Update, 18.02.2013 we learned of the tragic sudden death of New Zealand Broadcasting legend Kevin Black. I’ve noticed that search engines are directing people here to my blog. People will be wondering why. The reason for this is because I mentioned Kevin in my story, on this page. I was privileged to meet and do some work with him, briefly, back in the 80’s. Kevin Black was a great bloke, friendly, funny and real. New Zealand has lost one of our great characters of the moden era. RIP Kevin Black.
Getting ready to go and join the army was a bit of a blur. I just threw some stuff in a bag and set off. I caught the train from Palmerston North. I met up with a few likely looking characters that had come down from the East Coast. There are a lot of Maori from the East Coast in the army, not much else for them to do for a job really. The guys I remember meeting on that journey came to be known as Elvis and Omar. I cannot remember their real names. Elvis and Omar joined the tank corps, or “turret heads” as we knew them. I was going to join the Royal New Zealand Corps of Transport as a truck driver. Arriving at camp in the evening we were given a meal and shown to our barracks. Eight man rooms with a single iron bed, a chest of drawers and a wardrobe. The occupants of my room said hello to each other and shared a few brief details before getting a bit of a lecture from the corporal in charge of the barrack room. The lecture was brief; we would get a full briefing in the morning. Lights out was 10.30pm I think. The last post is played every night in New Zealand military camps. It is a very moving and lonely sound after dark in an army camp. You go to sleep to the sound of a lanyard clanking on a steel flagpole. I will always remember that sound, it was very evocative of New Zealand’s fantastic military history, that and the last post being played after lights out. The sounds of the last post and clanking lanyard became something of a combination of comfort and sadness during my time in the army.
The morning arrived at 4.30 am. Lights, noises, shouting, the works. Absolute shock to the system. We were unceremoniously herded to the road to get the good news about what we had let ourselves in for. We then marched, badly, to the mess for breakfast. I can’t really remember the details about the first few days. We had our hair shaved. We were given uniforms. Not good uniforms, training uniforms. The regular soldiers all had their coloured belts and berets; we had greens, a tin hat with our name on it and a green web belt. We were given our KFS; you must not lose your KFS. It took me many weeks to figure out that KFS meant knife, fork and spoon. I wished that when it dawned on me, I didn’t tell anyone else that I had taken so long to figure it out, but I did.
The best day for me was when we were given our first weapon, an M16. The New Zealand army primary rifle in those days was a variation on the Belgian FN, known to us as the SLR (Self Loading Rifle). The SLR is a 7.62mm calibre, which is .308 in the old money, brute of a thing. Heavy and very powerful, not the sort of weapon you give to a new recruit whose shooting prowess and temperament you have not yet established. The basic facts are that if you shoot someone with an SLR, they will have an exit wound the size of a basket-ball. They will go down in a bloody heap. Shoot someone with an M16 and they can keep running, so for new recruits, you give them the M16 which is light and a lower calibre at 5.56mm or .223. The M16 is a great weapon to train with and good fun to shoot with, not such an ideal weapon to win a war with however.
Soldiers in the New Zealand army are just regular guys and girls, like you and me. They come from all walks and backgrounds. It is a good career choice for those who want some adventure, discipline and routine in their lives. It is not such a great place for independent thinkers and the naturally rebellious as I was to find out later. In the first few days we had a few characters from less ordered backgrounds who discovered that obeying orders was not actually optional and yes you really did have to do what you were told the minute you were told to do it. There were some initial ‘conversations’ between the corporals and some guys who clearly were not embracing ‘the army way’. Contrary to popular belief, NCO’s are not allowed to touch recruits without the recruit’s permission. Some guys though just would not be told how things were going to be, so had to be persuaded in other ways to look at things from an army point of view. This usually involved an NCO removing evidence of their rank and taking the miscreant aside for a more in depth chat about discipline and joining in.
Basic training revolves around drill, weapons training, physical fitness and more drill. Not very interesting as a story. One night though about five weeks in, all hell broke loose. The sirens in camp went off in the middle of the night. I could hear armoured vehicles starting up and moving around in the camp. There was a lot of shouting, what on earth was going on? What was going on was that a huge bush fire was out of control out in the backblocks between the training area and Hawkes Bay. This is out in the country where Ngamatea Station is. The whole place was on fire apparently. We were being sent to help fight it. We were loaded into the old Bedford trucks and driven for about six hours, much of it across country and old farm tracks to get to the staging point. From there we could see the flames and smoke covering the entire horizon. We were given leather jerkins, some tin-foil and a spade, perfect equipment for fighting a huge bush fire. We spent a very smoky night in tents and in the morning were put into armoured personnel carriers to go out to the fire. The heat was astonishing, we spent the day digging fire breaks and calling in helicopter and monsoon bucket dumps. Occasionally when the wind changed we had to dive into the APC and charge off to escape the flames.
That evening back in the tent village, everyone was red faced from the heat and the medics where working overtime treating the many minor burns. The following couple of days were more of the same, the fire was under control now and we were just dousing hot spots. The next day was just a long drive back to camp and a good night’s sleep without the stink of smoke.
Luckily we then had our mid basic break. A chance to go home for a long weekend. This was a huge undertaking for the poor buggers up the East Coast and from the South Island. For me it was just a couple of hours. It was good to be home and have the home comforts but the night before I was due to return, not so welcome was the phone call at 1am. Behind the garage we had an incinerator and we had been burning some rubbish in the afternoon. Dad had put a fresh load of firewood by the garage recently. The neighbour was getting a glass of water in the night and could see the fire through his kitchen window. Some sparks from the incinerator had got into the firewood and it was blazing away well, threatening the garage. So we got up and raced out to put into practice all the good recent fire fighting experience I had gotten the previous week. It was a laugh though, come home from fire-fighting to fight a fire in your own front paddock on your break.
Dad had a bit of a thing with fire though. I won’t talk about the big fire in the old railway cutting after Dad cleared out the front paddock. He had bulldozed a few dozen trees into the cutting to dry out. Then he set fire to them one evening and came in for supper. The blaze was only a 200 foot long 100 foot high wall of flame that California or Australia would have been proud of and even the volunteer fire brigade struggled to contain.
But I will mention that my Dad, while clearing the blackberry, managed to set fire to the old wooden railway viaduct that ran over the property. If you have ever tried to put out spot fires in the guts of a wooden railway bridge 150 feet above the ground you’ll know what I am talking about. If you haven’t, there is not much to recommend it
Back to camp the next day. Lots more drill and fitness training, weapons training and general soldiering. The culmination of your basic training is the BE (battle endurance), or “big effort” as we called it. The BE is a 10 kilometre route march in full battle kit to be completed in under 2 hours. This is immediately followed by climbing a six foot wall, jumping a nine foot ditch, carrying a comrade and his gear, over your shoulder for 200 metres. Then he carries you. Being carried is worse than doing the carrying. The finale is standing, shooting 10 rounds at a target 100 metres away, the rounds have to hit a small area in the chest of the cardboard target. It is an exhausting mornings work. I had two great mates on basic training, Selwyn “Stooge” O’Neil and Dave “Lumchops” Lumley. I am no longer in contact with either of them which is a shame. Last I heard they were both working in the mines in Western Australia.
A lot of the basic training was just doing what you were told and learning drills and skills. When you got it wrong though, the punishments could be pretty gruelling. When everyone else was getting their kit ready for the next day and relaxing a bit in the evening, the wrong doers would be paying the price. This usually involved a lot of running to and from the camp office in various changes of clothes under a set time limit at the instruction of the training officer. These are called change parades, it was very tedious and luckily I didn’t have to do it too often.
After your basic training was finished, you had a passing out parade which is a hugely proud moment. You get your coloured corps beret and belt. You get to wear a proper uniform and parade in front of your gathered families on the big drill square with Mt Ruapehu as the back drop. You get a few winding down days and then get to go home for a break before you join your unit. I was going to be joining 11 Troop in Papakura, a field unit, even better, Dave and Stooge would be joining me there. The three musketeers together, let loose on four-wheel-drive trucks and Land Rovers.
I took the train home and arrived in civilian clothes in Dannevirke. I got changed back into my uniform and walked down the Dannevirke High Street feeling 10 feet tall. I had passed my toughest test and was very proud to be a New Zealand army soldier. I had a few days at home, then said goodbye to Mum and Dad and set off for Papakura.
When I got there it was the weekend so not much was happening. Dave and Stooge and I were shown to very luxurious barracks by basic training standards. We were told where everything was and told to report to the 11 Troop compound on Monday morning. We had a pretty relaxing time, wandered about; found the Baggies Bar, as the all ranks bar is known. We met some of our new comrades in arms and felt that this was a nice place to be. On the Monday, we met our troop commander who was a really nice young Lieutenant. The NCO’s also seemed pretty decent sorts and we were then told our barracks had only been temporary. We were going to move into the proper accommodation. This was a newly built block and we got to have our own rooms! Heaven!
The army in peacetime works much like any other place of work. 9 -5, doing your trade. My trade, as it were, was driver so we learnt how the trucks worked and did army stuff. As an army driver you need to master all the vehicles the army has as you are the guy who delivers the soldiers and equipment to the battlefield. We spent many hours driving in all sorts of conditions and landscapes. I was still only 18 remember and I was getting pretty handy with a 4×4. I have driven up and down mountains you would be surprised a truck can climb. I have driven through mud and slush you would not think even a big 4×4 could conquer. You would be quite amazed, I think, how fast I can drive a Land Rover down a gravel road or tank track without crashing it. I did have some scary moments though finding out how fast you can go or how steep you can climb.
I had not been in the army very long when they announced they were replacing the old RL Bedford’s with new Mercedes Unimogs. Also the old ‘Skippy’ Land Rovers with new V8 Land Rovers. Imagine just for a minute how that information might appeal to an 18-year-old army driver. When we were learning the ropes on the new Unimogs, I nearly tipped one end over end. We were driving them down a mountain to get a feel for the sort of angle they could take. I had been down in first gear as instructed already and was due for my second descent. Of course, I knew how it worked , so I roared up to the edge of the bluff in 4th and went to drop it into 1st without really pausing. I missed 1st and popped it into 3rd instead but by then I was already over the edge so couldn’t do any further gear changes to correct. I had to ride out the drop going way too fast. I had the back wheels off the ground at one point apparently. This was not well received by the training Sergeant.
Another time we were [driving on exercise] out the back blocks of Waiouru and had been driving for days without many breaks. We were on a remote track late at night, it was raining and we were driving with no lights on. I nodded off at the wheel as I was so exhausted and was woken by a thump. We were on our side; the door was pulled open by Stooge who was standing on the driver’s side front wheel. I asked if the truck was solid and he jumped up and down on the wheel to find out. My co-driver and I quickly evacuated the truck and figured we must be in a ditch. It was pitch black and raining and there was not much else to do but make our way back to camp to get a recovery vehicle, the “big hook”. We came back to my truck in the day light and discovered rather than being in a ditch, it was leaning on a tree – one of the few trees on that side of the road for about a mile in either direction. Below the tree was a pretty sheer drop of a few hundred feet. It was an incredibly lucky escape. We tied the big hook to a tree on the other side of the road so if my truck went down it wouldn’t take the hook truck with it. We dragged the big chain across the road and, just as we were about to secure it to the tow bar, the tree gave way and my truck cartwheeled down the bluff, end over end several times, bouncing off the cliff face, bits flying in all directions. It was quite spectacular actually but the truck was completely destroyed as would my co-driver and I been had we still been in it. This was a very sobering moment and the transport NCO was a little cross that one of his trucks had been written off.
We used to play motorway chess in Auckland in our Unimogs. In New Zealand you do not have to pass in the outside lane on the motorway. Stooge, Dave and I became quite good at judging the precise gap between cars that you could drive a Unimog through at 100 kilometres an hour. We did many convoys up and down New Zealand and it is important for you civilians to know that when you see an army truck full of soldiers, the ones in the back will wave at you, the driver won’t. This is not because he is rude; it is because he is too cool to wave. In the old Bedford days, a long drive could get quite boring so for a change of scenery the co-driver can scramble out of the cupola in the roof of the cab. From here you can then make your way through the front of the canopy over the back of the truck and have a chat with the lads in the back. One of them could make the reverse journey to keep the driver company. All this is undertaken as you are travelling at 100 km/h on State Highway One.
One of the worst elements I remember was the issue with public parades with the Territorial Forces. The public cannot tell the difference between the Regular Forces and the Territorial Forces (TFs) on parade. We wore the same uniform. The TFs though cannot march. We took a huge pride in our unit and our drill. We enjoyed marching out in front of the public on days like ANZAC day. It made your skin crawl through, when you and your mates were showing some quality drill and the idiots from the TF were shambling about out of time in sloppy gear. I remember my face burning with shame and anger when the public up at the Auckland Museum were watching us march and started laughing at the ridiculous efforts by the TFs. They thought my unit couldn’t do proper drill, it was humiliating. Those bloody part timers were embarrassing us all.
I have a couple of other great army memories I want to share with you. One year the Americans turned up for a huge exercise called Captive Lightning. We were going to be part of task force Rock Steady. The American military have ridiculous names for their undertakings. A large contingent of US soldiers was going to play guns and blow stuff up in New Zealand. We had to move them about. I learned some really good lessons on this exercise. I learned that all the gung-ho stuff you see in films is total rubbish. Your average American soldier is a big girl’s blouse. They climb out of trucks like they might break something if they do it too quickly. Our troops dive over the back and disappear into the bush when we stop at a deployment zone. The yanks had to have the tail gate dropped. They then slowly and gingerly climb to the ground. We just watched open mouthed.
The US soldiers also cannot march. They shamble about in a really casual way. They used to gather and applaud anytime we moved anywhere in bulk, marching. They also cannot drive. We were going down a mountain pass one night. I was driving the lead Land Rover and I had a handful of Americans using our Land Rovers following me. From where the mountain pass meets the main track you can see back to the place it starts. I set off down the mountain at night in the dark without lights at the pace I usually travelled when not in a particular hurry. I stopped at the main track junction to see how my followers where getting on. I could see them miles back up the road, creeping along at walking pace. Their excuse that they didn’t know the road was a very poor one because all they had to do was follow me. Stooge, Dave and I were given nicknames by the officer in charge of the unit we were supporting. Dave was Dave “Gumball” Lumley. Stooge was “Cannonball” O’Neil. I was Abbot “the Assassin”. This was because one day I had to get him from one side of the training area to the other, which is a long way on gravel and dirt tracks. He was in a hurry so I drove fast. This was a whole new kind of fast compared to what he was used to in the US army. To be fair he just hung on to the dash handle and said god damn a lot. We named the Americans the “God Damns” as it was such a constantly used phrase.
You would be amazed at how the US army eats. They take fantastic ingredients and turn them into shit. Look up cream beef if you want to get an idea. They also have a massive infrastructure to feed their guys in the field. Our boys in the bush take a 24 hour ration pack when actually tactical. It is a small pack of dried stuff you can spin the contents of out over 48 hours if you have to. You can carry a few of these in your back pack if you are away from any sort of camp for extended periods on patrol. The Americans have C rations. These come as a lunch box sized pack for every meal. It has to be delivered by truck or plane. It is ridiculous.
What is also ridiculous is the amount of noise they make. Constant chatter. When Kiwi soldiers are in the field, there is total silence; all communication is done by hand gestures. We had a couple of live firing exercises. Once the Americans have laid down a massive storm of fire on some old tanks and cars, they have to whoop and holler – they whoop and holler all the time. They did enjoy learning about rugby though. They called it combat football and it really appealed to them. A very exciting day was when we got to watch an air strike by Sky Hawks on a position in the distance. This was an incredible sight and I learned that I really do not ever want to be on the receiving end of an air strike. I can assure you it is far more impressive in the flesh than on TV.
In the army there is a common phrase called immediate action – this is what you did in response to an issue that had presented itself and needed something done about it straight away – a blockage in your rifle, for example. On this exercise a lot of what I was doing was shifting ammunition about. One day we were loading grenades for their grenade launchers. Unlike hand grenades which are on a timer, these are designed to explode on impact with the target of course. They are like a small round headed artillery shell or a very large bullet. They each come in a loo roll size and shaped protective container. The Ammo guy was handing some to me when two of them dropped out of the container. It was like slow motion – I saw these two high explosive shells heading for the concrete floor and saw and performed the immediate action when you are about to be blown to smithereens. You turn your face away and grit your teeth. Not much else you can do. Clearly I heard a couple of clanks rather than a brief explosion. Great sigh of relief and much nervous laughter.
The other great memory was when we had a big exercise with our infantry and the Ghurkhas on Great Barrier Island. The night it started we had over 100 trucks lined up in camp to take all the troops and gear out to Devonport to embark. The sound of 100 or so big trucks firing up at once and rumbling out of camp is quite impressive. On the return, the ships were parked off shore from Devonport centre where the Navy loading ramp is. You can imagine the impact on the nice residents of that lovely peaceful village when an awful lot of army trucks roll up in the middle of the night. I was working with our troop commander that night who was in charge of the logistics of transferring tons of equipment and a couple of thousand troops into trucks for distribution to various parts of New Zealand. He had to go somewhere for some reason and handed me the clip boards. I was a 19-year-old truck driver now in charge of the whole operation. I just waved people here and there, put the ordinance on the trucks for Papakura and Linton camps and the troops onto trucks bound for Whenuapai air base.
The Colonel in charge of the whole exercise came up to me and was chatting away about how well it was going and asked who I was eventually. I told him and he nearly fell over. I was quite chuffed though that he gave my commanding officer a call to tell him what an extraordinary effort I had put in for someone so inexperienced. So that was nice. As an aside, I travelled with the troops to the airbase at the head of the convoy. I directed them to the hanger which was their accommodation for the night and then pulled the big doors closed. It is quite a sight when you look into a room full of the troops from 2/1 Battalion, New Zealand Infantry Regiment and a large contingent of Ghurkhas all in full battle dress. 2/1 Battalion are our war fighting soldiers and they form the backbone of the New Zealand army. They are an impressive bunch.
I didn’t get home much while in the army but one night, Finlay rang in a panic. He had been asked to come home and look after the farm while Mum and Dad where away. Fin was not much of a farmer, I am sure even he will admit. It was only because I was busy in the army that he was asked to look after the farm. He rang saying the water had run out, all of it. Behind the house was a 10,000 gallon tank that was a combination of rain and spring water. We also had a well and an old pump down by the river that fed water up to the house. Somehow the water had gone. I asked him if he had checked the pump and he said it was still working. I informed him he better go and stop it working as pumps do not like pumping dry, as most people would know.
I decided the best course of action was to drive home to see what was going on. This was a good six hour drive which I did overnight. I arrived in the wee small hours of the morning and went to bed. The kitchen window in our house looked over the house paddock, down past the shed to the river. Also in this view was the Viaduct and the paddocks on the other side of the river. It was a nice outlook across the farm. One thing though that is not usually in this view is the 50 foot jet of water I could see across the river. A jet of water that could only be coming from the pipes that fed the other side of the farm. It occurred to me immediately on seeing this why there was no water at the house. The water was going to the easiest point of escape, which was a break in the join of the pipes across the river. I pointed this out to Fin and he was quite taken aback. We fixed the pipes and water was restored. I had made a 12 hour round trip in two days for no particularly good reason. Thanks Fin.
Another trip home was far, far worse. I arrived home in the middle of the night as usual and when I got up in the morning Dad was standing at the kitchen sink, with his back to me staring out across the farm. He said, without turning around “I need you to do a favour for me”. I replied with something like “Sure, what did he need?” He then said “I need you to shoot Janey for me”. Janey was his favourite sheep dog. She was a beautiful natured and very talented dog. A really top quality heading dog that I had worked the farm with for years when Dad was away fencing. I loved Janey as much as he did and he was asking me to shoot her as she had some sort of tumour and had no prospects of a recovery of a working life and was clearly in some pain. I do not know why he didn’t get the vet around to put her to sleep. I didn’t ask and to this day I still do not know. It was a horrendous thing for him to ask me to do but I said I would and took the rifle, a spade and Janey to the bottom of a paddock. I made Janey sit and stay and then just aimed between her beautiful sad eyes and pulled the trigger. I dug a large hole and placed her in it. That was that. I felt quite ill and very upset. I guess Dad figured that now I was in the army I was a trained killer so more able to do this sort of thing. Dad was as hard as nails and I was amazed that he felt I could shoot Janey without too much compunction. It was a horrible day that will live with me forever. I don’t blame Dad really, he wanted Janey out of her misery and he hadn’t the heart to do it himself. I sort of get that, but I really didn’t want to do it either.
I had a girlfriend in the army. Her name was Dianne. Dianne was a corporal in the education corps – what she actually was though, was a librarian. Dianne was also older than me; we had been friends for quite a while before anything developed. The amusing bit of this is that after a particularly long stint in the field doing some actual soldiering rather than driving, I returned to camp late one night. I thought I would quickly go and let her know I was back before unloading all our gear and weaponry. I got to her barracks and her door was slightly ajar, I gently kicked it open. She shouted, not yet knowing it was me, “Oh don’t you bloody knock” and rushed to slam the door shut. I elbowed it open and found her with a gentleman caller sitting on her bed. The gentleman was not a soldier; turns out he was a school teacher she had got friendly with in my absence. It is a great feeling of power when you are a large soldier carrying a big machine gun complete with ammo belts and in full camouflage war fighting attire, facing a little bloke who has been chatting up your bird. You never saw a guy look for so many exits to a room at once. I was standing in the only one. It was a tense moment for him. Luckily I am a reasonable type and just helped him on his way. Dianne and I split soon afterwards. Her excuse that she had told me she was fickle was not really a very good one.
I was transferred to Hopu Hopu camp at Ngaruawahia. This time I was driving courier runs, supply trips and VIP work. It was a pretty relaxed place and I enjoyed the life of not having to go out into the bush every other week. The long and short is though that I had decided the army wasn’t a place I wished to spend the rest of my life. I had no idea what I might do and I thought an adventure was the best bet. I had bought a ticket to Australia and that was the plan. No idea what to do when I got there but it was the start of a plan anyway.
A chance encounter had a profound effect. One day on VIP duties I was driving a Territorial army Brigadier called Brigadier Valentine. He was Valentine of Valentines mail order. We were chatting on a long journey and he asked what I was going to do when I left the army. I said I didn’t know really, so he asked what I was good at. I told him I enjoyed writing. He said I should have a go at being a copywriter. I had never heard of a copywriter so he told me what one was and I thought that sounded great. He said just go to a radio station when I leave the army and ask to do a copy test, so I did.
My copy test was at 2ZA in Palmerston North, but I guess it was no good as I heard nothing further from them. I went home to get ready to go to Australia. Dad was really struggling though with the farm and fencing so I started to work for him. I am not very ‘handy’ though so was a pretty useless fencer. I managed to shoot a fence staple through my boot and foot with a pneumatic staple gun. That really stung, even more painful was pulling it out with fencing pliers. The trip to Australia was called off and I spent a year working for Dad on the fence lines. I couldn’t and didn’t want to spend my days doing that though so set about trying to get a real job. My first job was with Dommetts in Palmerston North, in the parts department with old Jim. Dommetts worked on International Harvester trucks and tractors. Imagine for a moment how many individual parts there are for all the models of truck and tractor they make. Each part has part number allocated, a combination of eight or more numbers and letters. Jim had worked in that parts department for over 30 years and you could hold up any widget or sprocket, any gasket or coil and he could tell you the part number, without looking it up. It was extraordinary.
I was living in a little room in a student house with some mates from school, Doug Dresser and Tim Brenton-Rule. Mum will tell you Tim was a bit of a bad influence on me at school. For the record, he wasn’t. I was a bad influence on him. My room was very small but we had great times after work in that house. They were at Massey University and I enjoyed living on the fringes of the university lifestyle at least. A few years later, there was a news program about the appalling standard of student accommodation in Palmerston North. Our house was on the news as the worst of them all, in particular my room. The student being interviewed was telling the incredulous interviewer that “Someone used to live in the cupboard we now use for firewood”. My little room barely wider and longer than a single bed cost me $13 a week. I was quite happy in it.
Dommetts didn’t pay well so I went across the road to work for a big warehouse that supplied dairy products and frozen goods to dairys. I was a store man and forklift driver. One day one of the van salesmen was off sick and I had to do his run for him. I really enjoyed getting out on the road selling stuff to dairy owners. I got to do this a few times and this was the catalyst for me getting into sales, rather than manual labour.
I found out there was a thing called a recruitment consultant, apparently they could get you a job. I cannot remember why or how I found this out or how I found myself in front of one. I did though and somehow they got me an interview with Fin McDonald at the Sun Alliance in Palmerston North. The role was for a trainee insurance inspector in Wanganui. I had never heard of an insurance inspector and had no idea what they did. Fin explained it to me and it sounded great. I would mostly be arranging farm insurance for the farmers of the Wanganui District including the central plateau. I am forever grateful to Fin for giving me this opportunity and I hope one day I can track him down and tell him so. I moved to Wanganui and started work with my first tie on.
I worked with a guy called Peter Tucker. He was a great boss and taught me all the things I needed to know about farm insurance. He was a great character and I enjoyed his company. I used to drive the Parapara Road every week to Raetihi to see Dalgety Crown, who were our agents up there. The Parapara Road is a tremendous drive, especially on a good day when you crest the final hill before the plateau proper. At this point Mt Ruapehu just suddenly fills your windscreen. It is a sight you never tire of.
I would do the rounds of the solicitors and accountants across the region who sold our policies to their clients. I visited my farmers and generally did the insurance inspector part. I enjoyed the job but it was a bit serious. I still had a rebellious streak and dyed the back of my hair with peroxide. This was the 80’s so also some questionable fashion statements were made such as bright green trousers with white shoes? Green leather ties anyone?
I was living in the top floor of a beautiful old house on the hill looking across Wanganui. You can see the house off to the right on the main road to New Plymouth. I had a veranda right round the outside of the house that I used to sit on to watch the world go by. I met a lovely girl called Avril, she was a Born Again Christian sadly. Her whole family were terribly into Jesus, so of course to stand any chance with Avril, I had to get into Jesus too. The flaw in this plan though was that I just could not get into Jesus. So I had to pretend.
I had my worst Christmas ever when I was in Wanganui. I drove to my Aunt and Uncles place at Waihi overnight on Christmas Eve. The whole family was gathering at Ally and Des’s place for Christmas. I arrived at their house at 6am on Christmas Day. I didn’t want to wake them so I sat in the car until I saw movement in the house. I went in and it was all good – a big welcome and lots of happiness. The family arrived from all points and we settled down to open presents. Sorry but I received the worst pressies ever that year, including a comedy woollen penis warmer! At lunc time the parents sat at one table and all the kids and young people sat at another one. I pretended to throw a glass of water at my cousin Amanda, she responded by throwing her Fanta at me. I put my hand up to deflect the glass which shattered and cut deep into my hand. There was blood everywhere!
Finlay reckoned he knew a bit of first aid and that was to run water direct into the wound. Yeah Fin, it’s not, that hurt like hell. I felt quite faint and had to go and have a lie down, my already average day ruined. As we had a house full there were no spare beds and I had to sleep on the sitting room floor. Of course everyone was pissed by mid-evening and wanted to party into the night. Ally decided the best place to sit was on my chest. It wasn’t, but there you go. I got up at 5am and went to Hamilton A & E to get my finger looked at. A couple of hung over nurses stitched me up and didn’t bother too much with anaesthetic. I set off for Wanganui with an aching hand and nearly had two accidents on the way. I arrived very tired, sore and feeling sorry for myself to discover that Avril was away for a few weeks.
I was moved to Palmerston North from Wanganui to do more commercial insurance as a new boss had taken over from Peter Tucker. The new man was a buffoon and we didn’t get on. The decision to bring me across to Palmy was taken and there I was, back in Palmerston North. Avril had come to Teachers College as well so that worked out well. We got a place together and moved in as we were now engaged. Yes, engaged. We found a new church for her to worship at and for me to accompany her as lying hypocrite. I couldn’t stand all the crap that fundamentalist Christianity entails though so had to bail from my pretence. Avril and I split and I was able to give the church a miss.
I used to spend my mornings before work ringing the regular competitions on ZMFM to win things. They got to know my voice so I started to create characters, like the American calling from the Gulf or the random Aussie. One day I went along to a big breakfast party outdoor broadcast they were having in full Aussie kit including blow up croc. Everyone there had heard me on the radio talking to them over the last few weeks and assumed I worked for the station. I cracked a few jokes and told a few yarns over breakfast. The breakfast presenter and station manager liked my style and offered me an unpaid internship sort of thing for the ‘90 days of summer’. I was going to do outside broadcast stuff, driving around in a little radio car, interviewing people in the street and doing roving reporter clips.
I became “Sandy in the Street” on Manawatu Stereo Hit Radio 90.6 ZMFM. This was done in the morning before I started work at the Sun Alliance in that very quiet time in New Zealand between December and February. I absolutely loved this work; this was what I wanted to do for a living. People actually used to ask for my autograph, which was fantastic. Remember back when I wrote my play and had a taste of show business, well here I was live on air on a radio show. Even better, I was the one people saw. The problem with being in radio if you want to be famous is people only hear you, they don’t see you, so you are anonymous in the street. Not me though, everyone knew who I was. I wore flamboyant clothes and when I went out, people bought me drinks.
You will remember the prettiest girl in the world? She was now a ballet dancer with the Royal New Zealand Ballet. She was coming to dance in Palmerston North and arranged tickets for me to come and see her perform. I arranged a date to take, but she blew me out at the last minute. I couldn’t ask any of my blokey mates and couldn’t face going alone so I didn’t go. I am ashamed of that to this day. The prettiest girl in the world rang me the next day to ask where I had been and I didn’t know what to say. I don’t think she thought much of me not turning up.
I also got a job on Friday nights and Saturday mornings in the EMI shop in the square. For some reason, I also found myself as a wine waiter at the Coachman Hotel on the other nights of the week. So with my three paid and my one unpaid job I was coining it in. When reality returned after the summer though, the Sun Alliance found out about all my jobs and gave me an ultimatum: focus on the day job, or else. This was an easy decision at the time. I had always wanted to be famous and insurance was boring. So I left an excellent career and went to do part time jobs to pay my rent while I was being a radio presenter. I had a very glamorous friend called Jacqui at the time. I loved Jacq, we did everything together so it was only natural I would take her for a spin in my radio car. The station manager called me in for a bollocking and asked “Who is that little tart in the car with you?” I hit the roof at this slur on my beloved friend and made one of many great mistakes in my life and stormed out in a huff telling Rick he could shove his unpaid job. Very clever!
Within a matter of days they also found out at the Coachman that I knew nothing about wine and sent me on my way. The EMI didn’t need me any more either so I was now completely unemployed. I took a very quick decision to pack all my stuff up and leave Palmerston North to live in Auckland. I was going to go and try and use my new found radio experience to go and be famous in the big city. How hard could it be?
Trying to be famous
I took a flight from Palmerston North to Auckland dressed in a ridiculous black shirt with record label prints and red trousers with a spider web design. I sat in my seat and looked out the window at Palmerston North. I started to weep a little bit as was once again very sad. The hostess asked if I was ok and I replied, “Yeah, just leaving some awesome people behind.”
I had arranged to stay with Mum’s old school friend, with the daughter who is the prettiest girl in the world. She breezed in and out from time to time. I needed a job and somehow got one as a car salesman. This meant I now had a company car that I could use to go for job interviews in. Sorry Wrightcars, but I was never going to be a car salesman. My Mum’s friend was finding living with me a challenge. I was a large uncouth bumpkin and she was used to delicate ballet dancers and city boys who knew how to behave.
We agreed after a time that I would find somewhere else to live. I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to be famous – writing, radio, TV, something like that. I formed a strategy; I knew where the media types lived so I applied for flat shares in those parts of town. I would only go for interviews with people who worked in advertising or TV. I met these people and impressed them with my enthusiasm, personality and charm. Some thought that they could help so introduced me to their friends who knew people. I had also pitched up to the studio of 89FM of the “Top Marks” fame, I blagged my way into the actual studio as they were dashing out to go and torment Muzza from 91FM. Muzza was having an outside broadcast and the two Marks were going to rain on his parade and hijack his show. I was left in the studio with the 10 – 2 guy who was covering the desk in their absence. We got chatting and became quite friendly. He invited me to his home a few times to give me some tips on how to do a radio show. A really nice guy.
I cannot remember exactly how I got around to my break but the upshot was that I met a recruitment consultant in the advertising industry. She had no real interest in me as I had no experience, or evidence of ability and certainly no English qualifications. Hardly an easy sell. She did have a daughter who was getting married soon and we discussed this. I asked what her daughter was into and for some reason offered to knock up the script for a lifestyle relevance themed wedding invitation. She agreed to see my efforts, liked them and the invite was created. Her daughter was ecstatic. The recruitment lady was telling this story to a woman who was trying to set up a new advertising agency. She had few funds so couldn’t afford expensive copywriters. She was trying to win a piece of business to get her started and offered me the opportunity to draft a campaign for it. If she liked it, she would use it. If she won the business, I would get a job as a copywriter. NO pressure then. I put a pretty good little campaign together for her to win the account, which was AGB McNair’s drinks research to sell to the booze trade. She won the account and I got my dream. A job as a copywriter in an advertising agency. Not bad for a hick from the sticks with no qualifications and the average standard of written English you are probably still shaking your head about.
Life was great. We had a little team of 4: Sandra, Anna and the two others whose names I have forgotten. One of them was the boss’s brother though. We won some more accounts, spent many late nights writing and creating. The Commonwealth Games were coming and we had the Keep New Zealand Beautiful account. I had to come up with a poster campaign to help remind the Kiwis to pick up litter and make the place look nice for the games. The Patron of Keep New Zealand Beautiful was Sir Edmund Hillary. The highlight of my life that I doubt will ever be surpassed as a writer was to write the statement Sir Edmund Hillary made to the people of New Zealand. This was to motivate them to make efforts and take time to have some pride in our back yard and ensure we looked the way people expect New Zealand to look, when the eyes of the whole commonwealth were upon us. He had to approve the words as his own and sign his name to them. He did and it was the proudest day of my life.
I also put together a sales promotion campaign for ETA Chips. I later showed it to the (American) Creative Director of Ogilvie & Mather in Auckland – she said it was the best sales promotion she had ever seen. That was quite a compliment.
One thing I must comment on was the sound track to life in New Zealand at the time. We had been dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th Century in the 80′s but when I was at school and on through this period, we had some amazing bands of our own running the music scene rather than just imported stuff like the old days. Incredible Kiwi music being created. Bands like Th’ Dudes, Citizen Band, Hello Sailor, The Dance Exponents, The Chills, The Swingers, Blam Blam Blam, The Netherworld Dancing Toys, Herbs, The Mockers and The Screaming Meemees, Toy Love. I could go on and on. It was a great time to be a young New Zealander. We were forging our own identity as a country rather than as a dominion of Great Britain. When you watch the rugby in New Zealand and something significant happens, they play songs from this era, not the current music. New Zealand has a vibrant music industry today, but the real affection seems to be from the time when the new Kiwi sounds were being born. I was there and it was a significant time in our history.
While all this was going on I was getting the odd TV commercial production quoted for by Neil Roberts at Communicado. Neil was very high profile in the TV world in New Zealand and was also a really nice guy. One day he invited me for a beer at the Empire, across the road from the TVNZ studios. I met his wife, Karen Soich. I didn’t tell Karen I was related to her former boyfriend Terry Clark. Terry Clark was and remains New Zealand’s most notorious murderous character. Our cousin Terry had murdered or arranged the deaths of more people than any other New Zealander outside a war apparently. He was a drugs lord and a generally very nasty piece of work. He died in a British prison in 1983. Karen was lovely though and Neil and I got on quite well. He offered me a chance to write and star in a kids TV show. I had no idea how to write a kids TV show but was too stupid to say so. Instead I declined as “I didn’t think kids would identify with me and I didn’t want to get type cast”. Another stupid mistake.
Neil offered me an audition slot for TV in general and let me script it myself, rather than reading a stock script. I guess the audition was alright as he showed it to his colleague Vivienne Bridgwater of The Other Network. Vivienne was Mrs Kevin Black; Kevin Black was Auckland’s highest profile radio star. She liked my audition and offered me a part time job writing “The rock report” for Kevin’s nationally syndicated top 40 countdown show. I was also allowed to voice the clip for the show. After a few shows, I was asked to perform the segment in a mid-Atlantic accent. I did not know what a mid-Atlantic accent was and as too embarrassed to say so, I declined instead. They didn’t ask me to write any further clips. So here I was with all these amazing opportunities and I was busy ruining all of them by being an idiot. Excellent.
I was living with Anna, our Account Director, at that time. We had a glamorous time, going out a lot to parties and generally enjoying life. That was up until we found out that our boss was actually a bit of a charlatan and had sold the business for an inflated amount to a poorly informed and silly buyer. Overnight we became surplus to requirements. I had kept a copy of the work I had done but you could hardly call it a portfolio. I frantically looked for other work and word got out that I was showing off work to potential employers that was still confidential. It was all I had! I was feeling very miserable as though my whole new beautiful world was collapsing so I drove my very nice sports car (with a very high excess to keep the premium down) to the shop to get some ice-cream to eat while I contemplated a plan. As I was opening the driver’s door, someone undercut another car and hit me. They took the door right out of my hand, and I was left holding the door handle. The cost to repair the car was just a bit less than the excess. I was unemployed and had no way of paying. So, I gave the broken car back to the dealer to do their worst with.
I was bereft; I did not have enough experience to get another job. I had upset the people who were trying to help me be famous and I was unemployed and a liability to Anna. I got a rubbish sales job which I hated. I went home for Christmas and while I was there my company car blew up. Something in the engine went bang, really very loud.
I found out that there was a little ad agency in Palmerston North and convinced the owner to give me a job as a writer. I moved in with some students and bought a little Morris 1100. I drove the repaired company car back to Auckland and parked it outside the offices of the crap sales job. I then caught the bus back to Palmerston North and rang that office to say I wasn’t coming back to Auckland.
I worked on little campaigns for a new ladies fashion store in Palmerston North. I wasn’t getting paid very much but at least I was writing again.
This job didn’t last long however, as the owner didn’t have much other business and couldn’t afford me. I was unemployed yet again. I can’t remember how, but I got a job back in Auckland with a large bakery in product development. I moved into a flat with a guy called Nelson and some other girls. Nelson and I had many wild adventures together and spent many nights laughing until we cried. The house had a jacuzzi and a large swimming pool. One day a skinny blonde nurse moved in. Her name was Ashley and she looked like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. She was the biggest contrast between sweet innocent appearance and a sweary, funny, firecracker in reality I had, and have, ever met in my life. Nelson and I loved Ash and I am glad that we are all back in touch now. My colleagues and I who worked on the road for the bakery used to chat to each other over radio telephones (RT’s) about our days and share information about our supermarket clients. These conversations could be heard on the base station back at the bakery. On many occasions on very hot days we would converge on my place, sit around the pool and occasionally go to the car RT to keep up the illusion we were at work.
We drove sign written cars so they were easy to identify. I was still angry about all the mistakes I have made and how I had ended up as a rep for a bakery. We had a management consultant in one day to teach us how to run the business better. He put all of us in a room and spoke a load of rubbish that was completely irrelevant to our industry. I stood up and told him so. The MD hit the roof and I was in all sorts of bother, my stock was zero. A few days later I was seen doing about 160 km/h over the harbour bridge. The MD didn’t need any further encouragement – I was then seeking alternative employment.
The prettiest girl in the world was all over the television by now. She had a TV show and was very high profile in New Zealand in the 80s. All Kiwi blokes of a certain age were in love with her. She was my old friend and I was very pleased for her.
I moved flats and went to work for a managed card system company as a rep. I was planning to leave New Zealand now. I wanted an adventure and some bad things were coming home to roost. Remember the broken car? I had been living for years beyond my means as well. I was transferred to Wellington as Regional Manager but I just wanted out. I wanted to run away from all the crap. I bought a one way ticket to Australia.
I went home to say good bye to Mum and Dad. On my last morning, Dad came into my room to say goodbye at about 5 am. He just said “you are very lucky”. I got up, had a coffee, threw my stuff into my back pack and gave Mum a very emotional hug. I knew that I was maybe never coming back, she didn’t. Mum asked why I was so emotional. I just said “Because I’m probably never coming back”. I don’t think she believed me. She does now, it’s 20 years later.
I went to Auckland to spend my last night with an old girlfriend, Kerri-Ann. My great mate Guy came out to see me and we stayed up half the night sharing stories and catching up. Kerri-Ann had long since gone to bed. I crashed at about 3 am.
In the morning, Kerri-Ann drove me to town to get some cash. I didn’t have any money so I just took what the cash machine would give me and we went to the airport. I gave Kerri-Ann a huge hug as I also knew I would never see her again either. I haven’t spoken to her or heard about her from that day to this. I walked through the departure gates and sat in the lounge looking at a Continental Airlines plane through the window. I had a back pack, $400 and a one way ticket to Australia. I had no idea what I was going to do or how I had got to this position.
I was running away from New Zealand into a world I knew nothing about and I had little to contribute to.
Once again I was very, very sad and a more than a little bit frightened.
To be continued……………