Above – Riley 9, 1927. Mine was red with a black cloth canopy.
I recently attended my friend Laurie’s 80th birthday. Memories flooded back. Here are some of them.
A prayer answered
At 14, (1951) I was a ward of the YMCA living in Eastern Hostel Yallourn. This was a men’s hostel in the open-cut coal-mining town of Yallourn, Victoria. Four hundred men all over 21, except for me, lived in the hostel. My father also lived in the hostel. He managed the hostel’s YMCA’s recreational facility (billiard, table tennis, chess etc). There was no way I could fit in with other residents. Apart from the age difference most of them had no English. Almost all of them had come from war-ravaged Europe. I was desperately lonely.
Being from an intensely religious family, I did what my background had taught me to do. I prayed.
Kneeling beside my bed I asked God for a friend. Not a girl friend – I was frightened of girls. I prayed for a boy friend, a mate – someone of my own age. I had prayed this prayer daily for two weeks. Then the miracle happened.
I had started attending the local Methodist Church. There were some young people there, but none with whom I particularly connected until that Sunday.
After church on my third Sunday a teenage boy I had never seen before came straight over to me. “Are you Stan Stewart?” he asked. “Your sister told me to look out for you”.
Over the years I have prayed for many things but
I have seldom had a prayer answered as clearly and directly as this.
Laurie’s family had bought a small dairy farm close to the Yallourn open-cut coalmine. Previously they had lived next door to my sister, Sadie in Melbourne. That was the connection. Instantly we were friends and we spent our teenage years together and have been best friends ever since.
Laurie and I were both from conservative, fundamentalist religious families. Although we both had a great deal of freedom, these beliefs set the parameters of our teen-age life.
There was no drinking; no smoking, no dancing, no gambling, no swearing and no fooling round with girls. Laurie was into sport, Aussie Rules football and cricket – especially cricket. I was not at all sporty but loved riding pushbikes and would often take long journeys on my BSA bike.
We did have contact with girls through the excellent youth group in our church, the MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship). We also attended many youth camps; various conventions and I attended Beach Missions. In fact, I attended every camp/conference etc that was on offer. I would do anything to get out of the camp. Girls were always part of these ventures. The best times were when we talked arm in arm on moonlight hikes or lay side-by-side on the beach around a campfire singing hymns (yes, hymns) and choruses. These were delicious and delightful times of boy girl contact. Because it was dark, we could seldom identify which member of the fairer sex was beside us.
Laurie and I talked constantly and often argued. Talking about the girls we knew was a major topic. Our arguments were mostly about the end of the world and second coming of Christ.
We both believed the end of the world, which would culminate in the return of Jesus. In fact, in the 50’s the end of the world in a nuclear holocaust was very much in the air for everyone. A pop song on the hit parade by Barry McGuire said it all. It was titled ‘On the eve of Destruction’.
For a ‘fun’ night out Laurie and I would attend prayer meetings. Actually I found these too heavy for me and I dropped out after a few sessions. What got to me was the old guy who prayed long and loud. After naming the degrading sins of the younger generations he would launch into his recurring prayer, “Come Lord Jesus. Come quickly. Come tonight”. I wasn’t ready for that. He was old and had five kids. I was young and had never even held a girls hand.
Laurie and I both agreed we would like Jesus to delay his return until sometime after we reached 30. We said we were thinking of the tribes who as yet had not heard the gospel. However we also had personal matters in mind. Before we entered Jesus’ heavenly kingdom, we wanted to live a little in this one.
I began to be suspicious that something was going on with Laurie. When it was confirmed I was devastated. Laurie had a girl friend. Her name was Shirley. She was quiet, studious person who was occasionally part of our youth group. I knew they were together when I saw them holding hands.
Beyond feeling betrayed I was perplexed as to how he knew how to do this handholding and snuggling stuff. I wouldn’t know where to start! Later I realised it was his mum. Mrs Poole was a wonderful woman who spent special time with all of her seven children. She later told me that she like her children to have romance at an early age as “It kept them off the streets”. Watching her with her children I could see why it was they could take to hand holding and hugging so easily. This is the way she was with all of her children. Nothing like that had ever been in my past.
The Laurie and Shirley thing left a gap in my life. I wondered what could possibly fill this gap? Then it dawned on me – a car. Another apprentice had just restored a car – a classic car – a red Riley Nine (9 horse power). He wanted to sell it.
My dad opposed the purchase. “Waste of money”. “ “This car will require a lot of maintenance and you can’t fix things”. I out foxed him. I said I had prayed about it and God had told me to buy it. It was not for my pleasure. It was for me to use in God’s service taking kids home after youth group”. When Dad heard God wanted me to buy it he gave in.
The car functioned for around six wonderful months. Then it broke down and sure enough I couldn’t fix it. Laurie towed it to his farm, but he couldn’t fix it.
However, the Riley did increase my contact with girls – literally.
The Riley’s frame flexed when it was driven around sharp corners. This flexing would cause the door on the passenger’s side to fly wide open. Unlike today’s cars which have doors hinged at the front, these doors were back hinged. And there was no such thing as seat belts. Dangerous!
When the passenger’s door flew open I threw myself across the startled passenger and yanked the door shut. In turn my passengers would cling onto me for dear life. As it happened my passengers were mostly girls and I knew the bends where door would come open.
While waiting on the porch of a girl I had twice driven home I heard an alarming conversation. Mother and daughter were hatching a plan for an early wedding. I wondered whoever would be the groom. Then I got it. They were talking about me. My blood ran cold. I never offered that girl a ride again
However, there was no denying the Riley took my contact with girls to a whole new level. There was never any necking or even hand holding but going around certain corners opened a whole new world for me.
Work in the open-cut mine was seldom very hard and days tended to be long. Our shop steward was a communist and laziness was encouraged. At the end of my apprenticeship as an electrician I easily passed the theory but failed the practical. I was the only student in that large apprentice school who had ever had who failed the practical. Failing the theory was common. What was I going to do with my life?
Twenty – turn turn
Clearly my career as an electrician was not looking too bright. On the other hand my interest in things Christian was increasing. At a large convention, along with hundreds of others I was urged to give my life to the service of Christ. The thought of being a missionary did not appeal to me, but what about a pastor or minister at home, in Australia? That rang some bells.
I talked with my supervisor at the YMCA. He had me do an interest search. What did I like doing? What was I good at? One interest ticked all the boxes – ‘talking’. “Why not train to be a minister”, he said. Why not indeed?
I visited the Baptist College in Melbourne. But a basic requirement was – University Entrance Qualification – Matriculation! I had left school at 14. What to do? “If you are serious about this” said the Principal, “You must go to Night School for as long as it takes”.
As I could only do this in Melbourne I had to leave Yallourn. I went to live with my dad who was now located in the Melbourne suburb of Box Hill.
Laurie would stay on the farm and continue his career as an ever increasingly skilled and efficient potato farmer. Shirley and he would shortly be engaged. But as for Laurie and me, contact was occasional. However, we both knew that the friendship was durable.
Sixty plus years has not separated us. Whenever we meet it is like we were together yesterday. We continue our lame jokes and arguments like we had never left off. Now that is a real answer to prayer!
April 10, 2019