Saturday, August 6, 2011

Boot View

One of the earliest vehicles my dad owned was a white Vespa scooter. He would on occasion bring me along on his errands. I was very young at the time, so I did not ride on the pillion seat. Instead, he stood me in the footwell between him and the handlebars. For a kid this kind of front-seat action was quite the rush, especially if your dad loved driving fast and slotting in and out of traffic. Many times, it felt like a roller-coaster ride! On one occasion, I thought I was going to lose my head when he suddenly swerved behind a lorry carrying various lengths of timber planks. It's red warning flag almost slapped me across the face!

At night, I would wear a sweater against the cold wind. Often times, I was given to wear a peach-coloured knitted coat that belonged to one of my many sisters. It was girly but it kept me warm. The cold, however, would still bite my face, sting my eyes.

The first car my dad owned was a Volvo station wagon. It was green (Volvo green?), had a long bonnet and an even longer body. In fact, I think it must have been the longest car then. Parking spaces were often too small to contain it. My dad had a Class 5 licence (that covered cranes and tractors too) so I didn't think he had any problems with it. But my mom would worry that the car got bumped and so she would enlist one of us children to stand behind to give signal when he parked.

At the start any trip, we would rush to be the first to sit behind in that open boot area. Sitting there, you could play five stones or look around more easily at the traffic. You could also make faces at the taxi drivers - something we often did. To settle who got the privilege to sit there, we usually "lom chiam pass" or "orh bei som". Lom chiam pass is Scissor, Paper, Stone played as Bird, Water and Rock.

That Volvo car was quite the family member because it took us on many joyful rides. We visited Mount Faber, Haw Par Villa, National Theatre and that round observation tower in Jurong Industrial Estate. That was one dusty trip because much of Jurong was under construction then.

I am not sure why but whenever it came to servicing our car, I was the one called instead of my brother. Maybe it was because I was smaller, so I could crawl on my back to help unscrew this or that under the chassis. Once, we had to let drip engine oil. It was messy but I felt happy. It made me feel all so grown up.

Like many boys at the time, cars and motorbikes fascinated me. As I roamed around on my bicycle, I would check out the different car makes and their respective logos.

At the time, many of the cars and pickups were parked in front of shops and homes. You could tell if a person was in by checking if his vehicle was there. This happened sometimes with our provision shop downstairs, which would close early on Sundays. If their blue Datsun pickup was still outside we knew we could still knock on their door to get some provisions that has run out.

This Datsun pickup, with its sky-blue color and name emblazoned in white paint on its tail gate, was the quintessential pickup of its time. Even years later, with more modern makes introduced , you would still find this trusty workhorse hard at it on the roads ferrying construction workers, tools, wheelbarrows, potted plants, sand, etc. It was as ubiquitous as our kopitiam chairs and was often as beat-up too. I remember renting one even in as late as 2002 to move some furniture. You can imagine its condition after all those years.

With rentals, you have to be careful especially when it's an old jalopy. This one listed badly and had questionable brakes. It shuddered and shook like a rattle when braked too hard. The windscreen wiper also swiped like it had arthritis. Man, that was one hell of a trip, just to move a mattress. Was it worth the bloody effort if I had perished in it? Well, they could use the mattress at my wake or bury me in that pickup. I would die Datsun happy.

My neighbour who made and distributed g cheong fun did not use a pickup in her business. She instead used a World War II bike that had a side car. It was all very retro and quaint. And given that Combat! was showing on TV at the time, it often seemed as if the Nazis had returned.

The bike was the fat type (a Zundapp KS 750?) still swathed in its military green. It had individual spring seats made from leather. They rocked whenever the rider came to a stop. G Cheong Fun Soh's hubby was often the one who rode this bike making deliveries with his wooden trays of egg noodles or bags of g cheong fun. He would ride it in his khaki shorts and black Phua Chu Kang boots. His son later took over.

My good friend Meng's family drove a blue Ford Escort. I loved the shape of it because it resembled a coupe. It was my favourite 'get-away' car. I think I was then heavily influenced by cars in TV shows like Starsky and Hutch and The Mod Squad. If you had robbed a bank or did a dirty deed and needed to flee, this Ford Escort would roar up, kick dust and leave the cops standing. This car had square lamps which I found enchanting. Later, I found out that the lamps were not square at all; only the shape around it was.

Another vehicle that was hard to miss was a VW van that parked outside my neighbour's shop - the one who distributed snacks. It was painted in the same colours as the packaging of that popular Ken-Ken Cuttlefish snack, including a hand-drawn giant graphic of that squid. I often imagined how Ultraman would deal with a monster like that. It was getting boring seeing him fight that lobster monster all the time.

After the Volvo, my dad drove a red Mazda RX-2 saloon. It's quite the switch because it was a four-door family compact. All of us kids could not fit into it. But by then, we went less for car rides and even if we did, only the younger ones seemed more interested.

I learnt driving in this car and would sometimes drive myself to school with my dad beside me. I was only 14 then! My dad taught me how to drive, so my initial driving style mirrored his. His style was rather accelerator happy - not a good thing. Later, when I took lessons at a driving center I realised that his style, though safe, was rather aggressive. It required glancing at the rear mirror instead of the side mirrors. It's something I would recommend for fast driving but not daily driving!

One time, while out practising alone in the carpark, the police turned up on patrol. As soon as I saw them, I quickly stepped on the brakes, put the gear in reverse and swerved the car into an empty lot - all in one quick action. I then ducked down to keep myself from view. After making their round, the police left. I stepped out of the car relieved.

If I had been caught, my dad and I would have been in for some trouble. I, more so, because I would get a good earful from my dad as well. Looking at the car, it took me a moment to realise that I had parked it inch-perfect into the lot. I was mighty pleased with myself that day despite the close shave. Talk about parking under pressure!

The one car I really liked was the Morris Mini. This was the car my aunty's boyfriend from the tailor shop drove. Often she would bring us along on dates as chaperon and to see if we liked the fella or not. Not sure why, maybe she wanted a child-friendly life partner. She ended up having just one kid.

But fond memories of that car made me buy one later as an adult. Driving that car was really like driving a go-kart. You could round corners at 85 kph without worry of flipping. Mine was the Mini Cooper Sport that could carry five adults with no loss of power. You could never do that with a small Japanese car. I brought it to Malaysia and had a blast with it, especially in the narrow, weaving streets of Malacca. A friend almost peed in her seat watching cars wank left and right. Maybe her life flashed by also, but impressively, the birthday cake she was holding on to was neither soiled nor smashed. She would later ask for another 'special' Mini ride. I just love converts!

You could tell if a man was going through 'phases' with his choice of cars. My dad was no different. Years on, he would eventually shrink his car choice down to a MG sports. I think by then, he had forgotten that he had kids or was dreaming about a second honeymoon without them. Nevertheless, if my younger sister and I had to go out with him and mom, she and I would be compacted into the back seat like two child acrobats. That seat at the back was more suitable for a Louis Vuitton bag or a couple of chihuahuas rather than two fast growing children.

Fortunately, we never met with accident nor was left behind after going through a bump. That happened to my mom on my dad's Vespa. It was hilarious that he did not even realise that she had fallen off! So my mom had no choice but to carry her sore bum home herself.

Despite my family owning a car, we children never felt special or privileged. The feeling was more akin to my dad bringing home his toy - he was more fancied with it. Although we loved the rides, we also enjoyed staying home. Car rides back then could be hot and uncomfortable even with the aircon on. And with so many kids, it was also not fun when it rained: it all got very stuffy inside. We much preferred to play Chinese checkers at home or play in the backlanes of Geylang. But the trips to all those locales remained vivid and special.

Next story: Lantern Night

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