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Saturday, 27 January 2007

Stealing A Truck

This adventure took place some time in the mid 1980's. I was hitching to Wellington, or maybe to Motueka, via Christchurch from Dunedin and at the end of the afternoon found I had only gotten so far as the northern outskirts of Timaru. Ah, I thought, no more travelling for you. I knew someone who lived near the outskirts of Timaru, and I hoped they would put me up for the night, but unfortunately they didn't live near the highway, but on one of a grid of country back roads. Taking what I assumed to be a shortcut, I found myself trudging thru newly plowed fields towards distant lines of trees in the fading light. I walked for miles and miles as the heavy wet soil added its weight to the soles of my shoes; how I found the same house, I have absolutely no idea. In any case, it made no difference; the new residents informed me that my acquaintance and his family had long since moved on. Back I trudged on my increasingly weary way. It was now become dark and the sky was closing over, but I remember there were stars ahead of me as I walked down the centre of the road. I know that because I remember watching them blur into hazy discs, then refocus, then slip further out of focus. I could hardly feel my legs or the road. I was passing over into some other grey land, where fatigue was the only form of matter, and everything there was exhausted. I had not eaten all day; but my fingers in my coat pocket had been playing with a little chip of wood, and I pulled it out and sniffed it. An aromatic minty smell and bitter, cool taste confirmed that it was a thumbnail sized square of Pukatea bark. I chewed on it for something to do. Pukatea, a large native tree rare in the south, has a reputation as natural morphine but actually has no narcotic (as in addictive) properties; the active constituents such as pukateine and laureline are chemically related to apomorphine, the normalising chemical that William Burroughs was given by Doctor Dent to help him overcome morphine addiction. Pukatea is sometimes a fair painkiller, and in more recent times apomorphine has been marketed as a cure for penile impotence, which may be more to the point as soon after chewing on the bark the stars came back into focus and I gained a new access of energy. Wherever I was going, I now felt like I might get there, at least until I reached the main road again, about three hours after I had first left it. It was now dark, I was again on the outside of town amongst the brightly lit yards of new and second hand car and equipment dealers that followed the main road, there were no cars to speak of though I hitched pathetically, and it started to rain. In these days whereof I speak my life was a carefree adventure, journeying across the country from one friend's place to another, stopping only to play enough music and secure enough drugs and books to satisfy whatever longings arose. Love was something found along the way, seldom cherished and never fought for, and when emergencies arose, like being stranded in the rain outside Timaru at night, nothing had been done to avoid them and no contingency plans were in existence. Life was an unplanned free-fall, seemingly happy and productive in an atmosphere of chaos and poverty. Crises like this arose quickly, and as quickly slipped away, back into spells of sensual luxury or intellectual curiosity worthy of the bohemian scapegrace I then was. But at times, few and far between as they were, this irresponsible life style could lead to one being stranded in the most unpleasant of circumstances. Usually these involved the after effects of indulgence, foolish attempts to do without drugs of addiction, or nights in the cells of police stations, but this was one of those times that was all about being in the wrong location at the wrong time of day. I was tired of standing, but I couldn't see a place to lie down out of the rain. Then I had an idea, the sort of half-baked risky idea that lazy people are prone to. Over the road, there was a yard full of combine harvesters. I knew that is what they were because my father came to New Zealand on account of being able to repair them, and I knew that each one had a weatherproof cab. The cab of a combine harvester, high above the ground, is about the size of a phone booth, smaller than a toilet cubicle, but, I thought, if I curled up around the pedals I might be able to sleep out of the rain. On my way across to these giant machines whose rows of painted spikes gleamed with new-fallen rain I passed the office building of the lot, and noticed a small window open. Maybe, I thought, I could get inside and rest if I find it too uncomfortable out in the cabs. I hauled myself up into one cramped cab, lay down, suffered for a while, then tried another. Like Goldilocks in the house of the three bears, I felt that some were bigger than others - but none was just right. After an hour or two of this I decided to try that open window. Without much work I lowered myself gently into a kitchen (I used to be far too good at this sort of thing, I mean cat-burgling. Mainly because of my aptitude for locking myself out of my dwellings, not so much from crime as yet). I wanted to steal nothing, but I was hungry and there was food and beer in the fridge; I took one bottle and one sandwich and went to find a less conspicous spot in which to lie. And then I saw them. Two bunches of Ford keys high on the wall. There were two small trucks or large vans outside. I'll bet those are the keys for the trucks, I thought. However, I don't steal cars, I don't steal anything but drugs that I'm not allowed to buy, and that I'd never steal if I could buy. I'm not trying to defend such ethics, but those were my morals back then. I never stole, never really have, stuff or money from people, outside of shoplifting from the biggest shops at times, I'm ashamed to say now, but stealing drugs and uttering scripts, that was a political statement, one that it was my moral duty to make as often as possible. I went back outside to sleep in the cabs till dawn, leaving the building unlocked, but sleep came no closer than before. The rain dripped down, the night turned slowly, ever so slowly, over and over. I am better now than I was then at falling asleep at will, at meditiating on thurberian wordgames or military history for hours on end, at forging silk purses out of metaphorical sow's ears and virtues from necessities, but that night would try my patience even now. At last I convinced my good conscience to let me borrow a truck, on the understanding that I would take very good care of it. It was then about 4 or 5 AM. I went back inside and chose one set of keys at random. Whatever truck they started would be the one I drove. I hoped it would be the smaller, but I didn't want to be seen trying out keys, nor, by taking both sets, to deprive the company of the use of both vehicles. It was my intention that anyone who saw me in the yard should believe I was entitled to be there, or at least not be too certain that I was not, and trying out too many keys was not the way to create that impression of innocent entitlement. The key unlocked the larger truck, unfortunate but now beyond change. It was filled with tools. I turned on the ignition, looking at 2 years in prison as my starting point, and pulled out of the yard. There was a house over the road, so my plan was to drive inland, away from the state highway at first, then take the next turn back north. As soon as I pulled out, the lights of a car came up behind me. There had been no cars on the main road, and now here was one on the side road. I drove as slowly as I dared, but the headlights stayed in my rear-view mirror and the car didn't overtake me. I was working on my story; out on the town, chucked out by girlfriend, using work vehicle to get home. Later I realised that was likely the real status of the guy behind me, trying to get home to his farm without being breathalized. I turned back to the highway at the next intersection and he went on straight ahead. I relaxed. The drive to Christchurch as dawn broke was pleasant, but my heart jumped at every car I saw, imagining the missing van being swiftly reported on nationwide APBs, and hunted by police in every direction. A broken down motorist tried to flag me down near a river bridge, but I drove on self-consciously, to his chagrin. This made me feel better, as hitchhikers, even stranded motorists, have no right to display chagrin. For miles after this I rehearsed the conversations we could have had, whether selling him my experiences as an agricultural engineer, or breaking the news that he was riding in a stolen truck (I expect I'd have told him at the first police car we saw). The sun was up as I drove into Christchurch and it was not yet 8 am. I could easily have driven on, all the way to Motueka, but the truck would soon be reported stolen. Pushing your luck is a sure way to get caught, and the seriousness of what I'd done had kept me so keyed up that I was glad to park myself in a very congested street, a block or two away from the home of the young lady I wanted to see. I hid the keys in the ashtray and locked myself out of the van. I had heard that Christchurch radio stations regularly broadcast the registration numbers of stolen vehicles, paying out rewards to boys who search the streets on bicycles for them. I figured I'd return the van and do one of those boys some good, if they found it before anyone else stole it. It seemed the odds of that were good. I slipped down the street, cleared out without anyone noticing, and was soon telling my tale, between joints, over the teacups as friendly cats rubbed against me, soothing my taut nerves. A night without sleep is nothing among friends. Later that day I was at an engineer friend's house and I told him my story. When he heard about the tools in the van he offered me $2,000 sight unseen. I was happy to be able to tell him I had no way of getting the truck back. I hope it was soon returned to Timaru. I had only ever wanted a ride.

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