Selective Memory—A good thing

Christmas once again approaches, for many it means two weeks holiday and plenty of festivities. While for many others it is a case of business as usual, with an even higher workload. Before thinking of our Industry I must say that the Accident and Emergency units are often unreasonably stretched because of people’s stupidity and I think perhaps we will be no exception when it comes to commonsense regarding use of our emergency service.

I recall how I once travelled 20 miles on Christmas night to fit a number plate light bulb because the car owner did not want to risk driving and being stopped by the Police since he had had to quote him “an odd glass of wine”.

I think we all forget how selective our memories are, not only from long ago but also to fairly recent events. I always smile when I see the iconic Motor Trade Christmas card which usually features the forecourt of a 1930s garage with all the facilities; in one place one petrol pump, one air line, one garage door, one old car, and a pretty lady with not only furry boots and seamed stockings but with the most appealing multi-coloured scarf and, to cap it all, four inches of newly fallen snow, nice and crisp and even, and with a Robin on the nearby railings. What a pleasant and refreshing scene to warm anyone’s heart.

While I wasn’t around in the 30s as some people think but as an Apprentice in the early 60s the scene could have been fairly similar and, I tell you now, it was far from pleasant. When did we ever get four inches of crisp snow? More like a foot of wet slush, wind and rain and with cars stuck everywhere. No pretty lady in a scarf, just a grumpy coal miner in his Austin A35: and no Robin in sight.

I remember being unable to get the lock off the garage door on a morning because everything was frozen including the fuel pump. Then there was the garage heating system which, if you were lucky, was a coke stove: we used to call it a belly stove. Come to think of it, if it had had legs and arms, it would have looked very similar to the chap with the Austin A35. We did have a thing called a Salamander which ran on a combination of paraffin and old oil, but it was never allowed to be used since it would most likely have resulted in the premises being burned down, like the one up the road, especially if it was refuelled while lit.

While I am undoubtedly one of the greatest believers in looking back at the good times, on this occasion I am digging a little bit deeper and realising how awful and difficult many things were. My first experience of breakdown and recovery work was in the Winter of ’63. Like everybody else at that time the vehicle of choice was a long-wheel-base Land Rover pick-up (-38bhp) with a hand driven Harvey Frost crane.

To start with the heater was next door to useless and the operative’s clothing, compared to today, wasn’t much better. My standard work wear for heading out to a breakdown was a dark blue boiler suit and for extra protection a black donkey jacket with the NCB on the back painted over.

To keep my head warm, because apparently if your head was kept warm it helped your whole body, I was issued with an oil covered cloth cap that didn’t even cover my ears and I certainly blended in well with the background of pit heaps which was a feature of that era. Of course, being seen wasn’t a big problem because there was no one else on the road to see me.

On the plus side, because of the simplicity, I remember that we got most cars re-mobilised and if we could not re-mobilise the car a 10-ft length of chain was attached to the back of the Land Rover and somewhere on the suspension of the car, and away we went, regardless of the weather, regardless of anything really. And, do you know, I did this for years and I can only recall an odd occasion where the broken-down motorist came to grief and rammed me up the backside. Try that today and you wouldn’t stand a chance: which says a lot about people’s inability in this day and age.

Of course, if the vehicle had suffered wheel or suspension problems then it needed to be lifted at the front, not by a spectacle lift but by the world famous Harvey Frost crane. Once again two chains were attached to the front suspension and, to make certain that the front bumper, grille and front panel weren’t too badly damaged, a couple of tyres were dropped between the lifting plate and the front of the car. We always used to keep a couple of old rear seats to push in as well.

No power operation just a winding handle which required hundreds of turns for every foot lifted to bring the car clear of the ground. The same system of hundreds of turns was used on the odd occasion to pull a car out of a ditch or up an embankment. No electric winch and no hydraulics.

It perhaps suggests that a Breakdown man using this had to be relatively fit: (Transgressing: the same process was used for Heavy Recovery when the tyres and rear seats were replaced with railway sleepers: try lifting two of those by yourself!) While we moaned about the heater in the Land Rover, the Diamond T that we used for heavy recovery did not have a heater at all. This was all the equipment that we had at our disposal, bearing in mind that a new Land Rover and a new Harvey Frost crane was State of the Art and I was the envy of many when the company I worked for installed me in such a brand new kit.

We had no RT radios, no mobile phones and half the telephone boxes in County Durham were out of order because somebody had stolen all the pennies out of them, together with half the phone system. So, invariably we would take a job at base, drive 20 miles out, do the job, drive 20 miles back and find there was another job just round the corner from where we had been. So we just got on and did it. We didn’t envisage any alternative ever being available.

I was 21 years old when I went to work as a Specialist Breakdown Mechanic and it was this situation that can turn a boy to a man overnight. The working conditions were not good especially in the winter, nothing was easy and often damned hard work. We got on and did things that nowadays people would not even contemplate never mind doing them with a smile.

Together with a colleague, using a Diamond T, maximum speed 20 miles per hour, I once towed an artic, that had an extremely valuable load, from Durham to London using a heavy chain because we could not get a rigid bar attached by any method. We could not have done it if it had not been clutch failure, which allowed us to retain the engine and the braking system.

We left Durham at mid-day on the Sunday, stopping and changing duties every three hours. We arrived in London at 7 o’clock the next morning; unhooked the truck and drove back, getting back to Durham at 9 o’clock on the Monday night, after alternating between driving and trying to sleep; some task in a Diamond T. We laughed about it for months. It was a hell of an adventure and no doubt earned the company I worked for a small fortune.

So all this looking back and enjoying the good times is definitely selected memory but that is what memory is like. Many of us have suffered broken bones or a major incident and the pain is never recalled, and it is the same with our working lives. I remember many years ago being attended to in hospital after a motor cycle accident. I can’t recall how painful it was but I can certainly remember the nurse bending over me with a low top. Now this is selective memory.

But there is no escaping the fact that people were much more versatile, determined and committed to succeeding whether they were Breakdown men or broken down motorists. People first and foremost looked to help themselves and if it went wrong they just kicked themselves, they didn’t look to blame someone else and then sue them. And that is undoubtedly the big difference.

Merry Christmas and Happy Winching

Fred Henderson,
Breakdown Doctor.

If you would like to know more about the old days Fred had a book published in 2005 which is still available: contact fred@fredhenderson.com