I look on school buses with fond memories. Rode one most of my public school days. Even in predawn darkness you didn’t have to see one to know it was coming. It’s a sound familiar to anyone who’s stood by the road waiting for a ride to school. The gears shift, puffs of oily smoke shoot out, and the engine growls with a sort of metal clashing, rising then flattening. Here it comes, lights flashing, stop sign swinging out.
The yellow school bus: it rolls along in many people’s memories of school. I went to school on one. I went to play football games on one, and my Dad was the school bus driver much of my life. My very first published article was a small piece in the paper back home on school bus safety. School buses and I have a fond association. Can’t see one without going back to my school days. I rode the bus all my life to school and it was only in my senior year that I drove a car to school. I have more memories of the bus than I do my first set of wheels and well I should. The school bus was an extension of school itself. Get in trouble on the bus and you could find yourself in the principal’s office.
I never got into any trouble on the bus for a simple reason: Dad was the bus driver. Whereas today’s buses come equipped with video cameras, my bus came equipped with an alert set of parental eyes. I dared not misbehave. That didn’t stop a lot of mischief from taking place in its products though. Bullying, spitball wars, holding hands with girls, and shouting insults at people through windows that maddeningly would only half open frequently took place.
I’ll never forget an incident Dad experienced. At the far end of his route he had to turn his bus around in the yard of a house sitting on rocks. It looked like a place Ernest T. Bass might have called home. It was the first day of school and as Dad pulled up, a man and his wife were chunking rocks underneath the house from opposite sides. Big white flint rocks. Their boy was hiding beneath the house. Finally, one of the rocks connected and a scruffy kid shot out like a rabbit. His dad grabbed him by the seat of the pants, tossed him onto the bus and shouted, “Shut the door!”
This first grader who had no desire to go to school ran to the back of the bus and sulked. About four miles later the kid crept up to the front of the bus and took a seat behind Dad. All seemed well but the kid was studying how Dad opened and closed the door. When the moment was right, he jumped up and pulled the handle back intent on leaping out the moving bus. Dad caught him by the back of his pants in the nick of time. As he pulled the boy toward him the kid slapped Dad in the face so hard he saw stars. Dad stopped the bus and gave the kid a spanking, something that would probably get him arrested. Many years later, when that kid was a grown man, he and Dad crossed paths. “Mr. John, you was the making of me,” he said. So, all turned out well.
Every bus smelled the same, a semi-sweet fragrance that hinted of wax crayons, a bit of leather, banana sandwiches, books and ink, and a strange trace of metal.
Many school buses in this part of the country come from a company headquartered in Fort Valley, Georgia, the Blue Bird Corporation. Albert L. Luce was a Ford Motor Company franchised dealer in Fort Valley and Perry, Georgia. Responding to a customer request in 1927, Luce and his dealership designed and built a bus body with structural enhancements superior to those on the market at the time, notably angle iron roof bows and all-metal construction (it had a canvas roof). Back then, most school bus bodies in North America were made mostly from wood.
The Great Depression was hurting Luce’s car and truck sales at his Ford dealerships, so he sold them. Luce, a visionary, saw a brighter future in school buses. With two brothers, he founded a bus manufacturing company. The trend in education to move from one-room schools to larger consolidated schools literally paved the way for Luce’s buses. And the name Blue Bird? He took it from the color of a demonstrator bus in 1932. In 1939, Blue Bird engineers developed the familiar yellow color we see today, a color especially formulated for school buses. The color, officially known in Canada and the U.S. as National School Bus Glossy Yellow, lets kids more easily see black lettering in the semi-darkness of early morning.
In 1948, Luce saw a design for a flat front bus at an auto show in Paris, France. Two years later Blue Bird Body Company introduced their own transit style design, which evolved into the Blue Bird All American, a design that gained widespread acceptance for school buses in North America.
The Blue Bird Corporation provides an enduring symbol of American values and virtues. It stands for something. (As the old saying goes, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”) Founded in 1927 under Christian principles, Blue Bird Corporation promotes the same values and ideals instilled in its workforce over 80 years ago. An original sign from Blue Bird’s founders reading, “God is our Refuge & Strength,” still hangs in the corporate headquarters, and a full-time chaplain conducts nondenominational services during business hours for any employee wishing to join.
I know a few city slickers who never rode a school bus. As far as I’m concerned their education is a less complete than mine. The jostling, often-uncomfortable ride on a school bus was as much a part of school as were textbooks and teachers. The bus driver had as much power as a teacher, and young kids often looked up to the older kid who wore a white belt and helmet serving as a so-called safety guard.
Used famously as a strategy in desegregation, the school bus has seen its share of history. It was a noisy, hot ride in summers without the luxury of air conditioning, and in the winter it was drafty and cold. Despite its shortcomings, it unfailingly carried kids to school and lives on in our memories even as many a retired bus is converted into campers, church buses, and motor homes.
To this day I can see “rabbit frost” spewing from winter’s frozen ground as I wait for the bus. And here it comes, all yellow, gears shifting, engine growling, lights flashing, and stop sign swinging out. In about 10 minutes and four more stops or so, I’ll be in school. At day’s end, a long line of buses will be waiting to take kids home, pulling off from in front of the school one by one. Yet another day of riding the bus will soon be done.