“Life is like riding a bicycle…in order to keep your balance
you must keep moving…”
Albert Einstein c.1900
I Hear The Call
There was a mantra I had to sing each day as we mounted our bikes. Somehow I knew it irritated Joan so did not sing it (probably my great baritone voice she did not like) until I was far enough in front of her so only the galahs and ravens could be annoyed. I have no real idea from where the song originally came. My guess it was a Great Depression jingle.
I believe it was from father. Once he told me about how he rode the boxcars when he was young. Later I learned that riding the boxcars could mean “riding the rails” which was code for, “I was a hobo…” Not sure if he really was a hobo but he certainly had a number of interesting stories about travelling in box cars to Florida, Canada, Washington state and California. One time he was labouring in a logging camp in Oregon. This story he related over a camp fire at Grand Lake. It was one of the few times I ever had dad to myself. Father explained the bunk house incident. It was pay day and father had not been paid yet. Three masked men broke into the bunk house and shouted, “This is a stick up…everyone against the wall and if you turn around to look you will be shot.” The bunk hands all lined up with their hands against the wall. Dad kept the only money he had in his hand, a twenty-five cent piece. After some commotion the man next to dad, a friend, turned around for some reason and was shot in the head. The man fell onto dad’s shoulder and father panicked and looked around and into the eyes of the man who had just shot his friend. Dad said he knew he was dead too. He gazed at the man straight in the eyes and recognized him. He did not shoot father, else I could not write this tale. A few months later father received a summons for the trial of a man for the killing of the men in the hold up. Dad appeared as chief witness and the man was jailed for many years. His last words as he left the courtroom were, “We will get you Emberg. You are a dead man.” “What did you do?” I remember asking breathlessly. “I hit the road son. I hit the road…” Whenever I was on my bike, each day as I started, I sang my road mantra remembering father and his box car days.
“I hear the call of the road today,
I must be up and away…away.
I don’t know where
and I don’t much care,
the song of the road is like a prayer.
You hear and you must obey.
You hear and you must obey.
So let’s be up and away away”
Sometimes I rended Ray Charles’ song, “Hit the road Jack and don’t you come back no more, no more…” Oh, how I hate these ditties that continually play billiards in my head.
My Cliff mantra always made the beginning of each day a bit historic and melancholic as well. Dad died 60 years ago and I never really knew him. He continues to be the giant bear of a man who looms warmly. Once Gene and I decided we would find out the thrills of being hobos and ride the rails on the underside of a box car from home to the Duluth docks; a short distance of maybe ten to fifteen miles on Lake Superior. Fortunately we could not figure out how to “ride the rails”. How someone could hang on to those rails under the rumbling box car and not fall off is still a mystery. Riding the rails must have meant something else we decided as it was pretty well impossible to hang on to the solid bar of steel and keep horizontal with the rails and rocks flashing two feet below. As mother would say about such an event, “The Lord takes care of drunks and fools!”
Cliff’s Song being dutifully sung a distance from Joan, our tour continued. But, when you are about to be devoured, first by a crocodile or killed by a Taipan…or in the third incident in two days: ripped apart by a slobbering 250 pound Rhodesian Ridge Back used as a pig dog to kill rogue giant pigs, you are in deep trouble. These African dogs were bred to kill lions and people on bikes if the biker is riding past their farm. Their affectionate name on the veldt is “African Lion Dog”. Some people say they are warm, friendly and some people say affectionate…a fine family dog some people say…unless you are on a bike and riding past their farm. Here we were, riding past this farm. And there he was; a Rhodesian Ridge Back, larger than a crocodile, more ferocious than an angry Taipan and confusedly thinking Joan and I were lions or feral pigs that had to be eaten. It appeared that our retirement was about to come to a quick and disastrous end. The gigantic house at which the dog was kept was surrounded by a likewise gigantic paling fence of approximately six to eight feet in height. Small comfort. Friendly, warm African Lion Dog easily leaped over the fence as he saw two lions or pigs on flashing yellow bikes who needed to be devoured. “Joan, get the hell outta here…NOW!” I bravely yelled. Joan is much faster on her bike than I am and she did not argue at all. I did the western settler thing when the Indians were attacking but I could not circle the bikes as I was alone. African Lion Dog was no longer baying but I could see the spittle flying out of his mouth and onto his back as he raced to my final destination. I noted, weirdly, that African Lion Dog had a ridge along his back and it was sticking up like a crew cut. Interesting, I mused. Maybe that is why they are called Ridge Backs. Strange things happen in people’s minds when they are about to die I have read. I dismounted and grabbed for my litre bottle of guaranteed African Lion Dog stopper concoction. I remember thinking it would be good to start squirting right away as Lion Dog might get a whiff of it before he sank his teeth into my throat and ripped me apart. I prayed as I sprayed, a pretty silly spraying prayer, but one can imagine the types of prayers intoned when soldiers are about to attack an enemy machine gun emplacement. My prayer was very intense. Sunday School came back to me. “Please, God, make the pepper do its job!” I prayed as I sprayed. Now, I do not think God answers frivolous prayers of this nature. He was more into making new worlds, hurricanes and black holes. I was on my own and knew it. No whirlwind god, male or female, was going to give my cayenne pepper new divine force. The force of a terrified hand squeezing said bottle, however, can be almighty. God was on my side as my spraying hand had the force of ten. The gods of the universe were about to give me a gift for that kid’s life I saved when he tried to cross the street in front of a truck and I shoved him out of the way…or the time I kicked Cousin Marlene in the stomach when she was about to pick up a downed and spitting high voltage wire. I hoped that those good deeds were still readable.
A perfect arch of Lion Dog Concoction hit Lion Dog on the nose and in the eyes…mind you, he was now only about eight feet away. He dropped to the asphalt and gave a lovely groan of terror and ran back to his fortress. And it was all over. Pfffft! Toro the Magnificent had met the enemy and the enemy was mine. It was then that my uselessly sticky mind geared into Shelly’s Ozymandius, “Look upon me ye mighty and despair. Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare. The lone and level land strtetches far away.” Then I laughed, a high pitched slightly maniacal screech and shouted to a cloud moving overhead, “Bring on the locusts…” That made no sense but I was ready for anything the Old Testament could throw at me.
“Buck, what on earth happened?” Joan queried as she breathlessly rode up. “Simple, sweetheart, aren’t you supposed to laugh maniacally when you don’t get eaten? In two days it has been a crocodile, a Taipan and a man eating Lion Dog. If this is retirement I think I will look for a job at the next town; something simple like shooting wild pigs from a scooter. I’m not sure I will live long enough to get old enough to get old!” To which Joan gave one of her love nostrums, “You silly goose!” It was obvious now that “things” DO come in threes as our mothers both said. Was it going to be four? We would soon find out. We mounted our bikes with keen glances towards The Dog Fortress. If Lion Dog could jump the fence once he could do it again…and I had used almost all of the Dog Concoction Potion.
Once more we were moving along rapidly at about twenty kilometres per hour on the level farm land. The sugar cane tassels sedately bowed in the trade winds. We had decided to stay off the main roads and take small detours instead. That decision had a quality of being twice blest. We escaped the heavy traffic but exposed ourselves to other exciting happenings…like Taipans and Lion Dogs. About an hour after the Lion Dog incident we were feeling pretty good and looking for a village or pub where we could get a meal. We had our ‘gorp’ as the Americans strangely call their mixed candies, nuts and high energy food. By the third day we could not eat the energy food anymore as it turned into a sickening glutenous mess after a few chews. Only bananas and oranges kept their value for us.
A niggle was beginning to bother. The clicking in the bike as we moved easily along the flat highway was not my bike. It was my left knee but did not hurt; the one which already had had three operations. “What are you going to do about your knees Buck?” Joan asked before we put our bikes in the packs and delivered them to the air port. “I am willing them to be ok for the entire trip. It is only a bit over 3,500 kilometres and half of it is down hill,” I smartly retorted. However, old knees do not become new knees. At least the clicking did not hurt and I was able to develop a rather interesting syncopation pattern between the beat from my knees and the rhythm of the pedals.
The next voice was Joan’s. She was breathless. She was fearful. She was moving very fast. The Doppler Effect was on. “Buck, watch out, there is a dog chasing you!” Now it is obvious that if a dog was chasing Joan it was now chasing me….Joan had cunningly got the dog to switch targets. It was similar to the railroad when a brakeman, opens the knuckle and lets the car go to another track. She slowed down just as she passed in order for the dog to switch attention. Now the dog was after me. In the middle of the new danger I saw the humour of the situation and started to laugh…a slightly frenzied laugh, mind you. Compared to African Lion Dog this mutt was only a fifth its size; and I was on the edge of a long downhill run. Simple physics. Muttering through squashed mosquitos innards and mites I turned on my best spurt of energy. “Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead,” I shouted like Admiral Farragut towards the end of the Civil War on Mobile Bay. I was about to have Joan take a bit of heat. With the strength of the damned I shot past Joan and shouted, “There is a dog chasing you…better step on it!” I was now laughing so hard I almost fell off my bike. But, by now the dog had given up his attack, going back to his secret hideout in the cane field to wait for the next innocent biker.
One croc, one Taipan, one Lion Dog, one dog…in a few hours. Computing this to Sydney we would be dead at least by McKay. Retirement had not had any pleasure yet and my knee soon let me know that the ageing process had been speeded up considerably. I had the distinct feeling that Dr. Einstadt, my friendly and good surgeon, would have his day…again. However, he had been giving rumblings about hips and stupid athletes who did not know how to slow down. Hips were out of consideration. We had 3,400 kilometres left to travel.
Picture: Joan ‘n’ Buck (centre, right) out socialising ...
Buck Thor Emberg
Buck is a traveller. He and his wife Joan began their travelling life together 37 years ago. They have lived in twelve countries and travelled in 126. Buck sees himself as a humourist with a philosophical bent. He recently completed his PhD in Tasmanian History and holds other degrees in Philosophy, History and Theology but still sees himself as a boy from a dirty little railroad village close to the border of Canada…on the USA side. He has been a cleaner of railroad spitoons, brick carrier, football player, teacher, city planner, clergyman and has been trying to retire for decades. For this he has always failed as the next book or work has already started and he has never been able to keep a job.
In this work, Old Age Ain’t for Sissies, Buck takes us travelling with him and Joan across Australia and North America as they attempt to retire. His humourous philosophy is scattered throughout the book as bits of home-spun truths and gleanings from other writers and thinkers. He refers to himself as a Kierkegaardian Existentialist…which essentially mean his mind and life come straight from the Chaos Theory. This is a work about how to or how not to retire.
Buck is deeply involved in the environmental problems of Tasmania and belongs to a number of conservation groups in which he is very active.
We would like you to take these trips with Buck and Joan and certainly respond with comments or additions if you wish. He may be reached by email at:
These installments of the serialized book continue fortnightly.
Get on your philosophical bicycle and join them.