In the Trenches: Bus Driver

Rick Williams owns Rick’s Sign Company, a commercial sign shop in Longview, Texas. He has been in the sign industry since 1973 and has been a contributing editor to Sign Business since 1986. Contact Rick via e-mail at ricksignco@aol.com.

Mr. Kuykendal was the assistant superintendent of Pine Tree I.S.D., which meant he answered only to the superintendent, was over all teachers and principals, and he was my boss, too. He had hand-picked a few young men, high school seniors, and drafted us into duty as paid school bus drivers during the fall semester.

Coaches doubled as bus drivers before classes, but were tied up each afternoon with football practice, and as I had not signed up for football that year, I was available. This was back in 1971, but few of the buses were new, and all had standard transmissions. Fortunately, my dad had taught me to drive old trucks since the age of 12 and those buses weren’t much different. Oddly, my rig was an old GMC, Bus No.6, the same one I had ridden each day as a boy just a few years before.

But hauling a load of 70 children, mostly elementary and middle school age, was a bit different and on a whole new level of personal responsibility. Looking back, it’s a bit hard to believe they ever allowed any 17-year-old, even one with a commercial license, to take on that big a job. Being young and overconfident, I knew to drive slowly and to be careful, but hey, what could possibly go wrong?

I remember Carl, a hefty little fourth grader, who loved to be loud and bully some of the smaller ones. One day when I had had enough of him, I booted him off the bus about two blocks from his house and told him he could walk the rest of the way. I figured he deserved worse than that, but that’s what I get for figuring.

The next day, my boss, Mr. Kuykendal got an ear-full from Carl’s mom, who said if that half-wit teenaged bus driver didn’t deliver her son all the way home, heads were going to roll… starting with mine! Oh, so much to learn, so little time.

Also, on my bus were three siblings, ranging from third grade to nearly my age, who had moved to East Texas from south Louisiana, and the youngest one, a dark-haired Cajun beauty who looked like a child star from the Mickey Mouse Club. She was a doll, and I thought she might be a little angel until one of the other kids rubbed her the wrong way and she lit into that boy with a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush! And before my tour of duty was over she would verbally straighten me out a time or two as well. Mercy!

I actually enjoyed my time as afternoon bus driver, and as the winter set in, that warm bus full of energetic kids was welcoming to me. But tennis season started in early spring, and my afternoons were soon taken. However, the fun wasn’t over yet.

Turned out that our coach wasn’t an official bus driver, and when we needed a bus to take us to another town for a tennis match or tournament, they would put me back on the payroll and not have to look further for a driver that day. What a bonus and an ego trip! But the coach knew better and sat up front watching my every move, and I’m kind of glad he did.

The best thing about this arrangement, was that after we’d all played our hearts out, the team was allowed to stop at a Dairy Queen on the road, and we were given a small allowance to get something to eat. But the DQ policy back then was that any bus driver who delivered a load of patrons could eat free and eat all he wanted. Man did I take advantage of that! Few grown men could match the appetite of a 17-year-old half-athlete-half bus driver, or would even be brave or dumb enough to try.

Within two or three years of my short bus-driving career, I would become the official sign person for the Pine Tree Independent School District, and I hand lettered that long name and the unit numbers on every new bus, van or truck the school would acquire. I also maintained the large painted mascot that stood high on a pole at the end of the football field, and did any number of other sign jobs around the various campuses of my old alma matter. That was fun too. Oh heck, it was all fun, at least from my present perspective of 60-something looking over my shoulder to a very different time and a somewhat different me.

But not totally different, as the first rule in the Signman’s Ten Commandments, and I have a copy of them around here somewhere, is to never work on an empty stomach. And that young bus driver didn’t let his stomach stay empty long, and had the spending money or privilege to make sure it wasn’t. He wasn’t afraid of working hard or playing hard either.

I hope your shop is as busy as mine, and your memories are as good as mine, too. And one more hope I have for each of us, is that we can keep on remembering them.