Auto-Biography 17: Bus We Must
It was the mother of all drifts. Forty feet behind me, the back of the passenger bus was coming around fast, threatening to wipe out a block’s worth of cars parked across the street. By the time I caught the first slide, I had overcompensated. My arms were a whirling dervish on the giant steering wheel, flying back and forth, until the bus straightened out. No need to stop for coffee THAT day; I was wide awake on a triple-shot of adrenalin.
I was always on the lookout for creative ways to entertain myself on pre-dawn (empty) bus runs, but this one caught me off-guard. Midway through the corner, the pavement changed from asphalt to smooth brick cobblestones. As always, I floored it. An imperceptibly-thin sheen of frost on the bricks provided no resistance to the 8V-71 Detroit Diesel out back. All my wintertime Corvair-hooning experience finally paid off.
I had always wanted to be a bus driver. I started preparing early. Aged five, my favorite toy was a highly-detailed toy bus. I would lie on the floor for hours, gazing through the windows, imagining all my (future) passengers and the adventures (drifts?) I would take them on.
In Austria in the fifties, the yellow and black Post-buses were the vital transport link between the villages clinging to the Alpine mountainsides. They looked like a 1940’s school bus: rounded, with a graceful hood out front. There was lots of glass, curving right up into the roof, which had a giant fabric sunroof. On sunny days, the driver rolled it back like sardine can lid, revealing the Alpine scenery in its full splendor.
It’s one of my most joyful childhood memories: sitting on a tan leather seat behind the driver, watching him shift gears and navigate the throbbing Steyr diesel through the blind hair-pin curves, announcing his presence with the four-tone melodic horn: ta-taa, ta-taa.
One day in 1975, I woke up and decided to fulfill my childhood dream– even if there were no alpine hairpin curves in Iowa City. I got the job though my usual technique: pestering. I showed up at the transit company’s office every other day. Within three weeks, I was behind the wheel.
I’d driven big trucks, but piloting my first bus felt a bit strange the first time. I sat right up against the giant bulging front window of a GMC “new look” bus. It was like staring out a living-room picture window of a mobile home. The only major surprise: the steering was un-assisted and, therefore, profoundly slow, as I learned that hair-raising morning.
I took my schedule very seriously. I treated bus-driving as a time-trial rally and drove…briskly.
As a bus driver in a university town, I got few complaints. Some of my youthful passengers actually egged me on. There’s nothing like a little group-hooning to evoke a little winter-morning cheer before classes.
During a particularly heavy snow-storm, I drove like a fiend to stay on schedule. My passengers were not going to get home late. I eventually caught up with the bus that was supposed to be twenty minutes ahead of me. As we passed my less committed colleague, a spontaneous cheer erupted from the back of the bus.
Tooling around town in the bus was generally a relaxed affair, with a few notable exceptions.
I was relief-driving one day, and momentarily forgot my route. Rather than finding a suitably enormous space in which to turn the big bus around, I took a shortcut through a several-block-long weedy lot. It turned out to be much rougher than I’d expected.
The old ladies heading to the mall were flabbergasted (and jostled) by our mutual off-road adventure. Worse, the bus almost bogged down in the uneven surface. If I had, I would have been on the news that evening. And out of a job.
Another time, the bus’ 40’ long throttle linkage suddenly stuck wide open– a block away from the high school parking lot on the day of the school’s annual carnival fund-raiser. I also remember sliding down a hill and across an intersection, wheels locked, surfing on a mat of wet, greasy leaves.
Spring arrived and wanderlust struck again. One morning, heading to an office park by I-80, I announced to my passengers that the bus had been hijacked to California. Some chuckled. One or two cheered me on, shouting “do it.”
But there were plenty of icy stares. Sensing a collective failure of enthusiasm, I reluctantly abandoned my plan, and drove them to their cubicles.
I quit and bought my own bus, a 1968 Dodge van. I paneled the inside with birch plywood, built a bed in back and cut in windows. Only one passenger signed-on for the one-way trip to California. But she had plenty of enthusiasm. It was enough.
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