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.

School Bus Life Lessons: This Job’s No Joke

Of the many things I’ve learned from driving a school bus, one really stands out: This job can humble you in a heartbeat.

Plenty of things can go wrong. Many are not the driver’s fault, but some are, like getting lost in thought and missing a stop.

SEE: Zoning Out Is Not the Way to Go

Or losing your cool with kids. Or doing something silly and looking like a fool. I know all about that one.

You see, ever since I was a kid I’ve had a mischievous streak a mile wide, so I have a devil of a time resisting the temptation to do things like making, shall we say, offbeat remarks over the two-way radio.

(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.)

I hear playful banter between drivers all the time, but I started cracking wise after I heard their announcements while they were backing out of their parking spaces in our compound. The mischief wheels in my mind immediately started spinning and one day I just blurted, “For your entertainment pleasure, 631 is backing out of space 90.”

I immediately felt ashamed of myself, but when no one said anything to me, I kept going.

A stream of similar messages followed. Stuff like: “631 backing up and bound for glory” and “631 backing up . . . but not indefinitely. I hope to stop at some point.”

I was also inspired by another driver who, when asked by our dispatcher how many kids he had on board, replied, “I don’t know. I’d say somewhere between seven and nine.” So I began commenting about the challenges of the job: “631 backing out of space 90 to suffer the little children.”

I’ve been told by some of my fellow drivers that they get a kick out of my announcements and even listen for them. Of course, that only eggs me on, increasing the urge to turn my bus into my own personal comedy club. As it is, I say bizarre things over the PA, such as informing kids who are complaining about someone’s rather noticeable fart that state law requires at least one such emission per trip so the bus does not run out of gas.

SEE: School Bus Life’s a Gas

These vocal gateway drugs led to drawings and messages in the dust on the back door of my bus.

A self-portrait.

But I’ve learned the hard way that it helps to remember that humor, like beauty, is in the eye (and ear) of the beerholder. Not everyone finds me amusing and they’ve let me know by erasing my dust messages or scrawling, “Wash your bus!” over them.

Even worse, it’s usually after I’ve said something goofy that I immediately do something embarrassing — like missing a turn, having to go miles out of my way, and arriving late at a school. Or a discipline situation arises, my video is pulled, and I end up under a microscope. I’ve been told that some school officials will watch the video of an entire trip and not just the incident in question in order to make sure the driver is not somehow at fault. So I’ve sweated out a few reviews.

SEE: The School Bus Camera’s Eyes Have Seen It All

The problem with trying to be a comedian is you can be a very conscientious driver but joking makes you sound like your mind is elsewhere and you don’t take the job seriously. This is a job that demands concentration and must be taken seriously. Plus you clutter the radio with inane chatter when drivers and the dispatcher need everything on it to be important, clear, concise, and not a distraction.

I’ve been left red-faced by our dispatcher saying, “We don’t need to hear this!” while I merrily prattled during a busy time on the radio. After I declared that it was “Time for today’s exciting episode of Assigned Seat Roulette, so let’s meet today’s contestants!” I was curtly and coldly informed by our former head mechanic that everyone, including the big bosses, can hear me and there is a very real need to remain strictly professional.

Gulp.

Clearly, I need to engage my brain before I put my mouth in “drive.”

You’d think I would have learned my lesson after four years behind the wheel. But you would be wrong. I’ve been chastened, and I’m very careful about picking my spots and not becoming an annoyance. But when volunteering to help out with after-school runs even though I tend to not know the routes (with predictable results), I’ll still say whatever pops into my head, such as: “631 to base. My luxury vehicle is empty and available for misguided tours of Greater New England” or “Bus 631 is now available for salvage operations, birthdays, bar mitzvahs and other social events.”

SEE: Great Misadventure: A Salute to Relief Drivers

I really do have to be very careful about letting my inner child out. This is a job that requires a responsible adult and it will quickly remind me when I am not being one.

School Bus Driving 101: Learning From Mistakes

Some days in this gig you can feel like an athlete having a miserable game. Try as you might, you can’t do anything right.

You keep hitting the curb when you make a right turn. You cut off other vehicles or run a light (especially with a cop in your rearview mirror) that you thought would stay yellow until you at least got through the intersection. You forget to signal for a turn or trigger your amber flashers or turn them off, or close the door before you start to roll.

(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.)

It was always something, and it’s the bus driving equivalent of having toilet paper stuck on your heel at a black tie event. It’s embarrassing to have other drivers radio (everyone can hear) or signal you by pointing at something wrong (like your lights) or to have your head bus driver secretly following you in her car while all this wonderment is taking place. You don’t want to get the dreaded “See me” call on the radio.

See: The Dreaded Road Test

When a new stretch of road was added to one of my runs, I just couldn’t get it right for the first week. I kept messing up crossing one girl by approaching her house too damned fast (it always seemed to come up sooner than expected) and having to hit the brakes. Then I’d forget to open the door (which triggers the red flashers and stop signs) before I crossed her, or I’d stab at the door button on the steering wheel but the door wouldn’t open while she stood there waiting.

A change of bus has a way of bedeviling me. Tarkus, my regular ride, has a button in the back to deactivate the no-student-left-behind alarm. While Tarkus was in the shop for a week or two, the replacement required lifting the back door handle instead. When I finally got Tarkus back, I forgot about the difference, lifted the handle instead, and the alarm went off with a repeated blaring of the horn outside Bubblefish Middle School that morning and again in the bus yard that afternoon.

Nothing like a little spectacle to attract attention to your shortcomings …

For some reason, it always happens at a school.

My biggest lulu of a screw-up was when my two-way radio fritzed out as I began my afternoon run from Helga Poppin Intermediate. Robespierre and Guttersnipe, two of my most “challenging” riders, were at each other’s throats and the full bus was the usual nuthouse. While trying to fix the radio, I sailed past a turn for Fiends ‘n Fun Day Care, where I was to unload about a third of my precious cargo.

Bedlam ensued.

“You missed the turn!” the student body cried.

With my PA out as well, all I could do was yell in vain, “I know! We’re going back!” But by then Guttersnipe was crying (he’d been hit in the nose by Snodgrass, who’d gotten in on the action). Mortimer was in tears too because of the unexpected break in his routine. (For all he knew I was hijacking all of them to parts unknown).

With my radio out, I couldn’t call base to explain and didn’t want to stop and use my phone because the bus was too noisy. I just kept dropping off tearstained kids, and two parents called the office to complain. Near the end of the run, Hobbestweedle started singing “Baby Shark” to complete my mental torture.

The next day I was called on my boss’s carpet to explain. He was actually amused and he reminded me that Fiends ‘n Fun is in a big building that’s hard to miss.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

I’ve never missed that turn since. Nor have I failed to look both ways multiple times after nearly having an accident. The morning sun was in my eyes and the intersection seemed quiet, but there are bushes down the road on the left and cars can appear suddenly, which is what happened. The driver then cut me off, stopped, got out and asked “You got kids on board?” When I sheepishly nodded, he snapped a photo of my bus and left.

To my astonishment, he didn’t call my boss.

The worst way to learn from your mistakes is by nearly hurting a kid. One of the biggest challenges is concentrating while picking up or dropping them off, especially if you have to cross them. One day I was distracted by Prudence asking me questions and I crossed Robespierre without triggering my reds. (The master switch was off.)

Then there was the time Oswald suddenly disappeared in front of my bus. He’d stopped to tie his shoelaces. Fortunately, I was watching him while Ocarina and Lucille chatted me up, but you just never know what a kid will do.

Another time, I was distracted by a blizzard of requests and popped the parking brake, intending to roll. Thankfully Prudence cried out from the seat behind me, “Wait! Calliope is still there” in front of us.

Those times really drove home that nothing matters more than focus. Thankfully I’ve not made mistakes like that again.

As one of my sage colleagues said after telling me of the time she sang loudly off-key without realizing her two-way mic was on, “You only need to make some mistakes once.”