by Shawn Crawford
In the 70s our church caught bus fever as an effort to bring in the sheaves with greater volume (we pass the salvation savings on to you!). We began deploying a fleet of ancient school buses, painted Baptist blue, out into the neighborhoods of town to bring anyone that so wished to church. Heathen parents gleefully signed up their kids so they could read the paper and drink coffee in peace. Today such an effort would be like inviting people to sue you and then providing a free ride to the courthouse. Come for the mass transit; stay for the litigation.
A man named Ed kept our Bad News Buses rolling. Ed wore blue coveralls, and I never remember seeing him without a scab on his bald head. Standing on the bumper, he would disappear into the bowels of an angry engine until he emerged grease-covered and muttering to himself. Hopefully Ed now rides in comfort on a bus powered by an inexhaustible supply of love, and his battered dome is smooth and content, bathed every morning in heavenly sunlight.
My uncle helped to make sure the buses had gas and were ready for their Sunday duties. He and I already had a history with vehicles. Indeed we did. My father worked as a Frito-Lay delivery man, stocking the shelves of grocery stores, jockeying for space with Guy’s potato chips and other regional brands. Frito-Lay was just emerging as the dominant player; the introduction of Nacho Cheese Doritos in 1972 would cause their popularity to skyrocket.
Both my uncle and father wanted more, though, and what they especially wanted was to own their own business and work on their own terms.
They had opened a television repair business, which my uncle ran full-time and my dad moonlighted at after work and on weekends. Televisions still had vacuum tubes and square screens and were housed in enormous cabinets; my cousins had a remote control (the future right in the palm of your hand) that caused the dial on the television to turn. I remember the ca-chunk, ca-chunk as it took you around the horn to peruse all four channels.
To get the televisions to and from the shop, my uncle drove a white panel van. He would bring my dad home from work in it, and then they would sit and talk in the middle of the street while the van idled. I would wait on the curb. And wait. And wait. The time felt like an eternity to a five-year old. So I sat there with my enormous head and red hair, my belly sticking out from beneath my shirt. Not until my thirties did I realize how little we really had; none of my shirts fit because they were hand-me-downs from other relatives, so in every picture that big head is smiling and my stomach is hanging out of my too-short shirt. I looked like an Irish Buddha. You were such a happy kid, my father always says.
One Friday I sat waiting on the curb when I hatched a brilliant plan: since they would be sitting there forever, I would run around to the passenger side of the van and greet Dad. As I started across the street, I didn’t realize Dad had already gotten out of the van to head to the house. My uncle hit the gas and ran me down. Then a worried part of his brain thought, “Wasn’t Shawn here just a second ago?” To survey the area better, he backed up. Backed up. If I had fallen behind a tire, I’m pretty sure I’d be dead now, my giant head a sad and fading memory.
My father picked me up, carried me to the back of the van, and my uncle drove hell bent for leather to the hospital. Actually he didn’t drive hell bent for anything because we didn’t use that kind of language. Worried, Dad looked compassionately in my eyes and said, “Why didn’t you look both ways?” I’m sorry, could you repeat that? All this blood loss seems to be affecting my hearing.
Many stitches later, on the top and right side of my head, and I think after ice cream (I was pretty concussed) we headed home to . . . practice crossing the street. I distinctly remember peering around the back of the Frito-Lay truck, checking for cars, and woozily heading to the other side. In later years, my father has come to the realization he may have overdone it in the safety department. Being the firstborn isn’t all beer and skittles. Although we didn’t drink beer, we did have the game of skittles at our church rec center. We had the version with a top you unleashed, and it bounced around various compartments knocking over wooden pins.
Amazingly, I would one day allow my uncle to take me for a ride on his motorcycle. But on this Saturday my father and I helped him get the buses ready. Twelve at the time, my uncle suggested I check the gas gauges. Presently I found myself in possession of keys and no supervision. Most buses just required a turn of the key to engage the electrical system and run the gauges. However, a couple of them had to be started for the gauges to work. Just put your feet on the brake and clutch my uncle instructed, as the buses all had manual transmissions (you could always tell who drove in the bus ministry by their massive forearms), turn the engine over, check the gauge, and move on. What could be simpler?
Looking back, the instructions to start the bus seem unnecessary. I can’t imagine the gauges not working unless you started the bus. And here we find the great conflict between What You Are Sure Happened and What Actually Happened. As the neurologist Oliver Sacks points out writing about memory, we can reconstruct events so vividly, with such detail, we know they must be true, and we will fight to the bitter end defending them. Sacks learned he had long remembered an event from his World War II childhood he couldn’t have possibly been present at. Yet he had incredibly detailed memories of being there and experiencing it.
Perhaps one of the reasons all wisdom literature advises us to forgive involves our ability to remember the past in such a way we always emerge blameless and wronged. Rather than engaging in endless accusations and trying to persuade each other our recollections steer closer to the reality of the situation, the sages advise to just let it go. Very little of life depends on What Actually Happened; it turns instead on how we choose to react to it.
So What Actually Happened in busland? Was I really told to start the bus or did my longing to fire up any vehicle make me believe so? But if that is the case, how did I know to put my foot on the clutch, information I can’t imagine knowing prior to that point. None of our cars at home had manual transmissions, although my father’s delivery truck did now that I think of it. I could hear those gears grinding when I got the rare treat to ride along. See how that works? You have many people to make amends with, don’t you?
So I arrived at the last bus to check with either a deep longing to start the engine or the necessity to do so. Placing my feet on the clutch and brake, I proceeded to crank the blue beauty but it kept dying. Again, what happened next? In my memory my uncle tells me to give it some gas to start the engine, but did I already know this somehow? But give it some gas I did, and the beast roared to life, and I just kept on giving it gas. Because I was twelve going on Steve McQueen.
That clearly exhausted my knowledge of the subject, because I now had no clue how to cut the engine. Rather than simply turning the key to off, I panicked and kept revving. And then I popped the clutch. The next moments live on in First Baptist Church legend.
The front of the bus lurched completely off the ground like a bucking colt and smashed the bus ahead of it (I was at the back of the line). This set off a chain reaction of lurching and smashing. In my twelve year-old mind this continued for about an hour and several dozen buses, but I think it amounted to about four in all. All the headlights busted as Ed, my uncle, and father watched on in fascinated disbelief.
Can you remember the sheer, abject terror of a mistake so colossal your tiny child brain can’t construct a consequence awful enough to match the destruction you have wrought? I simply assumed my body would be lashed to the front of a bus and the same process of lurching and smashing would be repeated over and over. They would leave me there so children the next morning could learn a cautionary tale from my fate.
Long, long, awkward silence. A small tinkling of glass as the headlights continued crumbling, and then the sound of mercy, the sound every filthy and unworthy sinner longs to hear. Laughter. Ed began laughing his head off. Did you see that? he asked my uncle and father over and over. Never saw anything like it, he bellowed, and the blue coveralls sprang into action to figure out what needed repairs.
Generally such disasters led to immediate and lengthy in-service training on How to Avoid That Fiasco Again (see panel van above). But the laughing just continued, and then we went home.
I can still feel the lurch of that bus. My stomach dropping like the first descent on a roller coaster. The fear and the exhilaration all at once. Ed’s bald head bobbing in delight. I don’t know if those buses ever saved any of the kids they carted to Sunday school, but they certainly saved me from believing all transgression led to wrath and tears.