It’s said that you never forget your first. That’s true in this noble profession. Many drivers remain fond of the first school bus they drove and I’m no different.
Mine was an International 40-footer with 103,000 miles on it. I called it Tarkus, after the half-tank, half-armadillo creature on the cover of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s classic album of the same name. It was a fitting moniker. The engine roared and the bus rumbled along like it was on tank treads.
(This blog is based on actual events, though names, places and some personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)
Tarkus was a rustic vehicle to say the least. Besides the rust patches and frayed, duct-taped seats (kids enjoyed pulling stuffing out of the holes), the heat barely worked and the PA didn’t. But I adapted as I navigated my way through a (very) challenging first year of driving that included brake failure, a boil-over breakdown, a scrape with a rock wall while squeezing past a tree crew, and dinging two buses while entering or leaving my parking space at our compound.
“Are you trying to kill all our buses?” our dispatcher finally asked me one morning when I radioed in that Tarkus had failed to start after I’d dropped my precious cargo at Bubblefish Middle School.
Even after a new starter was installed, Tarkus again failed during my first wait for afternoon dismissal at Bubblefish. I was just sitting there with the engine off when a beeping started and the alarm sounded. Vexed, I radioed for help and a mechanic came out out but couldn’t start the bus.
“What a day,” I texted to my wife. “My bus died twice, once in the morning and then in the afternoon after they fixed it.”
“Well, aren’t you glad it was the bus and not you?” she replied.
Apparently, either Tarkus was haunted or I was. Its flashers would suddenly come on, the stop arms would swing out, the front crossing gate would open, and the beeper would sound with the emergency switches off, all for no apparent reason.
Tarkus was constantly in and out of the garage, leaving me feeling guilty about increasing the workload on our small crew of intrepid, overworked mechanics.
Sadly, after little more than a school year behind the wheel, I was finally switched to Tarkus II … because a parent called to complain that her son had arrived at school encased in ice after a particularly frigid ride. (The “heat” usually took about 45 minutes to reach lukewarm, where it stayed, defying repeated efforts to improve it and inspiring me to suggest that a wood-burning stove be installed.)
Tarkus II was another International with about 100,000 hard-fought miles on it. The heat was a lot better, but the bus refused to start twice, once after more than a week in the shop for that same problem. While it was laid up, I was given a substitute bus and sure enough a dashboard light resembling a mushroom cloud came on during my first run.
“The engine is having a meltdown!” I cried over the radio.
It turned out that it was only a problem with the exhaust system, but for good measure that bus soon developed an air brake leak.
“You’re breaking all the buses!” our head mechanic groused as I left my big yellow victim in front of the garage.
Tarkus II was soon deemed unreliable, so I was given Tarkus III, yet another International with 94,000 miles on it.
“I feel sorry for it,” one of my fellow drivers said as I headed out to it for my first run. “I don’t know how it will survive you.”
Naturally, it wasn’t long before the beeper, engine light and “low coolant level” message came on as I left the compound for a morning run, forcing me to limp back to the garage.
“You’re killing all our buses!” my boss yelled as I schlepped out to the yard and yet another vehicle.
My original Tarkus has sadly gone to the Great Bus Graveyard in the Sky. Meanwhile, Tarkus III and the rest of our fleet quakes in fear when it hears me coming.