Great Misadventure: A Salute to Relief Drivers

There’s a reason why bus drivers in my district are asked to do a dry run of new routes before school opens. Some of us (mainly, me) are unfamiliar with much of the area we service and we need to familiarize ourselves with its highways and byways lest we go horribly astray.

I live 40 minutes away from my district, and for my first three years I drove regular, unchanging runs. But because of the driver shortage, I’m now being pressed into service on short notice, handed a run sheet (or just some general directions I quickly forget) for a totally strange route, and told, “Good luck and Godspeed.”

Now, some drivers (we call them “floaters” or relief drivers) do this kind of thing every day. They know the turf down to the last blade of grass and can tackle a route, any route, without advance warning, no freaking sweat. I marvel at how they got to that point.

(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.)

Just before the 2021 holiday season, I was assigned an afterschool run out of Runnynose Elementary, hauling 30 or so kindergarten-through-third graders. I didn’t know the route, but I thankfully had a run sheet because kids that young are rarely of help in finding your way to their homes.

SEE: Unreliable Sources: Directions and School Bus Tall Tales

The bus was barely loaded when a little girl declared she had to use the bathroom.

Fortunately, a teacher was on hand, checking on a lad who was in tears because his beloved regular bus driver had been replaced by my grizzled, forbidding presence. After the young lass returned from the pissoir, we pulled out of the parking lot only to have another girl declare that she, too, had to use the facilities. Now.

I started to ask her how far away her stop was but realized that was a waste of time. She insisted that her back teeth were floating. So I radioed base that I was returning to the school … but not until after I mistook the two-way mic for the PA and assured every bus driver in the district that they could make a wee-wee if they wanted.

“No thanks, I don’t have to go,” one replied.

Apparently kids are required by law to load up at the water fountain before boarding a school bus. I used to get bawled out by the security guard at Our Lady of Dismay Elementary for bringing my precious cargo back to let it do its business, so returning to Runnynose was likely to be an act of raw courage.

SEE: School Bus Life’s a Gas

No sooner did we pull up to the school’s front door than half the bus declared that they, too, had to tinkle. The teacher was stunned by the lengthy procession, which took a good 15 minutes to complete its ablutions.

“Water is either going in or coming out of kids,” I told her with an ingratiating smile and chuckle, though she wasn’t amused.

Expected to leave at 3:30, we finally pulled away at 4. The ride was chaos from the get-go. Despite my constant orders to sit down, urchins kept coming up the aisle to ask questions and report on crimes in progress.

SEE: It Only Takes One to Drive a School Bus Wild

“Fescue is choking my brother,” one somber lad informed me, only to return moments later and say, “Fescue is hitting everyone with a seat belt.”

So I grabbed the PA and ordered Fescue to the Honored Student Seat in the front of the bus. He replied that he’d be there as soon as he established a Wi-Fi connection. “What’s the password?” he asked.

SEE: Crowd Control Measures I’d Like to See

The quickly setting sun left me squinting in the glare of oncoming headlights as I tried to read my run sheet and street signs. Sometimes there were none, or no numbers on houses. Kids kept screaming that I was going the wrong way or had passed their houses. I kept messing up turns. Other drivers kept radioing me with directions. The dispatcher kept inquiring about my ETA to various destinations.

“When do you think you’ll complete your run?” he finally asked.

All I could honestly say was, “I’ll have them all home for Christmas if only in their dreams.”

Two kids (one of them Fescue, of course) didn’t get off at their stop, forcing me to stop several turns later and try to figure out how to retrace my path in a dark, unfamiliar neighborhood. I was hopelessly confused, soaking in flop sweat, and sitting at the intersection of Tears and Despair when the dispatcher radioed to tell me parents were trying to find me.

“Where are you?” he asked.

“From what I can tell, I’m at the corner of Surrender and Quitting,” I replied.

SEE: Bus Driver’s Wish: A Fraction of Distraction

Fortunately, the parents in question drove up moments later though the mother was less than pleased with the course of events (and my bus) that evening.

I was then left alone with Fescue, who had taken the seat directly behind me. Our conversation went like this:

“I’m hungry,” he said several times.

“I’m hungry, too,” I finally replied.

“What if I don’t get home?”

“You’ll get home.”

“But what if I don’t?”

“You will.”

“But what if I don’t?”

“I’ve been driving a bus for almost four years and I’ve never failed to get a kid home.”

“Are we going to spend the night on the bus?”

“No.”

“But what if we do? Do you have a blanket?”

“We’re not going to spend the night on the bus.”

“Everyone else got home safely. How come?”

“Because you are the last stop. You’ll get home safely.”

“But what if I don’t?”

“You will.”

“What if we have an accident?”

“I’ve never had an accident and I’m not going to start now.”

“But what if we do and I don’t get home?

“You’re going to get home!”

“But what if I don’t?”

“Kid, I will get you home if it kills me!”

I finally did, and lived to tell, but not until after I’d made a wrong turn that took me all the way to the town of Fishmeal, about 15 miles from where I needed to go. Thankfully, Fescue’s parents were understanding even though their dear son was two hours late.

When I returned to base, I discovered that the back of my bus was a riot of crumbs, wrappers and other trash. I worried that I would be locked in the yard while I fueled and cleaned up and went to the wee-wee room in the drivers trailer. That would have been a most fitting end to the day.

SEE: How I Won the Garbage War

So I tip my hat to relief drivers who fly by the seat of their pants with skill and steely resolve without letting neither snow nor pee nor gloom of night prevent them from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. How they achieved that state of grace could not have been easy.

As my Sainted Mother used to tell me, “You only learn by bitter experience.”

I’m getting plenty of that these days.

2 thoughts on “Great Misadventure: A Salute to Relief Drivers

  • Throughly enjoyed this account of the trials & tribulations of a school bus relief driver, while extremely humorous, it also has me appreciating the job being done to insure the well being and safety of our most precious possession, the children. Thank You.

    Like

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