|Sudbury to Mendlesham Airfield.|
"Then don't you think that it's about time you got a proper job?" was his witty quick-fire reply.
Since then, ten years have flown by, with the last eight in Canada. A disabling accident on my sixty-first birthday has given me time to cast my mind back to the final quarter of 1974 and my time spent with Herbie Green; the second most influential man in my life, after my father.
____Twenty-one was the age limit for lorry-drivers and I sent off for my provisional licence as soon as possible. November 2nd was the date of my assessment at the Road Transport Industry Training Board's establishment at Mendlesham, Suffolk. A Saturday afternoon, where my first experience of driving an articulated vehicle ended as a miserable failure. Reversing: bad. Maneuvering: bad. Awareness: poor. Signalling: poor. Everything on the report card was either bad or poor except for "Road positioning" which was my only "Good." I honestly thought that the driving school would not want me as a pupil.
____ But the short Winter days were not a popular time for driver trainees and I was offered a three week course starting on the 2nd of December. The price was 180 quid including the fee for one test. Mendlesham RTITB arranged for me to be registered as a driver for Anglia Heavy Haulage; this cut the cost of the tuition by about a third as the company was eligible for a government training grant.
____Every morning of my training started in frosty darkness as I rode my 125 Kawasaki trail bike across Suffolk on B-roads from Sudbury to the driving school in the shadow of the Mendlesham television transmitter mast. It was on an old World War Two airfield which was perfect for lorry driving learners to practice. There were offices and classrooms with all the servicing of the trucks done at the adjacent premises of Taylor Barnard, a large local haulier.
____The first morning was spent in the classroom; were I found myself paired with Nigel, another 21 year old, and Herbert Green, our instructor. Herbie was the senior instructor and made no secret that he was always given the pupils that needed the full three week course and were least likely to pass first-time. The first afternoon was spent in a Leyland Chieftain with Herbie at the wheel; showing us how it was done and confirming to me that I knew nothing.
____The Chieftain was a 4x2 tractor unit coupled to a 33 foot tandem axle flatbed trailer rated to run at a maximum 28 tonnes, fully-freighted. The gearbox was a constant-mesh six-speed; which Herbie informed us, had been converted from a synchromesh six-speed just to make things harder. We were given the keys and told we could come in as early as we liked to practice early morning maneuvering on the concrete airfield runway. Nigel perfected his reversing whist I thawed out from my pre-dawn motorcycle ride.
____A pattern soon emerged in our training. Nigel would drive from 8 until 10, when we would stop at a café for breakfast. My first shift was 10.30 to 12.30 then lunch. Nigel 1 o'clock to 3, then a quick switch and I drove the last session; back at base at about 5 o'clock. We sat three-abreast in the Leyland day cab with Herbie in the middle. Week 1 and Herbie never stopped talking; telling both of us each and everything we had to do and when to do it. Mirror, signal, gear. Left, right, straight-on. Brake, stop, go, get a move on.
____Week 2 and Herbie cut the instructions down to just left, right and straight-on but was now telling us both about each and every mistake we made through out the day. He still never stopped talking and the annoying thing was that he never missed a mistake. We got away with nothing.
"You don't seem to be enjoying this?" Herbie remarked after one particular mistake riddled session.
"Don't worry, I'll shut you up." I snapped back at him.
"That's the spirit, boy, now lets make progress."
____Slowly, things began to fall into place. Herbie's tuition in reversing finally began to make sense. The endless driving around the Ipswich ring-road and port area gave us enough practice of the test route while the grating gear-changes of the first week were now just clicks. Herbie also expanded on endless transport topics; teaching us not only "How to drive a lorry and pass the test" but also "How to become a lorry-driver." The difference between the two might be too subtle for some people but the stuff that Herbie taught me is still a big part of my everyday driving technique, even after 40 years.
____The man had my respect from "day-one" with his clutch-less changes of the gearbox and in the following weeks I saw just how much respect he commanded amongst the lorry-drivers of Suffolk. There was never a single time in any transport café where Herbie was required to open his wallet; always there was a former pupil on hand to bring over a mug of tea. Every driving session was punctuated with head-light flashing and waving from on-coming trucks as ever-thankful drivers recognised the master. Every wave was acknowledged with a swift karate chop slash of the right arm. Quite disconcerting at first; as Herbie would normally sit motionless in the middle of the cab with his arms folded.
____Freezing fog greeted me as I made my way to Mendlesham on the morning of the test; Friday 20th December 1974. Herbie was confident that the test centre examiners would not venture out in such weather but we would have to turn-up at our allotted time in order to get another test slot at no extra charge. Sure enough; Nigel's 08.30 test was postponed and we all went for breakfast. My test should have begun at 11 o'clock and I had resigned myself to coming back and taking it after Christmas; but then the wind got up and it started to drizzle. The fog cleared and the test was on; a series of set manoeuvers at the test centre, reversing, slalom, emergency stop. Then the rest of the two hours was spent out and about in Ipswich followed by thirty questions. I honestly thought that I had failed when a car came out of no-where at a round-about and I locked-up all the brakes. After that , the examiner seemed to be taking me back to the test centre and didn't bother with the hill-start test. But he did pass me; mentioning the incident at the roundabout and saying that if there had been a collision he would have been forced to make me take a re-test.
____ Herbie said afterwards that he knew I would pass; I think he was proud that he had managed to teach someone who knew so little and got him through in just three weeks. During the following years; our paths crossed on numerous occasions. I bought the teas and received the right arm swipe when we passed on the road. I will always be thankful for his tuition and his safety orientated tips that helped me so much through five decades of driving.