Tahlequah Daily Press

November 19, 2012

Riding the bus wasn’t so cool back in the day

Managing Editor

TAHLEQUAH — I’d like to meet Judge Pinkey Carr of Cleveland, who made news when she sentenced Shena Hardin to public shaming for driving on a sidewalk to avoid a school bus. After Hardin’s first day of holding the requisite “Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus” sign, Carr decided the miscreant was flouting authority by chain-smoking, texting on her cell phone and generally displaying a bad attitude. So the judge intended to supervise the second day of punishment.

Hardin may think her punishment was harsh, but in reality, the solution reeked of compassion. Had Carr wanted to throw the book at this “idiot,” she would have made her ride on the bus a couple of days, after first telling the kids, “This woman tried to kill some of you.”

School buses have a better image than they did when I was growing up, and they’re better equipped. Drivers weren’t necessarily less cautious in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, but the penalties for veering around a bus may not have been as well-enforced, either. At least, not by cops. I grew up in a small town, where everyone knew everyone else, and if you offended a bus driver, he might just catch you somewhere after business hours and beat the snot out of you.

Bus drivers in my day had a thankless job, and with a generation of litigious parents putting the brakes on any modicum of discipline, I doubt their lot has improved. Back then, drivers could use violence, if necessary, to keep order on their buses. If a kid got out of line, a driver would pull over, grab the ever-present paddle, charge to the back of the bus – because the back of the bus was always where the trouble ensued – and start whaling on the offender.

Most of us, at one time or another, have been part of that nefarious “back of the bus” crowd. When I was in grade school, the “big kids” populated that area. They wanted to put as much distance as they could between themselves and the prying eyes of the paddle-wielder, so they could swap girlie magazines, cigarettes and cheat sheets for tomorrow’s math test.

For years, Pete Harris was our bus driver. One afternoon when I was in first grade, two senior boys (one from a prominent family) were generating terror from their bunker in the back. They were capturing little girls, flipping them over the backs of seats, and exposing their underwear to a throng of worshipful and giggling younger boys. I was always distrustful of big kids, so they didn’t snare me, but they reeled in one of my classmates with a Zagnut bar. She kicked and shrieked as they upended her, rather than suffering in silence like earlier victims. As the commotion erupted, those of us seated up front saw Pete’s eyes cut to the big mirror in front, open wide and disappear under a scowling brow. Today, those boys would have been charged with a sex crime, but what came down on them in 1967 was the wrath of Pete. He was a mild-mannered guy, but on this day, he pulled the bus over into the grass on the U.S. 62 straight-of-way between the Jericho Inn and the river-bottom nursery owned by the Stubbs family. Within seconds, the two aggressors were themselves bent over the backs of seats and set to squealing by Pete’s board of education – with the prominent one bawling and hollering about how his mom would have something to say about it.

As we aged, the mystique of the back of the bus faded into the background. Riding it wasn’t cool, but if your parents forced you to submit to the humiliation, sitting in the back would make headway in repairing your image. Seniority counted; the older you were, the stronger your claim to a seat near the back. Popularity was also factored in, as were siblings and their status. If you couldn’t get to the back, you got as close as you could. The little kids, nerds, dorks and universally detested sat up front. These were the kids with Coke-bottle glasses, pencil pouches and mismatched socks – the ones who picked their noses and wiped the trappings under the seat. And if something bad happened to, on, under or beside a seat, it was off-limits from there on out, even for the first-graders.

One day, when I was a freshman, some sort of bug was afflicting an entire family. In sixth hour, we were taking a test, with the door to the hall open, when we heard footsteps approaching at a dead run. As we all looked up, the youngest boy in the infected family stopped in front of our door, retched loudly, and clapped his hands over his mouth. It didn’t help. Whatever the cafeteria had served that day spewed between his fingers; he shook off his hands, and continued sprinting toward the bathroom. Later, on the bus, one of his brothers was sitting near the front, books in lap, when without warning, he heaved all over himself and his books. The poor thing sat there, shivering and covered in gore. All the little kids screamed and stampeded to the back of the bus, whereupon a high school kid bellowed, “Get back up front where you belong!” None of the little kids would sit in that seat for several days. Instead, they just stacked up on the surrounding benches like cordwood.

While transportation to and from school in a bus could suck the groovy right out of a teenager, the “football bus” was deemed cool, and the “band bus” acceptable. It was hard to be in band and carry the “cool” label, though a few managed to pull it off. This explains why, by the time we reached high school, most of the guys had traded in their trumpets for football jerseys that may or may not have seen any action past the sidelines.

I was a twirler in the band, and we had a valuable asset: Each of us had, as part of our regalia, an ankle-length, hooded, velvet cape to wear when we weren’t performing. Couples were always asking to borrow our capes on trips for “away games.” Sometimes, the couple disappeared completely beneath the cape for the duration, and the rest of us had to endure that “thwok-thwok” smooching sound. Other times, you could see just their faces, which usually bore intense or rapt expressions.

From what I can tell, not much has changed. Riding the bus still comes with a social stigma from the elite set, and the drivers still don’t get much respect. That’s not right. If I were passing sentence on Shena Hardin, she’d be happy to carry a sign. It would be far better than exposing her panties to an ogling audience, sitting next to a kid with puke dripping from his chin, or picking up a hitchhiking booger on her backpack.

Kim Poindexter is managing editor for the Tahlequah Daily Press.