2017-10-12 / Opinions

ACROSS THE SAVANNAH

Blue Bird’s fables yellow bus
By TOM POLAND
a southern writer

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 out. Here it comes, lights flashing, stop sign swinging out.

The yellow school bus: it rolls along in many people’s memories of school. It certainly does in mine. I went to school on it. I went to play football games on one, and my Dad was the school bus driver much of my life, replacing, I believe, Mr. Am Cliatt who previously drove Dad’s route. My very first published article was a small piece in the paper I ghostwrote on school bus safety for Mr. Johnny Freeman back in 1971 when he was superintendent of the school system. 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, my first and worst, to school. Looking back, 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: my 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 that sooner or later would catch me at home. I dared not misbehave.

That doesn’t mean trouble didn’t happen. Trips on the bus come senior ring time meant grueling punishment. Several seniors would turn their rings upside down on their finger and crack us kids on the head with a synthetic garnet stone. The best way to prevent that kind of bullying was to sit directly behind the driver, a seat reserved for troublemakers but a haven as well from bullies.

Funny thing about school buses. 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.

All buses were bare boned vehicles not much more than a wagon, and that was no coincidence, as you’ll see. In my memory, one bus towers over all others. The football team in my day rode the famous red and white bus, No. 20, to away games. Not only was this bus more colorful but also longer, bigger. I want to say that Mr. Clyde Ellison drove this bus as well as my Dad. Riding it seemed more of a privilege than a necessity. It was, as buses went, cool, one of a kind.

In a way, buses and Georgia go together; they have a special relationship thanks to the Blue Bird species of buses. Georgia, you see, enjoys a unique connection with school buses. Many school buses in this part of the country come from a company headquartered in Fort Valley, Georgia, the Blue Bird Corporation. The modern school bus has a colorful history, as you’d expect with one manufacturer of yellow buses being named Blue Bird.

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, a color his company famously deviated from.

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 is not just any corporation by the way. The company provides an enduring symbol of American values and virtues. The Blue Bird Corporation 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.

It’s good to know the company behind my old buses had its heart in the right place. 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 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 to round the curve up from Mr. Clifford’s grocery store. 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.

(Visit Tom Poland’s website at www.tompoland.net or email him about most anything at tompol@earthlink.net.)

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