Author’s Note: In the following chronicles, names of people and children (and no, they’re not the same category), towns and locations have been changed to protect the innocent, and their parents.
I had been trained on the basics of school bus operation, which sounds far easier than it was. There’s something appealing about the grittiness of driving a piece of large machinery, checking the air brakes, doing the walk-around safety check, engaging the gears and pulling out of the lot into a fall morning, the spicy scent of fallen leaves overlaying the smell of the exhaust. Parking a bus is not so appealing, but fairly irrelevant for our purposes here.
I’d passed the written and driving tests, and I had my Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). I was officially a bus dwivah, although I wasn’t named thus until I met Connor Bains, 2nd grader.
My employer, weary of shaking his head and clucking like an anxious hen while I drove, had delivered me to the dubiously good intentions of another driver, we’ll call him Ralph. He was a skinny carrot-haired man with a wispy goatee and a nervous giggle. It’s not what you’re thinking – he giggled nervously when HE drove. He hated kids, but then most bus drivers do, if not at the beginning of their career, at least by the second day.
Ralph wasn’t fond of me, either, privately suspecting I was intended to replace him, which turned out to be true. His assignment was to show me the route for Bus #30. Before I became privy to the ways of school transportation systems, I didn’t know the importance of this.
The fact is that rural school bus routes are as inscrutable as pre-Rosetta Stone hieroglyphics, because homes in the country don’t have numbers on their doors or mailboxes, commonly, this experience occurring prior to the 911 restructuring of rural addresses. The driver is handed a list of passengers, with name and grade noted. A separate schedule is attached, and it says things like: Proceed to Hagerstown Pike, turn left on Hunkerdown Road. #1 pickup, Joe Schmoe, 1st grade, at Hunkerdown Road. (Black wooden silhouette of cowboy in front yard.) This might have been a good identifier at the time of writing. However, by the time fall rolls around and the driver is searching for Joe Schmoe’s house, the neighbors have all been entranced by the wooden cowboy’s silhouette and now Hunkerdown Road is as peppered with cowboys as the OK corral, and Joe Schmoe’s mother is still inside zipping his jacket and handing him his lunch for the fourth time, so you can’t even identify his house by the small boy standing beside the black wooden cowboy.
Turn left on Whoopeeville Lane and left again directly after the bridge. #2 pickup, Nancy Schmancy, kindergarten. The township has chosen this, the first day of school, to block the bridge for maintenance, and the bus driver has to skirt the bridge by making a series of forty-two turns, arriving on Whoopeeville Lane dizzy and muddled. Nancy Schmancy, the only pickup on Whoopeeville, it will develop, got so excited about starting school she threw up all night and will not be riding the bus today.
You should be starting to get the picture. It’s important to ride the route (both morning and night, because in a school bus, you can’t just reverse the route – you have to TURN the bus and many country roads do not lend themselves to this process) with someone who knows what the heck they’re doing.
I rode shotgun with Ralph on the afternoon run on Monday. Tuesday morning I arrived at the bus lot at 6:45 am, intending as instructed by our boss to ride with him again, in fact all of that week. Bus #30 was sitting quiet and still and lonely on the lot, no Ralph in evidence. My employer and his wife, both also drivers, were gone, filling in for drivers who were sick or vacationing that day. I knew little, but I did know our first pickup was at 7:15 and it was about 25 minutes from the lot. I climbed onto the bus and checked the pocket in the dash where the clipboard holding the route, passenger list and gas and maintenance logs was kept. The pocket was innocent of information. Empty. Not talking. Time was squinching in on me. I called my boss on my cell phone. No answer. I started Bus #30, did the walk-around. I called my boss again. Nope.
All of the buses carried two-way radios, the plan being that the driver could contact someone at all times. I tried the two-way to contact my boss. No answer. Sounding increasingly desperate, I tried again and again. Finally another driver answered my pleas. “What do you need?” I explained – it was past time to leave on the route, my mentor was nowhere to be found, and neither was the route. Just then the boss’s teenaged daughter came out of the house and told me her Dad had gotten my message relayed to him by another driver, since he was out of two-way range. “He said go ahead and do the route,” she said, and turned back to the house.
“Go ahead where?” I asked. “And pick up whom?” She blinked in that teenagerish way, and shrugged, picking her way barefooted across a sidewalk littered with wet golden leaves.
I got back on the bus and back on the two-way. “Hello? Hello? Bus #30 to dispatch. Hello?”
I tried again. “Bus #30 to anybody.” My only human contact, the driver of Bus #17 who had answered me earlier, responded. “What do you need?”
It seemed inappropriate to begin my first experience as the captain of a land-going kid cruise ship in frustrated tears, but that’s where this was heading. “I don’t even know where to start,” I wailed.
Bus #17 was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “I ran that route a couple of years ago. As I recall, it starts on River Road at the trailer park. If you can get the first kid, the kids can help you with the rest.”
Bus #17 had a brilliant driver, I thought. “Thanks,” I said fervently and signed off. I put the bus in gear and with my eyes on the road and my heart in my throat, I set out for River Road, thinking thoroughly unkind thoughts about Ralph. (It turned out later that Ralph thought leaving me without a guide and without a route or passenger list would be a good way to point out to our employer that I was not a suitable replacement for a well-trained and seasoned bus driver like himself. I never liked Ralph in the first place.)
Excepting only the driving test for my license and practicing slalom courses around orange traffic cones on the bus lot, this was my first time in a bus by myself. Both hands clenched firmly in the 10 o’clock, 12 o’clock position, feet fluttering around the pedals, eyes swiveling like an owl’s, I headed for the trailer park on River Road.
The morning mists still drifted over the water, rainbowed by the just-risen sun. Snowy white egrets perched on the banks like Egyptian statues, and the early light picked out dew droplets on the trees along the road, sparkling like precious gems. I was impervious to all this beauty, I was on a mission. The most beautiful sight I saw that morning was a small chubby boy pacing restlessly in front of a yellow mobile home. I slowed, put on the bus’s blinking red lights and stopped neatly in front of him. I swung the door lever and the door hissed open. “Jared?” I asked hopefully, in the same tone and with the same emotion that Stanley, after trekking across Africa in search of the famous explorer, inquired, “Dr. Livingston, I presume?”
Jared nodded silently and I motioned him urgently onto the bus. “Look,” I said. “I’m a new driver and I don’t have the route, so I would really appreciate it if you’d help me find the other kids I’m supposed to pick up.”
Jared gave me a jaundiced look as though incompetent adults were common in his experience. He did not look particularly eager to help.
“As big as you want,” I said, and Jared got with the program.
“Last trailer down,” he said economically, and sat back in the front seat.
As the bus population increased, children already jazzed at the prospect of a new driver, contended to be the first to give me the next stop information.
A little fuzzy-haired blonde girl hollered, “Turn that way.” I had to look in the rearview mirror and then translate backwards to determine proper direction, because small children don’t yet understand the concept of ‘left’ and ‘right.’ Come to think of it, my brilliant and beautiful daughter is twenty-six, and she still doesn’t fully comprehend ‘left’ and ‘right.’
The boy waggled his head in that “gotcha” motion, smirking knowingly. “Stacey Smithereens’ dad got arrested for somethin’ bad and they got a divorce. Stacey and her mom and her brother moved to Masonville with her gramma.” Kids, I learned, say the word divorce the same way they say “monster” or “boogeyman,” hoping that if they say it quietly, it will never visit their house.
“Turn or not?” I asked the bus route committee. “NO!” they roared back, and the bus surged on down Reister’s Road.
After that minor glitch, the only problem was that elementary schoolchildren have something in common with teenaged drivers. They don’t understand physics, or the concepts of momentum and inertia. They scream “STOP!” when the destination house’s mailbox appears in their bus window, not understanding that a bus is not like a basketball player and cannot stop on a dime. Or they holler, “RIGHT HERE,” meaning, “right here at the house around the next corner.” This results in the necessity for the bus to wait along the road while the passenger jogs sweatily a hundred yards to catch the bus, all the kids on board hanging out their windows waving and cheering him/her on, or it results in a sudden and unnecessary stop followed by a long slow crawl as the driver searches for the place where the next child is actually waiting.
It was quite a merry ride, all in all. At one point I glanced in the rearview to find to my surprise that the bus was nearly full. To be truthful, I was unsure whether all the kids I’d picked up were actually students at the school I was taking them to, but I comforted myself with the fact that somebody at the school could sort it all out.
On Mountain Road, Pickup #25, Spring Byner, the moment I had been dreading arrived, but not before a large white goose came slapping down the driveway, honking pugnaciously, to challenge the bus to a fight. “Silly goose” is not just an expression. I still wonder what the goose was thinking about the bus. A huge gosling getting uppity? I narrowly missed making paté out of the foolish feathered beast and pulled to a stop at the driveway. Spring climbed the steps and sat down.
The moment of truth had arrived. Turnaround. I backed the monstrous vehicle s-l-o-w-l-y into a leafy weed-choked lane across from Spring’s house, with all my little collaborators hollering advice or screaming joyfully “You’re gonna hit that tree!” Only a few leaves were captured on the rearview mirror when we started back down the road, and I breathed again.
The bus disgorged my charges at the school; they piled out laughing and saying, “Hey, that was FUN!”
At the bus lot, my boss met me with “Lisa’s mother called. You missed her.”
I fixed him with a frosty gaze. At the moment I didn’t care if I lost my job or not. “We’re lucky I found anybody.”
I nodded and stopped on the way home for chocolate bars, for the kids for helping me and for myself, because I find chocolate fortifying.
I sat at my kitchen table staring at the wall for a half hour, and then went to take a nap. I had to take them home again at 3:30.