One the first day of school, Charlie always gave the same speech. He waited until the last pick up before heading to the school and then he would stop the bus, turn off the motor, and stand with his hands clamped firmly to the support poles behind his seat. Standing there silently he would wait until the entire bus quieted down, and then he would begin. Though he stood only five foot and seven inches, his voice was booming and not given well to whisper or subtlety.
“Children, I am Charlie the Bus Driver. It is my job to get you to school safely every day, and I take my job seriously. I know you are children and are full of energy and fun, but on this bus safety always comes first. So, you will remain in your seats whenever the bus is moving. You will not stick your heads or arms or legs or anything else out the windows. You will not throw things inside or outside of the bus. If you get too loud, I will bring the bus to a complete stop until you quiet down. If you fight, your parents will be notified immediately and you will be suspended from the bus for a week. There are many more rules, but I think you get the drift already. Just don’t act a fool, and we will get along just fine and you will arrive safely each and every day. Thank you.”
And then Charlie would climb into the driver’s seat and finish the ride.
Charlie had been doing it this way for 27 years and not much had changed along the way. Charlie was like a bus driver designed and built by a team of engineers at the famous University of Michigan Engineering School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For one thing, he was strong as an ox, and regularly bench pressed 300 pounds at the gym. He also had twenty-twenty vision, the sense of smell of a German Shephard, and near bionic hearing ability. His brain could simultaneously manage driving the bus, scanning the passenger mirror, every gauge and measure on the dashboard, and what he called his “predator alert” system—all at the same time and without a sweat.
Charlie had his personal set of rules, too. He never drove with his cell phone turned on. He wore only light-adjusting sunglasses, black lamb’s skin driving gloves and Red Wing wedge sole work boots. Below his short sleeve, black Polo shirt (in warm weather) he wore tan cargo pants. Charlie liked cargo pants. He carried all kinds of shit in them cargo pants.
He kept his bus spotless at all times. He even invented the portable vomit reaction pack which could clean up most events without a problem. Every night Charlie wiped down every seat and support pole, vacuumed and spot-cleaned, did a complete safety check, then after a few bursts of Febreeze, turned in his keys to his supervisor.
Charlie drove Bus #1.
It was a Blue Bird Corporation, rear engine, Type D, and it was his reward when he completed 25 years of bus driving without a single accident or injury on his route. Charlie loved talking about it, too. He’d say:
“I drive the All American Rear Engine (RE) school bus. This particular model extends Blue Bird’s legacy of leadership by setting new industry standards for driver ergonomics and productivity, safety, serviceability, passenger comfort, and life-cycle value. It has one of them bonded-for-strength windshields and recessed LED rear lighting. The engine’s rear location provides exceptional serviceability, allows extra cooling and consequently higher power ratings, reduces noise to lessen interference with the driver, and allows an unencumbered stepwell for boarding ease and a clear view of children boarding and exiting. It can comfortably transport from 66-90 students and runs on diesel or bio-diesel. The All American RE is an ideal transportation solution, especially on routes requiring extra power. And, it has satellite GPS.”
Most days there were 90 children on his bus. His route was the trickiest of the bunch, as well, for Barton Hills was dead smack in the middle of it and those steeps hills got greasy fast in the winter months. It required a driver with soft hands and nerves of steel, and a bus made of steel with a motor sitting over the drive tires. Not to mention, the other thing.
All the rich kids lived on Charlie’s route. At Christmas time he raked in several thousands of dollars in tips and presents from the parents of his passengers. They loved Charlie. He was always on time and his bus was a sheen driving through their hilly, winding neighborhoods. He was the exact opposite of Otto.
At home, Charlie was loyal husband and father to a wife and two children, a boy and a girl. The household traveled along a wavelength never too far anywhere and bumps engaged with commensurate attention and emotional travail. Charlie loathed grief. The Prime Directive at home was, don’t cause undue grief. For the most part, this happened, and when it didn’t Charlie reserved himself quite steadily until whatever asploded diluted, and life went on. He bowled and golfed and was helpful around the house. His wife, a nurse, brought home the real bacon but Charlie felt not threatened at all. It was a comfortable life indeed.
This year he had a new kid on the route. It was a blind kid with a seeing-eye-dog, a German Shepherd named Rommel who was clearly charged with more than just stopping cars from running over Timmy. Timmy was the son of billionaires who wanted to “mainstream” their blind, privileged son for some reason. Charlie had reserved the front seat for Timmy, but he would have none of it. Rommel and Timmy padded to the back of the bus.
Half of Charlie’s load went to middle school, and the other half went to high school. It didn’t really matter anymore such mixing of kids. Most of the time, the kids would just plug in some ear buds or play on their cell phones to pass the time during the ride. Kids were a lot less rowdy nowadays mused Charlie. He wasn’t sure if that was such a good thing in general, but it suited his purposes quite grandly.
And so it went through the school year. Another day, another dollar, as it was. At Christmas he raked in over seven thousand dollars in tips and gifts. Timmy’s parents gave him seven hundred and tickets to UM vs Indiana at Chrysler. When he awoke at 4:30 AM the morning after that game outside his window it was cold, but calm. Charlie didn’t have a clue until the light mist hit his windshield as he pulled through the gate and onto the service drive. Somewhere some winds had shifted, and blown the worst ice storm in Michigan history right over Charlie’s route.
Seven miles into the route, Charlie instructed all the passengers to move forward. He wanted more weight over the steering wheels where he was starting to lose traction. Even creeping along at five or ten miles an hour, the bus would skid on even slight curves and turns. By radio, the dispatcher had advised him of the school closures, but he already had half a load. Here he was, stuck on Hemlock Drive, unable to turn around or backup, approaching the steepest hill on his route when the ice storm exploded with fury. Hail and ice starting raining down upon the sheet steel of the bus like a million gnarly fingers. Charlie, however, knew exactly what to do.
He stopped the bus at the bottom of Gooseneck Hill, applied the Emergency Brake, clicked on the Emergency Flashers, and then rose from his seat. This he told the children:
“Everything is just fine. We are just going to wait here for a few moments until the worst of the storm blows over. It is not safe to drive right now. I’m sure it will be just a few minutes, and then we will be right back on schedule. Use your cell phones to call your parents in case any of them want to pick you up here—in which case I will wait for them to arrive before leaving.”
Almost in unison the kids informed Charlie their cell phones were not working. No one could get a signal. A second later, Charlie realized he could not reach Dispatch on the radio, either. The flash of lightning followed by the immediate boom of thunder caught everyone off guard. And then the wind picked up tenfold, and brought down the huge oak tree behind the bus with a sickening crack and crunch and thud. “Don’t worry!” Charlie said. “As long as we are in the bus, we are safe!” And for the next ten minutes everyone watched as the bus literally became engulfed in ice. It was both majestic and terrifying. All the widows became kaleidoscopes, but none of them would open, let alone the doors. “Don’t worry!” Charlie said. “I just filled the bus up this morning. We have enough gas to sit here for seventeen hours if we have to.”
After another forty-five minutes, and still no break in the weather, Charlie decided the natives were getting a bit restless. He decided to try to kill two birds with one stone. First he wanted to see if the bus could move at all. Second, doing so might provide some entertainment for the kids—unless, of course, the bus couldn’t move—which might prove problematic on several fronts. Either way, Charlie figured it was worth the risk. It was only a matter of time before someone had to go to the bathroom.
The only thing Charlie hated about this bus was the automatic transmission. Anybody who has ever done any serious winter driving knows a stick is best, but there was nothing he could do about that now. He shifted into Drive Two, and gently pressed the gas pedal. The bus strained a little, then hooked up and moved ahead. Charlie gave it a bit more gas and the rear end started to swing so he let off. He put it back in park, applied the emergency brake, and swept the gauges. Not much else he could do except try opening the door, which he managed after not too much effort. He told the kids he was going to take a quick walk around the bus, and started putting on his heavy jacket and gloves. Charlie was almost out the door when he noticed headlights approaching from the top of Gooseneck Hill—and those headlights looked quite out of control. Charlie knew he could never get the kids off the bus in time, so he told them to brace for impact with their book bags and purses and whatnot and that is exactly when Rommel chose to go ape-shit crazy with the growling and the barking! By now the bright headlights of the approaching snow plow, were completely illuminating the interior of the bus with the brilliance of a flash bulb. The distinct blare of an air horn filled everyone’s ears! Somebody screamed, “We’re all going to die!”, and just then the snow plow barreled right past the bus and plowed into a power line on the other side of the road and came to a complete stop. A second or so later, the driver of the snow plow emerged, unscathed, and surveyed the damage—which was substantial. After a few more seconds of that, he turned toward the bus and screamed, “What in the Hell are you doing parking there?”
But before Charlie could reply, one of the high tension wires snapped and hit that driver in the head with 50,000 watts and exploded his snow plow truck into a ball of fire so fierce it melted all the ice off the bus. Charlie was quick to react. He quickly surmised that plow guy had kept his plow down during the entire ride down Gooseneck Hill, and therefore he could follow that track up and get to over Underdown Way where the community utilities complex and safety stood. But then he saw Timmy and Rommel approaching up the aisle, and Rommel looked pissed. Timmy said five words: “Rommel doesn’t have a seatbelt.”
And then Rommel bit Charlie on his right, driving ankle. And then Timmy and Rommel moved to the back of the bus, and sat down.
Charlie’s ankle was throbbing for sure. There was blood everywhere. Using his left, non-driving foot to brake, he shifted in D2. It was hill climbing time, and Charlie took the high road. A bloody foot was better than no foot at all, he murmured, and set off.
Onboard digital video cameras caught the whole ride, inside and out. It was later edited and passed out to every bus driving academy in the country and Charlie was voted school bus driver of the century by the Association Society of School Bus Drivers. Charlie retired with his perfect driving record intact, and went on to an executive position at the Blue Bird Bus Corporation of America.
On April 14th, in the year 2014, a year after the ice storm incident, Timmy could not locate his seeing-eye-dog. His father hired a private detective to locate the dog, but it was never found. It was a big deal and even made it onto the six o’clock news one night. Charlie the bus driver watched the story from the comfort of his living room recliner. Afterward he got a call from his Korean neighbor but Charlie told him not to worry.