Peter Macklin, a recent arrival to Western Canada back in September 1960, and I share fond memories of our first day of school. Peter was beginning his job as a full-time bus driver and I was finally old enough to start grade one. Although I couldn’t wait to climb those bus steps, my older brothers, Bob and Art, probably didn’t share my enthusiasm.
Peter, a native of the Bailiwick of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France, had signed up to maneuver a clunky vehicle much larger than those he drove back home. In all kinds of weather, he was to navigate his yellow bus over gravel roads that only a few years before had not been much more than trails cut through the brush.
With kindness and humor, he delivered his “kids,” as he called us elementary and junior high students, to and from school safely. It is no wonder that he became our lifelong friend.
Since this is Peter’s story, I’m going to let him tell it, complete with the Canadian spelling of certain words.
Peter Explains How He Came to Drive a School Bus
If you are new to a rural area in Canada and keen to get to know the neighbors, there can be no better way to do so than to get a job as a school bus driver. In the late 1950s, I came to stay with my uncle and aunt, Hugh and Dessa Macklin, on their farm not far from Calgary, Alberta. They truly lived in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Many of the landholders were descendants of the original settlers.
One of my cousins, Alec Macklin, was one of the Red Deer Lake School bus drivers. Since he wanted to miss the odd day, he persuaded me to get a license to drive a bus. My test consisted of a vision check, a road sign recognition test and a short drive through the suburbs of Calgary while the examiner ate his lunch.
That’s all it took for me to get a class one license. Not only did it qualify me to drive a school bus, but also an ambulance or fire engine.
The next step was for me to take a trip as a passenger with Alec on his bus route. After that, I climbed into the bus driver’s seat once in a while.
With the commencement of the new school year in 1960, I became a full-time driver. It was important for me to leave home at the same time each morning and drive at a leisurely pace to make the pickups on time at each place. Since some farms had fairly long driveways, I did not want the children standing in the cold too long.
Many families could see the bus coming in time to dash out and meet it. One family, who lived at the end of a long drive, had no way of knowing if the bus was on its way. The Taylor kids kept the makings for a fire at the gate. Elaine covered that story in her blog post.
Even with the best of intentions, it was sometimes impossible to be on time. Even though the roads were supposed to all be graveled, there were places where that gravel was not very evident. I recall once my speedometer indicated we had traveled over two miles churning through the mud. Actually, we had covered less than a half-mile.
At a few places on my bus route, it was necessary to turn around to backtrack. Because it was illegal to back onto a road, I would back up into those gateways. One foggy morning, I mistook the gateposts and backed into the ditch.
However, the body configuration of a school bus had far better traction than a truck. By distributing the passengers in a different seating arrangement, I drove right out.
Peter Recalls Getting Stuck Now and Then
In my first winter of driving, the snow would sometimes drift and we would be stuck. I kept two or even three shovels on the bus so that the bigger boys could help me shovel our way out. We once got stuck in a long, hard drift up near what is now the Leighton Centre.
It looked like it would require a long, hard shoveling job.
We were all glad to see the high school bus coming from the other direction. Onboard were a number of bigger boys who willingly jumped out to help with the shoveling.
In later years, the grader operator came to live near me and, since he did not want his kids to miss school, he plowed out my route first. I appreciated that.
The acoustics in a bus are very good so I could often hear quiet conversations going on in the back. I never let on but it did not take me long to get to know each individual passenger. Over a year or two, I silently amassed a story about each one. Although these tales remain locked in my memory as the individuals would easily be identified by other bus riders of that era.
Although discipline was not a problem, occasionally the bus would get too noisy. I’d tell the kids to hold it down. A funny thing about the noise is it would gradually build as children got on in the morning. However, it would not diminish in the afternoon until the second to the last kid got off.
I swept out the bus each day and the number of leftover sandwiches that I found annoyed me. A little humor helped me get my point across. One afternoon I stood up from my seat at the front of the bus after all the kids had loaded up at the school. That was very unusual for me to do.
I asked the kids to stop leaving food on the bus because I swept out their leftovers to my chickens. Tipping my head and scraping the roof of my mouth with my finger, I indicated what a challenge it was for a chicken to eat peanut butter. They loved my demonstration.
After that, there was rarely anything but some mud on wet days for me to sweep out.
The other bus drivers and I often were asked to attend school events. That is where I met the parents and the neighbors. Fortunately, the kids had already given a good report so the parents were keen to meet me. I easily made friends.
Peter Remembers Local Gatherings
Red Deer Lake Hall, an old community center near the school, did not have a drinking water source. Since people knew I had a good well and came to the school every afternoon anyway, they would ask me to bring a milk can of water for the evening event or ‘do,’ as these get-togethers were called.
Being single, I am not sure how I got involved in a parent/teacher meeting to plan a school Halloween party. As the weather was expected to be bad, it was to be held in the school. During a discussion about the contents of gift packages for the kids, gum came up.
One wise mother said, ‘Gum? We’ll be scraping it up for a week.’ I agreed.
Some of the neighbours near my age used to play badminton in the Red Deer Lake Hall until we got invited to use the school gym. What a difference in playing style that represented. In the hall, we made fast, low shots so as not to hit the ceiling. However, in the gym, the high shots gave us lots of time to get set to make the return shot.
An older (60 or so) bandy-legged man, who walked rather stiffly, sometimes came to play. However, with a racquet in his hand, he became so spry he could not be beaten.
Being a school bus driver also meant associating with the teachers who took their students on field trips to places like the Calgary Zoo and sports games at other schools. Occasionally, we were asked to render special assistance such as providing battery-powered spotlights for a nighttime outdoor skating carnival.
There was no such thing as the LED lights that we have available today, so I strategically positioned my school bus in front of the rink. Then I turned on its headlights to light up the ice. Of course, that meant my bus had to run through the entire program. Its battery would have run down otherwise.
I met a first-year teacher named Miss Raycraft, who was hardly much older than the grades seven and eight pupils she taught. She played badminton and danced with me at the hall ‘do’s and one thing led to another.
On my last bus trip before Miss Raycraft and I got married, a car passed our bus honking like mad. The kids had hung a sign on the back that said: “ABOUT TO BE MARRIED.”
See, I told you at the beginning of my story that there’s no better way to meet the right people than to be a school bus driver. Warm regards, Peter
* * *
You might also enjoy some of my other posts about rural Texas life:
Thank you, Peter, for sharing your memories of the first year you drove the school bus that my brothers and I rode. Those were good times! Readers, do you have a favorite memory from your early school days?