This short story will be included in the Memoir I’m writing. It’s all true, even down to the names as I see no need to hide the identities of my fellow gum-chewing partners.
For those of you who don’t know, Alan and I were married in 1961. We traveled around Western Australia with a caravan and a utility, camping for a week or more wherever he had work, surveying new farmland east of Narrogin. I was only on the road with him for a few months,but I have some ‘interesting’ memories from those days.
Chewing Gum to the Rescue
We left the camp near Wave Rock at Hyden at about four o’clock on that October afternoon. The boss lived in Narrogin, so we allowed time to collect the men’s pay cheques on our way and be back in Perth in time to sleep in a proper bed at my parent’s house that night.
All went well until the radiator started boiling. On a Saturday night in 1961, when even the pubs were probably closed, three miles out of town, nothing moved. Hoping to find something open, Alan sent Lou, his assistant, back to the nearest little blip of a town, to buy chewing gum—as much as they could supply.
Never having regarded the chewing of gum as an enjoyable activity, I hoped that my husband’s plan would not involve my participation. I realised that the local garage, if there was one, would be closed and out of action until Monday. The chance of them stocking a replacement for our radiator was remote anyway and with only a measly pay cheque and little cash, we couldn’t have paid for it even if one was available. Alan was pretty good at thinking up new ways to overcome problems but I wondered how chewing gum might help us with a leaky radiator.
As we were all accustomed to bush safety, we had several cans of water on board, so if the leak could be patched up we should make the journey home.
About an hour later, Lou returned and handed over a bag full of Wrigley’s chewing gum in little packets.
‘Right, start chewing,’ our leader instructed. ‘As much as you can, to get it malleable.’
We all emptied several packets of gum, popped it into our mouths and chewed away as fast as we could. It was hard work. I don’t think our jaws are designed to chomp on stuff at such a rapid rate. We did have one thing in our favour though—a full moon. Thanks to its bright light, Alan could see well enough to paste our combined efforts over the leak spot on the radiator. He got Lou to start the engine and was relieved to see the gum stay in place.
With two big men and one pregnant woman squeezed into the front of the ute, and our intrepid Labrador puppy on guard in the back, we set off again.
‘Keep chewing. That lot won’t last long and we’ll need lots more if we’re going to make it back to Perth.’ Alan didn’t sound exactly confident that his idea would be successful, but we all chewed away, hoping that it would.
I think I must have dozed off. Well, I was pregnant, so trying to stay awake would have taken some sort of miracle. I don’t know how far we travelled before the radiator boiled again and the next coating of that very useful gum was needed. My jaws ached and my tongue felt numb, but I had dutifully chewed my way through several packets of the stuff, despite the dozing.
After the second round of repairs we squeezed back into the ute and repeated the performance but didn’t get far this time. The guys were really too tired to be driving and I was suffering from motion sickness so Alan decided that we should try to get some sleep. He and I propped each other up in the cabin, hoping that our breath and body heat would eventually warm the space, because, although the daytime temperature had been uncomfortably warm, we were still far enough inland for the nights to be cold. Lou was relegated to wherever he could lay his head outside. He had brought all his clothes with him, so the bulky green jumper his Gran had knitted, came in very handy. Our dog was already sound asleep, curled up on the tray of the utility. Lou headed off into the bushes and must have found some soft growth because at sunrise he knocked on the window, grinning like the teenager that he was, claiming that he’d had a good sleep.
I don’t remember what we ate for breakfast, but as we were leaving the camp for about a week, I had emptied the perishables from the caravan fridge so we probably had a lump of cheese and a tomato each; washed down with a swig of water from one of the large bottles.
Anyway, civilisation was not far away, and surely, even on a Sunday, we’d find something open soon. That was wishful thinking.
More chewing gum, hours of chewing gum, until my jaw was stiff and my mouth so swollen, I felt as if there was no room for my tongue, but still I chewed more packets of the stuff and helped keep the old ute going.
Heading for Armadale we were delighted to see signs of human activity. A couples of policemen got out of their vehicle and waved us down. Thinking that they must be desperate to catch drunk-drivers with hangovers from a Saturday night out on the town, we pulled over.
‘What’s your name? Where are you going? Where have you been? Why are you driving along here at this time of the morning?’
All of these questions, fired at Alan and then Lou, didn’t make a lot of sense at the time, although, after a sleepless night, with the men needing a shave, a shower and a change of clothes, they probably could be mistaken for unsavoury characters. Perhaps there’s a murderer on the loose, I surmised.
The police then started on me. ‘Who are you? What are you doing here, with these two?’
Dumbfounded, I stuttered over my answers and in the end the older police man tapped the young officious one on the shoulder with, ‘It’s not them,’
‘You can go,’ he said to Alan, ‘but watch yourself. Don’t stop for anyone.’
Do we really look like criminals, I wondered. Checking in the mirror, I saw a pale and frightened face, not one that should cause suspicion. The guys, on the other hand, looked decidedly scruffy.
It was about eight o’clock when we rattled up the driveway to my parent’s house in Kalamunda, having dropped Lou off at a train station along the way. As they’d been expecting us the night before, they hadn’t slept well either; we received reprimands as well as relieved hugs. We were delighted to have made it home, thanks to the chewing gum.
I was hungry but my mouth didn’t want to take another bite of anything, so after a good scrub under lots of hot running water (such luxury after our bucket washes) Mum gave me a bowl of delicious fruit salad. Alan, of course, ate a proper full breakfast.
Later that day we listened to the news on the radio and heard about the escaped prisoners, two young men, who had been sighted in a utility with a pregnant woman, thought to be the partner of one of them and presumed to have assisted in their getaway. One of the men was of Italian descent, of medium height with black hair and facial stubble; just how I’d describe Lou. They were armed and dangerous according to the report.
There was still a lot of surveying for Alan to do, as the government was opening up areas for farming in the eastern wheat belt, but that was the last of my trips for a while.