David (Sprick) McCracken

As Remembered by John Allen, a contemporary
David died in a tragic road traffic accident in the Alps, 1972

'A Great Portadown Guy'


Though he was christened "David", only his parents stuck faithfully by this odd name. All his friends and acquaintances knew him as "Sprick" which was probably an abbreviation of the Portadown term for a small minnow-like fish called a stickleback or "sprickly". Though he had very straight, dirty-blonde hair, it was never completely civilised near the crown and usually had some sticking straight up, thereby reinforcing the comparison with the stickleback which has sharp spines sticking up from the dorsal fin.


The late David (Sprick) McCracken

He wasn't very tall but he made a big impression wherever he went. "Small of stature but big of heart" would have been an apt description. Was this some kind of a Napolean complex? Was it like Davy Prentice and Jim Allen, the diminutive but fiercely competitive Portadown car dealers? "Tallest man in Portadown…", they used to say of Davy Prentice, " …when he stands on his wallet!" Probably not. If Sprick McCracken had any complex about his height or nickname, he disguised it well, though there was a brief period in his late teens when he asked to be called "David". Perhaps he thought the name "Sprick" to be less than manly and was probably expressing some inner need to be taken more seriously as he contemplated adulthood. 
I first came across him when he moved through Portadown College in his own, low-key fashion, a year or two ahead of me academically. He wasn't famous for his diligence as a student but was well respected for his ability to vanish and avoid the scrutiny of teachers. Perhaps being small and keeping a low profile was part of his school-survival strategy. Having a Triumph Tiger Cub motorbike and a change of clothes stashed in Goban Street, just over the back wall of the old College, behind the bicycle sheds, was a big help in letting him escape the drudgery of academe for the excitement of the bookie shop where he was quite at home as long as he had his racing form, his pack of Players and a few bob to wager. 

He may have been useless at conjugating Latin verbs, but he was always considered a good handicapper and an authority on the prospects for assorted horses and their chances at various tracks. This was a particularly valuable skill around Grand National day when even non-gamblers wanted to get a half crown on some horse, usually the favourite. Not only did Sprick know the horses and the odds, he also knew how and where to place the bets.

On one famous occasion, he disappeared from the cloisters at morning break and was gone for the rest of the day. When interrogated by his classmates the next day, he claimed that he'd gone to the pictures and seen the latest James Bond movie picture. When it was pointed out to him that this was an obvious lie and totally impossible as that film hadn't made it to Belfast yet, never mind Portadown, he patiently explained that he'd seen it in London. 
It seems that he had bet heavily on a longshot in the first race at Aintree. It had won and he'd walked out of the bookie's shop with a roll of notes in his pocket that would choke a donkey. Being too young to drive, he took a taxi to the Nutt's Corner airport and the first flight to London where he enjoyed the afternoon and early evening seeing the bright lights and the James Bond film. Catching a late flight home, he was able to bluff his way into the house and back to school the next day, none the worse for wear.

 He always had an interest in music and may have hung around with the likes of Jimmy Uprichard who was famous for his late night musicianship and wild escapades with Terry Troughton of Ballintaggart. Sprick actually achieved some prowess on the tenor banjo and was a popular addition to the musical evenings at Slaneys in Lurgan where he insisted on drinking out of a jamjar instead of a glass for some obscure, sentimental reason.

 His wanderlust took him off to the pea fields of Lincolnshire in the summer where he drove trucks with the likes of Dusty Fraser from Seagoe Road. The work was hard and the hours were long but a guy could save enough in a couple of months to drive back to Portadown in a paid-for car at the end of the summer, quite an achievement in those days. Dusty Fraser, a former parts runner at the Automart who was famous for his very bad stutter and suicidally fast bicycle riding, went a little further. He returned home from England with a black car and dressed in a totally black "Maverick" Western suit, complete with string tie, waistcoat, black hat and a pack of cards in his vest pocket. Adding a cowboy accent to his stutter made him completely unintelligible but he didn't seem to mind that no one understood him. They never had anyway.

 On leaving school, Sprick went to work with his dad, Alex, in Portadown Joinery, the family business. Mornings would find him taking a serious coffee break at Allen's Coffee House in West Street where he would share philosophy with Sam Hewitt, Billy Thornton, George Allen, Jim Wilson and others. If there was a paucity of company, he would light another Players and tackle the crossword for fun.

 Being something of an insomniac and not fond of sitting in with his parents at night, Sprick was a bit of a fixture in Portadown town centre at a time when parking in the middle of town and visiting other people in other cars was the sociable thing to do. An Austin Mini van was probably his first car and it served him well in getting around to the movies, pubs and the King's Hall ice rink where he was a surprisingly agile speed skater. We used to go on Thursday nights and I really appreciated the lift there and back as I usually met a girlfriend from Lisburn there. When Sprick couldn't make it, I had to hitch-hike or take the train and occasionally didn't make it home until the wee hours, having missed the last train or bus. I seem to recall that my first "go-out-somewhere" date with a girl was to the pictures in Banbridge with Sprick driving us as I didn't yet have a license. The goodnight kiss back at Ballynagarrick was a little awkward in the crowded Mini van, but we managed. 

Later, he got a great big Ford Zephyr which was much more commodious. Traveling through town late at night enroute home from some romantic encounter or other business, it was nice to park near Sprick and join the company in his big salon-on-wheels for a smoke and a chat. He had taken to picking a tenor banjo and the big car was better suited to the unwieldy size of this long-necked instrument. The whole cast of characters roaming the roads could be found in or around Sprick's car at some time. People like Casey McAllister in his big, black Lea Francis (tragically killed in it on the Dromore Rd), Jim Strain, Davy Lester, Brian "the B" Prentice in his MGB, Jim(?) Hutchinson in his Vauxhall Cresta, Sam Marshall in his big Mk 9 Jag, Jackie Calvert in his Aston Martin DB6, Eric Holland in his Cooper S and many other Portadown and Lurgan guys could be found parked at the taxi stand or along the footpath until the wee hours. 

The talk often turned to cars and their performance which led to talk of the ability of drivers to make them go fast. This, in turn, sometimes led to a brisk jaunt along the deserted country roads to Richill, Tandragee, Loughgall or some place many corners away. Enroute, participant got a chance to demonstrate their ability to flirt with the limits of adhesion, ditches, hedges and walls. Occasionally, they got a chance to demonstrate their ability to roll a car back on its wheels and find the gate out of the field in which they had suddenly arrived. ( Derek Harrison can explain this for you. ). Sprick's big car was no good at this at all except on big wide roads like the Armagh Road ( where it topped out at over 100 MPH past the Dobbin) but it was a great chase car for spectators.

 A Sunday afternoon jaunt to Cranfield or Newcastle was another good use of the big Ford. Half a dozen or more travelers could ride in comfort and longer trips across the border for cultural exchange were accomplished with ease. One amusing trick was to roll down all the windows and have the people at them put their arms outside. Sprick would then race up behind a line of stopped cars, lock up the brakes and screech to a halt behind the last one at which point everyone would drop their arms and slap the door panels as hard as they could. The resulting screech and bang was a darn good imitation of a rear-ender and people would be looking all over for the accident which their ears told them had happened but their eyes couldn't find anywhere. The people in the car in front were particularly perplexed by their lack of rear-end damage, whiplash etc. If they jumped out to inspect their rear end, Sprick and Co. did the same as if looking for the phantom car at the back of the pile up, thereby adding to the confusion. Much gleeful whooping would fill the big Ford after a good one of these events.

 Within Sprick's mobile salon could be found assorted insomniacs, lots of cigarette smoke and the occasional bottle of stout, for those inclined to have a sup. Policemen patrolled the town center on foot in those days and, on cold winter nights, it wasn't unusual for them to accept Sprick's invitation to sit in for a few minutes to warm up. Sprick would pass the time with them and compare notes on the activity passing through the town.

 One night, just before Christmas, Jim Strain hid himself on the floor of the backseat of someone's car with an air rifle aimed at the big Christmas tree in front of St Mark's. As the two RUC officers on night patrol strolled by the tree, he would shoot out a light, startling them with the exploding light bulb. Despite their enquiries among those around, including Sprick, they were unable to solve the mystery and concluded that there were defective bulbs being used in the Christmas decorations. They just couldn't understand why they only exploded when they passed by.

 On another occasion, two policemen, who must have been bored with night patrol, robbed McQueen's jeweller's shop in West Street and framed some unfortunate drunk for the crime. Sprick, as a habituee of the night-time streets, was called as a witness and had to testify. He lost some of his enthusiasm for the streets after that and spent more time with other budding musicians in places like Slaney's in Lurgan.

 When the excitement of making and selling door casings and window frames at father Alex's Portadown Joinery Works wore thin, Sprick heeded the call of the open road. Like Toad of Toad Hall, he craved the thrill of racing off into the distance behind the wheel of something big and powerful. In Sprick's case, it was a big lorry, a Scania, I believe, in which he drove loads of everything (but mostly beef), all over Europe. As part of that adventurous band of itinerant truck drivers, he took to the life on the road with relish and regaled the earthbound denizens of Portadown with tales of adventure on the road when he took his time off at home to visit with Alex and drink coffee. I travelled with him a few times and it was amazing how such a small guy grabbed control of this massive truck and bullied it around the roads and through traffic. The swinging sides of beef were always a problem as they could produce a load shift violent enough to knock the trailer over, so roundabouts, with their directional changes, were a constant hazard. 

Running beef in a reefer to England took him over to Stranraer, down by Carlisle with a stop at "the Moss", a trucker's café in the Pennines, and into Southern England. When the EEC introduced its beef subsidy program, he hauled beef all around Europe, picking up stamps and subsidies at every border crossing. He joked about having the same beef on board for weeks on end and hauling the highest-mileage beef in the world.

It was on one of his trans-Alp journeys that he met his end. I was at home in Portadown when it happened and went around to Thomas Street to see Alex as soon as I heard. He was devastated so I got on the phone to Canada to find his daughter, Sprick's sister, and tell her the bad news. Despite knowing them for many years it was the only time I was in their house.

It seems that Sprick was travelling the mountain passes with another truck at night and when his lights disappeared, the other driver stopped and went back to find a hole in the wall above an abyss. No clue could be found as to the cause of the accident, so great was the devastation at the bottom. 
Thus ended the short, but eventful, life of David, Sprick, McCracken. Alex never recovered from the blow and even the company of his little dog was unable to console him. 

Writing this brings to mind a verse of a song, "The Bard of Armagh" which Sprick probably knew.

" Oh how I love to muse on the days of my boyhood
Though four score and three years have flitted since then
For it brings sweet reflection, as every young joy should
And the merry-hearted boys make the best of old men"

Sprick never got a chance to be an old man so we'll never hear his version of the many stories he was involved in. More's the pity as he was an accomplished raconteur.
If he could tell this story, he would probably say, with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips, "It's not the fall that kills ya, me old son. It's the sudden stop at the bottom!."

John Allen, Nov 20th, 2000         johnjallen@shaw.ca 

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