A Stranger Is A Friend You Have Not Met Yet

In the time I was at US Motors the competence of our drivers was very high. The steep terrain and narrow roads kept them all on their toes. But I do not remember anyone having an accident of note, a few minor scrapes was all. The regular drivers, that is, the people that drove all day, every day, were exceptional. There were those that drove school buses and did a few passenger runs, then spent the bigger part of their day in the bus workshop. They were lucky; it split their days up and was a lot less stressful. It took a lot of concentration driving all day. It was tiring. When I started driving every second Sunday on the Gembrook run I really enjoyed it. I started at Emerald at seven thirty am and finished back in Emerald at seven thirty pm. I had the pick of the two newest buses we had at US Motors, 69 or 70. They were the last of the SB models; much different to drive from the older models. With more power, a five speed gearbox, radio, heater, wonderful riding and steering. Very much like a big car to drive. Who could ask for more? But still I found that at about eleven am my eyes were getting very droopy. The lunch time break at Gembrook was a real blessing.

One day at morning tea Dave Smart was telling every one his secret on how to stay awake. My ears pricked up at once, I thought I might learn something special to help me. Pick out a car that passes you every day; keep an eye on the driver and when you catch his or her eye then wave. It will take about two weeks and they will be smiling and waving back. It is as though you have known this person all your life and it is very interesting. What a lot of rubbish that is I thought. Dave is just about our best driver at US Motors. But his stories are terrible. Strange people waving to you. Ha, ha, he is out with the fairies here. So I forgot all about it, I thought.

My school run was mainly Ferntree Gully to Kalorama. I liked all the other runs, they were all interesting. But my favourite was up the mount to Kalorama because it was all uphill and slow. I could sort of split my brain in two. Firstly, I kept an ear open to the engine revs and an eye on the road. Secondly, I could relax just a little and take in the scenery. Something I could not do on the way down that’s for sure.

The different seasons all had something going for them in the hills. My very favourite season was winter. On very cold days, leaving Ferntree Gully, I was warm as toast sitting beside the engine. The big loading ensured all the passengers were warm too. I checked everybody in the rear vision mirror and all were chatting or studying. It was peaceful. The three girls in the seat beside the engine canopy opposite me would sometimes ask me strange questions.
“Do you like Elvis?”
“What are your favourite Elvis songs?”
“Blue suede shoes, heartbreak hotel.”
“Do you like the new group, The Beatles?”
So then happy with my answers, they went back to chatting between themselves. I could then go back to my own thoughts.

From the Ferny Creek store up to the ridge above Sassafras on a cold day I could see flurries of snow in the branches overhanging the road. I was in my very favorite bus, with nice passengers and very beautiful scenery. There was a lot going for this bus driving, and a lot of magic in the hills. I would not have swapped places with anyone in the world at that time. And to be payed for it was a bonus. From the Mount Dandenong Hotel to the TV towers, the snow got heavier and it would land on the windscreen and pack up on the wiper blades.

It was on this section of road that I first saw the strange old man. He was there one second and gone the next. The fleeting impression I got was scruffy, long hair, beard and very tattered clothing. I must have been seeing things; no one would live in this section of thick bush, surely. It was probably the coldest place in the Dandenongs. But a couple of days later I saw him again.

There was one person that would know about this man and that was George Ebbels, the CFA fire captain at Olinda. George had his finger on the pulse of all that went on in the Olinda area. The next morning I found George having a cuppa in the lunch room. Yes, there is an old man living up Ridge Road in the scrub. He just appeared one day about twelve months ago and built a humpy in the scrub. He is a very, very strange man. He does not talk to anyone. He writes out notes for the shopkeepers. But he pays for all he gets and is no trouble.

Over the next couple of weeks I saw this man a couple of times, but like a wild bush animal he scurried away before I got really close. One afternoon, he must have been day-dreaming. He did not hear me until I was within thirty feet. Suddenly he woke up and half turned with a startled look on his face. I caught his eye and I don’t know why I waved. He reacted as though I had slapped his face, then he was gone. A couple of days later he hesitated and looked me in the eye. I waved and smiled and he was gone again. The next time he saw me, he stopped, looked me in the eye and I saw his fingers twitch but his arm must have been too heavy to lift. But after that he had made up his mind that I was OK. If I was a little late he would wait on the side of the road and wave and smile. If I was early, I would drive really slowly up to the TV towers looking for him in the scrub. I found that I looked forward to seeing this man, but he was like a Will-O-The-Wisp. Sometimes, I would see him every day for a week or more then not for a couple of weeks. I think he looked forward to seeing me too. His smile was broad and he continued to wave long after I had past.

I had not seen him for more than a week but that was no problem. When it got to more than two weeks I was uneasy. Three weeks and I sort out George again. He did not know, but he would find out. I caught up with George and it was about five weeks since I had seen the old man. I was in the lunch room cleaning up for the afternoon drive. George walked in to pick up his bag. The old man? Yes, about four weeks ago, the man who lives closest to his humpy had not seen any smoke for a couple of days. The weather had been a bit cold so he thought he better have a look. He found the old man in a coma and rang an Ambulance. They took him to a city hospital, but he died two days later. George took his bag and walked out. I had to sit down, that was not the news I had been expecting. I felt drained and very upset. How sad it must be to die without anyone, all alone. Maybe I had brought a little comfort to him when he thought of the young fellow in the strange yellow bus waving and smiling. I like to think so. There had been a connection, hadn’t there?

For the next couple of months I searched the bush up Ridge Road and that is not so silly, is it? Because he was a friend of mine and I missed him.