IMAGINE the sleepy town of Kulim, in Kedah in the late 1970s.
Today Kulim is a semi glamorous dormitory town for Penang and Seberang Prai and can even claim to host a minor concentration of industry.
Step back 40 years and it just a struggling town in the middle of nowhere with roads leading to even smaller towns, such asBaling, Lunas, Junjung and Mahang.
Kulim was dreaming of being a dormitory town then. Which goes to prove that you have to start with a dream, no matter how ridiculous people tell you your dreams are.
With its narrow andpoorly kept roads lined with miles of rubber trees, this beckoning sight broken every now and then by modest a ramshackle shophouses.
Back then local traders reluctantly solddaily doses of life’s requirements and agricultural chemicals and deadly-looking implements that keep rural Malaysia plodding along.
Having teachers as parents in such a perfectly preserved “Disneyland” for mosquitoes, assorted bugs and minor wildlife meant that I had a a rather privileged childhood where my parents could afford to have someone fetch me every morning and send me to school.
We lived in a newly completed tract housing project for hopeful young couple, which had all the charm of, well, rows of unimaginatively designed houses locateduncomfortably within a rubber estate.
It was on the wrong side of town, about 10 miles away from the best primary school in Kulim.
It was a simpler time then, you knew the best schools either had a royal or English word in their name. Mine had a royal connection.
I was young and impressionable and made to believe Sekolah Tunku Abdul Malik was the best primary school in town and to this day I would defend itsreputation against anyone who dare challenge it. Unless they really insist.
To get to school, every morning about6am, a large Indian man would arrive in front of our house in an Morris J2, which sputtered and coughed and was generally considered one of the best fog generators known to the locals at the time.
Mosquitoes, which generally set their alarm about 4am and become an awful nuisance by 6am, would dive for cover as the van turned a corner from the main road down to the house.
Usually I would quickly eat whatever breakfast that day and run to the front door and put on my shoes and try my best to persuade my uncoordinated young fingers to form perfect ribbons out of the laces.
It rarely ever works out well and out of the corner of my eye, I could see the man looking at me half grumpy and partly indifferent as he blipped the throttle to keep the beast breathing.
Mention the name Morris and most car fans would tend to drift towards the Minor.
The Minor was a popular car, which had an amazing run of 23 years from its introduction in 1948 and lived long enough to welcome flared pants of the 1970s.
Meanwhile, the J2 is a forward control van so ugly, it was charming in its own way. The uncle had painted his cloudy purple.
It was as if the motor paint shop had accidentally spilt a few dollops of white paint into the deep royal colour while mixing inthinner. The result is memorably nauseating.
In case you were wondering what forward control meant, it is simply that the driver sits astride or on top of the engine, like most modern vans.
In the old days vans all had their engines in front, like cars. Weird right?
“Pagi uncle,” I would chippily say to him and he would do his best to affect a nod before crunching into first and slipping in the worn-out clutch. The J2 would shudder under the uneven clutch slip and start to groan forward.
As speed picked up, the terrible racket from the 49 set of hooves of the 1.6-litre B-series engine is quickly upstaged by the whiny pig that lived under the floorboards. You know it as the differential.
Man had yet to create mathematics that can accurately predict how heat treatment will shrink or warp metal so they had to machine the differentials to such loose tolerances that the resulted whine was so loud that it still rings in my cochlear to this day.
In the morning I was the first student the uncle picked up, so I had the honour of sitting in front with him.
Which is nice because I only had to worry about his body odour and mine, at the back there were more than 10 undeodorised semi-rural children.
In the 1970s, deodorants were generally frowned upon in, public opinion in rural setting, even in semi-rural setting, was that it was too French and fashionable.
Apart from olfactory advantage, the other perk of riding shotgun was the improved air circulation from the wide side windows. At the back all they had were meagre slits and fatal asphyxiation or death by B.O. was a real risk
The main prisoner compartment of the van had wonky seats with brown vinyl upholstery running along the side, they were not standard issue. Students sat looking inwards.
The reason the seats ran alongside the windows is because it freed up the centre of the slave galley for a single rickety wooden bench which could seat an additional four kids. More kids means less personal space, he just wanted us to be better friends.
We remain such fantastic friends that I can’t remember any of them. If you can’t remember them, you can’t hold grudges against them. So, the seat arrangement worked brilliantly.
The school run took the better part of one hour as the uncle and his J2 meandered through the housing estate, then back into town and past the hospital morgue.
Every time it passed the “zombie place” I would shrink myself and try to think happy thoughts. It was the highlight of the drive.
Afterpassing the hospital, it was on to another village to pick up the rest of the uncle’s privileged clients offspring before sending them to the best primary and secondary level “gulag” in town.
The best secondary gulag in town still is SM Sultan Badlishah and that’s Tunku Malik’s neighbour.
In conclusion, I remember ugly cars more than I remember cute ones from my childhood, so I probably need an extra few hours every week in therapy, except that we live in Malaysia and therapy is still frowned upon so I write down my beautiful childhood memories and share them here instead.