Being raised in a rural community in the 1960s and 1970s, the probability of riding a bus most of my school days was high. While moms and dads of rural anywhere were usually salt of the earth parents, they simply did not have the luxury of extra money to buy cars for their kids to drive to school.
My school bus lumbered its way from the north daily, approximately thirty miles, beginning in a country far, far away, methodically stopping with uncanny accuracy at its predetermined time. The mindset of its passengers had a direct proportion to the grade of the corresponding student.
My first memory of the bus was watching, with major envy, as my sister boarded that luxurious chariot, along with our neighbors. In my book, they were the coolest people in my small world. I was a five-year-old, trapped in my nowhere world. I could relate to The Beatles song lyrics, “He’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody.” With sadness and jealousy in my eyes, I watched them board that prized buggy as it slowly rolled off in the distance each morning. Left with just me and my dog, I developed a sinking emptiness in my stomach. I began to feel happiness as the bus returned later that afternoon. I dreamed of life when I was finally old enough to join that cool fraternity of school bus riders.
My day finally came when I was old enough for first grade. I boarded with pride equal to a limousine passenger, alongside my sister, now in her seventh year, not nearly as excited as me, as the thrill had worn off for her. The pecking order on our bus was simple. The older kids earned the right to have a seat at the back of the bus. The younger kids rode in the front. The rare twelfth grader was king of the roost, could sit anywhere they pleased, and if desired, could have a seat to themselves. Twelve years earned them this rare perk, and nobody questioned the unspoken rule.
Our bus driver was one hundred and twenty-five years old. I heard rumors of him being a nice man. He never smiled. I wasn’t so sure how nice he was. He scared me!
The initiation to riding his bus went something like this; young nervous, first time rider looks one hundred and twenty-five-year-old bus driver square in his eyes, through the bus rear view mirror, while bus driver pops his false teeth to the edge of his lips, and then pops them back inside his mouth. It was one of the most frightening scenes imaginable. All eyes focused on the young pledge to see how they reacted. Memories brought back that frightful day of our own hazing. Empathy was abundant for the young one. Once young rider survived this rather interesting procedure, acceptance into the bus club became automatic. They were now one of us. This was an eclectic group of guys and girls, who for thirty minutes or so each morning and afternoon, tolerated each other and became one, no matter their status, or lack thereof, among peers at school.
Rumor has it, one day our bus driver saw a big buck out in a field. He promptly stopped the bus, took out his gun and killed that deer. I’m not sure if he loaded the deer in the bus with the kids. This happened before my time.
Parked just north of Berea, which when I was a kid, was like somewhere in another state, the bus began its daily trek. My friend, Ann, was the first on the bus, which must have been sometime, hours before the sun rose. One family, the Daniel’s, lived so far north, their parents had to bring their three boys to catch the bus. Next to board was the Webb’s. They had seven kids. So, by the time these three families boarded, they took the good seats! My friend, Gary, always saved me a prime seat; that is until one day while playing at my house, I accidently shot him with a BB gun, but that is a different story.
As the wheels of the bus went round and round, bounding its way to my house, it gathered a passel full of Courson’s, Riley’s, Spurlin’s, Keen’s, Thurman’s, and then it was my turn to come aboard.
I boarded the bus promptly at seven thirty every morning and got home at three thirty in the afternoon. That false teeth popping chauffeur, honked his horn once in the morning. One time! If he detected no movement, he was off to the next house. Many times, I witnessed kids, terrified by their parents of the consequences of missing the bus, drop and leave prized, hard worked upon homework, while making a bee line running to catch the bus before it left them.
Next the bus completed its daily mission by adding the Kilcrease’s, Culp’s, Cecil’s, more Collins’s, Kelly’s, and last, the Burgess’s.
Inevitably, one of our friends would pass the bus, being transported to school by their parents, or in a rare case, driving themselves. Eyes of silent envy threw imaginary darts at their tires, as we just knew they had a lunch prepared and packed, allowing the privileged ones to bypass that gosh awful lunchroom food. I don’t have issues; currently. I got over them years ago. Honest!
A first grader learned the hard way to find a seat in the first four or five rows, because once they ventured much further back, they received the early version of a stank, side or even worse, no eye contact. The walk of shame was a long one back to the front of the bus, knowing they had to earn this sad, but necessary rite of passage.
Mostly, we all got along amazingly well. We knew none of us chose this daily sentence, so why make someone feel any worse than they already did about themselves? Spitballs and paper airplane flying was common. A book slammed perfectly on the back bar of the bus seat made a noise louder than any firecracker in that day. This act always earned the guilty party a seat on the front row but was worth the punishment when trying to impress a new rider of the opposite sex, so I was told. Foul smells permeated our air space frequently. Upset stomachs sometimes produced liquid vomit that forced rearrangement of our seating. Occasionally, a disagreement arose over whether a window should be up or down, but seniority always ruled the day. I only remember one fight in all my years of riding the bus. It was between two girls. I will not name the two parties, as what happens on the bus, stays on the bus.
I rode the bus for all twelve years of school. I wasn’t particularly proud of this, but I certainly did not have the money to buy myself a car. I remember achieving my wildest dream of a four-year, all-expense paid, life changing, football scholarship with the University of Arkansas. I signed the scholarship in the morning and rode the bus home that afternoon. No press conference or television cameras like today. Nope. As I boarded the bus that afternoon, I was no better than anyone else. It was our exclusive club. The bus club.
Riding the bus twelve years earned me the highest bus perk of them all. I had the honor of picking any seat I wanted. The unspoken rule was the greatest. I did not have to share it with anyone unless I wanted. One morning, a daring first grader wandered to the back of the bus and mustered the nerve to ask if he could sit with me. The others on the bus gasped at the nerve of this untrained young rookie, certain his fate was doomed to the front row. But, being in a good mood, I said, “sure, why not?”
Knowing he was out-classed, nervous, and trying to be cool, he asks me if I knew the circumference of the moon was twice that of the earth. I told him I did not know that but thanked him for sharing it with me. He then told me a pig was smarter than a cow. Again, I thanked him and politely told him I would remember this. The rest of the trip, he sits and stares at me. I would like to think he was idolizing the big stud, All-American high school football player, who let him sit beside him. In reality, I’m certain he was saying to himself, ” I sure hope I am not still riding the bus when I am in the twelfth grade, like this loser!”
Looking back, I am proud I rode a school bus for twelve years. Humbling, yes. That luxurious chariot of my first grade transformed into a bucket of bolts by my twelfth year. But it sure made me appreciate my first car, received my second semester in college. Excited to show it off, I asked the prettiest girl I knew out for a date. Knowing I was out-classed, nervous, and trying to be cool, I proudly asked her if she knew a pig was smarter than a cow! The rest of the date, she sits and stares at me. I’d like to think she is idolizing the big stud, college football player. In reality, I’m certain she was saying to herself, “why did I ever agree to go out with this loser?”
It was a short date.
Guess she never was a member of the bus club!