I’m an angry dude. Anger is my friend. I use anger.
I’m a redhead and when I get angry, my skin turns crimson and my neck veins swell up and a vein in my forehead pulses and throbs. It makes the anger scarier.
I drive a school bus and coach high-school football, basketball, and track. I’ve got a naturally loud voice and when I start bellowing, kids listen up. The first- and second-graders practically go into shock.
I used to be a drill instructor in the Corps, but when I got too old to keep up with the maggots on their cross-country runs with eighty-pound packs, I mustered out.
When you want somebody to do what you want, you’ve got to get their attention. Fear is a good way to do that.
Some folks don’t have easy access to their anger. They’re anger-constipated. They’re bound up. They rarely get what they want. Wimps.
Sometimes, though, the wimps get on the verge of exploding. When you run into one like that, maybe you get a little scared and give them what they want. That can confuse them. What a way to live.
I was married at one point but it didn’t work out. She could dish it out but she couldn’t take it. Actually, she didn’t dish it out that much either.
I had this trick, driving the school bus. When the kids got too noisy, I would put my left foot on the gas pedal and hold on to the steering wheel with my left hand and stand up in the aisle while we were busting down the highway at full speed. I’d twist my upper body around to face the rear and start shouting for everybody to shut up.
I’d try not to get too salty when I did this, but when I start ranting, the language just comes out. It’s force of habit. The kids probably hear worse from their parents and the other kids out in the school yard. Kids today.
Last Friday, it was the final day of school before two weeks of vacation. I had a full bus and we were just starting out on the county road after classes let out. I was in a little bit of a hurry because I had to get back to coach practice. The kids were wild, like animals who knew the cage door was about to open. They threw paper wads at each other and shouted and left their seats, which was forbidden. Fast as we were going, I did the left-foot, left-hand trick and stood up to instill the fear of God in them.
This was just before we came to the Carter bridge, which crosses the gorge out in the woods west of town. I glanced up the road and before I had a chance to begin my tirade, I saw a piece of metal brace lying in the road. Probably dropped off a semi. We rolled over it and it slashed open our left-front tire.
The bus lugged left off the road and by the time I had dropped back into my seat and reached the brakes, we were headed for the cliff that dropped into the gorge. The ground was muddy, which slowed us a little. I stood on the brake pedal. The brakes locked and we slid. We took down three pines the size of Christmas trees and finally stopped with the front of bus hanging over the cliff. Just like in the movies.
What we didn’t want to do was teeter. One good teeter forward and the town could arrange a mass funeral. I didn’t want to move at first. Just wanted to use my voice to keep everybody still until I could work out the best escape plan for us. Nobody was going out the door. It opened on to thin air. The kids were screaming.
I began shouting orders. The screaming didn’t let up.
“Don’t try to scare them,” Sarah said, next to my ear. Sarah is an eighth-grader.
She was right. The kids were already more scared than I could make them.
“You need to calm them down,” Sarah said. “You need to be nice for a change.”
I turned in my seat, ever so gently. I looked back into the bus. Forty pairs of big round eyes stared back at me. The bus rang with cries and shrieks. I took a breath.
“Listen to me,” I said in a normal voice.
Nobody could hear me. I held up a hand.
“Listen to me,” I said again.
“First of all, hold still,” I said. “As long as the bus doesn’t rock, we’ll be OK.”
Everyone took that in.
“Very good,” Sarah said.
I looked at her. She was tense but I could see the wheels turning in her head. She was solid.
“We all need to be in the back,” I said to her. “One at a time.”
She stood up slowly. She held up her hands, palms down, to keep everyone seated. Then she pointed at a girl in the seat behind hers.
“Go back very slow,” she said to the girl.
The girl got up and walked up the slanted aisle. Tears were flowing throughout the bus.
Sarah repeated this, calm as could be, with kid after kid, until everyone but her and me were crammed together in the rear.
“Go ahead,” I said to her and she moved back.
I got up and tip-toed to join them.
“Should we open the emergency door in the back?” she said.
“I’m afraid of the… the shock of it,” I said. “Pulling that lever and then trying to push the door up and open. We could all bail out the back with the door open, true, but not if the vibration makes the bus move.”
We thought about it.
“There are two windows open,” I said. “We can fit the smaller kids through them. With the little ones off, we’ll try the door.”
We lifted a first-grader and slid him feet first through one of the open windows, and let him drop to the mud. He landed, got to his feet, and scrambled up along the ruts the bus had left, to safety.
It took a while to get everyone out who could fit through the window. The bus made sounds. Several times I thought I felt it sliding but my imagination was working overtime.
With all the little kids out, I thanked the big kids who had hung in there, helping and keeping their fear under control. High fives. Each child out the window had lightened the rear and increased the chance that the bus would tip forward and slide.
“I’m going to open the back door now,” I said. “All of you crowd close. When you can, jump out. I’ll hold the door up enough for you to fit through. When you’re on the ground, move away fast. You all did great.”
“What about you?” Sarah said.
“I’ll be right behind you,” I said.
I unlatched the door. Now I was sure the bus had become unstable. I pushed the door up and the big kids slipped out one by one.
By the time I was alone, with a world of relief washing over me, the bus was moving. As it did, its rear lifted higher. I got my foot on a back seat and pushed the door all the way open with both hands. I pushed off with my foot and was out the door. The bus pulled away from me more than the other way around.
It plunged into the gorge, leaving me behind face down in the mud, hands clawing, with my feet hanging over the cliff. Just like in the movies.
What got us into that mess? Me, fixing to rant.
What got us out? A girl with a calm soul.
I’ll never be like her, but she’s my new role model.
It was all my fault, of course, but no one was injured, physically at least. The town swept my guilt under the rug for insurance purposes.
My teams don’t know why their Coach changed, but they’re doing a lot better with the new, calmer edition.