I didn’t think twice about driving the school bus even though I had just turned 16 the week before.
I had recognized Mr. Mackey and John Robins when the dirty green pick up rattled into our rutted farm dirt road the day after my birthday.
“Your Pop around Wayne”?
“Yeah, he’s out back changing the oil on the Chevy” “Well, Son, you might better tag along; we got somethin to ask you both now that you’re old enough”
“Old enough for what”?
After discussing the weather, the fellas told me and my Dad that since our farm was the last stop on the school bus route it made a lotta sense for the bus to start and end up here at the farm after the afternoon run.
“We ain’t lettin Old Butch do it no more; half the time he’s hungover”
That’s how I became responsible for gassing up the Yellow Demon (I named it back when I was a rider), closing up the windows after my run , cleaning gum oﬀ the backs of the seats, and picking up 22 raggedy farm kids everyday. I sure felt grown up and excited about my new job partly because now my Mom had to take over the morning cow milking.
The ﬁrst day of my 20 mile drive I ﬁgured out that unlike our tractor (Big Red), a bus requires alert and timely shifting or it could stall out going up a hill. Dad had taken me for a practice run the day before but neither of us had thought about the distracting little kids jabbering and gettin out of their seats or the 12 year old Neidenhammer twins sneakin a Lucky Strike.
“Knock it oﬀ you guys or I’m gonna report ya to Mr. Swartz”.
By week three the disruptive kids were scared of me and the now meek and grumpy faced twins were ﬁnished their detention. I felt real proud sporting my new black work boots and I made sure that Mary Murphy (the cutest girl in my class) noticed how relaxed I was at the wheel.
But then something happened which would aﬀect me for the rest of my life. It all started at the ﬁfth and last morning bus\stop. A pounding rain had begun to fall when I left my farm’s driveway and by the time the 6 kids from stop #5 were loaded in, water swept across the windshield in powerful gusts.
I was thinking I might stay put until the rain slowed but my sense of duty prevailed and I slowly pulled the bus back onto the road. “It’s only 4 more miles til I get to town”, I reassured myself.
The ﬁrst diﬃculty came as I hydroplaned and the bus’s back end swayed to the left. It was instinct to put on the brakes but that only made the bus sway to the other side. The kids on the bus were clueless and gleefully yelling “Whee” and “Do that again driver”. At this point I was breathing heavily as I managed to gain control of the Yellow Demon and I relaxed a bit when I was back on track.
“Only 3 more miles to go, Wayne boy”, I said to himself as I started down the last hill of the route. By the time my windshield wiper cleared my vision in front of me, I barely made out a slow moving tractor pulling a load of hay in front of me. Feeling a wave of panic, I tapped the brake pedal and felt shock and disbelief when it went to the ﬂoor. Again I desperately pushed the brake pedal to no avail. “Oh shit, shit, shit”.
Time stood still as my stomach sickened and my heart started pounding. Then my brain kicked in and I remembered to downshift and look for a place to pull oﬀ of the road. The bus gears ground loudly as I double clutched and forced the ﬂoor gear handle into 3rd, then 2nd.
“There’s Mr. Bowman’s cow pasture. Hang on kids; we’re doing a rough landing.” I managed to turn the bus oﬀ the road and went bumping into the ﬁeld until the bus ﬁnally bounced to a stop. Kids were thrown oﬀ their seats and fell all over each other. I was annoyed beyond belief when the twins started chanting, “Wayne ’s insane, Wayne’s insane”.
Yellow Demon came to a halt right next to Bowmans cow barn and I felt emotionally and physically paralyzed in the driver’s seat until Mr. Bowman came out and took charge.
“Holy Hell Boy, What happened?”
“NO BRAKES SIR”
“Well, Boy, you done right good”
I was hailed as a hero after that school bus mishap and I kept driving that bus route until I graduated from high school. However I will never forget that awful day and what could have happened. My mind wanted to relive the experience over and over again and I pictured the bus turning over, or the kids being badly hurt, or hitting the hay wagon. To this day I occasionally think of almost crashing the Yellow Demon, especially when I remember my Dad who passed away within the year. I had loved my Dad most of all when he made only one comment after Mr. Green drove me home. “Well there Son, I m real proud of you”.
Meanwhile, remember Old Butch? Well he had been responsible for school bus maintenance. After the bus brakes failed, he spent a few days in the town’s Pokey and reported that he never had a drink again.