7th Period Bus Driver

I initially intended this to be a daily blog, but it hasn’t really panned out that way, has it? Sigh. Seems like it’s always something. I’m tellin’ ya. So in a previous post I was talking about my first foray into the workplace of the 1980s, that is if you consider mowing lawns and almost backing a tractor off a cliff to be a workplace.

I’d say my first real job, at the age of 16, starting training when I was 15, was driving a school bus. People usually just sort of blink when I tell them that, so if you just blinked, that’s perfectly all right.

Yep – beginning at the tender age of 15 years old – my back and leg had been fixed for over a year by this time – I drove a full length 65 passenger school bus. I was actually 16 – I started training for it the summer I turned 16, but I was still technically 15 at the beginning.

As you know, buses can be a little loud, which is why I didn’t hear the instructor the first time he said, “Okay, now stop at the railroad tracks here. School buses have to stop at all railroad tracks.” Well, even though the bus was empty because it was just training, this one didn’t stop. I barreled over the tracks doing 40, the back end bobbing over the rise in the road.

Jesus Christ!! What did I just say??” Okay, that I heard. Oops. But, after a little more training, I eventually realized that you have to follow the rules when you’re driving a school bus.

But wait, I sort of glossed over something there, didn’t I?  Sixteen years old and driving a school bus?? Are you kidding me?

Nope, not kidding. It was called the Student Bus Driver Program. Only two towns in Wyoming and one in Alabama have ever tried it. (Insert obvious hillbilly joke here – it’s okay, I can take it – really.) The idea was that you put a fifteen year old kid through a rigorous three month on the road driver training program, and if he makes it through that without wrecking a bus, you give him a license (a Wyoming school bus driver’s license is notated as a Class BS License. I am so not kidding).

……..and so it came to pass that on the first day of my Junior Year of high school, I deliberately got on the wrong school bus to “ride the route” with a more senior driver to learn how to handle the kids we would be transporting – Kindergarten through 12th Grade. And by “senior driver,” I mean a senior in high school. Plus this got me out of the High School Marching Band, which was my 7th Period class which I had grown to despise, so how could I possibly have said no?

Oh, and I forgot to mention that a lot of the routes were on dirt roads that turned into rivers of mud in the spring and were often blocked by snow drifts in the winter. In other words, take the youngest, most inexperienced drivers, put them in command of a vehicle a little smaller than a Greyhound, and combine this with off-road skills and the very worst that Rocky Mountain weather and road conditions have to offer, and by God, you have the Wyoming Student Bus Driver Program.

Nothing could go wrong here. I can’t understand why this never caught on on a national level.

A funny thing about all of this though. Our town held a school bus driver safety record that was in the top 5% of the entire nation. In fact, when they finally retired the Student Bus Driver Program in 2000, in the years following, the rate of minor accidents involving school buses nearly doubled. We were well trained, young, alert and with quick reflexes, and we had a lot to lose. It has been repeatedly borne out – the three towns that tried this experimental program were all in that top 5% of the nation’s school bus safety record. That says something, it really does. And of course that three months of 8 hours of driver training a day, five days a week, well, that made all of the difference in the world. That might sound excessive, even for such an experimental program, but when you consider the conditions, the need for that kind of training becomes clear.

For the first six months I was a substitute driver, whenever a driver was down for whatever reason, I took the route. Having lived in the town all my life, I was pretty familiar with the roads, which helped a lot.
Finally, halfway through my Junior Year, the guy who ran the infamous Airport Route moved out of town. The bosses were pretty pleased with my performance (half of being a school bus driver, especially for the range of kids from K – 12, is being a crack child psychologist) so they offered me the route. Also, no one else wanted it. I sorta wondered why that was. Ought to be a piece of cake – run up to the airport in the bus, make a few side diversions down a few lanes, back to town on South Flat Road, total piece of cake, right? Sure, until you factor in the canal roads, the weather and the snow, ice and mud, and right angle turns on a single lane onto a homemade bridge whose weight limits had never been measured.

No problem.

In point of fact, to get the bus on to that bridge over the irrigation canal, you had to steer the bus partially into a ditch in as wide a turn as possible, then turn the big steering wheel like the Captain of the Titanic when he first heard the word “Iceberg,” and then hit the gas just enough. Done correctly, the front wheel would make contact with the side of the bridge and gently knock the bus onto the bridge. Done incorrectly, well, you would miss the bridge and either back up (which happened to me just once when I hit the gas a little too hard) or you would get out your swim trunks. I’m just sayin.

But wait there’s more. That was just the bridge. You then had to gun the engine to make it up the hill, then hit the brakes and the red lights on top of the bus as you got to the “Bus Stop In the Middle of Nowhere.”
Of course this part got really interesting in the winter and spring. From the stop there was a long straight and fairly wide dirt road that led to another dirt road that led to a paved but unmarked road, that finally led back to the intersection of Airport and South Flat Roads. Problem was, those pesky snow drifts in the winter that completely blocked the lane, and the fact that the road was a river of mud in the springtime.

Did you know that dual tires (on each side) on your rear axle make halfway decent propellers as long as you keep your momentum up? Oh, you might end up going down the lane diagonally and spewing a plume of mud 15 feet into the air, but details.  And for those pesky snow drifts? Our orders from On High (or were they just high?) were to get up as much speed as possible and ram the drifts with the bus, which was equipped with a heavy duty brush guard (or deer killer as we used to call them) for just such purposes. Did you know that you can throw snow for 30 feet in every direction with the front of a bus?  It turns out that the front of a school bus also makes a fairly decent battering ram. Who knew?

These things I did twice a day, given the season, making me look forward to those precious few weeks in the fall when the roads were dry and my only worry was a right angle turn from a canal road onto a homemade bridge in a 65 passenger bus. I did this for two and a half years, including the 6 months after I graduated that they offered me a route for the seasonal farm workers’ kids. This was when I learned the phrase in Spanish, “Sientece e Silincio!” Roughly translated: “Sit down and shut up!” Or words to that effect, anyway.

I only had two really close calls during that time, which is kind of amazing given the circumstances. And I never once put a scratch on one of the buses (except for that time in training when I relieved a bus of one of its mirrors on a telephone pole, but we won’t count that one). I had brake failures, engine vacuum failures, impossible weather, a kid that peed in the aisle, another one that discovered she was female in a very sudden way, and I think I handled it all with abilities beyond my years at the time, thank you very much.

The two close calls I had both involved things that I just never saw coming. Probably should have, but I didn’t.

The first one was one morning as I came down the hill that led to that intersection of South Flat and Airport Roads. It was a cold, clear winter morning, and the roads were thankfully dry, but the air was cold and moist. I should have been thinking it, I know I should have, but I just wasn’t with a bus load of kids and the worries of my own day ahead on my mind – black ice.

The entire hill was coated with it.

As the bus started down the hill, the rear slid on me and in short order the bus was going down the hill sideways. I knew if we hit dry pavement sliding down the hill sideways like that it would all be over – the bus would flip. I had the wheel cranked hard to the left to keep it in a sideways slide instead of going into a 360 spin, which would not have ended well. I’m not sure exactly how I managed what I did at the bottom of that hill, and I wouldn’t want to try to repeat it. As she got to the bottom, out of nothing but instinct, I down shifted into 3rd and tapped the air brakes. This caused the tail to spin uphill, which was right where I wanted it. With the bus straightened up, I quickly shifted up into 5th gear to slow her down without braking by intentionally bogging down the engine and brought the wheel around hard right as we hit the intersection (there is a stop sign at the bottom of that hill, but that day that sign may as well have been a billboard for the town’s A&W, for all of the attention I intended to pay it ,given the circumstances). I tapped the air brakes again to put another spin on the tail, back the way she had started, and hit Airport Road in a controlled skid that ended with the bus going straight down the road.

There were 70 children on the bus that morning, and you could have heard a pin drop.

Then someone started clapping, followed by everyone on the bus. I never told them that luck had played a very large part in what had just happened. And I never forgot that morning, nor will I ever.

The second close call happened on that canal road leading to the homemade bridge. The road was muddy and slick, with a steep ditch on the right and the canal on the left. As I hit one particularly soupy mud hole, I didn’t realize that the mud hole had formed a small sinkhole in the road and was about two feet deep (filled with muddy water, of course). The front axle splashed and ground its way in and back out again of the hole out of momentum, but the rear axle sank to the chassis in the mud and stayed there.  After placing pounds of tree branches under the rear wheels for traction and rocking the bus back and forth, I managed to get the bus out of its trap, but as it pulled free the mud-coated tires couldn’t find purchase and slid onto the grassy embankment of the canal. I stopped. The more I hit the gas, the further the bus started to slide ass-first into the canal. I set the parking air brake, put it in gear to stop the wheels, and shut off the engine. Fairly sure the bus was going in to the canal regardless, I got everyone off the bus – about 10 kids at this point in the route. Then I tried to get the Bus Barn on the radio.

The oldest of the ten kids volunteered to walk everyone home – they all lived less than a mile from our position. He was 13, and I decided that this was a reasonable plan, and agreed. (I later got in trouble for this decision because an irate mother declared that “a mountain lion could have eaten my children,” but I guess you can’t please everyone all the time. I thought, and still do, that I made the right decision.

Now I just had to worry about the bus. There I was, standing  ankle deep in the mud, looking at a bus that was about to become a wreck, and feeling helpless to do anything about, comforted only by the fact that at least I had gotten everyone off safely.

At that point a field hand came bouncing along in a four wheel drive truck (the bus was still blocking the road) and asked me what the problem was. I told him the problem was that any input at all from the driver’s seat caused the bus to slide further backward. He then offered to get the bus out for me. I figured at this point, what did I have to lose? I still couldn’t get anyone on the radio. If I didn’t let him try the bus would slide in and I’d get fired. If I let him try and he failed, the bus would slide in and I’d get fired. If he tried and succeeded, then no one ever needed to know.  So, I agreed, and he got behind the wheel, and backed up!

But, as he backed up, he cranked the wheel hard, giving one of the rear tires purchase on the road, and also lessening the bus’s angle of attack relative to the road. He then pulled the bus straight out onto the road.

Now why didn’t I think of that?  Since the bus was sliding backwards into the canal, the last thing that would have crossed my mind was to back up. In this case, it was the only thing that could have, and luckily for me, did, save the bus. I guess it just goes to show that sometimes the best solution is the one that seems the most counter-intuitive at the time.

Like I said, in two and a half years of driving a school bus in conditions that would make grown men think twice, I only had those two close calls, and they both worked out in the end, even if I wasn’t sure how.
Later, after I moved to Sacramento, I drove a 45 ft bobtail (like the largest U Haul truck there is) on a night shift to work my way through college, and the foreman wanted to know how I learned to handle a truck so well for my age – he told the shop boss I didn’t need any training that I already drove the truck as well as he did.

I just smiled, and said he wouldn’t believe me if I told him.

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