School Bus Daze
Unlike other boys, I never wanted to be a bus driver when I grew up; if I had, Grinnell would have given me the opportunity to fulfill my childhood ambition. But such was not to be.
It was early spring, after I’d been driving a school bus for two semesters for the Grinnell schools. The dirt roads leading out of town had been oiled the previous summer to keep the dust down; under spring rains the hardpan was beginning to break up and the surface was slimy with yellow Iowa mud.
I was navigating a long stretch of yellow slither. The crown of the road was comparatively high and sloped down to wide drainage ditches on either side. I felt the front wheels “go;” they were no longer gripping the road and the bus was on a long, gradual skid toward the right drainage ditch. I’d thought I was an expert — I’d done well on the Iowa chauffeur’s driving test — and I turned the wheels slightly in the direction of the skid, gave it a little bit of gas and kept my foot off the brakes. To no avail. The bus continued on its inexorable course into the ditch where it came to rest, listing dangerously on its right side, the side of the passenger door.
I switched off the engine. There was utter silence. “OK,” I said. “Nobody move,” which I didn’t have to say because nobody was moving. The image of Charlie Chaplin in a cabin teetering on the edge of an abyss in The Gold Rush popped into my mind. Every hiccup made the cabin groan and inch towards its doom.
Earlier that winter we’d crossed a small bridge on the packed snow; on the other side the road sloped upward. Despite snow tires, we didn’t make it but slid back down and came to a jolting halt against one of the bridge’s stone walls. Nobody was hurt. A farmer arrived with a big John Deere tractor, hauled us back up the slope, and we drove on. As was the custom, he billed the school district for his services.
I didn’t want another rescue, an apologetic explanation to the superintendent of schools, a black mark against my record, an additional expense for the schools. “Right,” I said, “Frank,” (a husky high school senior) “get up real slow, open the rear emergency door, and climb out. Everyone else stay put!” I then told two more older boys in the back to climb out one-by-one; the remaining junior and senior boys and girls then lifted the little ones out into the arms of the three boys outside and then climbed out themselves. I told them to stand by the side of the road and wait.
I figured the bus had lightened up enough to avoid tipping over on its side. It was then that impetuousness kicked in. I started up, released the handbrake, put her in first, gunned the engine, ripped along the ditch, and climbed up and over the right side and into a plowed field: cheers from the road. I lurched along the furrows, heading for a drive that led to the road. The kids were already running to meet me. Everyone piled in and we drove to school.
When the superintendent called me in that afternoon, he began, “What the devil did you think you were doing? How did that cockamamie idea enter your head? The farmer was mad at me over the phone because you tore up his newly sown field. Parents called up … ” He was reduced to incoherence. That was the end of my non-boyhood fantasy of driving a bus — or almost the end. The plan was to keep me on until a substitute driver could be found, then I was out. Before that happened, I got viral pneumonia and was in the hospital for two weeks. Was that a punishment by the Great Superintendent in the Sky?