By Wayne Litke
It’s another week and space now permits me to tell you about the two most-exciting aspects of my daily bus ride.
Our ritualistic ride to and from school included a frost heave that was at the midway point of our trip. It was never successfully eliminated and grew to a substantial size with the onset of winter. Our bus driver, nicknamed Crunchie, grew tired of slowing down for the rough spot that was always awaiting repair and would plow over it at full speed. It was a rough jolt for anyone on the bus, but especially for the children sitting behind the rear axle. Our bus was long and anyone at the very rear was catapulted upward when the rear tires hit the frost heave. The vertical gain was likely only four or five inches, but it felt like three feet when a person was not expecting it. Consequently, there was always a rush to fill the back seats when we boarded the bus. Any new kid or guests who were on the bus for their first time where automatically given a seat at the rear and not told about the frost heave. I guess we learned from our bus driver that the best human reactions are ones where the victim is totally oblivious of what is going to happen.
Without a doubt, the most exciting point of our journey to and from school was called the Rock Cuts. It was given that name because the highway was literally cut into the side of a rock face. The road followed the curvature of a hill and resembled a snake’s back. On one side of the highway was a vertical rock face and opposite was a small guardrail and 300-foot drop to Burns Lake and the railway that followed its contours. Failure to successfully navigate the S-turn meant certain death, but there was only one fatality on that dangerous section of road that I can recall.
Since tourism was an important aspect of the local economy, a highway engineer decided to add a scenic viewpoint at the midway point of the Rock Cuts when the highway was being constructed. From the pullout, the view of the lake below was spectacular. Even more memorable was the sight of a school bus or logging truck as it suddenly filled a tourist’s rearview mirror while pulling out from the viewpoint.
Crunchie didn’t like to slow down for anything, so there were several times he had to brake hard to avoid rear-ending a slow-moving vehicle or a moose on the highway. We learned on the bus to loath Alberta drivers because they typically drove at 40-45 mph on corners. They then sped up to over 60 mph on the few straight sections of highway. Passing such vehicles in a school bus was a definite challenge, but our bus driver managed to do it. Of course a fish (alive or dead), an unwanted sandwich or some other token of our disdain was sometimes left with the offensive vehicle as the school bus passed it. From the hours we spent on the bus every week, we learned Crunchie would not slam on the brakes or take disciplinary measures while passing another vehicle. That provided a small window of opportunity for shenanigans provided he was not scanning his interior mirror with his unflinching stare that was dubbed the evil eye.
Which leads me to the most exciting school bus ride we ever had. It happened one summer day while travelling home and left memories the passengers on board will never forget. I was sitting in the middle of the bus at the time and did not see what caught the attention of Crunchie. Perhaps it was Russell – I don’t recall (see last week’s column). Without a doubt students were misbehaving at the front of the bus and his evil eye caught them in the act.
The bus was midway through the Rock Cuts at the time, but that did not stop our bus driver from turning around smacking kids with his willow switch. We were watching the action when the young girls who sat near the front of the bus screamed. The bus had crossed the double-yellow line and was heading into a rock wall. Crunchie snapped back to his driving position, spun the wheel with his free hand and the bus leaned precariously to one side. Then it careened back across the road and toward the guardrail. The girls screamed again. The rest of us were silent – not believing what our eyes were seeing. After another big zigzag across the center line, Crunchie got the bus under control and back in our own lane as an oncoming vehicle came around the corner. We didn’t know what to say after all that excitement, so it was another quiet trip home that day.
My sister and I told our parents what had transpired when we got home. Our lives had almost ended at the hands of the same man who also saved us from death. How ironic is that? I am sure other children told their parents also, but nothing came from it. I believe my mother and father thought we were exaggerating or perhaps they did not want to make waves and have their children become the subject of the bus driver’s wrath.
What truly irritated all the passengers on our bus was the day Crunchie opened the bus doors and was wearing a new embroidered badge on his jacket. It stated: Five years safe driving. He wore that badge with honour exactly like a drill sergeant wears his stripes. The wording was technically correct and for that I am grateful. However, that badge could have easily been replaced by a disturbing newspaper headline about a fatal school bus accident. Thank God times have changed.