When I was in the 2nd grade, my parents transplanted our little family from the small town of Atchison, Kansas to the even smaller town of Effingham, Kansas. We did not just move from small town to speck on a map, but we moved from town to country. My parents purchased their “American Dream” and it came in the guise of an eighty-acre farm in Northeast Kansas. Well, it was my mother’s dream anyway and we were all enticed to join in on that dream. She even promised us our very own dog. Who could pass up a dog? So for me, my mother’s “American Dream” meant a new school, new friends, a dog, and a new mode of transportation to get to school: a big yellow school bus.
On my first day of school at Effingham Grade School, my mom drove me, with my little brother, so she could meet my new second grader teacher, Mrs. Ukena. It was a rainy day and the school seemed dark, but Mrs. Ukena was bright and cheery, so I felt I was in good hands.
“I can’t wait to see you after school!” my mom said as she knelt down with her hands on my shoulders to look me in the eyes. The next words out of her mouth were, “Honey, you’ll be riding the school bus home today. Listen to Mrs. Ukena and the bus driver and you’ll be just fine.” I knew no one at this school and I had never ridden a bus before! I’m not even sure I knew what a school bus looked like! Then my mom turned around with my little brother in tow and left. She just left me there!
The last bell of the day came at three that afternoon and Mrs. Ukena led us all to the bus right outside the school. It was big and it was yellow and it was dirty from the rain and mud of the day. She lined us up and said goodbye to each and everyone of us from the safety of her umbrella, which she used to shield each one of us from the rain as we loaded into the belly of the yellow beast. The bus pulled away from the school, full of children eager to be home. I sat in the front seat, diagonal from the bus driver. It had been raining all day and it seemed the rain would never end.
“How long will it take to get home?” I questioned the bus driver after I sat down.
“Well, it’s going to take me about three hours, but I’ll have you home in about forty-five minutes,” he said with a toothy smile. His name was Mr. Ellerman and he wore faded blue jean overalls with a red plaid shirt and a green and yellow Pioneer Seed hat topped him off. I soon learned that he was a substitute driver for today and that Mrs. Ellerman, his wife, was the normal driver for my bus. As Mr. Ellerman commented with a crooked smile, “The Missus is under the weather today, so you get me!”
The bus windows were steaming over, so you had to wipe them with your sleeve to see out. The rain was vicious. With the windows were fogged over, you could see all of the writing and drawings kids created on those steamy windows and some you did not want to see! We had been on the road for about thirty minutes and I had no idea where I was. I was new here, nothing was familiar. It wasn’t until Lynn Elaine Fitzpatrick said “goodbye” that my surroundings became familiar. We were at the Fitzpatricks, our closest neighbors! I was almost home! Down the hill, over the bridge, through the valley, and back up to the white house on the hill. We could not get there soon enough!
The big yellow bus lumbered its way down the hill toward the bridge. The gravel road had turned to liquid and it seemed as though we were sliding down the hill to the bridge. Mr. Ellerman never took his eyes off the road. When we got to the bridge, he stopped and slowly inched the bus onto its weathered wooden planks. This bridge was old and not well maintained by the county. Some of the wooden planks were missing and the iron holding it together seemed to be painted in rust. We crawled over the bridge, Stranger Creek only inches below it. Inches? The creek should have been several feet below the bottom beam of that old wood and iron bridge.
Just across the bridge, Mr. Ellerman stopped the bus and sighed. Out of the front window, I could see why he had stopped, seemingly defeated. Water. Stranger Creek had swollen over her banks and flooded the valley. Mr. Ellerman turned his body to stand up and began to exit the bus. On his second step down, he looked at me eye level.
“I just live right up there,” I said worriedly pointing to the white house on the hill.
“Well, it looks like we may have to go around,” he stated without emotion. I wasn’t sure how much time this would add to my ride home, but I was ready to be home… NOW!
The bus grew silent. It was like a scene out of the “Ten Commandments” with Mr. Ellerman playing Charlton Heston playing Moses!
When he stepped out of the bus to survey the situation, the water hit Mr. Ellerman about mid-calf. He didn’t seem to notice as he was wearing those tall, black rubber boots farmers wear to walk in sloppy feedlots. He took off his Pioneer Seed hat and scratched his head with the hand that still held the hat. He looked at the flooded road, then looked at the tires of the bus. He looked at the road, then the tires. He repeated this action several times.
“I can do this.” He stated confidently aloud as he climbed back on board the bus and plopped down in the driver’s seat. His eyes seemed to gleam at the thought of the challenge, regardless of his young charges still on the bus.
Without saying another word, he grabbed the oversized steering wheel, threw the bus into gear, and started driving! The bus grew silent. It was like a scene out of the “Ten Commandments” with Mr. Ellerman playing Charlton Heston playing Moses!
As he drove us through the flood soaked road, the water parted inches before the wheels. Our liquid ride lasted only two or three minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. When we arrived at waterless road, everyone on the bus cheered for our new hero, Mr. Ellerman, our substitute bus driver.
He did not stop the bus until we reached the end of my long driveway. He opened the bus door for me to exit. As I walked past him and down the steps, he touched my arm and with a big toothy smile asked, “Hey kid, how’d you like them apples?” I looked up at him, smiled, and said, “I like them just fine.” And before I knew it, I was at the end of my long driveway and I could see my mom standing at the top of the hill waiting to welcome me home. And I was happy to be home.
I rode the same bus from second grade through my senior year of high school and the drivers changed only once from Mrs. Ellerman to my own mother! Mr. Ellerman never dove my bus again, but I will always remember the day he parted the waters of Stranger Creek to get me home.
© 2019 Gregory Vessar