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Driving the bus

Welcome to new columnist Tom Preble.Tom is a retired mainframe computer field engineer. Tom and his family live in a modest energy efficient bermed home that Tom designed and built on their ranch in eastern El Paso County. As a writer, Tom has been regularly published in major newspapers and magazines, with nationally syndicated work to his credit. Tom tells a story in each of his columns – from his heart to yours.I apply sunscreen. Another day out in the sun driving little kids and adolescents awaits me.Among other things, I am a rural school bus driver. Bus drivers must pass a Colorado Bureau of Investigation criminal background check, driving record check, earn a commercial driver’s license and pass many additional tests. No, it’s not really a community service punishment for child-averse criminals, as one might imagine.The children give me daily gifts. There’s the little tyke who’s so excited to get on the bus that he tries to squeeze through his ranch pipe gate. He’s forgotten he has a backpack on. Firmly wedged, his arms and legs flail about like a stuck turtle. Dad gets out of the car and pries him free.Then, there’s the small boy whose dog is so glad to see him in the afternoon that the big canine just bowls the little guy over, a la Fred Flintstone and Dino. Or how about the little girl that sings me the song she learned in choir? I sing along with her, if I know the words.Another girl sits behind me and has me help her with her arithmetic. Using the Socratic method, I ask pointed questions that help her figure out the answers for herself. Then, there are the many dogs that would dearly like to come along. Those heeler dogs are smart. They’d probably do well.I like the kids, and they know it. At the end of the day, I drop them at their homes.The burgeoning evening is gorgeous. A showy orange and purple sunset plays behind Pikes Peak, 30 miles to the west. As I let the kids off in ones, twos and small groups, the noise level drops in the bus.At last, the remaining cohort of chattering children pile off. In the mirror, barely visible above the seat backs, I see the top of one child’s head. “Conner, you with me?” I ask. About 7 years old, Conner will be the last little guy to deliver. The arched-bus ceiling seems cathedral like in comparison to his small, lonely self. “Waddaya say we take you home?””OK!” is his enthusiastic but small-voiced reply.Driving on with miles to go, it’s just the two of us in the cavernous, “rattley” bus. At the head of a comet’s tail of dust, our bus is a yellow speck jouncing over a wide lonesome prairie. After a bit, Conner’s head disappears below the seat backs. “Sleeping,” I think, smiling to myself. School days are long for one so young, and so I find I’m driving with extra care, as if hauling nitro.Winter’s sun has set behind the mountain now. At last, Conner’s family’s place appears down the long gravel road. I creep slowly to a stop, the last stop – Conner’s driveway. “PFFFF!” Setting the air brake doesn’t wake him. The diesel engine growls, idling, waiting. “Conner,” I call in a soft dad’s voice, “You’re home.” The top of a little tow head reappears. I wait. Rubbing his eyes, half awake, he shuffles down the aisle. At the front he pauses and turns toward me in silence. Sleepy eyed, with arms outstretched, lunchbox dangling in one hand, he reaches without a word and hugs me as I sit belted in the driver’s seat. He silently turns to go down the steps. “Good night Conner,” I say softly.Between surprise and affection, satisfaction spreads within like a hot drink on a cold day. Not a glamorous job, driving a school bus. Not the kind of thing that would impress people at a party … “So, what do you do?” But an important job none-the-less. Important to be done perfectly every day, every gear shift, every stop. I realize that my eyes and smile must warm the kids more than any “rattley” old bus heater could. Suddenly, Conner has made all the rolling “monkey house on wheels” pandemonium OK.Just a humble job charged with trust. Oddly, I actually feel better about the job for its anonymity – and its assumptions about me. A little bit of the old fashioned America remains.I watch Conner as he shambles off down his long dirt driveway with his short 7-year-old gait. He’s flanked by two very happy, bounding “muttly” dogs. I pause to watch him because I have to. My eyes are moist and stinging. Darn that sunscreen.

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