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Fortunately, a teacher was on hand, checking on a lad who was in tears because his beloved regular bus driver had been replaced by my grizzled, forbidding presence.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.

Help! I Can’t Stop Doing the School Bus Driver Wave!

“Mr. John, why do you always wave at other bus drivers?”

Good question! Kids often ask me that one, along with “What are all those switches for?” and “Do you like driving a bus?”

“We’re just saying ‘Hi’,” I explain after I’ve exchanged waves with another driver passing us in the opposite direction. “We’re like a family.”

And like a family we share the Four Cs: camaraderie, concerns, cares and conflict.

(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.)

We are always crossing paths — on the road, in the bus yard, the key room, the garage, the dispatcher’s quarters, the head bus driver’s office, or the boss’s woodshed. Interestingly, I was warned to stay out of the driver’s lounge except for a quick trip to the wee-wee room or the vending machine because it’s a hotbed of gossip and sour gripes. Interestingly, that warning came from the person who urged me to apply for a job where she worked.

“It’s a great place,” she said. “You’ll love it!”

See: How I Got Here: The Deal Behind the Wheel

I was there barely a month before she started grousing, “This place sucks! I can’t wait to get out of here!”

She’d been there for years. Maybe I ruined it for her? But during my entire working life I’ve avoided watercooler talk, so I try to mind my own bidness and follow the command on the sign above our dispatcher’s desk: COME IN, DO YOUR JOB, GO HOME.

I do enjoy my job and my colleagues. The vast majority of them, anyway.

Unfortunately, in today’s insanely strained political environment, people fall out at the proverbial drop of a hat. I’ve been snubbed by a few co-workers I once got along with, but (so far) they haven’t let the air out of my tires or tried to run me off the road, so I’m still ahead of the game.

Wave On, Brothers and Sisters!

I often exchange waves with drivers who are not from the same district or company. We also offer each other courtesies, like stopping, turning our hazards on, and letting a bus turn onto a busy street if there’s a break in the traffic that will save them time.

Piloting a yellow madhouse is a brotherhood/sisterhood and we appreciate what each other does every day. It’s a challenging, demanding and often thankless gig I liken to trying to control a herd of crazed weasels and a 29,800-pound vehicle as you drive over Niagara Falls on a rickety bridge while folks complain about you.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

I confess that early in my illustrious career, I felt snubbed if my wave wasn’t returned. Oh, I realized that the driver may simply have been focused on something other than my jolly gesture, but it still felt like when your Facebook post gets no likes even from friends, family or your friendly vicar.

Now there’s the weird feeling of realizing that I just waved at someone who doesn’t particularly like me, but I can’t stop. I’ve developed a habit born of one wave after another, especially when a long line of buses is going by me.

I wave at everything now, even when I’m behind the wheel of my car. If an oncoming vehicle is big it automatically gets a waggle of my hand. It’s become a reflex .

In one of my prouder moments ferrying urchins to school, I waved and suddenly realized it was a beer truck passing us, not a bus.

“Oh, dear, that doesn’t look good,” I muttered, looking around to see if anyone had noticed.

Well, the on-board camera did, but if anyone asks about it I think I have a pretty good excuse.

Grunt Work: Greetings Can Be A Chore

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 “Enjoy the rest of your day” as our precious cargo boards or departs our buses.

(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 I get no response or perhaps — if I 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!” at me before she exits. 

Some will thank you for your suffering on their behalf. Some actually say they feel sorry for me. “Good luck,” I’ve been told more than once by a student as he or she leaves my hopelessly raucous bus.

And, oddly enough, in the wake of the COVID pandemic, the kids I drive have been strangely polite and I’m hearing “Hello” and even “Thank you” fairly often. A side effect of the bug, perhaps?

Even the coldest ragamuffins warm up at least a bit during the course of a school year as they become familiar with you, but I’ve found that you can’t take the silent types 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.

See: They Ain’t Making School Bus Drivers Like They Used To

Being a mere mortal, I found this consolation to be a thin emotional gruel during my first year behind the wheel. 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 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 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 just accused them of a high crime or told them an alligator is loose on the bus.

When I greeted Oswald, a fretful third grader, one morning he suddenly locked his horrified stare 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 put on 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.

See: How I Won the Garbage War

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

One afternoon at Helga Poppin Intermediate 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 waved it in my face. 

“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 a blast to be acknowledged and know you’re appreciated.