED TRUCK DRIVER
While the rest of us are sleeping, truck drivers emerge at the crack of dawn, bleary-eyed with a coffee in hand, to drive the Australian economy into a new day.
They don’t ask to be celebrated, instead they celebrate themselves, through a unique culture that’s famed for its originality, colloquialisms and a sense of fraternity that most workers could only dream of.
But everyday heroes deserve to be acknowledged by more than just their own, and there’s none worthier of recognition than Peter Ward. When Jimmy Barnes wrote ‘he’s a steel town disciple, he’s a legend of his kind’ in the blue-collar anthem ‘Working Class Man’, men like Peter are to whom he was referring.
A RUNNING START
As of the 26th of May, 2017, Peter’s been driving trucks for 74 years. He got his licence on his 20th birthday – a late bloomer for a country lad – by driving a police sergeant down to Mentone pier to see a mae, then up to the pub. There was “no hand signalling” for indicating, as Peter puts it. “He didn’t ask me to do anything. He just said drive.
“There were no truck drivers in my family to influence me,” Peter said.
“But I loved the idea of an outdoor job, and took a liking to being out
on the road. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Peter got his first trucking job in 1943. Growing up in rural Victoria during the depression, he was acutely aware that “life was tough” for farming communities, which were now losing their men to war efforts across the world.
Truck driving offered an escape from the rigours of life on the land. The trucking industry was booming, and despite being practically invisible a decade prior, when Peter commenced his lifetime of devotion to the rigs, there were over a million trucks on Australian roads.
“After I became interested in trucks I saw a local company, Rumble & Sons, had a beautiful Bedford with a tray body and I was hooked,” Peter said.
“They harvested corn, sold briquettes and wood, and produced food for poultry farms. I grew up in Mentone, so I used to deliver the weeds, straw, chaff and whatever else the local farms wanted to buy.”
Peter said Australia was a “very different place” back then.
“When I left school at 14-years-old, Australia’s population was 6 million,” Peter said. “It’s quadrupled since then, yet people act surprised when I say the biggest change during my career has been the traffic,” he laughs.
“Back in those days there was no traffic, no traffic lights and barely any road signs.
“There was no speeding because most of us could only go 30 km/h anyway. Increasing speed and traffic has had a massive impact on truck driving.”
Peter’s career has spanned 17 Prime Ministers, five wars, the introduction of transistor radios, television, mobile phones and the internet; not to mention the last vestiges of the transition from horses to horsepower.
It’s a huge ask to relive it, but Peter’s tone remains authoritative as he recounts the last 70 years. In conversation, you’re not only in awe of his impressive lucidity, but of his keen interest in modern Australia.
“I owned my own trucking business for 40 years, Peter said. I started with an old Bedford truck and progressed from there.
“It was very different, we were on petrol in those days and the first diesel truck I bought was in the early 1970’s. I used to nearly fall off the seat putting it into gears.”
Self-aware to a tee, he punctuates his stories with humour, diffusing serious opinions on the danger of modern driving.
“Speed’s the killer. People need to slow down, especially at intersections.” Peter said.
“I regularly see people speeding through an intersection near my house at over 50 km/h, with no concern for the poor chap who’s about to turn in front of them.”
In case anyone wouldn’t trust his advice, Peter justifies his experience. “I’ve been driving for 74 years and I’ve never, ever had a traffic offence. How’s that for a record?”
Wry boasting aside, Peter’s nostalgic when he speaks about trucking half a century ago. His audience finds themselves drawn into the days of silent cops, wooden seats, coffin sleepers and diesel fumes that could choke the light out of a chimney.
“There were no air brakes in the early 50s – just like indicating, it was all mechanical,” Peter reflects.
“I’ll never forget when they introduced them. Truckies used to put up signs that said ‘Caution: Air Brakes’, to let people know that, suddenly, trucks took less than 100 metres to stop.
“One day I was driving down Flinders Street delivering to the railyards and there was a chap who carted for Western Star Butter with a horse-drawn team.
“He turned out of a driveway and when I pulled up behind him I couldn’t stop laughing. He had a sign saying ‘Caution’ on one side of the cart, and ‘Hair Brakes’ on the other.
“There were lots of funny stories like that when
Melbourne started to change, and I’ve seen them all.”
Peter straddles a strange line between sweet old man and rough and ready trucker.
His gruff voice, intermittent swearing and hard-nosed lifestyle belies a calm intelligence and deeply thoughtful nature, that’s never more evident than when he’s talking about the industry he loves.
“Truckies didn’t have many challenges back then because we didn’t have the safety regulations,” Peter reflects. “You’ve got to have them, I understand why, but it slows everything down tremendously.
“As a truckie we never used to have any trouble.
“There’s a lot more truck accidents now than there used to be. I don’t know if it’s inexperience, but they load trucks top heavy and when a driver corners too fast, or if they swerve to avoid someone, they lose control.
“But I don’t have to deal with it much now, and I certainly don’t have to worry about one of those falling on me,” Peter laughs. “But I’ve seen some funny things my years on the road.”
Funny’s a misnomer. The freedom offered by a life on the road can be as perilous as it is enticing, and Peter’s had his fair share of close calls.
“When they brought in cement trucks with mixers, they must have only been on the road for a month and I was just about to pass one when the mixer toppled off onto the road in front of my truck.
“That was an experience I’ll never forget.
“They used to have clamps that held the mixer down and they’d forgotten to do them up, so the mixer just rolled off, spewing an entire load of concrete on to the road.
“If I had of been any closer I would have been crushed to death.”
TIME LIKE THE PRESENT
Three quarters of a century later, Peter now delivers vegetable crates three days a week for K & S Savage and Sons, a job that allows him to balance his love of life on the road, with a slightly less demanding workload.
It’s a way of utilising Peter’s experience and ongoing commitment, while recognising that, at 95-years-old, his days of heavy lifting are thankfully behind him.
“It’s hard to explain what I love about truck driving,” Peter said.
“I’d prefer to be in a truck than a car. The truck’s automatic,
it’s easy to drive and it’s an open-air job.
“I had to carry pianos, lift tea chests full of crockery with slings and stack 25 kilogram pallets for half my life, but I didn’t succumb to it and I reckon it did me the world of good.”
As infectious as Peter’s relentless positivity is, his admirable outlook makes you question where certain aspects of society went so wrong in their portrayal of truck drivers.
What’s most surprising about Peter, in contrast to his enduring love of a job that many see as thankless work, is that there’s so much more to him than an accomplished career.
Peter was happily married for 64 years and regularly sees his three children, the oldest of which is 65, and the youngest 60. He walks his dog every day, eats a mountainous three-course breakfast, the ingredients of which are intimidating – “I have a theory, that you can eat whatever you want as long as you exercise” – and has a social life to rival any of his mates at the pub.
“I lost my wife three years ago,” Peter said, a moment of sorrow disrupting his naturally affable tone.
“She used to cook me breakfasts with potato chips when I owned my business. You don’t get a cook like that today.
“Nowadays, I enjoy heading to the pub three nights a week to have a few beers. It’s great to spend time with the boys, but my dog wouldn’t let me do it every night,” he laughs.
Peter’s claim that his longevity is due to loving his job, eating great food, having lasting, rewarding relationships and fitting in regular trips to the pub is as inspiring as it is enviable.
It gives the average ocker a glimmer of hope, that if we’re lucky, we too can enjoy life while leaving the world a much richer place. Not that Peter’s going anywhere soon.
“I had my 95th birthday last Friday night at the Dingley Hotel,” Peter said. “People think I’m a freak, I don’t think I left the dance floor all night.
“People say to me, ‘You’re a bloody old marvel, you are.’”