WHEN I was a child, my father owned an old Atkinson 32-tonne truck. It had a five-cylinder Gardner engine, which produced 150 horsepower. It had no turbo and the steering was manual. If you consider that nearly all modern vehicles, including cars, have power steering, it’s hard today to imagine just how hard it was to steer.

You couldn’t actually turn the steering wheel until the vehicle was moving, so when it came to reversing you had to line the lorry up perfectly while going forward, and if you needed the opposite lock to reverse, you turned the wheel just before stopping in anticipation.

By the time I was 13, the vehicle had been scrapped or sold so I must have been younger when I accompanied him to Hartlepool docks to load up. For whatever reason, he had fallen out with the dockers and would send me in to get loaded. To put the vehicle into gear was the most difficult part of the process as the clutch was so heavy I had to push my left knee down with my hands. After selecting a gear, usually third, to minimise the number of changes, I would perform my customary hop start as the clutch started to bite and my leg bounced up and down. Very often I thought I’d stalled it as the old Gardner engine was so slow to rev that once the clutch was out there was a momentary pause of silence. This was followed by a grunt as the governs kicked back, providing a mouthful of diesel to the engine and then, with a belch of black smoke, you were off.

Looking back now, I wish I’d been prepared for what I was about to encounter. Back in those days, the dockers had favourites, usually the bigger haulage companies, who clearly provided them with gifts and maybe cash. This gave them immediate access to the loading system. If you didn’t provide the bung, then you sat there and waited and waited and waited. Having sat there for what seemed an eternity, I plucked up the courage to move out of the queue and into the line of moving vehicles.

No sooner had I moved than I was surrounded by angry dockers. They hurled abuse at me and banged angrily on the cab. It was a terrifying experience. I reacted by shrugging my shoulders and pretending I didn’t know what I was doing. The abuse and shouting drifted away and I was quickly guided in to get loaded. I have to admit that in the heat of the moment I failed to line myself up properly and my reversing was very poor, but the next thing I could hear was a crane swinging above me. This was followed by a thump as a bale of paper pulp landed with some force on the back of the wagon, to be followed by others until the wagon was full.

I found the whole process fascinating as the hook carrying the bale was quickly unhitched and attached to the next. Fear of the situation and the abuse I had received was replaced by a genuine interest in the process. Once loaded, I headed to a quiet, derelict part of the docks to rendezvous with my father and rope and sheet the load. His first reaction when I pulled up was one of surprise. He couldn’t believe how fast I’d been. I didn’t elaborate too much on what had happened. As a child, I spent much of the time mulling things over about the crazy situations I found myself in.

Thinking back, this all took place around the hot summer of 1977. Elvis died and I was 11 years old. I still almost can’t believe the scenario, but it did happen. It was real. Where did I get the courage to take on those angry dockers? I hate confrontation and will normally retreat into the background. However, when pushed I can dig deep. For weeks later I got the job of repeating the process at the docks. Manoeuvring into the fast lane, taking the abuse and getting loaded. I think in the end they gave up. Rather than play dumb, I just smiled and what could they do with a smiling kid? Send me to school?

And so, 40-something years on and working the sawmill full-time, I find myself once again doing deliveries. My driver has allowed his HGV licence to lapse. It’s only valid for five years at a time, subject to a medical. He must have reapplied with the wrong form as, when I checked, he only appeared to have a car licence. So, after a mad spring and summer and the prospect of a calm, steady autumn, here I am performing the role of delivery driver until he sorts himself out.

The contrast between the old Atkinson truck and the Mercedes I’ve just bought couldn’t be greater. For a start, you can steer the Mercedes with one finger. The seats are luxurious, it has surround sound and the automatic gearbox is seamless.

So I’m cruising along, enjoying the radio. Ken Bruce is doing the nation proud with hit after hit. ‘Rat Trap’ by the Boomtown Rats is followed by ‘Whiskey In the Jar’ by Thin Lizzy. As I approach the delivery address, the council are doing roadworks to the entrance and so I drive a little further, find another entrance and head for the delivery address. At this point, any harmony in the cab is shattered by a council worker shouting abuse at me for entering the site via the wrong entrance. I have flashbacks to the docks, aged 11.

This time the guy providing the abuse was in an enormous JCB digger. He circled my wagon at speed in a threatening manner, intending to intimidate me. However, the frightened 11-year-old was no more and I leapt out of the wagon and in two giant steps I was on the digger and into the cab. It was hard not to laugh as he cowered down in the seat, suddenly not so brave.

The driver quickly capitulated and after this brief altercation it was time to get unloaded. To assist in the unloading, a set of home-made forks were attached onto the big loading shovel. They were clearly badly made and bent and creaked in unison. The digger driver was then joined by a banksman to direct him as he couldn’t see the forks. They were then joined by two site labourers who seemed intent on trying to get run over or squashed as they moved the kickers around and generally got in the way. The whole scenario had disaster written all over it and I stood well back and observed the scene. We were then joined by two others who I assumed were the main contractors.

They turned out to be the main contractor’s health and safety officer and the sub-contractor’s health and safety officer. They, having observed the incident with the digger driver, and now watching this dangerous scenario unfold, looked as though they would embark on a decisive course of action. By now, the two labourers were underneath the wobbling forks as the pallets were lifted from the wagon and I was seriously concerned. Clearly, the health and safety officials had also seen this and, without further ado, strode across towards the labourers, walked straight past them and reprimanded me for not wearing a safety helmet!

For days after the site visit I felt lousy. I don’t normally let myself get down but something about that visit had affected me and I didn’t seem to be able to snap out of it. Instead of Ken Bruce’s classics, I was driving in silence.

A couple of days later, and still a bit down, I was delivering timber to a lady nearby who’s bought wood from me for years. She’s very flirtatious and I approached the house with some trepidation as she seems to have some fixation on me. Being a bit of a coward, I have perfected the art of delivering under the cover of darkness and with little noise. On this occasion, however, I’d forgotten I’d changed the vehicle. There’s a small gap at the end of the lane and as long as you cross the gap, she can’t see you from the house. With the old wagon I could more or less free-wheel with no noise and make my escape. The new wagon has reversing lights, flashing lights, a loud reversing bleeper and a voice shouting: “Look out! I’m reversing.” In fact, there was so much noise that I half expected to wake the dead in a nearby churchyard.

So, there she was, waiting for me. Big hair, bright red lipstick, so much make-up that you couldn’t tell whether she was 50 years old or 70. This was all accompanied by skintight trousers, bright red nails, eight-inch heels and a frontage which probably needed scaffolding. Her opening line was that she’d “got rid” of her other half. She didn’t say how, but I told her I was sorry to hear that. “You needn’t be,” she said. ‘He was as dull as dishwater.”

She then asked if she could help me. “Yes,” I replied, “Go away and let me get on.”

“Don’t be like that,” she insisted. “I’m very fit, I go to the gym.”

Realising she wasn’t going to go away, I handed her a piece of timber which she couldn’t pick up because of her nails. I then had to place them in her arms across her ample bosom. She staggered across the grass in these huge heels, pretending to fall over and lunging towards me for help. By now I was picking up 10 at a time in quick succession. Eventually, after much giggling and wiggling of hips, the wagon was unloaded and I got set to make my escape.

At this point she walked up to me and kissed me on the cheek. “I love you,” she said and wiggled her hips back to the house.

I jumped into the wagon, desperate to get away and feeling somewhat sorry for her. As I drove out of the lane I looked back at her house and saw this huge strapping guy standing in her porch. Once again, I drove back in silence.

This truck driving is seriously weird. I can’t wait for my driver to return.