This week our motoring columnist Brian McDaid discusses how he, as a new recruit, was put through his paces with old-style techniques before taking on his lorry driving licence.
Driving to survive.
Sitting by Nellie was the old way that a skill or trade was acquired years ago. It was the way most apprenticeships were learned, working beside someone who was doing the job every day, someone who had to deal with the things that are never documented in the theory of a job.
When I did my driving test for a lorry, I did so in a fire engine. Donegal Fire service put two of its then new recruits, the late Eddie Curran and myself, through training in preparation for are lorry driving licence, which covered you to drive a fire engine.
It was a different era when I went for my driving test to drive a lorry, back then it was called a ‘D licence’ and we had a unique way to get ready for the test.
Our driving instructor was a rally driver, the late Eamonn Harvey, and also the driver of the fire engine in Letterkenny back then. Sadly both of my fellow firefighters Eddie Curran and Eamon Harvey have passed away so I have only memories to myself of our own unique school of motoring to get ready for the test.
The very first vehicle I ever drove was my father’s Ford D Series truck. It was built in Doherty’s Coachworks in Lifford. Registration number KIH 459.
Every working day of my life, it was my job to get the truck started in the morning to build up the air pressure in the brakes.
Sitting behind the wheel of the truck I imagined myself going on long journeys around Donegal in the time it took the low warning buzzer to go out before the truck would build up enough air pressure before it would move off.
By that time my father would be standing waiting to swap with me behind the wheel so he could head off to work.
Going for the test.
When we were in the fire service, for a year or two Eddie Curran and I expressed an interest in driving the fire engine so we applied for our provisional D driving licence and then on drill nights or on the way back from a fire call we would be let drive the fire engine.
This had a big bit of pressure attached to it as we were driving with a full crew of men including an officer-in-charge and the driver who would swap seats with us, and four firefighters who wouldn’t be too forgiving if we made a mistake like missed a gear change or putting a wheel up on a kerb. The crew in the back were always there to let you know your mistakes, for your own good, of course!
As it came nearer the driving test our driving instructor Eamon Harvey would take Eddie and me out for lessons.
These were the days just before health and safety completely took over in all walks of life.
Eamon Harvey was one of the best all-around drivers that I ever knew. He spent his life behind the wheel. He drove for Donegal County Council in the daytime tarring roads, he drove the Letterkenny Fire Engine to calls and in the winter he was the man to take on Meenaroy Mountain with a snow plough and gritter and always managed some way to keep it clear.
And finally then come rally time he was the man taking home the silverware at club level as one of Donegal’s most consistent rally drivers.
So as you can imagine we felt privileged when this wealth of knowledge of the road was going to be shared with us on the run up to our driving test. What Eamon Harvey didn’t have in certificates in the instruction as a driving instructor he more than made up for in life experience on the road.
Eamon could put the fire engine through the eye of a needle on his way to a fire it was a joy to watch him heading off on a call down through a busy Main St.
In Letterkenny making his way through the traffic that could react anyway when they would find out that they are sitting in the path of a fire engine with the blue lights flashing and the sirens blowing to get through.
Sitting by Nellie
You could say that we as young students getting ready for our driving test went to every fire call that we attended and used the old traditional method of learning a trade or skill call “Sitting by Nellie” or in our case “Sitting by Eamon”. For years we absorbed his knowledge and judgement at speed on the way to a fire call in all sorts of conditions nights and days
On the first of our lessons, Eamon drove the fire engine himself and talked us through, what he made look so simple, the things to watch out for. What other road users would throw up to when you were behind the wheel of a fire engine in a hurry. The expression of body language on the road by positioning the fire engine on the road to indicate to other drivers that needed to get past and get to a call.
Anyone who remembers Eamon Harvey will know that he was a very bad passenger so having him sitting in the passenger’s set learning you to drive was an experience in its self
Expecting the unexpected was the norm.
Eamonn brought us to a quiet straight part of a road and warned us when the instruction would be given we would go from between 50 and 60 mph to a standing stop.
And that meant standing stop. That probably breaks with all the health and safety rules now but this was invaluable for driving a Fire Engine laden down with water and equipment and experience how difficult it was to bring a tender like this to a standing stop.
AZP 999 was the number of the old Ford Fire Engine that we did our driving lessons on.
Our lessons were regularly cut short when our bleeps would go off and we would have to head back to the fire station to get a crew and turn out to a firecall.
The three of us were all mad about driving so it was more to us than just sitting a driving test. Eamon always was tweaking at the things we have done to get the best out of us.
Thoughts like the possibility of not getting stopped if a driver glued the car to the road in front of you when you were going to a fire was always a scenario he would throw up to us and releasing the brake pedal so that you could steer around an object was included in our lessons.
On the last day before our big driving test, both Eddie and I were put to the test. Every bit of survival driving was in there and everything that life might through at you on the road was included.
This always included a few drives down through Letterkenny Main St and the busier it was, the better. This was in order to give us as much practice in the judgement of our vehicle.
Eamon even asked Eddie one day to reverse the fire engine into a parking space on the Main St. In Letterkenny at the Market Square and proceeded to order three 99’s as we had a debrief of the lesson we had that day. As you can imagine we got some looks, three firemen with three cones in a fire engine parked on the main street
On the day of our test, the two new recruits proceeded with our driving test in the fire engine around Letterkenny. Our test was just like another driving test for any another lorry, which was at normal town speeds and normal stops and normal rules of the road and no 99 ’s, which both of us passed safely.
Eddie went on to replace Eamon as one of the main drivers in Letterkenny and also went on to pass his HGV test.
The real thing.
On Monday this week on a busy Lifford road, I was behind a line traffic heading towards Lifford.
As we approached the bad series of bends near, what is locally known as Sallybrook creamery, the traffic was forced to come to a complete stop. As a van made an effort to back into a driveway. The driver in front of me, who had a heavy load on board, knew he wouldn’t get stopped so he had very little option. In order to avoid what could have ended up a very series accident, he made an effort to steer out around the blockage on his side of the road. The more it happened very quickly it all seemed to take forever to happen.
Maybe his higher viewpoint from his truck could see enough space for him to squeeze through, but from my view, it looked as if I was heading straight into the back of his lorry.
At times it didn’t look as if he was going to make it as his load was very top heavy and was swinging the truck like a clock’s pendulum, but he never gave up. If it was me I would have stood on the brakes and hoped I would have got stopped on the wet slippery road. But the driver of this truck did the greatest bit of work to keep working behind the wheel to avoid an accident.
About three or four miles further up the road, I saw the driver pull in along the roadside and I stopped to see if he was alright.
He was still in a bit of shock and was humble in his actions for how he dealt with what the road in front of him had just thrown up that morning.
For me, it was an action that never would be part of a driving instruction giving by any driving instructor nowadays because of the risk involved but it was exactly the kind of scenario the late Eamon Harvey would have been drumming into us.
It was a textbook action on a very wet road just as Eamon Harvey described years before looking for a way through action produced by other road users when he was trying to prepare us for driving on the road ahead.
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