Happiness is a New School Bus … I Think

The biggest surprise I’ve received (so far) in this job of never-ending surprises is a new bus. And not just a new bus. A brand-spankin’-fresh-from-the-factory new bus.

You could have knocked me over with a goose quill when I was told by my boss that I would be one of five drivers to receive one. I’ve only been at this infernal business for four years. Many other pilots where I work have more seniority. Second, I have a reputation as a bus killer.

No matter what wheel I climb behind, the vehicle under it is doomed to die of mechanical failure in short order. Mine have expired on main roads, side streets, a hill, an incline and the bus compound. Doesn’t matter if it’s the brakes, the fuel pump, the starter, the entire engine, the transmission, or some other gizmo, a mushroom cloud of distress is guaranteed to rise shortly after I turn the key. And the problems won’t be easily fixable. It will just be THE END for the bus in question.

SEE: The School Bus Slayer Strikes Again

(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.)

As a newbie in 2018, I was assigned one of the district’s older buses, which I named Tarkus after the half-tank, half-armadillo creature on the cover of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s classic album of the same name. The bus rumbled and bounced like a tank and handled like an armadillo. What’s more, its heat (or lack thereof) was so bad that at least one parent complained about a partially frozen kid. (I actually thought of asking for permission to put a small wood stove in the back.)

And if that weren’t bad enough, the PA failed, leaving me to bellow at my always-unruly passengers.

SEE: Rockin’ the School Bus PA

When Tarkus went to the Big Bus Yard in the Sky after a year or so, I was assigned to a series of vehicles, all of which had at least 100,000 miles on them and some noticeable problems that I made worse by simply being their driver. Our mechanics sighed with despair each time I drove off in one.

So given my killer’s touch, the last thing I expected to get was a sparkling new 2022 International Propane Autogas CE with an 8.8L LP Gen II, 270 horsepower PSI engine, Allison fifth generation transmission (with fuel sense!), SmarTrac hydraulic brakes, electronic stability control, Bendix Wingman Advanced collision sensor system, and that new bus smell.

Turned out that my volunteering to cover after school runs (with often unfortunate results), and my showing up for work each day despite the Covid pandemic, had its rewards. Or so it seemed.

Lemon bus very pretty but the steering wheel has a squeak and the brakes on this darn lemon haven’t lasted me a week. (Apologies to Proctor & Bergman’s song “Lemon Car” sung to the tune of “Lemon Tree.”)

Of the five new buses that came in, four immediately developed bugs. One wouldn’t start for its maiden run because of an electrical issue and it later leaked antifreeze while its rear brakes smoked. A second bus had a front brake that rattled and it, too, later succumbed to the electrical issue. A third had to be towed back to base while out on a school trip. And the fourth developed a roof leak that later appeared in most of the others, including mine, which, like all the others also developed a weird tendency to shed loose screws in various places.

At least mine held up … except for a “check engine” light that came on and stayed on, defying efforts by our mechanics and the dealer’s staff to shut it off. And there was a cord that looked like an electrical plug dangling under the bus one day.

My new ride took some getting used to after my long line of diesel covered wagons. For one thing, the starting procedure required me to turn the key halfway and wait 30 seconds until all the dashboard lights went out. There was a front sensor that suddenly triggered the brakes if it felt I was getting too close to something for its comfort. This came as a bit of a surprise to me and my passengers one day. And the bus proved to be a fuel hog that gets about 12 feet to the gallon, so I had to gas up every day with about 30 gallons even though I was driving about 70 miles.

Oh, it was nice to have good heat and a working PA, though the PA mic was located above me to the left instead of in the dashboard. And when screws started falling out of doors and seats, and one of the fans above the dashboard suddenly came down during a trip, I began to wonder what would go next.

“Has the radio fallen on your head yet?” I was asked by one of my fellow drivers.

I thought she was joking, but then one of our mechanics mentioned that while he was out driving one of the new buses, he hit a bump and the radio came down, narrowly missing his noggin.

“Looks like you just got a bad batch,” one driver suggested, and our mechanic said he thinks the problems are Covid-related: The factory was probably understaffed and under the weather and people were just forgetting to tighten nuts and bolts and stuff.

A lot of good that does us, of course.

SEE: They Ain’t Making Drivers Like They Used To

Meanwhile, kids have christened the nice new floor with gum and the back of a nice new seat with Wite-out. I also discovered that my bus has a roof leak like the others, but I just figure it’s the manufacturer’s newfangled Student Irrigation System designed to keep precious cargo moist and fresh.

I was told that some of other drivers, the ones with more seniority, would likely grumble and even stare daggers at me when they learned that I was getting a new bus and they weren’t. I have tried to reassure everyone that I didn’t ask for my new bus and that they should probably be thankful for their older, more reliable models even if they have a wart or two.

I’ve learned that there are different makes and models out there — we use Internationals and Bluebirds — and they’ve come a long way from the days of manual crank door handles and stick shifts. The bus I’m driving now looks like it’s state of the art, but I can’t help noticing its distinct citrus flavor.

I guess that’s only fitting given my track record. So I drive on, waiting for Tarkus 2 to go belly-up like all the others I’ve ever driven, though it is kind of ironic that this one seems to keep going even though all signs suggest it won’t much longer.

That figures. The one that should be easiest for me to kill isn’t.

The School Bus Slayer Strikes Again

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.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

“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.

Good question.

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.

Well, yes.

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.)

The original Tarkus had its shortcomings.

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.