” Road Warriors”
One of the more common topics in business publications – urban-based workers facing a long commute each morning and afternoon. I have some compassion for them, but not much. I spent four years of my life making a daily round trip that would make a Los Angeles commute seem like a stroll in the park. This arduous daily trek? Getting to and from high school.
Before your eyes start to roll and the coffee spurts out your nostrils let me qualify this a bit. High school for me meant Kenai Central High School located in ( where else) Kenai, Alaska. At the time KCHS served the central part of the Kenai Peninsula with a student body numbering not quite a thousand kids drawn from an area fifty miles in diameter. I lived about half that distance out, but that still left me with at least an hour trip in the morning and evening – and sometimes the trip clocked in longer than that.
Because periods of light and darkness vary so much during the year we often left for school and returned home in darkness which ruled out doing any sort of reading or homework during the trip. The school district was too poor to equip each bus with an AM radio and as it was ten years before any sort of Walkman-type personal music systems and forty years before smart phones the only entertainment available consisted of reciting to each other as much of the latest episode of The Smothers Brother’s Show as we could remember.
…and at this point I can imagine the winks, smarmy grins and knowing looks starting to spread over all your faces, accompanied by one or more of the following comments:
- “Well, we can just imagine how they spent their time.”
- ‘What did that last issue of National Geographic say about gonorrhea in frontier areas ?
- “How high is the teen-age pregnancy rate in Alaska?”
Well – forget it. No matter what you think or what statistics may infer, our school bus was not a rolling version of the Playboy mansion. Our school year included five months of icy weather which wasn’t just cold – it FREEZING cold, often including endless weeks of well-below-zero weather. Nothing dampens a teenager’s ardor quicker than trying to navigate through two layers of underwear, street clothes and a parka, scarf, sweater and gloves – and even if you could manage the task there was no place to snuggle. The seats were designed to accommodate the average student, i.e. third graders, so any bus-born amorous adventures were exclusively imaginary in nature.
You learned early on to deal with it. The lucky kids were those with their own cars, followed by those able to hitch rides with friends or parents with jobs close to the school. Hitch-hiking was always an option but entailed an element of risk – and not just the kind of risk you saw on The After-school Special. There was always a chance that you might not catch a ride at all, which was the case once when Todd Moore and I tried to hitch home from football practice and ended up walking 12 miles from Soldotna to Sterling without a single car even just slowing down.
For most students it was a matter of enduring 60 minutes or longer in the bus – but for a selected few the ride was longer and even more demeaning. Those of us living on Scout Lake Loop road had to complete the last leg of the trip on the Sterling Elementary School bus. School district bean-counters had determined that a transfer where the routes intersected would save the school district a fortune. Well, maybe fifty or sixty bucks, but considering how close the school budget came to not being approved the previous summer they were out to save any amount possible.
Switching buses was like switching worlds – even though the seats in our regular bus were cramped, the temperature was comfortable, but the iced-over windows of the Sterling bus put you in mind of a scene out of “One Day in the Life of Evan Denysovitch” or some other gulag documentary. The temperature inside the Sterling vehicle was at least twenty degrees cooler than the high school bus and while it was reasonable to assume that the warmth of the insulated coveralls Bob ( the bus driver) wore while prepping the bus caused him to err in properly setting the thermostat, I suspect that he deliberately kept the bus interior cold to numb the kids into submission.
We were not thrilled about making the switch but managed to cope. As my friend Sherry and I usually sat together on the regular bus the transfer was little more than a simple change of scenery as we talked about music, school, clothes and our respective non-existent love lives. Such diverting conversation should have taken our minds off the rolling refrigerator we were riding in but unfortunately we also contend with the elementary school kids. They were animals. In a larger community kids their age would have given high school students wide berth but in a small place like Sterling we were all like family so the fear was not there…which meant riding for twenty minutes in a bus full of little-brother clones at their worst behavior . Bob was well aware of the problem and had devised a system of assigned seats to separate the worst offenders, but for Sherry and I it meant we had to sit in front of the Renton brats on every trip.
I say boys plural because even though only one of them spoke coherently so I never knew how many of them there were – they’d recently moved into the state so I had yet to put names to faces; compounding that uncertainty was the fact that the three of them never stopped moving AND moved as a pack to boot. They weren’t triplets but each one had that identical Cub Scout age look: two missing teeth, a facial dirt smudge that stayed for weeks, hair so unkempt it would scare a comb to death and nostrils that rarely lacked for the company of a digit or two. They didn’t talk so much as snarl, and watching them in action brought to mind the Tasmanian Devil of Warner Brothers cartoon fame.
They would start the minute we got on the bus, leaning over the seat, yelling in our ears and making a general nuisance of themselves. They were astute enough to keep their hands to themselves knowing that Bob would have made quick work of them had they actually hit someone …but on this particular late March afternoon something was different. Maybe there had been a full moon or some trace radiation in the water but they were much more brazen than usual, swinging closer and closer until one of them grabbed a lock of Sherry’s long brown hair and gave it a sharp tug.
I twisted around to face the assailant; it was the oldest brother Brandy and he was sitting there speechless with a slightly dazed grin as if he didn’t know what had just done . I grabbed the front of his sweatshirt and kind of bounced/shook him back and forth against my fist, repeatedly thumping his chest. With my hand wrapped up in the cloth it wasn’t really so much a punch as shaking – like a terrier with a rat but still with enough force enough to calm all three of them down for the balance of the trip.
There was a specific reason for that tactic: I knew it would get his attention without hurting him and the low level of force applied combined with the location of our seat should have kept everything out of sight of Bob. It wasn’t until I glanced up at Bob’s eyes in the rear view mirror minutes later that I realized that I was mistaken. Bob was looking right at me , his pale blue laser gaze letting me know that I was definitely busted. I began to sweat; Bob was an institution in Sterling , the custodian/bus driver since the doors opened in the late 1950s. He was this big, taciturn mountain of a guy and even at sixteen I was respectful.
It wasn’t just Bob’s opinion that had me worried though. While it is true that in those times school systems weren’t as jittery about conflict and fighting like they are now, if Bob were to report me I could have gotten into real trouble and possibly lost my bus privileges . For a minute I considered trying to sneak off the bus before Bob could talk to me but the bus was all but empty before that thought occurred to me.
“David” Bob’s deep voice rumbled more than spoke ” I want you to come up here where I can talk to you before we get to your house.”
( Oh no. Dead meat. Could I get kicked out of school too?)
” I saw what happened back there with you and Brandy – the way you shook him up.”
” He needs that to happen to him more often.”
“All three of them all need it. They can’t keep their hands to themselves and I can’t personally take care of them every time they act up. I’m not telling you it’s OK to beat him all the time, but you helped me out a lot by shaking him up. Made life a lot easier for Sherry and the other girls on the bus as well.”
…and at that point we pulled up at our driveway and I hopped off the bus and went straight to my loft bedroom. During supper that evening my mom kept asking me why I was smiling so much. Was there a new girl at school? Was NBC bringing back Star Trek? Did I have gas? I countered each comment with some vague joke as I finished my meal.
Life on the frontier did not come with a lot of entertainment. Movies were six months in getting to our theaters, songs took six weeks to get to our radio stations, television shows were delayed two weeks …and when they did get there the reception was terrible. The closest bookstores were three hours away in Anchorage so we had to depend on grocery and drug store news stands for a thin supply of comics, magazines and paperback books. The town of Soldotna was referred to as “Slow-dotna” – and not in jest. Into this monotony I had been handed a golden ticket. As I ate dinner I kept thinking of the entertainment value in Bob’s directive to me. I never again laid a hand on any kid on the elementary school bus but one hard glance was enough to send them all scrambling, the sight of which was better than anything I’d ever see in a two week old TV show or 6 month old movie.
My friend Sherry….several years after this story