Going Back to School by Motorbike

Living in the ’70s By Kelly Ashton

MY MATE Crusty and I were at the Steyne Hotel on Manly Beach. Ah, yes, closing time, which meant it was time for a motorbike ride. With great roads all around us, we had a few choices — we could either go for a blast out to Palm Beach, or West Head, or maybe even a shorter run to another drinking hole. This was in the late 1970s.

Crusty made an executive decision. “Let’s ride out to Hunter’s Hill,” he said. “I want to show you something and see if it’s still there where I left it a few years ago.”

While I made my own decisions most of the time, I was easily led by peer group pressure when it came to going for a ride on a motorbike. Near or far, short or long, fast or insanely fast — it didn’t matter. “We’re going for a ride? I’m IN!”

We roared off from the front of the Steyne in a cloud of dust and a fog of revs. See, Crusty was a drag racer, and to him, all the world was a drag strip and all the other people were racers too. I followed on my Norton Commando.

I honestly can’t remember which bike Crusty was on then. When I first started drinking with him, he had a ‘Black Motor’ Kawasaki 900, the original ‘Jaffa’ model, which went like stink but handled like a plate of junket on crutches. He had it from new, and by the time it was four years old, it looked 40. He sold it to buy another, later (and consequently slower) Kwakka 9, which promptly got pinched by some by some rancid, penile wart of a bike thief. He then bought a bigger, but even slower Kwakka 1000, before trading that quick smart for a Suzuki GSX1100. After the three rapid bike changes, he stuck with that big Suzuki for many years, having only recently trading it in on some new, huge black Yamaha 1300.

I didn’t really pay too much attention to Jap bikes, and to this day, even Crusty isn’t sure which of his bikes it was that night but it was most likely the Suzuki GSX as he really got some speed up on the road along the beachfront. I was trying my best to keep up on the Norton when I realised he was slowing down and turning left up Raglan street, next to the huge hole in the ground that was to become the Manly Pacific Hotel (or the Murderer’s Arms, as it is known by locals).

Crusty was the drag racer but I was the road-racer, and I knew I had to out-brake him and his smart-arse, fast accelerating Jap bike. While he was slowing right down like a girl, my Norton was still accelerating, zipping past him at the last second and hauling everything on in a desperado late-braking manoeuvre that would’ve had motorcycle Grand Prix talent scouts scribbling down rego numbers.

Of course, that sort of hero shenanigans usually works better when your Norton doesn’t have totally stuffed steering head bearings. The poor old Norton went into the wildest, most spectacular tank-slapper I’ve ever experienced. The clip-on handlebars were oscillating crazily within the John Player Special fairing, and I’d like to say with a lot of skill and a little luck (okay, okay, it was the other way around, alright), I hung onto that bucking Norton and hauled it manfully through the corner into Raglan Street. There was still the odd flap from the rear wheel as I gunned the bike up the street.

At the next set of lights, Crusty pulled alongside and asked, “What was that all about?”

“I achieved what I set out to do,” I replied dryly. “Which was to beat you to the corner and get into Raglan Street first.”

“Follow me,” was all Crusty said. We roared up Raglan Street’s steep hill and off to another motorcycle/ alcohol/ youthful exuberance related adventure.

We got to where we were going, which was a gigantic sandstone wall at Hunters Hill.

“This is very interesting; I’m having a truckload of fun,” I told Crusty in a monotone, deadpan delivery totally devoid of any inflection or emotion.

“Shut up and get off your bike,” Crusty said. “This is my old school; let’s go in and have a look.”

Back in those days, my nights out were all so weird that weird had become the new normal. But this was getting weirder.

It was indeed Crusty’s old school, and it was the fairly hoity-toity St Joseph’s College, or Joey’s as it was known to the ‘Old Boys’. Leaving the bikes outside, we wandered through the open gates and across some really schooly-looking quadrangles and stuff. We still had helmets, gloves and jackets on, as this sort of situation can often call for a rapid ‘whoob, whoob whoob, nyaahh, nyahh,’ Curley-from-The-Three-Stooges-style exit, and time-wasting was not needed.

As we walked through the school, I was treated to a running commentary from Crusty: “This is where we’d beat up on the fat kids, and that’s where we’d dangle the skinny kids off the balcony until they gave us their lunch money, and that’s where we’d throw water-bombs at the rich, foreign students.”

We walked around before climbing the bell tower. The bell tower was fairly high, and Hunters Hill is fairly high, and the night time view from that vantage point was a magnificent panorama of Sydney Town. I was moved to say the least.

“This was the one place you could smoke cigarettes without being busted by the Brothers,” Crusty told me.

It was getting even weirder by the time we came down from the bell tower. Mind you, knowing Crusty as I knew him, if I ever spotted him up in a bell tower… let’s just say I wouldn’t be crossing any open ground!

We walked along a hugely wide corridor, with a carpet runner as broad as most modern housing blocks. There was an impossibly high ceiling and the sandstone walls were festooned with huge, original oil paintings, probably worth about a Brazilian dollars each these days. The hall was semi-lit in a mouldy, yellow half light, but it led into a much larger, darker hall.

Well, it was darker until we were right in the middle of it and Crusty turned the lights on. We were in the middle of a bloody dormitory full of sleeping boarding school students; hundreds of the little bastards! Now it was getting real weird, and I gotta tell ya, I was starting to feel nervous. I mean, it’s all very well being a loveable rogue and a bit of a scallywag, but when two adult bikers wearing crash helmets are in a dormitory full of sleeping teenage boys and having no lawful reason for being there, well I’m allowed to be a bit nervous.

“That’s the bed I slept in for six years of my life,” Crusty said in a voice way too loud for my liking. There was a kid sleeping there, and I didn’t want him waking up and shouting, “What the fuck are you doing here?”

Looking back, the boarders probably knew if the lights went on and adult voices were heard, the best approach would be to pretend to be asleep no matter what. Also, I think the charge of trespassing probably didn’t count if it was an ‘Old Boy’ dropping in on his old school. It’s also highly unlikely the Brothers would like any bad publicity about intruders on private school grounds, so it might’ve been a case of, “Be away with you, you scallywags… go o n— hop it!”

In any case, I’d had enough weirding up for the night, and I was out of there.

“Okay, okay,” Crusty said, chasing after me. “Here, take my bike keys and I’ll see you out there in a couple of minutes.”

I began to like the sound of this new plan even less than the entire premise of us actually being there in the first place, but thought, ‘What the hey!’

“Now, when I give the signal,” Crusty instructed, “You start my bike and put the lights on.”

“What will your signal be?” I asked, innocently enough.

“Don’t worry,” Crusty replied, “when you hear it, you’ll know it…”

It’s about 3 am on a Sunday morning. I’m quite sober now and seated on my John Player Norton Commando waiting for the signal. The keys are in Crusty’s bike, the ignition is on, it’s on its side-stand and pointing in the right direction for a speedy getaway. Crusty’s bike is right beside mine, with the starter button in easy reach. My ignition is on, the petrol on, the carbs tickled and my right boot is on the folded-out kickstart lever. I’m still waiting for the signal.

It’s now about 3:03 am and the signal is given. Oh, that signal! The giant bells of St Joseph’s College in Hunters Hill were ringing in drunken rage, pealing out a nasty clanging that could almost sound musical. Obviously, Crusty was no expert campanologist, but there was a definite rhythm there.

I stabbed a well-directed kick and the mighty Norton roared into life, then reached over and fired up Crusty’s machine.

Crusty came barrelling around the corner, skidding out and yelling, “Whoobwhoobwhoob, nyaahhnyahh,” just like Curley from The Three Stooges and leapt onto his bike like Hopalong Cassidy would’ve leapt on his horse. We gunned those bikes right out of there and headed for home.

It’s funny how the passage of time changes perception. I clearly remember what I was thinking as we hooned along the beautiful bends of River Road. I was thinking, “Man, I’ve gotta get me life — this is a good time?”

Three decades later, I’m thinking, “Shit yeah! That was a great time!”

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