Darren ‘Smokie’ Dawson
On the road heading north, any January, 2000 – 2010
There we all were. Have a look at the five us, packed into the station-wagon. Bursting at its seams, full to the brim with bags, suitcases, boogie-boards, games, balls, bells and whistles. The boys wiping sleep from their eyes, excitedly whispering to each other so as not to wake up the neighbours in the pre-dawn darkness. We were invariably headed for a sunnier, warmer clime; headed for a distant beach, somewhere at the end of a day or two or maybe three’s driving.
Before we started the car there was the pre-departure checklist. Appliances turned off? Windows and doors all locked securely? And what about the side gate? Did we remember to ask the neighbours if it would not be too much trouble to collect the mail? Was the spare key left with your mum? And of course, the music. Always the music. For a pile of compact discs was integral to any interstate driving holiday.
As the boys grew older, the CD list was a fluid beast, subject to constant change from month to month or even from day to day. For, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, our sons went from singing along to the Wiggles’ Big Red Car to being entranced by Kanye West’s Late Registration. Inadvertently, however, there was one constant on those summer holidays, and the day trips in between: Smoke, the bluegrass-style album by Paul Kelly and Uncle Bill. I had seen them perform in support of Weddings Parties Anything at the Weddos’ final shows in December 1998, and had really enjoyed the new interpretations of Kelly’s songs. When the album was released later the following year, it was played regularly at home, and the boys – although only very young at the time of the album’s release – got to know the songs well.
It was just by chance that Smoke was slotted into the car’s CD player on that very first summer holiday. But like many a fluke, the response was immediate, and resoundingly successful. As the banjo chords of the opening track Our Sunshine gave way to the vocals, three little back seat voices simultaneously kicked in. At that moment, unbeknownst to the five of us, this track had been installed as the family’s official road-trip departure anthem.
Despite it not always being in the best interests of our fiscal circumstances, my wife Margaret and I were determined to give the boys memorable holidays and, looking back, I’m reasonably confident we succeeded on that score. Merimbula, Bateman’s Bay, Canberra, Adelaide, Mildura, Echuca, Sydney. Our children were fortunate enough to experience a number of different states, cities and towns, and view much of Australia’s parched, dusty, rocky, but always glorious countryside through the windows of the car. I always enjoyed driving. And, for kids, they were always remarkably patient passengers. Whether it was a longer summer sojourn to Coolangatta, or a Sunday winter’s day-trip to Daylesford, it was tacitly accepted, unspoken, that when the key went into the ignition, Our Sunshine was to blast out from the speakers. On top of its easy jauntiness was the fact that it was a story about Ned Kelly. And I thrilled at the chance to impress the boys with my knowledge of the story of the Kelly gang.
The years rolled past so rapidly. In the blink of an eye the boys went from delicately, cautiously being strapped into booster seats, to complaining that there was not enough room in the back seat for the three of them to sit comfortably. The middle seat was the least favoured: no window to peer out of, and a hump beneath the feet which cramped their lengthening legs. The CD list became an iPod containing thousands of songs. Their rapidly evolving musical preferences were markers of the boys’ progression from infancy through adolescence. But amidst all those changes, Our Sunshine remained the rollicking, rhythmic number one on our driving play-list.
On the road to Woodend, March, 2015
How long had it been since the five of us had been on a road-trip together? I honestly could not recall. Years more so than months. But Margaret and I had insisted with clarity and firmness that the birthday celebrations of a close relative meant that no social or sporting arrangements were to take precedence on this occasion. So here we were: my wife and I, and our three slightly reluctant teenage sons, all crammed in to the Commodore.
With his mother relegated to the back seat, 17 year-old Brendan, now the tallest in the family, had secured the prized front passenger seat courtesy of a knee injury. As I turned the key in the ignition, he looked across at me and asked “Dad, are you going to put on our driving song?”
I was disappointed with myself. I had not recognised the significance of our family of five travelling together for what could very well have been the final time. A brief glance in the rearview mirror and sideways to the passenger on my left re-confirmed that my sons were no longer boys; they were now men. And soon enough, they would have their own personal driving songs, if they didn’t have already.
Damn. I had forgotten to bring our driving song!
“Ah, don’t worry about going inside to get it. We all know the all the words!”
So, there we all were. Have a look at us! Heading off down the road like a latter-day Partridge Family, singing Our Sunshine together, a capella. John, the eldest, pretending he is too cool be involved. Luke, the youngest embarrassed, but partaking nonetheless. The five of us remembering all the driving experiences we shared, and marvelling at how quickly the time has passed.