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.

School Bus Driving 101: Training Wheels

(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.)

In February 2018, I began my new endeavor in child trafficking at the wheel of a white Dodge Grand Caravan, chauffeuring a lone eighth-grader. Meanwhile I trained on a 40-foot bus for three months.

Under the watchful and sometimes amused gaze of a seasoned, sage, and blessedly patient colleague, I and several other recruits spent at least two hours a day three days a week learning to navigate streets, make pick-ups and drop-offs, traverse railroad crossings, parallel and offset park, and inspect a bus inside and out, from under the hood to the back bumper.

My first time behind the wheel felt like I was driving a building. I’d handled a 24-foot RV on a family trip around the West and actually parallel-parked it on a hilly street in San Francisco. But that was 14 years earlier. Eventually, the bus began to feel smaller though it was impressed upon me that that its long tail must never be forgotten when turning lest it give anything nearby a hearty whack and lovely scrape.

Practice sessions were conducted in local parking lots. The parallel and offset drills in a course of red traffic cones typically resulted in great frustration and occasional hilarity. One poor soul had a devil of a time deciding when to stop and nearly deposited the bus in a large bush.

The trick was learning to use the five rearview mirrors, each offering a different perspective and proportion. Parallel and offset parking meant aligning particular tires to particular cones before cutting the wheel left or right and then straightening it while slowly, continually backing up until coming to a stop. The object is to keep the bus from going over the back or side lines and end up reasonably straight within a ridiculously small, narrow box o’ cones. 

I’m proud to say I quickly mastered the art and science of running over the cones, which often got wedged between the rear tires. Some days, though, I could do no wrong and I chortled with overconfidence. Other days, I could do no right and reduced my instructor to quiet weeping.

In the face of these daunting daily challenges, I fortified myself with the knowledge that once I passed the dreaded road test and acquired my B license, I would likely never again be required to attempt these maddening parking maneuvers.

Mean Streets and Tough Brakes

While out on the road scattering pedestrians, we were routinely instructed to attempt the most hair-raising hairpin turns, snaky traffic circles and tight traffic situations without hitting the curb … or anything else. Threading the bus between a large oak and a mail truck on a narrow street while encountering an oncoming car whose driver was not inclined to back up didn’t do much for my nerves, but it prepared me for the worst.

Beyond the dreaded road test, drivers must perform daily interior inspections of the seats, doors, roof hatches, exit windows, steps, handrail, wipers, signals, lights, horn and steering wheel. Then comes the ceremonial reading of the dashboard gauges and the brake tests. 

The static variety of test involves engaging the parking brake by pushing in a yellow knob on the dashboard and briskly pumping the brake pedal to release air pressure. Once the psi drops from 120 to 90, a beeping alarm goes off. At 60, a little red stop sign called a wig-wag descends in front of you. At that point, you turn the engine on and, if all goes well, something called the governor restores air pressure to 120 and silences the alarm.

Exterior inspections require eyeballing about 40 items including the mirrors, lights, reflectors, tires and rims, whether the bus is listing to port or starboard (not good), and if there are any puddles underneath that would suggest a leak of some kind. We spent an inordinate amount of time on things we’d never be asked to do outside of our dreaded road test, mainly correctly identifying at least 21 of the more than 50 gizmos, flywheels, filters and hoses under the hood, as well as parts of the brakes and suspension. 

“It was never like this,” an old timer told us. “All you had to know how to do was drive. Now the state wants a lot more. I think they’re trying to discourage people from getting CDLs because they want to switch to self-driving buses.” 

If so, those buses don’t know what they’re in for.

Actually, it’s the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that now requires us to know our Pitman arm from our castle nuts, but the school district forbids us to raise the hood again after our dreaded road test. The engine is the realm of trained professional mechanics, though drivers are required to monitor 70 parts of the bus and file daily written reports on their working condition or lack thereof.

While not on the job, and perhaps even while sleeping, I constantly muttered “properly mounted and secured” and “belt driven or gear driven” as well as “ABC for rubber parts: abrasions, bubbles, cracks and cuts” and “BBC for metal: bent, broken, cracked or corroded” – the mnemonic mantras for the dissertation parts of the dreaded road test. 

Eventually, I memorized it all and got cocky. 

“The Pitman Arm was invented in the mid-1800s by George Washington Pittman, a railroad engineer in northern Alabama,” I brassily intoned to my fellow trainees during one of my last rehearsals for what would be a thoroughly humbling experience.

See: The Dreaded Road Test

School Bus Driving 101: Shake Hands With Slack Adjusters and Livestock

(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.)

Getting a CDL seemed simple enough. Until I got into the process. 

The first step was landing a permit for a Class B (bus) license with S (school bus) and P (passengers) endorsements. So off I went to my friendly Department of Motor Vehicles in Poughkeepsie. After forking over $22.50 to the requisite scowling clerk, I was told I needed to pass three written tests.

I spent a fretful month scowling at nine sections and 132 pages-worth of the New York State Commercial Driver’s Manual, filling my spinning skull with the intricacies of air brakes, hauling cargo (including livestock, which, it turns out, was quite apropos), and emergency evacuations.

“What’s taking so long?” my wife kept asking as the weeks rolled by and I continued to scribble copious notes in preparation for my day of reckoning. “Anyone can drive a bus! Our kids’ driver wasn’t a rocket scientist!”

“I have no experience with this stuff and there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye,” I kept replying. “Did you know that if a brake’s slack adjuster moves more than one inch where the push rod is attached, it probably needs adjustment?”

“So do you. Hurry up!”

Much to my relief, I passed the tests, oddly acing the air brakes and passenger safety parts while muffing several questions on the basic rules of the road for all drivers. I was also chuffed to pass a required state physical, actually managing to provide evidence of a pulse. I then strong-armed three former colleagues and/or friends to vouch for my character in writing and applied for a gig at what I shall call Fishmeal Falls Central School District. 

The main advantage to the approach I took to getting my CDL is that, if hired, I’d be paid while I trained for my bus road test, a substantial savings over the driving school route, which can run well over $1,000. But getting hired, aye, there’s the rub.

“So you want to drive a school bus, eh?” one of the Fishmeal Falls Transportation Department’s directors asked during my interview. “Why?”

As a refugee from the wonderful world of media, I felt like an odd duck, but other applicants had also washed up on the shore of bus driving after being cast adrift by big corporations. I explained that I enjoyed driving and had a passing familiarity with children, being the father of three and stepfather of one who were the basis of a family humor column I wrote for the Poughkeepsie Journal for 16 years (and now available in my book “The Goose In The Bathroom”). No stranger to challenges and aggravation am I, sir!

The glad tidings of my hiring came in a phone call cheerfully informing me that I’d been scheduled for a physical performance test at the Fishmeal Falls bus compound. It involved huffing and puffing up and down bus steps three times in 30 seconds, racing from the driver’s seat out the rear emergency door in 20 ticks, and dragging a 125-pound sack 30 feet in 30.

Being in Pillsbury Doughboy shape and possessing a morphine addict’s reflexes, I trained like I was facing an audition at the NFL Scouting Combine. I stomped up and down my porch steps and hauled bags of sand around my driveway for a week. The actual test turned out to be far less taxing than toting the folders full of regulations, district procedures and employee conduct manuals I was given.

Next step: Coughing up $104 for the privilege of being fingerprinted. Then it was time to learn how to pilot a bus without terrorizing the community.

FUN BUS REGULATIONS TO KNOW AND TELL

1. Combustible materials are not to be carried in the passenger compartment (17 NYCRR 721.4A 8). Apparently, this does not apply to temperamental children.

2. Not withstanding the provisions of any law to the contrary, every driver of a motor vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any bicyclist, pedestrian or domestic animal upon any roadway and shall give warning by sounding the horn when necessary (VTL 1146). The laws to the contrary must be interesting. 

3. No driver of a vehicle shall sound the horn when approaching or passing a horse on a public highway (VTL 1146 a3). Carrots are much safer and more effective.

4. Fuel tanks shall not be filled while pupils are in the bus (8 NYCRR 156.3 d5). A vehicle shall not be fueled while the engine is running and no smoking or flames shall be permitted in or about the vehicle during fueling operations and until all fumes are dissipated. (17 NYCRR 721.4A 7). The days of cigar-chewing drivers pumping gas while students enjoy a butt have been legislated, if not blown, out of existence.

5. No person shall operate a motor vehicle without having at least one hand or, in the case of a physically handicapped person, at least one prosthetic device or aid on the steering mechanism at all times when the motor vehicle is in motion (VTL 1226). Rest assured that the “Look Ma, no hands!” style of driving is frowned upon in respectable states and school districts.

6. Drivers, monitors and attendants shall not allow pupils to enter or leave the bus while it is in motion (8 NYCRR 156.3 d1). Although we’d occasionally like to do so, especially the leaving part. Alas, our requests for ejector seats are routinely denied.

7. Drivers, monitors and attendants shall not allow pupils to thrust their heads or arms out of open windows (8 NYCRR 156.3 d3). As much as we’d sometimes like to thrust certain pupils out of open windows …

8. Drivers shall not exceed a maximum speed limit of 55 miles per hour on any road within or outside of New York State while their school bus is being used for the transportation of pupils. The 55 mph limit applies to any size bus as well as Suburbans, Grand Caravans and school cars when kids are on board even if the posted limit is greater than 55. Nothing — and I mean nothing — shall prohibit a school district from imposing a more restrictive speed limit policy. Tailgating to goose us along is futile!

9. Drivers, monitors and attendants shall check the vehicle to ensure that no child is left behind on board unattended at the conclusion of the school bus route (8 NYCRR 156.3 e4). This one was apparently the goal of the national No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

10. Every motor vehicle with a seating capacity of more than seven passengers, and used primarily to transport pupil or pupils and teachers to and from school, shall be painted the color known as “national school bus chrome” (VTL 375.21). Now you know what that shade of yellow is called.

Fun Popular Myths About Bus Laws & Regulations to Know and Tell

1. A bus ride cannot exceed one hour. No law restricts the length of a student’s bus ride, although the State Education Department recommends a one-hour maximum when possible. Unfortunately, many rides feel much longer than an hour … usually to the driver.

2. Bus drivers could be sued if a child isn’t wearing a seat belt in an accident. School bus drivers and attendants are protected from liability so long as belts were available and in working order, and all other laws and local policies were complied with. Unfortunately, most children refuse to acknowledge the presence of seats, so lots of luck getting them to use the belts for anything other than smacking each other with the metal latches or connecting them to form tripwires across the aisle.

3. Bus drivers over 65 (or 70) need more frequent physicals than younger drivers. The same standards apply to old farts as whippersnappers. Any driver can be required to undergo additional tests, due to specific medical issues, but not based on how many rings are in their trunk.

4. School buses must make a full stop at yield signs, regardless of traffic conditions. No state law or regulation requires school buses to routinely stop at all yield signs. And we still refuse to make a right turn on red no matter how long you lean on your horn or wave your middle finger. 

5. Emergency vehicles do not have to stop for a school bus’s flashing lights. There are no statutory exceptions, but school bus drivers should make every effort to allow emergency vehicles to pass. Everyone must stop unless they’d like five points tacked on their license and their wallet relieved of at least $250.