Unreliable Sources: Directions and School Bus Tall Tales

One of the charming things about our precious cargo, is that they often want to assist us in our daily rounds.

Lifting the rear door handle or pushing a button to deactivate the bus alarm after arriving at school is seen as a great privilege by the younger ones. Beetlebomb, one of my noisiest and most “active” fifth-graders, redeems himself by informing me whenever I’ve left my flashing amber lights on. Other kids happily serve as spies for the sake of maintaining discipline.

See: The Rat Patrol

(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.)

Of course, there are times you need them to help and they can’t, especially wide-eyed kindergartners who stare or shrug when you need directions and ask them where they live. Sometimes even older kids can’t tell you.

One day a teacher brought a sixth-grader to my bus and said, “He doesn’t know where he’s going. Let me give you his address. He doesn’t speak any English.”

Oh, goody.

I at least knew the way, but he had to get off at the end of a street I couldn’t go down and just walked away. Naturally, the next morning he wasn’t at his stop. I can only assume he got home.

“If he didn’t, you probably would have heard by now,” my wife says.

But I’ve learned (the hard way) to be skeptical of the information my passengers provide.

For instance:

They’ll say someone isn’t on the bus and then yell that they are … as soon as I’ve passed or pulled away from the kid’s stop. Beetlebomb, who seems to be up on everyone’s business, tells me when someone won’t be needing a ride on any given day. Sometimes he’s right.

“He went in early for chess club,” he’ll say as we approach Hobbestweedle’s house in the morning. But one day he claimed that Hobbestweedle had a dentist appointment and it turned out that he was merely late getting down his long, winding driveway to our pickup point. The lad was left behind to his mother’s, and my, dismay.

Live and learn … to take anything you are told with a grain of sodium chloride. Which is why I didn’t freak out the morning Brutus and Robespierre yelled from the back, “Hey, Mr. John! Beetlebomb is dead!”

“Well, that will keep him quiet until we get to school,” I cooly replied over the PA.

See: Now Hear This — Rocking the School Bus PA

Those kids, they’re always joking.

The Big Three: Robespierre, Beetlebomb and Brutus

The infamous Robespierre, one of the most rambunctious of intermediate school hellions, got everyone’s hopes up when he announced that he was moving to Arizona. I thought it was too good to be true, but when was gone for a few days I dared to believe though I wondered why our router hadn’t told me he’d been taken off my run sheet.

Then Robespierre showed up one morning with a big grin on his face and turned the grin on mine upside down.

Like Charlie Brown convinced that Lucy will actually let him kick the football, I also bought into Brutus (one of Robespierre’s partners in crime) informing me one Friday afternoon, “This is my last trip on your bus.”

“I’m sure you’ll make it a memorable one,” I said.

“I’ll be taking another one. My mom says you get me home too late.”

“Did you tell her that might be because you keep forcing me to pull over and make you sit down and be quiet?” I asked with a flinty squint.

See: The Roadside Lectures Roll On

Lo and behold come Monday morning Brutus wasn’t on and I rejoiced.

Turned out he was only riding in the afternoons. I thought I’d have a good cry but there was an unexpected blessing: Rollo, yet another rider of ill repute, was removed from my bus and assigned to a small one after repeated scrapes with Brutus and others.

A few days later I learned from Rollo’s new driver that Brutus was being added in the afternoon. Apparently, his mom had prevailed in her request to have her dear, sweet son delivered to her door more promptly.

I could only chortle at the thought of how thrilled Ol’ Brutus would be to find out he’s been reunited with his nemesis Rollo (I had to keep them separated) and that he will actually be getting home later because Rollo’s stop adds time to the new driver’s run.

I must confess that sometimes I can’t resist turning the tables, like when I had my riotously flatlulent middle schoolers convinced that state law requires at least one fart on the bus per trip.

See: School Bus Life’s a Gas

One morning after my “lively” crew was surprisingly quiet, I told them over the PA as we pulled up to Helga Poppin Intermediate School, “Hey, great ride today, people! I didn’t have to call in the National Guard or change anyone’s seat!”

“He’s pranking us!” I head someone say.

“It’s April Fool’s Day!”

It wasn’t and I wasn’t. Truth is, there are times when I can use the Guard’s help. Maybe some of my well-behaved riders will enlist some day.

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.