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Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Hitch Hiker

It was during the 2nd term school holidays in the year 1974 when I was doing my Form 6 in JB. Having been away from my family in Butterworth for a while now, I was feeling homesick and wanted to make a trip back. Managing on a tight budget did not accord me the luxury of normal travel so I decided that I will hitchhike back. Once the plan was hatched, Frederick another one of my friend’s cousin who was to return to his hometown in Seremban, agreed to join me. I had only met Frederick once or twice before but he was a pleasant kid in his lower secondary.

We met up quite early on the day of the trip and took a bus out to Kulai town as hitching a ride from JB wouldn’t have been possible with its heavy traffic. Moreover, people wouldn’t know where you were headed to. Once we reached Kulai, we walked a short distance until we were away from the town proper en-route north. Kulai was undeveloped then with only a row of pre-war buildings forming the main township surrounded by rubber plantations. There were not many housing estates fringing the town like how it is now. From there, we waited under some rubber trees with our thumb sticking out, waving to passing vehicles, with a confident look and an artificial smile. We had to look pleasant and decent as those were the days of wayside robberies and there had indeed been such incidents, though more rampant overseas than here. We had hardly waited for half an hour when a 10 ton lorry pulled up. The Indian driver asked where we were headed to and offered to give us a lift, asking us to climb onto the back into the cargo section. The tarpaulin had been rolled up so it made the ride breezy and exciting with a full view of the surroundings as the vehicle made its way north through traffic along the only trunk road then. Along the way, I got to improve on the acquaintance with Frederick. He brought along a periscope that we used to view distant objects and smiled at people in over-taking vehicles as they passed us. The blistering afternoon sun didn’t discourage us from proudly giving clearance when the coast was clear by gesturing to tailing vehicles to overtake. It was immensely satisfying especially when some drivers acknowledged by waving back at us when they overtook. After a while, we just sat down in the empty carriage and spoke of anything that came to mind. Frederick was young…….younger than me at least and I remember he asked a lot of questions. I answered every one of them with what little I knew but I think he got the answers he wanted.

After travelling for about 4 hours or so, we finally reached the Seremban Railway Station. The initial plan was for Frederick to get off and I was to continue to KL where the lorry was headed to but Frederick encouraged me to spend a day or two at his place to which I agreed. We got off and thanked the driver before walking towards the Lake Gardens where he said his house was. I was still wondering what kind of a house it would be…..was it a terrace or a kampong styled house or what? I didn’t have that much exposure with people living in bigger houses. As we made our way up a meandering slope, there was a sign along the road that read “X.A.Nicholas”. Frederick said that it was his Dad’s name and challenged me to guess what “X.A” stood for. Coincidentally, I guessed it correctly in my first attempt as “Xavier” and…………. “Alexander”. He was astonished and asked if I had heard of his Dad before to which I replied in the negative. He said his Dad was with the police. The only other policeman whom I had ever met in my lifetime until then was a police inspector who lived next door to my rented house (room) in JB who had helped me once in an incident. Other than him, I didn’t know anyone else. So when I was told that his Dad was from the police, I really couldn’t imagine anything extraordinary. Once we reached his house, that I noticed was a palatial government bungalow, he introduced me to his brother and his mum who offered me a drink and in no time, made me comfortable. I looked around the house and was impressed with the range of branded up-market electrical gadgets……a tape recorder playing songs from a oversized reel impressed me. It’s not the type that you find in an ordinary household.

Soon after when I was seated in the hall, I heard sirens screaming from police vehicles and looked out to see a couple of patrol cars approaching the house, flanked by out-riders. I didn’t have the slightest inkling of what to expect. Upon reaching the porch, a policeman got out from the front seat and opened the back door for someone in full police regalia, to alight, as the cops gave him a stiff salute. As he entered the hall, he smiled and gave Frederick a hug, who then introduced me to him saying, “Appa, this is my friend Ravi from JB with whom I hitchhiked up”. His dad shook hands with me, enquiring briefly about me before walking in. It was then that Frederick’s brother told me that he was the number one Cop in Negeri Sembilan, the Chief Police Officer (CPO) to be exact! Wow! Never had I before the opportunity to even say hello to people from high places so naturally I felt intimidated for a while until Fred’s brother took me up to his room and made me feel at ease. I went on to stay another 2 days here during which time I forged a close relationship with Fred and his brother who would drive me around in his dad’s Jaguar Sovereign, making me sit in front while Fred sat behind. During those moments, I felt really proud. A couple of times we stopped by at the Lake Gardens and he would buy me beer. As I was not much of a drinker then, I usually stopped after just one. I slept with him in his room while Fred slept with his parents. I guessed as he was the youngest, he still got to enjoy all the pampering. It was the first time I has come across a digital watch. This was the beginning of the digital era. Until then I had seen only analogue watches. So I was fascinated when Fred’s brother showed me his new digital watch and demonstrated how the alarm worked, after I wondered albeit a bit too loudly if it was capable of fulfilling its purpose of waking people up. I then realized that although the sound of the alarm was faint, it was actually shrill and of high pitch that was capable of waking anybody up.

On the 3rd day, it was time to bid farewell to Fred and his lovely family and managed to get a ride from another one of their friends who was headed to KL who had dropped by for breakfast that morning. I then got off at Jalan Pudu where I met my brother-in-law in his office who eventually gave me a lift back to my hometown where I spent the next 2 weeks before returning to JB by train.

I had not met Frederick again after the hitch-hiking trip as, soon after my return to JB, I had to pack up and leave town once again to return to my hometown after my brother’s untimely demise. So that was the end of Fred and I…..or so I thought.

One hot Sunday afternoon in the year 2002, 28 years later to be precise, I was in FMS Coffee House in Ipoh seated at the long bar enjoying a nice chilled beer while chatting with the owner who goes by the name of ‘Nephew’ (his uncle started the place during colonial days when he was a kid and he was often referred to then as the uncle’s ‘nephew’. The name stuck since then). There was a boisterous group of three seated at the other side of the bar and I have this habit of avoiding eye contact especially with other drinkers so as not to be accused of ‘staring’, an excuse that is often enough for uncouth characters in their inebriated state to start arguments. But it turned out something different today. While engaged in the conversation with ‘nephew’, I couldn’t help listening to and thereupon recognizing a particular voice from the group; so I turned to see if it was indeed the person I thought who it was. And sure enough it was Lingam, a friend from Butterworth whom I had lost contact for over 30 years. We exchanged pleasantries and he introduced me to his 2 other friends seated with him after which I too joined in their conversation. Earlier when he introduced me, I didn’t quite get their names but during the session, I heard one of them referring to the other as “Fred” once too often and began to wonder if this could in fact be the same person from JB. He appeared much older now with a receding hairline and I could not make him out at all. In fact I had shrugged off the very thought of clearing my doubt as being wishful and too far fetched. “Meeting 2 long lost friends in 1 day only happens in movies” I thought. But after a while just to quench my curiosity, I looked at him in his eyes and asked “Would you by any chance happen to be Fred Nicholas?” He gave me a surprised look trying to figure who I was, before blurting out, “As a matter of fact, I am! I am Frederick Nicholas!” he said.

I simply couldn’t believe it! It was too good to be true! After a few anxious moments, I gathered myself and introduced myself to him again, recalling the days in JB and about the hitch-hiking trip. He was lost for words…..especially when I spoke of the trip. As he got up and gave me a long hug, I thought that time stood still for a while. Excitement was written all over his face as he related to his friends of how immensely he had enjoyed the trip…..of how his somewhat ‘aristocratic’ upbringing had deprived him of such worldly teenage pursuits…and how I had been instrumental in providing him with the adventure of his lifetime! He said that many a time, he had thought about me but didn’t know that I had left town and surely didn’t know how to contact me……and had slowly resigned to the fact that he was not going to be able to meet me again. Tonight, after so long, I made his day as he vehemently invited me over to the Royal Ipoh Club located just adjacent to FMS where he insisted that I must meet up with his wife and all his other friends who were there that night. Once there, he introduced me and in fact, short of parading me, narrated to his friends about his hitch-hiking experience. I could see that they were all very happy for him. I later learnt that he had related to them about the experience previously and had often fondly spoken of the role that I had played and about being unable to locate me. It was a joyous atmosphere in the club that night. They were all in a celebrative mood. As far as Frederick was concerned, it had been the greatest adventure of his youth……! He had never once forgotten about it and it had been at the back of his mind for so long. That night…..I was happy to realize that I had been part of his unforgettable experience……for having been able to touch his life……..and thereby add some colour!

Mr. Frederick was a successful lawyer in Ipoh when I bumped into him in 2002 but has since been accorded due recognition and elevated as an Industrial Court President in KL. We still keep in touch.

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