Five Days That Made Me What I Am: Ready for Anything

You’ve surely had “one of those of days” that left you wondering what else can possibly go wrong.

Here’s my one of those weeks.

(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.)

Monday

The fun began with your humble narrator backing his bus, Tarkus (nicknamed after the half-tank, half-armadillo creature on the cover of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s classic album), into another vehicle. It was dark and rainy and I was still getting the hang of entering and exiting my parking space in our compound without leaving a trail of wreckage.

A week or so earlier, I’d surgically removed a tail light on the bus in the spot next to mine while pulling in. This time, I misjudged how much room I had behind me … and felt that sickening thud of contact.

My queasy inspection revealed a bent hood-mounted mirror on a small bus across from my spot.

So I sheepishly trudged to the office to report my misdeed, giving thanks that at least I hadn’t let Tarkus roll through a chain link fence, as I’m told one poor (now-ex) driver did after leaving their bus in neutral and neglecting to set the parking brake before getting out.

“I plead insanity,” I said as I grabbed an accident report sheet.

“We get that a lot around here,” said our office manager. “You’ll have to think of something else.”

Assured that the mirror repair would be simple, I was still flushed with embarrassment and I vowed to apologize to the driver of the bus I’d dinged. No doubt my colleagues were beginning to see me as a neighborhood threat.

Running late because of my mirror-bender, I was treated to a morning of riotous mayhem: shrieks, arguments, complaints, tussles, sour clarinet toots, flying hats and backpacks, you name it. On trips like these, my bus sounds like a crowded restaurant or a party packed with howling lunatics.

During my afternoon run from Helga Poppin Intermediate, Robespierre, an “energetic” fourth-grader who specializes in starting rugby scrums in the aisle and seats, drove me to pull over to a safe spot. After setting the parking brake and triggering my hazard warning lights, I read the Riot Act over the PA.

A few miles later, Robespierre slugged Rollo, so I pulled over again to inform him and his partners in crime that I would be switching their assigned seats (once again) and breaking up their evil cabal.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

As I spent that evening wrestling with the Rubik’s Cube of my seating chart, I took comfort in the thought that Robespierre only rides my bus in the afternoon.

Tuesday

I arrived at work to find a note in my mailbox informing me that Robespierre would also be riding in the morning from now on.

“Oh, goody,” I thought, fighting a strong urge to weep.

The new seat assignments were greeted by bitter complaints from the Helga Poppin Five: Robespierre, Beetlebomb, Brutus, Jehosaphat and Pismeyer. Brutus protested by making a passionate speech comparing himself to Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon who refused to surrender her seat when unjustly ordered to do so by the driver of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. in 1955.

It was a surprising, if slightly inapplicable, historical reference for a fourth-grader. The nation was not likely to be as moved by Brutus’s plight as it was by Rosa’s.

My day ended with my boss summoning me for a little inquiry.

The mother of Otto the Eighth-Grader had called to complain that her son came home doused with water. What’s up with that?

I explained that I’d noticed the usual commotion, but hadn’t seen Otto’s exchange of liquids with his fellow back-of-the-bus hooligans Coggins, Spud, Herkimer, and Jethro, or noticed his soggy condition as he left the bus.

Told to separate those rascals if need be, I left feeling much shame. Parental confidence in the comfort and safety of children on my watch is a matter of personal pride. Of course, it would help if the children in question did a little more to make their comfort and safety easier, but you can’t have everything in this world or this job.

Wednesday

My horoscope (Scorpio) filled me with dread: “This could be a disruptive sort of day and there is no way of knowing for sure whether you will gain or lose from what happens. However, as the sun is about to move in your favor even apparent setbacks will throw up new opportunities. Be ready.”

“Great,” I thought as I left for work. “Someone’s going to throw up on the bus.”

See: Getting Down With the Sickness on the Bug Bus

Not exactly.

I was driving Tarkus to Hamilton Bubblefish Middle School for my afternoon run, doing a brisk 45 miles per hour on a busy three-lane road, when the air pressure alarm suddenly sounded. Then the red wig-wag sign fell above the dashboard, signaling that brake failure was now on tap in my already-exciting life.

The alarm goes off if the air brake pressure gauge drops to 60 psi. Any lower and you’re flirting with disaster, to quote Molly Hatchet. Having never experienced this hair-raising event, my blood pressure went in the opposite direction until I safely made it to the shoulder (with white knuckles), came to a stop, heaved a sigh, and radioed for help.

One of our intrepid mechanics arrived with a fresh bus in short order, but I was late getting to Bubblefish, where I was met by a gaggle of grumbling students eager to get home.

Some regularly grouse about my on-time performance. “Ugh, we’re soooo late again,” Sassafrass the sixth-grader gripes to Lulubelle, who replies, “I know! Right?” whenever we pull into the school parking lot — a minute early.

“Where were you?” they demanded this time.

I was tempted to reply that I’d been sunning myself and lost track of the hour. But being a steely, stoic professional, I told them Tarkus needed some work, so I had to grab new wheels to ensure them a safe, comfortable ride.

The highlight of the rest of my day was getting nailed in the back of the head by Pismeyer’s football while I navigated a treacherous, narrow downhill curve. A notorious projectile specialist, Pismeyer denied tossing the pigskin. It was only after pulling over that I extracted a confession from Brutus, who insisted that he’d merely forced a fumble by Jehosaphat.

Such was my reward for moving them to seats directly behind me.

Thursday

My morning was going reasonably well until one of the Helga Poppin kids tracked dog doo into the bus, leaving a pungent trail most of the way down the aisle. As soon as it was noticed by the student body, the foul aroma set off a panicked stampede to the front and back, and the frantic opening of every window.

By the time I pulled in to the school driveway, the kids were in a complete uproar. None heeded my increasingly desperate pleas on the PA to lift the handle on the back door and de-activate the beeper. There was no way I could get there through the huddled, yowling masses in time to stop the beeping from becoming an all-out alarm. (The system is designed to make someone walk the length of the bus in case sleeping or hiding children remain on board after a trip.)

I’d just like to say that nothing fluffs one’s professional self-esteem like setting off the bus alarm outside a school. Silencing the blaring horn takes several steps — sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t — that may include moving the bus, never a good idea in an area crawling with kids.

Somehow, I managed to get the hysterical children in the front off, then convince the rest in the rear to gingerly make their way up the aisle and out the door before someone called the police to serve me with a summons for disturbing the peace. Even so, teachers, school officials and my fellow drivers gathered to gawk at the spectacle.

Cleanup, with mop and pail back at the compound, was a gag-inducing effort after a rather unpleasant ride with the windows open and the overhead fans on.

Friday

Fearing Biblical infestations of boils and locusts, I was afflicted by a flood instead.

While hitting a bump during my morning middle school run, I heard a heavy plonk in the storage compartment next to my seat where I stash the travel mug for my breaks. Taking a peek while stopped at a light, I was treated to the sight of all my paperwork awash in a sea of joe.

The mug had capsized, opening the lid and unleashing fragrant hell.

“Hey, it smells like coffee in here!” announced Zoot Horn, the nosy sixth-grader who sits behind me.

After listening to the slosh in the box for the rest of morning, I spent the first hour of my break with a sponge and bucket, sullenly hanging my dripping, brown-stained, daily bus inspection reports to dry on a cardboard box. Surely my boss will be pleased with my performance this week.

During my usually rollicking afternoon run, Robespierre stopped on his way off to pat me on the shoulder and say, “I feel sorry for you. I don’t know how you do your job with all these kids yelling. I’d flip out.”

No worries, kid. If this job doesn’t drive me insane, it’ll only make me stronger.

Greetings and Grunts o’ the Day

It is often emphasized to us wretches o’ the wheel that we’re the first and last representatives of the school district that many children see each day. We’re told to always be pleasant and say “Good morning” or “Have a nice day” as our precious cargo boards or departs our bus.

(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.)

Quite often we get no response or perhaps — if we listen very closely — a muffled something that sounds like “mumpf.” 

Some kids do cheerily offer or return hearty greetings. Daisy, a delightfully perky fourth grader, almost always stops, turns, and exclaims something like, “Well, you have a nice day!” before she exits. 

Some kids will thank you for your suffering on their behalf. Some say they feel sorry for me.

Even the coldest ragamuffins warm up at least a bit during the course of a school year as they become familiar with you, but you can’t take the silent majority personally and be insulted by their ignoring your pleasantries. Tis better to content yourself with the knowledge that you did your duty without undue strife or calamity during the trip.

Being a mere mortal, I found this consolation to be a thin emotional gruel. After saying “good morning” to no avail for many weeks, I began adding “little buttercup” or “same to you” under my breath.

Fearing that I would grow old and expire before I received an actual reply, I contemplated announcing over the bus PA system that the first kid to utter as much as a “You, too” in response to one of my greetings would be the winner of a valuable prize, maybe a set of snow tires or some oven mitts. I’ve yet to decide.

However, establishing such a quid pro quo precedent is probably unseemly. And we are discouraged from handing out treats, due to the scourge of food allergies as well as possible liability for bringing on a medical emergency.

I have to say it is amusing when you startle a kid with your greeting and they suddenly stop and look at you like you’re nuts.

“What?!” they ask, as if I’d just accused them of a high crime or stated that an alligator is loose on the bus.

One morning I greeted Oswald, a fretful third grader. He suddenly locked his horrified stare directly on me. I have to imagine he was even more alarmed when I cackled loudly and said, “What?!” 

He quickly fled to his seat.

You gotta love the Eddie Haskells. If you are of a certain vintage, you likely remember the character from the old Leave It to Beaver sitcom. Haskells are kids who assume an angelic demeanor and pleasantly hail you en route to or from wreaking havoc.

I’ve observed them doing headers over seats, uttering hoary oaths and epithets, blatantly eating and drinking despite my repeated warnings about stuffing their faces on the bus, and engaging in crimes against the soul. But whenever they’re near me, they act like nothing undue happened.

Then there are those cherished moments when a child offers a sweet, spontaneous salutation:

One afternoon at Helga Poppin School, Oswald came up the bus steps with a green cube in his hand.

“I’m going to blow you up!” he solemnly informed me as he casually gestured with the cube. 

“Oh yeah?” I replied. “If you blow me up, who will drive the bus?”

“My mom will just come and get me,” he replied as he sauntered to his seat.

Yes, it’s always good to be acknowledged and appreciated.

Meet the Hellions

Welcome aboard! 

It’s pushing 6 a.m., the sun is warily cracking the horizon, and I’m firing up Tarkus, my big yellow International bus for a typical morning run to Hamilton Bubblefish Middle School and Helga Poppin Intermediate. Our journey will cover roughly 60 miles of beautiful, often peaceful countryside that is in direct contrast to the frenzy within my vehicle. 

NOTE: The children you are about to meet are characters every school bus driver knows all too well. Based on real kids who have darkened my doorway, I’ve given them different names and other characteristics to shroud the inspiration they provided for this blog. It’s safe to say the human race in all its rich ethnic variety is well represented here.

Each run on any given day has a predictable pattern. Mornings are like steam steadily building in a big yellow boiler that will be on the verge of exploding by the time we reach a school. Afternoons are like that intense pressure slowly being released with each drop-off of a student.

Mornings can have at least a shred of sanity as the kids are still sleepy and morose about having to go sit in a classroom for six hours.

Afternoons are another matter.

It’s like the little dears have been pumped full of cane sugar and the finest high-quality methamphetamine.  

“That’s when I earn my combat pay,” one of my battle-hardened colleagues informed me early on. In keeping with that sentiment, I have adopted the motto, “Just win the war, baby.”

In other words, I win the war if I get the little dears to or from school without having an accident or someone getting hurt. Bonus points if no one leaves my bus in tears.

Thankfully, I am undefeated … so far.

World War I

Our first pick-up for Bubblefish is at 6:15 a.m. Middle schoolers are renowned for being aloof and moody thanks to raging hormones, insecurity, and social media pressure. Their desire for group acceptance compels them to commit ghastly acts if doing so will help win them admiration from their peers.

All remains quiet through our first three stops (Lulubelle, Wally, and Mabel) until Fartinhausen (aka Methane Man) joins the mix. No trip is complete without this notoriously gassy sixth-grader grandly announcing an emission that is followed by a noxious cloud and revolted reaction from those around him.

By 6:30, Lucifer has gotten behind me. Foul of mouth and impervious to punishment, he is what we in the trade call a “firestarter.” This seventh-grader can ignite a brouha in an empty room. 

Before we reach the end of his block, the first F-bomb or “Shut up, b—h!” has been dropped.

Game on.

While Lucifer and Methane Man swap barbs and threats, the back rows steadily fill with a collection of snarky eighth-graders: OttoJethroCoggins, and Skeezix, who allow a couple of a suitably cool seventh-graders — Spud and Herkimer — to sit among them.

Most of the ladies — Penny,  Mildew, GertrudeMinnie, BabsHeloise and Henrietta — gather closer to the middle of the bus and always seem to be up to something (their squeals are a dead giveaway), though identifying perpetrators is a job for a monitor — a luxury I don’t have on my bus.

The crew is completed by chatty sixth-graders Zoot Horn, Sassafrass and Weisenheimer, who join Lulubelle in the rows close behind me.

With Tarkus loaded with precious cargo by 7 a.m., our 20-minute ride to Bubblefish is usually a zesty affair chock full of flatulence, bloodcurdling profanity, salacious music, jarring noise, raucous laughter, dancing in the aisles, and my howls of “Sit down!” and “Watch your language!” all of which are more intense during the return trip in the afternoon. 

After depositing my charges at their institution (of learning), I have a half-hour respite before my run to Helga Poppin. Some drivers linger in the lot at Bubblefish, but I prefer a spot in the countryside where I inhale coffee and steel myself for the squalls and brushfires to come.

Buckle up!

WORLD WAR II

Intermediate schoolers are more sociable than middle schoolers, but they are also creatures of unfortunate impulse with the attention span of squirrels and, occasionally, the temperaments of rabid raccoons. 

We start at 8 a.m. with a combustible mix that includes fourth-grade agitator Beetlebomb, his sidekick Hobbestweedle, and their cantankerous classmate Brutus, a notorious firestarter who comes bearing a chip on his shoulder the size of a bank safe. 

Beetlebomb and Brutus are frenemies, so peace occasionally reigns through our first nine or 10 pickups.

Then master of mischief Robespierre climbs aboard followed by Ignatz & The Stooges (his pals Stitch and Satch), a truly “happening” crew. What’s happening is always cause for consternation. Robespierre is an expert pot-stirrer, a master at roiling the masses. The charismatic Ignatz carries himself with a mob boss swagger that is catnip to two older ladies on the bus: fifth-graders Ophelia and Esmerelda

By 8:20, we’ve taken on Jehosaphat, an upstanding fourth-grader (he won’t stay seated) and reliable source of litter. The levels of noise, scuttling, conflict, and hijinks rise dramatically. In this bubbling stew, Petunia and her friends Lucille and Phaedra are huddling in the back while the gals nearest me — PrudenceMaude, Ocarina and Calliope — discuss the natural weirdness of boys. 

At 8:24, behold Freida and Huggins shortly followed by Louie and Louise. All are so polite and well-behaved, they make me weep at the thought that I can’t drive a bus full of them.

Then it’s time to abandon all hope:

Here comes Rollo, arch-nemesis of Brutus and, for that matter, everyone else on the bus. Like Lucifer on my Bubblefish run, Rollo cannot be subdued by threats and punishment. I’m told only tear gas will work. 

By 8:30 the bus is nearly at full boil when we pull into a day care enterprise we’ll call Urchins Amok. It’s here we take on MagnoliaBeatriceHortence Prunella, Josephine, Fescue, Guttersnipe, Bumpus and Stu.

In the afternoon, we’ll haul them and an additional load of rollicking urchins from Helga Poppin back to Urchins Amok. The P.M. crew includes HortonNortonMorton, Thornton and Gordon, interchangeable lads I can’t keep straight because they quickly blend in with each other and the madding crowd the same way that Holly, Molly, Polly, Lolly and Sally do before they all exit 20 minutes later. 

Fortunately, Daisy is memorably whimsical, but Axel and Buster are hard to forget because they distinctively enhance any volatile situation with their brazenness.

Last but certainly not least, we have Pismeyer, primary purveyor of projectiles. If something’s in the air, Pismeyer likely put it there.

Suffice it to say, a trip between Poppin and Amok feels like the longest trek in the history of mankind. It’s truly amazing how much trouble and noise kids can make within the space of a few minutes, and I am often reminded of something the legendary comedian W.C. Fields once said: 

“I like children. If they’re properly cooked.”

The Merciful End

After a morning run, I’m back at the depot by 9 a.m. with time to regroup until my afternoon shift begins at 1:30. Somehow I find the strength to do my pre-and-post-trip inspection paperwork and gas up Tarkus, which will be strewn with crumbs and trash by the time my day mercifully ends by 5.

“Do you get a prize when you go back?” Hobbestweedle asked one day.

“Maybe a hearty handclasp or tearful hug,” I replied.

Driving a school bus. It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.

School Bus Driving 101: The Dreaded Road Test

(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.)

Oh, the queasy anticipation.

I felt fairly confident despite knowing that parallel parking would still be a crapshoot. There was also constant unsettling talk among us trainees about an infamous road test examiner who barked commands and insulting criticism with the intent of rattling all who took the wheel under his curdled gaze. Most of those poor souls failed the test. 

“Pray you don’t get him!” I was told.

The night before my hour of judgment, my trainer offered some advice: Do some touch-up studying. Get a good night’s sleep. Eat a good breakfast. Beseech the deity of your choice.

On a cloudy June morning outside Dutchess Stadium in aptly-named Fishkill, I sighed with relief when I was directed to two pleasant female examiners. After duly impressing them with my knowledge of the crap under the hood, they cut short my soliloquy on the rest of the bus and told me to conduct the static brake test. 

Taking the driver’s seat, I turned the key to right without starting the engine, began pumping the pedal, pushed the parking brake knob in … and was horrified when it refused to stick.

I stabbed at it again. And again. No stick.

“Do you know what you did wrong?” one of the examiners asked as I sat flummoxed.

“If you don’t engage the parking brake first, how will you know if there’s a leak in the system while you pump the pedal?” asked the other.

Fair question.

Somehow, I’d managed to do the static test incorrectly all along without my trainer noticing. The brake knob had merely picked a fine time to finally betray me. So I was sent away to schedule another $40 road test. 

My trainer was gobsmacked. “This has never happened before!” she said.

Taking consolation in having made district history, I went back to the bus yard feeling much shame. The news of my epic failure preceded me.

“What happened?” I was repeatedly asked.

“Brain cramp,” was all I could say.

The rest of the day was fraught with anxiety. The end of the school year was three weeks away. If there were no open test dates until summer, I’d have to wait until fall with no way to practice. Fortunately, there was one date left, across the Hudson River in Kingston.

Two weeks later, in the bright sun outside Dietz Stadium, my examiner turned out to be a grumpy geezer but not the legendary scourge who, rumor had it, had been remanded to sensitivity training.  

I got through the inspections and brake tests without a hitch, but made a heavenly hash of parallel parking. The cones were much smaller and arrayed in a slightly different configuration on an uphill slope, which disoriented me. When I backed into the box, the examiner immediately shouted “Stop!” and threw up his hands in disgust. 

Clambering out of the bus, I saw I’d gone over the side line of cones, but was stunned when he told me to try again. And again. 

Invariably, my back bumper grazed or crossed the side line as I cut into the box. My third attempt left the bus somewhat askew in the box. I climbed out and resigned myself to more ignominy only to be shocked (shocked!) when the examiner groused, “OK, that’s good enough. Let’s go on the road.”

By then, my trainer couldn’t bear to watch anymore and had ducked into a nearby Rite-Aid for a sedative only to be stunned upon emerging to see my bus passing by on the way to the highways and by-ways of Kingston. 

I was instructed where to go and had to call out everything I saw (such as nearby vehicles, signs and signals, pedestrians and other potential hazards). All went well until I failed to call out an overpass. After an agonizingly long wait back at the test site, the examiner returned to the bus and informed me that I would be unleashed upon the public. I very nearly gave him a tearful hug.

I was qualified at last to enjoy all the wonders and aggravations of this noble profession.

How I Got Here: The Deal Behind the Wheel

The horn alarm is blaring in repeated honks. Twenty-five kids are in a panicked uproar. The stench of tracked-in dog doo fills the bus as it sits outside … let’s call it Helga Poppin Intermediate School.

So how did I get here?

(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.)

“Here” is behind the wheel of that unfortunate vehicle, in a state of frazzled despair. For three decades I’d been a writer, editor and website producer at Time Inc. Much of that time was spent at Sports Illustrated For Kids, but catering to urchins has never been one of my ambitions, though I am the father of three and stepfather of one. 

After I was downsized in late 2016, my wife told me that an acquaintance — a driver for a school district near our home in New York’s Hudson Valley — had said her employer needed intrepid souls to man the wheel and would train as well as pay me a modest sum for my suffering.  It seemed like a sensible, practical idea and quite possibly a lot of fun … at the time.

“You couldn’t pay me enough to be a bus driver,” a principal later told a gathering of my new colleagues. 

People, especially teachers and school administrators, often express admiration and amazement at the job we do on a daily basis. I never dreamed I’d end up doing it.

This gig requires you to be part parent, teacher, medic, psychologist, referee, chauffeur, and janitor. Our responsibility for the safety of the children we transport is enormous. Our daily challenges are potentially catastrophic, and we are routinely subjected to the most jarring mayhem and insults that little hellions can dish out while we try to concentrate on not driving into trees, ditches, pedestrians or other vehicles.

Ironically, you couldn’t pay us much less: In the neighborhood of 20 bucks an hour before taxes. Some benefits, such as overtime, health insurance and retirement savings plans, can come with the gig after enough time served.

Then again, we get to enjoy the arts (children shrieking “Baby Shark” and “Old Town Road” off-key) and nature (urchins making loud animal noises) for free. 

In order to gain these privileges, we must get a commercial driver’s license (CDL) for school buses, and pass background checks, random drug tests and yearly physicals. We are fingerprinted and required to get testimonials to our good character from reputable people. We must take physical performance tests and specialized safety courses and train for months in order to pass a road test that enables us to pilot a 40-foot-long, 29,800-pound madhouse. Refresher courses and tests are mandatory.

See: Bus Driving 101 (Training Wheels)

“If you don’t like being around kids, you’re in the wrong business,” we trainees were told. “Some people quit as soon as they find out what’s really involved.”

Small wonder there’s a national shortage of school bus drivers.

So why do we do it?

I must admit I had my doubts about what I was getting into. Despite being a dad with a background in writing for kids, I’ve never really felt comfortable with children other than my own. Driving a bunch of middle schoolers weirdly forced me to revisit one of my earliest terrors.

I was relentlessly picked on in seventh, eighth and ninth grade. Now, 45 years later, I was returning to confront the kinds of bullies who made my life miserable. Would they listen to me or laugh in my face?

Then again, when had my own kids ever listened to me?

Surprisingly, after only a few months I found I actually liked the job despite the best efforts to persuade me otherwise by some of the rascals on my bus.

See: Meet the Hellions

I now have enormous respect for my colleagues in school districts all over the land, many of whom have been driving for years and somehow managed to preserve their sanity as well as their sense of humor.

It was no small task. Here’s to them!