School bus drivers, almost like the postal service, rain, sleet, hail, dark always make it through, unless they don’t, and then everybody knows about it. It’s hard to hide a bus.
Herman drove bus for years. He was otherwise a Wisconsin dairy farmer, wiry, calm and steady, gray-haired thoughtful; this combination of work goes together pretty well, one on a strict schedule, the other flexible, mostly. He was friendly, not too talkative, good with the kids and it was an orderly bus. He would say hi to each school kid as they got on the bus and bye when they got off and usually the only other time they noticed him was if his blue-gray eyes found them in the internal bus mirror, then they quit or quieted whatever they were doing. Just eyes and maybe a little frown.
Every morning, every evening the drive was the same until Tuesday. Tuesday morning Herman’s wife, a nice, slightly overweight woman who had long believed in dairy products fed him soy milk and some cereal blend she had seen on Dr. Oz. She seemed a bit nervous when instead of frying eggs and bacon, she placed these items on the table with a bowl of stewed prunes. He smiled and ate and wondered if they were having anything more? She told him of her new dietary program they were joining for the next 21 days, all smiles and encouragement. Stella had decided to become vegetarian, whole grains, fiber and hoped he would too since she was cooking. She said she had the beans soaking for tonight’s meatless meal. She would be meditating while he drove bus that morning, “Isn’t that the most interesting thing?” He agreed that it might be interesting.
He went out to warm up the bus that he kept in his backyard every night. It was gone. Gone. How could it be gone? He had the keys in his pocket. He went back into the house and said, “The bus is gone.”
Stella responded, “Oh, I know. A person came last night while you were milking and took it. They seemed real nice. They said they were doing the Dr. Oz program, too.”
“Do you know their name? Or where they were taking the bus? Or when they were bringing it back?”
“No, I think they said their name, but I can’t remember…I’m working on a memory program too, so, but anyway they said they’d have it back when you needed it, some little mechanical fix of something. I’m meditating now, so if that’s all you wanted.” She put her ear buds back in and walked away.
“Ya, OK, I’ll call the school.” He dialed administration, Mr. Strict answered, “Good morning, Mr. Strict speaking.”
“This is Herman, bus driver on route 11, my bus is missing and I want to know who picked it up and how I’m supposed to do my route this morning?”
“Did you report this to the police?”
“No, I thought I should check to see if it was part of a planned fix first.”
“What kind of plan? Who have you talked to about this plan?”
“My wife said that last night a guy came here and said he was supposed to pick it up…so he did.”
“What guy? When did you plan to get the bus? What fix?” Mr. Strict went on to explain the anti-terrorist program he was working on and the threats to security he’d been fighting. He felt there was a possibility of a mass kidnapping via bus or even a bus bomb potentially blasting the cafeteria section of the high school since the new mealtime regulations had caused such an uproar with more fiber and less meat or…
Herman listened quietly, then said, “The kids on the route will be waiting, is there another bus? And are you going to call the police or do more checking?”
“I’m calling the SWAT team right now, group meeting, we may need to close down the schools, search everything, call in more support.”
“Hmm, maybe we need to check with maintenance first and just the regular sheriff’s department and how about the administrative secretary to contact the families on the route if its going be a long delay?” said Herman. “I’ll wait right here or do you want me to drive to the bus garage?”
“Good ideas, Herman. Yes, if you could go to the bus garage…ah, if this is a terrorist plot, but anyway, you go to the garage.”
“I’m going to the bus garage, honey.” No answer, so he wrote a note and put it on the kitchen table. The old blue Ford truck started with no problem even though it was very cold that morning. Herman figured if he got another bus he’d still only be about 15 minutes off schedule. He drove three miles and through the trees saw a bus in a farm-yard that looked a lot like his and slowed down so he could check the number, that was his bus! He pulled in and went to the farmhouse back door, knocked. The woman answered in a German dialect. He wasn’t sure what she said, but she appeared to want him to get the bus out of her yard. He asked to use the phone. No phone. No electricity. He told her he would leave his truck there and take the bus, she nodded and waved her hands, but he didn’t know for sure if she understood or not.
He went out and started his bus, then got on the radio to tell the school that he found the bus and was starting his route. He chuckled to himself about finding the bus on an Amish farm, weird maybe the garage guy left it in the wrong yard. Herman headed for the first pick-up on his route. The kids were a bit chilled from standing outside longer than usual and a couple of families seemed to have thought they missed the bus and so had taken the kids to school themselves.
The roads were icy, the sun glaring directly into his eyes on the east heading parts of the route making it hard to see. A large flock of turkeys, at least 20 big birds were right in the middle of the road as he came around a corner. They launched into flight, eight to 10 pound missiles right at bus windshield level. Herman braked, the bus lurched and skidded and slid and toppled gently and firmly into the ditch. Kids screamed, books and bags shifted and Herman wanted to swear, but he didn’t.
“Everybody OK?” he asked. There was one little girl who was crying, but an older sister said she was fine. Herman called in to report the accident and got Mr. Strict. Mr. Strict wanted to know if he thought the bus had been rigged.
Herman said, not unless the flock of turkeys was part of the plot and requested the wrecker. Mr. Strict didn’t say anything. Herman repeated that the turkeys were just in the road at the wrong time. Mr. Strict said he didn’t want to call for the wrecker and wanted to know if it was actually needed.
“Yes, we’re going to need it to get out and someone’s got to come pick up the kids in the meantime.”
“You sure you need the wrecker, it costs more to get the wrecker and you know we’re holding down the budget, except if it’s terrorism.” Herman repeated that a wrecker would be needed and that it didn’t seem to be terrorism.
“I’ve got to go to the bathroom,” said the sweet, teary faced girl. Her sister tried to hush her and told her that the only place to go would be out in the snow and everybody on the bus would see her and she’d never live it down for the rest of the time she was in school. She got real quiet after that and said no, she’d hold it.
Then a dog came up to the front of the bus, it squatted and peed when it got almost to Herman, the pee running sideways and towards the bus doorway. Herman looked at the kids, “Whose dog is this?”
“It was on the bus when we got on,” said one fourth-grade boy.
“We thought it was yours, and she’s real friendly. I guess she had to go, too.”
Everyone sat quietly and watched the stream of pee run down the bus steps. The dog looked at the bus driver, wagged her tail in apology and went back to the back of the bus. The bus radio buzzed, Herman picked it up. “What? There’s a SWAT team at my farm? But I shouldn’t worry about that…My wife’s invited them for calico bean stew this evening? OK with me, sure, more Dr. Oz fans, OK dokie.”
In northern Wisconsin the roads become icy, the ditches become snow bound, the animals become restless, winter gets long, memory gets short, terrorism seems possible and losing a bus may be the least of it all.