There were no cellphones in 1979 – and, believe it or not, no 911, either.

To alert the fire department or rescue squad, one had to dial a specific local number. I don’t recall what this landline number was for Capon Bridge, but in Augusta, to save your life you dialed McKee Funeral Home.

I have nothing to add to that.

Perhaps this primitive but solidly reliable system that was in place at the time contributed to the confusion regarding a certain daytime ambulance call. Again, lacking cellphones or the toll-free 911 that could eventually be used from any of the myriad pay phones available then, an agitated motorist stopped at the Capon Bridge Rescue Squad.

“A tractor-trailer hit a school bus on Schaffanaker Mountain.” he blurted and drove on. Fortunately, a squad member was there to receive the message, which was rare in those days. The member activated the alarm and we quickly had a crew assembled; a driver and 2 attendants, one of which was me.

I noticed that the other attendant, an experienced medic, seemed worried beyond the expected apprehension of what we might find.

Traffic was backed up, so we had some difficulty getting the ambulance to the scene. Leaving our driver to sort out the mess, the other attendant and I grabbed a “jump kit’’—a huge canvas bag full of medical equipment and supplies and continued on foot.

While still not within sight of the wreckage, my partner balked.

 “You go ahead.” she stammered. “You won’t know anybody.”

I could almost see her reasoning; She grew up in the area while I had just moved into the community from Southern Iowa. She presumed that I would be better able to detach myself emotionally if I didn’t know any of the victims from Adam.

I won’t pass judgment on her choice of action, but anyone who might be critical of it and thinks that they would do better in a similar situation is welcome to stop by the Rescue Squad building and pick up an application for membership.

(This medic no longer resides in the area.)

Upon arriving at the crash site, I found that the bus and the tractor-trailer had merely clipped each other’s mirrors. The drivers waited dutifully for law enforcement to arrive.

The bus had been going uphill and the tractor-trailer downhill. The gasoline-powered, non-turbocharged buses of that era weren’t known for excessive speed when climbing hills. The fast descending truck had crossed into the bus’s lane.

Through her quick and decisive response, the skillful veteran Hampshire County school bus driver averted a tragedy.

For some odd reason, this incident began a long period of contacts with the Hampshire County school transportation system. Such activities included helping Baker Equipment co-worker Vaughn Keiter install tire chains on his bus.

(While such assistance was permissable then, current insurance regulations forbid the practice. Therefore, while I was permitted to assist that tough old logger, farmer and mechanic, I must now stand helplessly by while my wife struggles in the snow and ice.)

The old International (or “Infernal-national,” according to Vaughn) buses hid a problem with their automatic carburetor choke mechanisms. These choke valves would randomly and suddenly close, cutting off the essential air flow through the carburetor.

Now and then, I would find one of these buses stalled on the roadside or even in the middle of a steep climb. Again, remember that many of these locations were quite remote with no means of communication apart from smoke signals.

The procedure was simple; Remove the air cleaner, wire the choke open, then hand the air cleaner to the driver. An air cleaner on the floor of the bus draws the mechanic’s attention to the problem. Local air just doesn’t contain that much harmful particulate matter, so the bus could usually finish its run without doing any harm.

Otherwise, the problem probably wouldn’t be addressed until cold weather made the bus impossible to start without a choke.

Since I always carried a chainsaw on our old blue 1954 Chevrolet truck, occasions would arise when I would cut a fallen tree out of the road to allow a school bus to pass.

Back then, I had no idea that my relationship with Hampshire County school transportation would culminate in my wife actually becoming a driver.

Her joining these ranks cast me into the realm of endless funny stories about nameless (by law) passengers and 5 a.m.  foot rubs.

(She maintains that there is an obscure statute in county law that requires spouses of female bus drivers to provide a morning foot massage in order to ensure wakefulness in the pre-dawn hour. While I haven’t had the time to look it up, there’s enough consensus among the ladies to verify its adoption and ratification.)

As the school year comes to a close, helping to clean the bus is another honor bestowed upon the driver-spouse who doesn’t have a regular 9-to-5. (Indeed, some who work full-time do also participate.)

Now, the bus may be brought to the bus garage any time after school on the last day. Some drivers use this as an opportunity to clean their buses using the facilities there. Meanwhile, the same is happening at the old Capon Bridge school and at numerous private sites around the county.

When freshly cleaned, a bus is ready to be parked for the summer.

But the best is yet to come; the official Turning-in-of-the-Bus, a yearly ceremony that my position privileges me to attend. It’s genuinely festive, though there is no live band, and rarely any light refreshments. There’s no bunting or streamers, monster trucks or hot-air balloon races.

Drivers show up by appointment, pull the fire extinguishers and first-aid kits from their buses and carry them to the garage for storage, recharging or updating as needed. Drivers also submit a form detailing the bus’s minor quirks that they’ve been tolerating over the past school year – problems too minor to affect safe operation, things only a driver would notice.

The mechanics will spend part of the summer going down the lists and making the necessary repairs and adjustments There’s usually about a half-dozen drivers present.

Some are new acquaintances through my wife’s job; these usually refer to me as “Mr. Stephanie.” Some I knew well before she started driving; a few go way-y-y back, the driver mentioned in the beginning story may even be among them.

It’s a modest event, subtle and fleeting, but celebration is in the air.

Have a great summer, drivers.  o

 

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