I’m sitting behind a school bus at one of three traffic lights in Pine Mountain. It’s early morning. Foggy. And there are a couple of faces peering at me through the back window. For nearly a hundred years school busses have picked up kids along rural county roads and hauled them off to learn of things that will shape their world. Like how to make a spit ball and shoot it through a straw. How to frog a guy in the forearm.
There are 19 lights just on the back of this bus. I had time to count. Most of them are flashing. There are 20 if you count the strobe light on top. 21 if you count the tag light.
I have always hated the strobe light. I know what happened. Somewhere, not so long ago, there was a wreck. Kids were hurt. Maybe someone died. It was a dark and foggy morning like this one. A grieving parent petitioned the school board to do something about it. The case went all the way to the state legislature.
It was decided that the 35 flashing lights and 14 miles of reflective tape were not enough for people to see that a school bus full of precious children was in front of them. Don’t forget that a bus is bigger than your average Pinto and twice as ugly and painted bright yellow. The fix was to add a strobe light.
I follow a school bus at least 3 out of 5 mornings on my way out to the farm. Which means that 3 out of 5 mornings I fight the onset of vertigo and the disorientation from a flashing light that can be seen from the International Space Station. I am forced to look away as I drive behind the bus. And I pull up close enough behind it at the light to hide the strobe from my view.
It’s not that I don’t value the precious cargo. It’s just that I think the strobe light is overkill. School bus wrecks still happen. The idiots that ignore the responsibility of driving are not changed by a strobe light. And the rest of us are forced to drive in state of visual confusion similar that on a dance floor from 1972.
My Uncle Robert drove a school bus like his Dad before him. It was unfortunate for me that Uncle Robert lived across the road from us. That meant that I was the first one on the bus at some ridiculous hour of the morning and the last one off. I barely made it home in time to see Gilligan’s Island and have a slice of cheese before supper time.
My bus ride seemed to me like the fate of the Minnow. A three hour tour that turned into being trapped on a deserted island. Only, there was no Mary Ann and Ginger to keep me company. Everybody seemed to think that Ginger was the hot one. But I was always more of a Mary Ann kind of guy. My wife’s middle name is “Ann”. So, I guess destiny played out in my favor.
When all the kids were gone except me, Uncle Robert would let me ride next to him standing on the steps by the door. It was freedom. Like being a copilot. The world zooming by just beyond my touch.
But it was a time when almost no vehicles had seat belts and kids rode around like loose melons bouncing all over the seats. We would lay up on the shelf in the back window and stare at the stars overhead. We would ride in the back of a truck standing up and looking over the cab, spitting into the wind and trying to dodge the spit as it came back at us.
My first paying job was to sweep out the bus at the end of the day. Uncle Robert gave me a quarter for cleaning out all the trash and sweeping under the seats. It was money to buy a Co-Cola at the Eastside store. I’d shove Tom’s salted peanuts down inside the bottle and feel like all was right with the world.
The absolute best days were those when my folks would let me skip the bus ride home. Dad would take my bike to the foundry in the back of his truck. School let out at Hampton Elementary and I would walk down to Southern States. The guard at the main gate knew me and would let me walk down to Dad’s truck in the parking lot. Dad’s name was on the chain link fence in front of his truck close to the foundry entrance.
I stashed my books on the front seat and walked into the foundry. It was like no other world I knew. Big furnaces blazing and melting their contents by fire. Sweaty men in hard hats and safety glasses pouring liquid metal into molds.
“How you doing little John?” They seemed to know who I was.
Dad would walk me down to the pattern shop, my favorite part of the mammoth building. Mr. Weyman and Mr. Lynwood working band saws and lathes and sanders to make the intricate detailed patterns that would be molds for the parts poured out in the foundry. There were hundreds of bins with parts made of wood that you would swear were metal if you looked at them.
After my visit, I’d grab my bike out of the back of Dad’s truck and make the 4 mile ride home. I’d moo at the cows on the other side of the fence. Stop and toss rocks off the bridge over the Towaliga. Then I’d coast into the yard at Uncle Robert and Aunt Helen’s house.
“Where you been?” he’d ask. But he knew.
“That bus ain’t gonna clean itself out.”
I grabbed the broom and got to work. The school bus always smelled the same. I can’t describe it except to say that it smelled like a bus. Someone forgot their jacket. I hung it over the front seat. I found two dimes and added that to the quarter Uncle Robert gave me.
Seems like I spent half my young life on a school bus. Just like those kids peering out the back window at me this morning. Maybe one day they’ll get off the bus at the end of the last ride ever. I hope they’re ready when the time comes.