Best day of your life: Lee Vandervis

Summer Times asked 12 Otago people to describe the best day of their lives. (To ensure variety, we ruled out the day contributors met their partners, married them, or their children were born.)

August 8, 1970

Turning 15 was always going to be a big deal day for a boy in Balclutha, because, in 1970, this was the day when you could book your driver's test and know you would instantly become a fully fledged driver.

No L plates, learner's licence or other paperwork indignity.

The test involved driving the local cop round the block and answering a few questions.

If anybody ever failed this test, they never told me.

I had been saving all pocket money since learning about this "Driver Day" several years before.

Dad had been giving me lessons since I could reach the pedals with the help of two big cushions.

Being from Dutch descent, all pocket money was earned, at the rate of 10c every time I mowed our lawns, which I added to the pennies I had saved pre-decimalisation.

Getting close to Driver Day, and knowing that a licence without a car was pointless, I was doing the lawns three times a week.

Granddad had bought an Armstrong Sidley and was selling his old Austin A40 for $400!

Years of planning and saving and the dream day unfolded perfectly. Test, A40, and I was away, free as a bird, with high hopes of scoring one now that I was the only fifth-former in South Otago High School with his own car.

No need to try keeping up with the boozing party animals - I got invited anyway, because I could drive people home.

Surprisingly few threw up on the creased leather A40 upholstery with its musty reassuring smell. Out the window or a part-opened door was the norm, as was my leaving them at their gate or dumping them on their porch.

I never did get to tuck any of them into bed, although with certain passengers the thought occurred more than once.

Driving that day was the longest adrenaline rush of my life.

On wide gravel roads out to Owaka, I tried keeping up with cockies in their Valiants and Fords and Holdens.

Wide grass verges were forgiving and the second gear "opposite-lock power-slide" rapidly transcended to third gear, complete with imagined rooster tails of gravel, which, looking back, might have just been a few stones kicked up by a spinning inside wheel.

With a gutless English tractor under the bonnet, passing manoeuvres had to be pre-planned; slingshot surprises, which occasionally succeeded.

Whatever I had for breakfast kept me going all day, as hunger took a backseat to a truly Wind in the Willows passion for motorcars.

In one day, I went from being someone else's baggage to the director of my own delirious destiny. This was my best-ever day, as I attacked the edges of adulthood, unaware that I would soon be driven into some adult realities by blown head gaskets, burned valves and shagged suspension resulting from overland excursions.

My life began on that perfect day when I turned 15.

• Lee Vandervis is a Dunedin city councillor.

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