The bus that went to my school had a bus stop which moved around the intersection of Southridge and Rupert, and even moved one year to the corner of Poppy and Dalmatian, which means nothing to most of you, but I am just putting that out there in case those who have time machines want to stalk me. The bus was usually driven by a woman named Mrs. Egy (pronounced “egg-ee”), an old woman with a big round helmet of hair typical of the elderly in the 1970s. She was always pleasant, except when kids acted up, and that’s all I remember about her. Even when I didn’t ride the bus, if she passed me, we waved to one another.
The busses that we got as kids were pretty beat up. The high schoolers who had the bus before us did a good job wrecking it up and drawing dirty pictures and such. They would cut the vinyl seat backs into ribbons, and when that was fixed with duct tape, they would cut the duct tape, too, and then make graffiti with the strips of duct tape. The biggest two pieces of graffiti that stuck in my head were “BONG HITS” and the word “FUCK,” but one artist seemed fixated on what could only be described as the point of view of your average gynecologist with a very hairy patient: two bare legs, two huge breasts and small chin, one vagina the size of a football, and a lot of hair. I assume they were all from the same guy, and his medium ranged from pencil to permanent marker. And it was the same angle each time; it rarely varied. There were no side poses, no frontal poses or detailed features in the face or breasts: the legs were always bowed outwards, and all detail focused on the genitals with great care. I grew up in a pretty liberal household as far as sex went, so I knew what I was looking at, but still recalled being mildly disturbed at the fact this one piece of art was repeated over and over in the same single-minded and focused pose. There was other repeated art, too. There was some guy in an afro smoking a joint, two fingers with a smoking joint, a hand with the middle finger raised, and more joints and marijuana leaves. In the 1970s, marijuana was king with the delinquent crowd.
Our busses were controlled by a team of patrols with the bus driver as the supreme overlord. It was a feudal system where serfs sat still and barely speak while the dukes and duchesses of the disciplinary manor acted out the will of the driver. It worked pretty well. We did haven’t many bad kids, and our biggest fear as kids were those few patrols who abused their power.
The biggest culprit I remember was a girl named Alissa Gawlick. Her biggest vice seemed to be lack of attention to duty, using her authority instead to sort who she considered popular and whom she didn’t. The popular people were three of her “friends,” and I use that term loosely because they didn’t seem to like her, either. Alissa was in seriously need of humility, and sadly, I decided that I would be the one to bring justice. This was in 5th grade, when I started to only sporadically use the bus due to my father’s will that I not become dependent on the bus for reasons that were only explained by how long HE had to walk to school as a kid. Alissa didn’t like me, which didn’t stand out as very odd, since a lot of kids felt the same way. And yet, one incident I will remember with crystal clarity is when I decided to get back at Alissa for... something probably trivial. I don’t remember was sparked this rare bit of bravery, but I had my moments. Part of it probably was she was in 4th grade, a grade below me, so her impudence seemed especially insufferable to me.
Alissa had really, really long hair. Like down to her butt kind of hair. It was very neat and conditioned for someone her age; it obviously took a great deal of care, I am sure. There was a dogwood tree near our stop that had just started to bud, and I decided to tie her hair to it. I stood behind her while she chatted away with her “friends” who were facing me while I did this, and they did nothing but smirk and avert their eyes. I managed to neatly tie about seven pencil-thin strands to branches before the bus suddenly came much earlier than normal.
I still remember the surprise and the sound “ergk!” she made when her head snapped back into the tree. Sadly, my half-assed and poorly thought-out plan involved the hair coming undone with a solid yank; it was hard enough to get her hair to stay in a knot. But what happened instead was her hair really got tangled up to the point the bus driver had to get out and free her.
I am not sure who snitched on me, but considering how badly I thought this out, and how people pretty much didn’t like me, it was an inevitable conclusion. Nobody said anything, but I got called out of class about noon, I think, and the head of the patrols at the time was a teacher named “Mr. Downden” and I spell that phonetically, because I don’t remember how he actually spelled his name. Mr. Downden was a very butch teacher. If he had once been a football player who ate nails and live bullets for breakfast, I wouldn’t have been surprised. In his defense, a lot of kids liked him. I didn’t because he was supposed to be my 6th grade teacher, and I was mortified how athletic-minded he was. I already had an athlete for a 5th grade teacher (Mrs. Cordell), and it was really going very badly. I failed PE miserably because I was overweight, a klutz, and really uncoordinated. My mental war with all athletes at the time was already pretty brutal. So here comes this barrel-chested man asking for me by name, and yanking me out of class. He took me behind the stairwell, out of earshot of the rest of the school.
He presented his case to me. That’s putting it mildly. He pretty much yelled at me, but two mistakes were made. First, he asked me what my motivations was: “What the HELL were you thinking?” I had never had a teacher swear at me, and it was intimidating. The second mistake was me assuming he actually did want to know what I was thinking, so I told him. I don’t recall exactly what I said, but I did say she was mean, never helped kids cross the street, but only seemed to want to be a patrol because she could protect her friends. Something like that, the gist of it was I explained as best I could why I did it. I don’t think I thought at the time that his question was rhetorical. Then he said that if I ever did anything to one of his patrols again, he would, and this is a direct quote, “punch you so hard, you’ll see stars!” Okay, now maybe that’s not a nice thing for him to say. Maybe, even back then, threatening to hit a child so hard they would get retinal damage was frowned upon. And he must have known what he was going to say and that it was frowned upon, because he took me behind the stairwell. He probably had no idea some kids had already done this to me: I often got kicked in the head by bullies so hard, my vision was affected, sometimes for hours afterwards (which is why I eventually learned to curl in a fetal position, head covered, spine to fence). I remember an uncomfortable silence. My ears were ringing and my face was flushed. He then ended the lecture, and sent me back to class. Nothing more was said. Even though up to this point (early spring), I had ridden the bus on bad weather days behind my father’s back, after that... I never rode the bus again. The walk to the school was about mile (1.1 miles, according to Google Maps), which I could do in about 25 minutes when I was that height. It really sucked when I took trombone in band in 6th grade, but I just got disgusted with the whole bus/patrol thing.
What I quickly began to like was I could get to school early. Even before I was a retail manager, I kind of liked getting to places early and settling down before work. They’d put me in the cafeteria with some of the other kids that got bussed/driven in from the rural areas (and thus, arrived anywhere from 30 minutes early to hours late; we still had a lot of dirt roads back then). The school store would open, and I could get supplies before the lines started. I was often the first kid in class, and this was really awesome in 6th grade, because I got a lot of one-on-one time with my teacher, Ms. Ray, who was probably the one teacher that saved me from a life of educational ruin.
In junior high, due to some zoning weirdness, nobody in my neighborhood got the bus. It was also 1.1 miles away, but half the way was through a forest, baseball field, and park next to a private country club with no sidewalks. Most kids had to be driven in by the parents, but not me! No, my dad walked to school, so should I! Bullying in that era was the worst, far worse than elementary school, and I had to be pretty quick to avoid them. I wasn’t always successful. I recall being so bitterly envious of the kids who had parents who drove them to school, especially in the winter rains when I didn’t have a very good jacket.
High school was not a problem. I lived so close, I figuratively rolled out of bed at 7, took a quick shower, walked to school, and was there by 7:20. It was just a few blocks away from my house.
Every summer since I could remember, my mother sent me to something during the day. It was some camp called “the Peanut Gallery,” until 4th grade, when she sent me to summer school. During the summers, I took computer camp, geography, computer camp again, theater, typing, AP geometry, AP chemistry, and finally college astronomy. Back then, most of the Fairfax County schools didn’t have air conditioners, so we’d actually close school due to heat. And summer school HAD to be in an air-conditioned school, which was usually South Lakes High School, but sometimes Herndon High. The busses for those arrived damn early, and the stops were usually only at schools. The bus I took was often one of those that meandered around the county, and I was one of the first people to get on. I’d walk to Lewinsville for the bus that picked me up at 6am. We’d drive all over the place and eventually end up in Reston with a full bus at about 8:30. Back then, there were a lot of rural and bumpy roads outside my neighborhood, and I recall how nice it was once 267 (the Dulles Toll Road) was finally built because it cut the bus time almost in half by high school.
I took summer school for “enrichment” courses; I never failed anything that required a do-over. But I couldn’t speak for most of my fellow passengers. And many of them failed some required class due in part to their behavior if their bus discipline was any indication. I mean, many years, I actually saw people who got kicked off the bus en route for a fight or dangerous behavior like threatening the bus driver with a knife or lighter. One brave driver had her kid in a child’s safety seat, which actually reduced violence because some of the older guys who ran around crazy liked the fact the small toddler laughed at their antics. I also used to sit in that seat right behind the driver, and got to know them. It was part of a safety measure on my part because the rear of the bus was where all the bad stuff was happening. I mean, some kids openly smoked weed back there. One year, some kid stabbed another, and then fled out the emergency exit while we were at a stop light. Another year, we had some bad kid who would get off at is stop at Haycock Elementary, and then hop on the back bumper of the bus as it was leaving because apparently the bus drove nearer to his house, and he didn’t want to walk. He’d jump off when the bus slowed down, or when some driver behind us honked wildly. He had been banned from the bus repeatedly, but that was hard to enforce. It was all pretty chaotic.
The last school bus memories I have were “the Big Red School Bus” my friend Bruce owned. He got it when he was friends with some people who had “used school bus” connections of some kind. He had been renting trucks, but he wanted a large vehicle he could also use for storage. He got a bus, painted it red, and before every convention, a friend of his, usually someone named “Montana John,” would come over and fix it so it would run (it would sit dormant for months at a time). The bus was old, rickety, and had some 1986 soccer camp schedule glued to the driver’s side roof. That bus had a lot of memories traveling from Friendly, MD to Frederick at a top speed of maybe 50mph. Sadly, that bus met its end a few years ago when the FanTek garage caught fire. It was parked next to it, and the fire consumed the garage and bus.