The Long, Long, School Bus
A Guest Post 'a la Ma' -- From fashion shows to fashion school, I've written a lot about the "designer" part of my life. You've read about days exploring New York City and seen pictures of models in fancy clothes. Well, surprise! There's a lot more to my life than all of that. I actually grew up on a farm in Central Oregon and my parents were high school sweet hearts. For the longest time, I've written about my fashion adventures to my audience back 'home.' I have been ill the past couple months and haven't done much writing, but I wanted to share this story that my mom wrote for a Bend magazine a few years back to give my new friends from the "fashion" side of my life a glimpse into rural Oregon life.
And for everyone else, I'm sure there are a few things in here that will make you laugh and maybe even relate to as a native Oregonian or ranch kid.
The Long, Long, School Bus
Rebecca Roth Kerrigone, 2008
Observations from the survivor of an 80-mile school bus ride
The experts agree that extracurricular activities are an important part of helping children to learn how to interact with people as they move into adulthood.
In 1984, when I was a junior high student in Sweet Home, Oregon, I dreamed of the extracurricular activities I would excel in next year when I finally reached that pinnacle of adolescent existence, High School. So many choices. Swimming, Volleyball, Drill Team, Tennis, Debate, Drama, Dance, Choir, etc. The list seemed endless.
Then between my 8th grade and freshman year, my parents moved my family to a dilapidated ranch in Central Oregon--miles and miles from anywhere--and I found out that my extracurricular activity would be bus riding. Now bus riding had never entered into my girlhood fantasies, but being a record holder of some kind did figure in rather prominently, so I guess a part of my daydreams did come true. I was given the unique honor of having the longest school bus ride in the state of Oregon.
Eighty miles to the nearest high school in Paisley, Ore. Eighty miles back.
Now we are not talking about eighty miles of blacktop here. That would have been far too simple for an accomplished bus rider like me. There were 20 miles of dirt road to traverse before we hit the blacktop.
First my brother would fire up his 1968 Willy jeep (He and the jeep were created the same year). Then we would bounce over rocks, around sagebrush and through alkaline slicks at fifteen miles an hour from our trailer out to the road five miles away. Once you started you couldn't stop because you might get stuck in a pot-hole big enough to bury the rig. Best policy was to keep your pedal to the metal and pray. Then we would turn on to the graveled washboard known as “the county road.” Now we could maintain a cruising speed of about 30 miles an hour. Any faster and the washboards would bounce us right off the road. Any slower and it would jostle the teeth right out of our gums.
By this time the windows had generally thawed enough for me to see so I could yell, “rabbit” or “DEER” by way of helping my brother know when to swerve to avoid the wildlife. I guess I failed to mention that we always did this run in the dark because we had to be in “town” by five-fifty a.m. to catch the bus.
“Town” refers to Christmas Valley, Oregon, which consisted of three restruants, two bars, two grocery stores, two gas stations and a post office.
The Trail Cafe was our bus stop. The owners kindly opened up at 5:30 and had a roaring fire going in the wood stove to greet the fifteen or so students who would gather there to thaw out and drink coffee or hot chocolate before climbing onto the bus for the next leg of our journey.
About 6 a.m. our bus driver, Ron Johnson, would blast through the door, loudly calling for coffee and for us kids to get on the bus. Ron Johnson bore a strong resemblance to John Wayne in his Rooster Cogburn years and had about as much tact. He looked more like he was going out to drive a herd of cattle than drive a school bus in his stained white Stetson, Wranglers, and run-over cowboy boots. After sauntering behind the counter and pouring his own coffee, he would herd his human charges out onto the bus and we would begin our 60 mile, two hour trek.
The first stop we came to after the Trail cafe was Barbara's. I remember meeting Barbara the first week of school and thinking she was appropriately named since she looked just like a Barbie doll. Beautiful blond curly hair, enormous blue eyes and flawless skin.
Being dark myself I had no idea what all it took for a blond to look like that, but I soon found out.
About two weeks into the school year, Barbara's car came screaming down the lane, late. She finally staggered onto the bus in her pajamas carrying blanket, pillow, backpack and small suitcase. Her hair was in spongy pink curlers and her usually beautiful face was a blank slate. She pulled an alarm clock out of her backpack, set it, propped her pillow against the window, pulled her blanket around her shoulders and went to sleep. When her alarm went off an hour later she used her blanket as a changing room to dress, pulled the curlers out of her hair and then opened the suitcase. I watched in fascination as she applied an endless number of lotions and powders to her face, finally completing her transformation as we pulled into the school parking lot. She clicked her suitcase shut, stowed her pillow and blanket under the seat and strode off the bus, Barbie doll perfect.
This was maybe my first indication that I would learn more about life in four years on the school bus than I would at school. There were unspoken rules to be sensed, a hierarchy to be observed, and specific zones to be respected.
Some kids slept most mornings, their legs stretched across the center bus aisle or bodies curled backwards into their seats.
These kids were not to be disturbed.
One kid thought it would be funny to disturb a sleeper. He kept tickling the sleeping boy's face with a shoe lace. Everyone laughed as the sleeper tried to brush the “bug” away in his sleep. Suddenly the boy sat up, swung hard and connected with his tormentor's nose in one smooth movement and then dropped back down and back to sleep while blood spurted from the instigators nose. When the instigator went howling and bleeding down the aisle to Ron Johnson, Ron calmly handed him a handkerchief and said, “Don't bother a man when he's sleeping. What did you expect him to do? Now sit down and shut up. I'm trying to drive.”
We left the sleepers alone after that.
Behind the sleepers were the studiers. This was the group that had divied up their homework the night before. Say you were assigned math problems 1-40. The first kid would take the first five,the next the next five and so on. You did five problems, then traded answers until your assignment was completed. This was a very efficient way to handle homework because when you leave at 5 o' clock in the morning and get home at 6:30 at night, you really don't have time to do homework.
At the back of the bus, behind the studiers were the steadiers. These were the couples who were “going together”. This was also very educational. Fellow bus riders witnessed the whole process from infatuation to flirtation to dating to breaking up. Giggles and laughter, screaming and tears. We didn't need soap operas. We could watch it all happening there at the back of the bus. Vicariously, we could watch the joy and heartbreak of being in love and also the cost and consequences. Its hard to hide morning sickness on a two hour school bus ride.
The ride home was noisier, rowdier, a party on wheels.
Ron Johnson would play whatever tapes kids brought on the bus stereo, as long as it was country, of course. Once a kid taped Def Leopard (rock) over a George Strait (country) tape. We listened to nearly the whole thing before Ron figured out what had happened. He pulled the tape out of the deck, held it by its ribbon and threw the case out of the window. There was black tape ribbon strewn along that section of road for a long time. Sometimes he would play his favorite Tom T. Hall song over and over, refusing to take it out until everyone on the bus joined in the song. Music appreciation, Ron Johnson style.
I also learned about sexism.
The perpetual penny poker game up front was only for males. So was the Vodka. One day I noticed that the boys would open their Pepsi, drink half of it, and then pass it to the back of the bus. At the back of the bus sat a boy with a black gym bag. The Pepsi can would disappear into the gym bag and then reappear again to be sent forward to the original owner. Then I noticed this same boy would be collecting money as we neared the end of our ride. I asked a friend about it. “Oh, he's adding Vodka to their Pepsi. He brings it whenever he gets a chance,”she replied.
Supply and demand applied.
The boys on our bus thought up Fear Factor long before it hit T.V. They had a game in which the goal was to see who could come up with the grossest thing. There were several close contenders in this game, the most memorable for me being that humans really do produce methane gas. The empirical proof of this was for one boy to provide the gas while another lit the fumes with a cigarette lighter. I would never have believed this if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. But this stunt did not win the game. The undisputed winner was the boy who drank his milkshake twice.
I believe that to this day his record still stands.
When you spend four hours a day together, you learn a lot about each other. Some kids on the bus lived in nice homes on large ranches. Some kids lived in camper shells without running water or electricity. The rest of us fell somewhere in between.
We learned each other’s strengths and we learned each other’s weaknesses and we learned what it took to get along. We learned about people. We learned about ourselves.
My extracurricular activity was not one that I had anticipated or welcomed, but it shaped me and the rest of the riders as indelibly as any extracurricular activity could. We got on Ron Johnson's school bus children, and got off at the last stop adults, having learned people skills and lessons that we carry with us for the rest of our lives.