By Matt Gordon
One can study the Romans and evaluate the Greeks. He can look to the Aztec and the mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke Colony (“I mean, it’s a colony,” fumed the lead investigator. “How’s it just gone!?”). Then there are the Norse Tribes gathering together to vike and the monks they’ll pillage and enslave. The pilgrims fled for freedoms and were harbingers of the end of the freedoms of the American Indian people groups. Cultures come and eras go, but in all the millennia of people being gathered together there has been no more bizarre grouping than that of the 20th century school bus. I’m unsure of the modern practices concerning the transport of the American schoolchild to his or her place of learning, but in my day the whole manner of the thing was a wonderful absurdity, an education all unto itself.
First, when has it ever been a good idea to take sixty children and load them into a space the approximate size and shape of a narrow corridor? I’m not sure about the number sixty either. No one is. Sometimes it was two to a seat, sometimes three; like seatbelts, metrics were entirely absent. A woebegone grown-up may have occasionally sneaked on to get from point A to point B, but never in my bus-riding youth was ever a count taken. Nope, we’d all just pile in—the “all” being a very loose idea of who the group may be. Added to this was that the ages ranged from eighteen to five. A moppet’s primary concern in life to that point could be not using the bathroom in his jeans, yet he’d come home with a full working knowledge of the human anatomy and fluency in profanity.
Comically enough, some bus drivers posted rules up at the front. Things like “No yelling” and “Thou shalt not murder.” Come on, who were they kidding? The inmates were running the asylum. Can you imagine the job description for a school bus driver?
WANTED: Patient adult. Good with kids. A lot of them. Could be anywhere from 30-200—we don’t really count. They will all be contained in a really small, dinny area where every single sound reverberates off all surfaces and magnifies itself tenfold. Oh, and there will be sounds—yelling and flatulence and whistles and screams and cackles and the guesswork playing of brass band instruments, and maybe, depending on the route, the boom and crack of fireworks. You will supervise and mentor these children while operating a 15 ton vessel down narrow roads at 60 miles per hour. Also, you might have to clean up the occasional vomit. References optional.
I mean, the bus driver isn’t even facing the lecherous horde behind her! What a system! What beautiful anarchy!
Oh sure, it wouldn’t begin this way. That initial ride in to school would be fine. Nervous about the first day, kids would sit tidily in their back-to-school clothes thinking about their new teachers and a fresh start. They may even greet the bus driver with a curtsy or formal handshake and introduction. But then the day would demand obedience of them. They binge sugar at lunch only to have it lie dormant in their little veins while they stared, held captive in uncomfortable desks, listening to their new teacher drone on about expectations and homework and whatever else this adult could think to harp at the hibernating heads before her.
Then the final bell would ring like the opening ding of the stock market. Children would fly about in all directions forming makeshift lines for their marked bus—blue diamond #55 or red triangle #13 or hate symbol #8. It resembled the lines formed to board the Titanic. Oh, if only they knew! And this went on at the Elementary School, the Middle School, the Junior High, the State Penitentiary, even the High School—miniature humans shuffling and reshuffling, poking and prodding, waiting, waiting, and awaiting the right bus to take them home. Of course that first day there was always a poor soul or two who boarded the wrong bus. The lucky ones realized it early on—perhaps not seeing their older siblings aboard. But most just rode along, waiting for their home to come into view, yet ending up back at the school with a bus driver who now, added to the first day trauma and flashbacks, had to figure out how to get ahold of this stowaway’s parents.
But the confusion of loading pales in comparison to the actual transit. The bus would depart from school, and all inhibitions were left behind with it. It was one-part Lord of the Flies and one-part The Great Gatsby, a sweaty, grimy version. Kids would yell because they could. They would get in tandem and rock the bus back and forth at stops, disregarding the bellowed threats of the lone adult onboard. Occasionally there would be fights. For these the bus driver would have to pull over—sometimes there was nowhere to pull over and the bus driver had to either throw the hazards on and park in the road or let the fight play out till she could find a flat strip of grass to edge onto. Either way, once the bus was stationary, she’d leap up and wobble back to the fray and rather than two young boys swinging wildly at one another, it became two young boys and a middle-aged woman swinging wildly at one another. The rest of us kids would whoop and holler, and heaven forbid if she left the keys in the ignition.
And don’t even get me started on the black market of trade that went on. Kids traded things from their lunch, baseball cards, toys, stolen goods, and even money for all manner of treasure. Mild forms of prostitution were not unheard of as some Middle School boys would pay a backseat Hester Prynne for a kiss or a flash of her undergarments. It was sultry bedlam.
No one was untouched by the school bus fever, either. I still recall Dustin Thompson, who would a decade later be our High School’s valedictorian, ramming his head repeatedly into his empty hard-plastic lunch box and screaming out the brand of the container, “RUBBERMAID! RUBBERMAID! RUBBERMAID!” The fever had taken him; it got us all.
He was the normal one too. Our family’s home was nestled between two trailer parks out in the country, which means our bus’s capacity didn’t gradually diminish as the route went along. Nope, we’d all pretty much spend 45 minutes together and all disembark in a small four-minute span at trip’s end. This also meant that our bus was absolutely loaded with youthful misfits, all just trying to get home. There was Jacki, who occupied the backseat and was the constant subject of the rumor of promiscuity. There were the Harper twins, quiet and formerly innocent—that is until they took the bus. There was this kid named John who used the time on the bus to attempt to woo my sisters, and once trekked over to our home, uninvited, and jumped on our trampoline thinking the act could somehow bound his way into their hearts. That is the thing—when you rode the bus with someone, they knew where you lived. When this one kid, Stevie, decided to become a peeping Stevie (let’s leave poor Tom out of it for once, yeah?) he chose homes along the bus route. Heck, there may have been a night bus for that sort of thing for all I knew. We also had a 300 lb. kid named Fat Matt. Fat Matt took up residence in the front seat. My first year on the bus I was extremely small, so I was Little Matt and was made to ride with Fat Matt because I was the only one who could fit with him. Between Middle School and Junior High he grew and a seatmate no longer became plausible.
The bus was always hot too. In the winter, the heat blasted relentlessly, the windows all fogged up, and we’d work up a pretty good lather. We’d ask the bus driver to turn the furnace down, but since there was only one setting, it was, like so many things, all or nothing. The backseat kids used the cold as an excuse to cuddle up and the warm as an excuse to shed layers. There wasn’t air conditioning, so the warmer months were like an inferno. We’d open our windows up, but that would only push around the fusion of body odors from the thousands of sweaty bodies and their functions. Of course, farting was a thing. Seldom if ever in life can one let out a tremendous rip in such a crowd without social repercussions. Packed in like sardines though, there were always plenty of culprits to blame. That was actually a daily game that would, like its topic, emanate somewhat organically. The game was called Oh, Who Farted? and would begin by a person presumably farting. Then someone would notice and exclaim: “Oh, who farted!?” (Note: Strategy was a big part of the game. So sometimes the farter would also be the caller to throw everyone off the proverbial scent.) Everyone would then feign choking—or not, depending on the stench of it really—and accuse those around them. To be the farter was a wonderful secret that one, unlike the actual fart, held onto dearly. When this game would commence, all the windows would be thrown opened wildly—you had to pinch both sides and it was almost a certainty that it would get jammed or your finger would get pinched in the process; I think that is why we opened the windows with such wildness, like handling a dangerous animal or weapon. It was good when the windows were opened—sometimes you’d fart just to get it done faster—because then you could play the Throw the Healthy Things from My Lunch Out the Window game. The rules were pretty simple. You’d eat the sandwich and sweets from your lunch at lunchtime. You’d save the other stuff because it was gross and made more dramatic landings. Then, before you got home, you’d throw it out the bus window so your mother wouldn’t find out and limit your sweets the next day. It was easy to transfer this step to the walk from bus to front door, but the windows were a great trigger and it was much more explosive. It also led into another game called Throw Other Things Out the Window. It was nearly impossible to get caught at the game because the bus driver was always negligently focusing on the road and all. Every now and then a kid would vomit on the bus, and that was a game that nobody wanted to play. The bus driver would have to pull over and clean it up. Hey, it was all part of the job description.
My favorite bus driver was the wide-hipped, curly-haired woman named Molly. We didn’t know much about Molly, but she was generally pretty kind and on Halloween she would bring a cooler. As each kid got off the bus, she would wish him or her a Happy Halloween and give them a twelve ounce can of soda. We never gave her anything back, but I think the months that Molly drove our bus that all of us obeyed most of the rules and no one murdered anyone or anything like that. Molly died one night and they called all the homes on the bus list to let the parents know that there would be a new bus driver the next day. We were pretty sad at the news and promised to treat the new bus driver even better, an oath that lasted approximately until we got on the bus the next day. It was a real Romans chapter seven scenario.
The other day I saw a big yellow school bus rollicking about town. With technological advances I’m not sure how the kids behave. Maybe they just play on their devices of choice the whole ride? They may not even play Oh, Who Farted. I’m not sure. But seeing the little heads bounding around on their way to school or home takes me back to the mayhem of those childhood bus rides. All these different people crammed together, laughing and learning and talking and sweating their way through it all. In its absurdity, it brings a wry smile to my face.
All these different people crammed together—and such is life. We’d board up and start loves and fights. We’d bounce along trying to get home, only to light out tomorrow and do it all over again. And while life is quieter and mostly less smelly, isn’t that the way of it? All these different people crammed together, playing meaningless games, just doing their best to find a way home.