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Straight Talk with Tony Johnson: getting your license

31 March 2020



Tony J.jpg

You know how you have a really great idea, and then, just after it’s too late, you wonder if it’s really such a great idea? Don’t feel bad if you do — we all do it. We do it because we’re guys. The hunter. The collector. The gatherer. The one with the best ideas. We always seem to be out there looking for a better way of doing something — faster, smoother, brighter, shinier, cooler. What the hell was wrong with a big block Chevy crew-cab dually with a cool exhaust system and a fully-enclosed American-built race car trailer anyway? Nothing. But that’s not the point, is it? The point is, that there must be something better …

And so, there we were late last year, driving along, my ex-brother-in-law John Haverkamp and me, in my newly acquired Mitsubishi Fuso truck and race car transporter doing a road trip from Auckland where I’d bought it, back down to Wellington. John was driving because although I have my Class 2 HT (heavy truck) licence, and my Class 4 HT licence, now, in order to drive my articulated tractor unit and heavy trailer, bugger it, I have to get a Class 5 HT licence. So what. How hard could it be? The new truck and trailer was a fantastic idea, and a little detail like another licence wasn’t going to interfere with any of that. Not on your nelly, mate.

And then, I saw the New Zealand Transport Agency’s (NZTA) Official New Zealand Road Code for Heavy Vehicle Drivers. Holy shit … Three-hundred-and-fifty-eight-pages of holy shit … And then I learn that, in addition to studying and understanding 358 pages of holy shit and knowing the answers to over 300 questions so that I can tow my race car to the race track, I have to sit a full-day logbook course and do an examination so that I don’t exceed the maximum permissible driving hours as I travel between home and Levels raceway (40 minutes away), and between home and Ruapuna raceway (two hours away). If you’re sensing a degree of irony that I’m whining like a bitchy little school girl about rules and processes, I hear you …

Anyway, that’s all stuff to look forward to, but in the meantime, there’s John and me enjoying a blokes’ day out driving my new lorry on a sunny afternoon, starting its journey homeward from Auckland. It’s the first time I’d been in a proper truck for a couple of decades, and as I watched John — now a few years past retirement age — expertly change gear after a lifetime of driving these proper big trucks, I couldn’t help smiling as the thought of Jeremy Clarkson’s comments about truck drivers on Top Gear a few years back popped into my head. “I mean … really … how hard can driving a lorry be?”, Clarkson famously asked. “All you do is sit there, change gear, change gear, change gear, check your mirrors, murder a prostitute …” He got in a power of shit over that one, but it really was very funny! Look it up on YouTube. 

“Bet your road code wasn’t this fat when you sat your licence, JH,” I said to John, holding the 40mm thick book up at him to emphasize my point. “Well, cobber,” John replied (he calls everyone ‘cobber’). “I’ll tell you about getting my HT licence.”

In his late teens during the late 1960s, John worked for my late Uncle Noel (Oxnam) at Noel’s timber mill in Foxton. John was a clever, practical young guy who could turn his hand to anything, and before long — despite not having a heavy traffic licence — he was driving Noel’s big logging trucks all around the district. Noel, fantastic guy that he was, was always slightly on the wobbly edge of the law, so there were no problems with John driving illegally from his end. One afternoon, while John was driving one of Noel’s big International truck and trailer units back to the mill, he became aware that a black and white HR Holden cop car was following him. The black and white followed John through the township of Foxton, up the mill road, and into the yard. By now John was fair shitting himself as he started contemplating the situation. He jumped out of the truck and wondered what was to come next as the cop got out of his car and walked towards him. Small-town cops know everyone, and they know what’s going on.

“Young Haverkamp,” the cop said sternly, looking at the truck and trailer behind his anxious young victim. “I don’t think I can recall you getting your truck and trailer licence.”

“Well, er … no, not quite,” John stammered. “But that’s the first time I’ve driven the big truck,” he said, wondering how the hell he was going to explain the ticket to his dad, and how he was going to pay the fine.

“Don’t bullshit me, boy,” said the cop. “I’ve been following you for 15 minutes and you’re driving that thing as well as any of the other drivers here.”

Then, after an awkward silence, as the nervous teenager waited for the outcome with his head down, the cop spoke again: “Get back in the truck. Drive it out onto that track there, stop, and then reverse the truck and trailer in between those two buildings over there.” John did exactly as he was told, stopped neatly between the two buildings, turned the engine off, jumped out, and walked back over to the cop where he was leaning over the Holden writing out John’s ticket. Except that it wasn’t a ticket. While John backed the truck in between the two buildings, the final question in the cop’s mind had been answered, and he had pulled out his licence book, began writing out an HT licence, and then handed it to the teenager — who was too astonished and relieved to even give thanks. Without another word, the cop climbed back into his HR Holden and drove away.

And then there’s me. Three-hundred-and-fifty-eight-pages of holy shit. Three hundred questions. And a day-long logbook course before I even get to show the cop whether I can reverse a truck and trailer in between a couple of buildings.

Circuit racer Greg Donaldson from Ashburton, a great bloke who I have a bit to do with, had a similar story but set in the ’70s. Eighteen-year old Greg was working as a mechanic at an earthmoving company, and when his boss lost his licence for being DIC (drunk in charge) he said to young Greg, knowing full well that he didn’t have his HT licence, “You’ll have to drive the truck now Greg. You haven’t got anything to lose”. One day the local cop drove into the yard just as Greg was starting to drive out in a Leyland 6×4 tractor unit with three-axle trailer.

“What do you think you’re doing, lad?” the cop asked Greg (small-town cops know everyone and everything, remember).

“Oh, yeah … well … I’m just going around the yard learning to drive.”

“Yeah … Sure you are … Can the boy drive the truck OK?” the cop yelled out to Greg’s boss.

“Yeah, he’s pretty good,” came the reply.

“Does he drive your machinery as well?”

“Of course he bloody does. He wouldn’t be any bloody use to me if he couldn’t, would he?”

“Fair point,” said the cop as he wrote out Greg’s truck and trailer licence then and there, and added self-laying tracks and roller licences to it as well.

“How’d you like to try and sit your HT licence now Greg?” I asked, showing him my 358 pages of holy shit.

“You know what I reckon about that?” the big guy quietly and solemnly replied. “I reckon I’d rather shit in my hands, and then clap.”

Come to think of it, I’ve got a sort of similar-but-different story of my own regarding licences and driving trucks as a young bloke. I was 17 years old (this would’ve been 1978) and bouncing around from job to job as a young bloke does, still not knowing what to do with myself.

“Hey, Johnson,” said my good old mate Gummy Beets (Gummy calls everyone by their surname) over a beer at the Grand Hotel one Thursday night. “We need another truck driver at work.”

Gummy worked at a company called Copper Refining in Wanganui, and a driver had just left.

“Wouldn’t mind being a truck driver,” I said to Gum. “But I don’t know how to drive one.”

“Not hard is it,” he said. “Just like a car but bigger”. Fair enough.

“But I don’t have my HT licence and I can’t get one until I turn 18.”

“Wouldn’t go around worrying about that too much either” Gummy replied with complete disinterest at my concerns. I had my interview with the boss, my old mate had put in a good word for me, and the boss didn’t even ask me if I had a truck-driving licence for the truck-driving job. He did ask if I could start tomorrow, I said “sure”, and tomorrow I was a truck driver. Just like Gummy said. No worries. After working there for a few months, I turned 18, got my truck licence. No harm, no foul, as they say.

I’d ask you to wish me luck as I find myself on the other side of a 358-page book of rules and a whole lot of processes — but I suspect you’ll be quietly sniggering at the irony of it instead …