Sunday, September 18, 2011

Whither, Bus 0?


When my family moved from Corpus Christi to Fort Worth in early 1965, I was in heaven. Most people (including my entire family) loved the beach (I do too, now). As an 8 year old who had to get two allergy shots in each arm each week and keep an oxygen bottle hanging around in order to breathe—no idea what I was so allergic to; the doctors did one of those “scratch tests” all over my back and determined that I was allergic to over 100 things; they decided it was “mold”—I wasn’t so fond of Corpus or the beach. Fortunately for me, whatever it was in 1964 no longer seems to be an issue to me, I can go to the beach with the best of ‘em. Of course, now little kids point at me and say, “Look, Mommy, it’s Shamu!” But, I digress (as I so frequently do on here).

In any event, there we were one Sunday afternoon, living in Corpus, with an enormous grapefruit tree in the lush, tropical back yard (I hate grapefruit; my family loves it; now I once again have a grapefruit tree—not quite so enormous—in my back yard in Houston, and I still hate grapefruit), 5 blocks from Ocean Drive, playing with the new beagle puppy while Dad put the finishing touches on his workbench, when the phone rang. It was Dad’s old boss, Mr. Foster, telling Dad he had a big promotion waiting for him—in Ft. Worth, Texas. Starting immediately.

Two weeks later, we were living in the StarLight Motel in Ft. Worth while Dad worked and Mother frantically looked for a house (pouring rain, a screaming 2 year old, a whiny 8 year old, a less-than-fully-house-trained beagle puppy and Grannie, all in the same motel room; the search was, indeed, “frantic”). Ft. Worth was then and is now tied to the defense industry; when war is hot, so is Ft. Worth real estate. Mother managed to find a house almost “out in the country”, an enormous mid-century modern ranch-style house slung low across the crown of a hill, on Boat Club Road featuring a spectacular view of Lake Worth. (Our life in that house is another blog post; sagging walls, a plane crash, the saga of Tom the Cat, Mother’s new puppies, a lightning strike that caused the telephones to light up and dance with sparks flying, septic tank backup, UFO sighting, meteor shower, fire, and me swinging in the tire swing wearing my football helmet because the mother scissortail whose nest was in the tree didn’t appreciate my swinging). Mother thought she was getting Lake Worth (a good school district); unfortunately, she didn’t check quite closely enough. Boat Club Road was the dividing line and we were on the Saginaw side.

Saginaw is now a good school district; the town itself, then a sleepy ranch community, is now a prosperous and full-fledged suburb. In 1965, though, it was the sticks—and I had to ride the school bus. This was a whole new concept for me. We had always lived a block away from my schools. Now I was to ride the bus over 10 miles of arid North Texas prairie to the school (which, at the time, had an elementary, junior high, and high school on the same campus, just different buildings).

As with most things, I adapted.

If you’ve never ridden a school bus, the first thing you should know is that it has a distinctive smell. Kind of like the men’s locker room (sox, jox, soap and water), the boys’ dorm (sox, jox, and the aroma of “boy”), the girls’ dorm (10,000 different varieties of perfume and makeup), and the library (paper, glue, dust, and mold), school buses have their own unique and distinct aroma, instantly and forever memorable. As I recall, the odor was a piquant blend of part unwashed human, part peanut butter sandwich, part number two pencil, part upchuck, and part poopy, with a slight overlay of gasoline, exhaust, and burnt brakes.

We were assigned bus routes, and had a designated place to wait. We didn’t always have the same bus or driver; they switched around some, but mostly it was the same. We’d all line up (at least moderately) obediently, waiting for the huge yellow bus to wheel up and take us home.

Saginaw had a variety of buses; the area had begun to grow, the tax base had increased, and they were keeping the Ward School Bus Company of Conway, Arkansas in business with their orders for the huge new International Harvester buses, wheeling up with their nice shiny new seats, powerful engines, and automatic transmissions.

But my little band of bus brothers and sisters lived at the very end of the line—and there weren’t many of us. So, most of the time, to our resigned and shared horror, as the shiny new Bus 17 and Bus 24 and Bus 35 pulled up to pick up the other kids, up to our line with a wheeze, a gasp, a screech of brakes, and a multitude of rattles lurched the dreaded BUS 0.

Bus 0 (it really did have a “0” as the number) was the first school bus the burgeoning post-war Saginaw was able to afford (before that, Saginaw kids literally DID walk 9 miles to school every day—or they rode their horses…).

Bus 0 had once been the pride of Saginaw. With shiny yellow paint with the black-stenciled “Saginaw Independent School District” emblazoned across its exterior, she embodied the aspirations of the community to a good education for their children; a better life for the children than they themselves had. Her interior had started out with deep, rich peacock blue walls up to the windows and a refreshing seafoam green ceiling. The seats alternated, in rows, between peacock blue and emerald green; the floor was black linoleum with little white flecks that resembled grains of sand. The whole effect was something like being inside an aquarium. (This was a good thing in the fall when temperatures in Texas are still hovering in the 90’s, because Bus 0 featured 45/45 air conditioning—45 windows open, 45 miles per hour. There was no heat at all. The aromas became especially sharp on rainy days in winter with the windows closed and everybody’s feet wet. And, of course, invariably Curtis—the class clown—would issue a loud and odiferous fart, which only added to the subtle ambiance and general misery…).

Unlike the big square new International Harvesters, which resembled nothing so much as a large yellow loaf of bread on wheels, Bus 0 featured the sinuous curves of 1940’s streamlining. Where the new buses had a large door in back for “emergency exit”, Bus 0 featured a rounded roof and two small, triangular-shaped windows in back, with much smaller exit door (we figured it was permanently rusted shut…). The front doors on the new Harvesters were electric; Bus 0 had a manual one, operated by the driver with a shiny chrome knob; the door made a hideous screech when it opened.

If you want to see photos of a beautifully restored example, this fellow has them on his flickr:  Looks a whole lot nicer than poor old Bus 0 did when we knew her; be sure and look at the interior shot, for that cool “aquarium” effect!

By the time Bus 0 had hauled 20 years’ worth of screaming kids to and from school, football teams to countless football games in small towns 50 and 60 miles away, then the band, then band and football equipment (after the football entourage outgrew it), with probably at least one or two children conceived in the back seat on the long trips back home, she was slightly the worse for the wear. Generations of kids had scratched their initials on the walls. Every few years, the boys in the Auto Shop (high schools don’t have Auto Shop any more, do they?...) would haul her in, unbolt the seats, paint the interior in whatever color the school had paint for at the time, and bolt the seats back in. The Home Ec girls would stitch new seat covers out of whatever naugahyde the Home Ec teacher could round up.

As a result, by the time we got her, Bus 0 had seats in a medley of colors, from brown to black to red, with some of the original peacock blue and emerald seats left (some featuring duct tape). The once-shiny chrome on the seat trim had worn off with years of hands holding onto them. We knew what the original colors were because of course, we too, as generations before us, scratched our initials into the walls (a compass was especially useful for this purpose) and could see the various layers of paint. The proud yellow paint on the outside was faded and worn, as were the brakes, exhaust, transmission, and engine. We didn’t see how she could make it one more mile.

And frequently, she didn’t.

To get to our area, you had to cross a “Low Water Crossing”. These are very common even today across much of Texas. While in the rest of the country, most creeks have actual water in them, in Texas the small creeks are dry except for those days (usually in spring) when the rain comes in sheets and the water rages in torrents down the normally dry creek beds. Since this happens only two or three times a year, it’s both silly and wasteful to put a bridge over the creek, so Texas just paves the road down to the creek bed and puts a thick layer of concrete on the creek bed itself, with drain holes through it—and a measuring pole beside it, marked in feet—some as high as 14 feet—and that’s a Low Water Crossing.

Our particular Low Water Crossing had a unique feature---the Low Water Crossing was at the bottom of a small hill. You would have to drive down into it, then gun it to get up the other side.

The modern International Harvesters had to exercise great care not to get their enormous rear ends caught on the back and drag. They did, however, have sufficient power to gun it up the hill.

Not Bus 0. She wasn’t having any of that. She wasn’t going up that hill. Our usual bus driver (the kindly Mr. White, who must have been a science teacher or a shop teacher at the high school; white shirt, black pants, white sox, black shoes, skinny black tie with tie-clasp, flat-top hair cut, and a pocket protector full of wonderful pens and pencils.  The way I knew Mr. White was “kindly” is rather embarrassing; my first day, I couldn’t remember where the bus stop was and rode the bus until the end of the line.  I was the only person left.  Mr. White turned to me and asked me why I hadn’t gotten off and I told him I couldn’t remember where my stop was.  I did know my address—remember, we had just moved-- and Mr. White drove me home in his own car) would holler at us to be quiet, then he’d make a run for it. Bus 0 would strain mightily, engine whining, transmission gnashing as Mr. White would gear her down trying to get up the hill.

She never made it.

So poor old Mr. White would have to back up and stop at the edge of the Low Water Crossing. We would all pile out of the bus and stand on the side of the road. Mr. White would gun, coax, cajole, and grind the complaining Bus 0 up and over the hill. We would all then trudge up and over the hill ourselves and climb back aboard for the remainder of the trip (imagine that nowadays…). Rain. Sleet. Snow. Blistering heat. No matter. We just accepted that we were going to walk up that hill.

We’re all in our 50’s now, Saginaw is a prosperous suburban school district, and the buses all have air conditioning and automatic transmissions. These kids will never have to get out and trudge up the hill, alone, in whatever weather is extant, nor would anyone even conceive of such a thing. Bus 0 has long since been retired.

I’ve always wondered what happened to her. Is she rusting away even now in some field, minute flecks of her yellow paint still left, the words “Saginaw Independent School District” still faintly visible; her tires long since rotted away, her windows broken, her seats tattered, her door rusted permanently open, with generations of field mice, possums, coons, and other fauna living in a home with fading peacock blue walls and seafoam green ceiling? Was she bought at auction from the school district by a band of hippies, who painted her psychedelic colors and drove her across the country to form a commune, wherein she wound up in Arizona or Nevada or some such place? Or did some farmer buy her and user her for a chicken coop?

Whither, Bus 0?

I wonder.