Crossing the Desert
As a kid growing up in the country, I spent so much time riding in school buses that I knew every road, house, yard, barn, vineyard, orchard, tractor, pasture, animal, tree, and landmark in our area by heart. As the seasons slowly advanced, I was privileged to watch the San Joaquin Valley countryside as it was transformed by frost and fog, wind and rain, towering black thunderstorms, and searing heat. Along the way, we were chased by dogs, waved at by good-natured farmers, stared at by crews of laborers, and met at our stops by loyal hounds and little brothers and sisters eager for news and play. When we dropped off Edwin, a Japanese friend of mine, I would see his ancient, mottled grandfather chopping the sandy earth with a hoe. When I commented once on how his grandfather always seemed busy, Edwin confided that the old man used the hoe only when someone was driving by, so people would think he was working. The rest of the time, it was there simply to hold him up.
Though I did my share of shouting, laughing, and singing during those long daily rides, I never took my eyes off the landscape. There were certain things I expected to see, certain things I wanted and needed to see � old tank houses made of petrified wood, patches of dense shade formed by enormous, enchanted trees, rusted plows, cultivators, and manure spreaders no longer in use, a little cemetery here, a leaning pump house there, moss-lined irrigation ditches, and buzzards circling slowly overhead.
The first bus I rode in, way back in kindergarten, was a fairly short model with a big snout and a simple black 2 painted by the door. It had an upright metal handle the driver used to open and close the door, which was a squeaky two-piece affair edged with rubber and divided in the middle. From several feet away, the headlights looked like eyes. The driver�s name was Mr. Enns, but we called him �Bus Driver.� Mr. Enns wore glasses and had thin gray hair that he combed straight back. I still remember how discouraged he looked one hot day around noon when one of the kids yelled, �Bus Driver, Timothy threw up,� and then after a brief pause added helpfully, �I think it was the milk.� Even though we weren�t far from Timothy�s house, the poor man had no choice but to pull off the road and clean up the smelly mess while Timothy, whose brain processed very little information at a time, looked on with the expression of a sick, bewildered calf.
The driver of the #6 bus was Bessie Torres, a woman with painted eyebrows arched in a permanent expression of resignation and distrust. We didn�t talk to her, and she didn�t talk to us, unless it was necessary for some official reason, as when we had brought a note from home giving permission for us to be dropped off at a friend�s house.
The driver of #4, the district�s only �modern� bus at the time, a long, roaring Crown with a push button door that formed an impressive vacuum when it closed, was Wayne Compton, a tall young man with the biggest feet I had ever seen, and that my mother and father said were about Size 15. How they knew Wayne Compton was a mystery to me, but I was already getting used to the idea that they knew just about everyone in town, or at least who they were.
Proud #8 was driven by Mrs. Wright, a gruff-sounding woman with a big heart who always said, �See ya, bub,� to a boy we dropped off at an old white house on the north side of Avenue 400 a little bit east of Road 80. For quite some time, I genuinely wondered if his name was Bub. It was Mrs. Wright who had us all singing Christmas carols one bleak December afternoon on the last day before Christmas vacation. It was also Mrs. Wright who drove us through a violent hailstorm on a March afternoon as the yellow shell of her bus resounded with the downpour of three-quarter-inch stones.
There were a few other drivers who came and went over the years, but of all of them, I think Mrs. Wright was my favorite. If I gave her a note asking that I be let off at a friend�s house, she would say something disturbing like, �Well, I don�t know. We�ll see what mood I�m in when I get there.� She said it with a straight face and in such a tone that I was kept wondering until the very last second. �Okay,� I remember her telling me at my friend�s stop on one such occasion. �But this is the last time.�
Almost every day, I used to count the rugged palm trees someone had planted in a row on the west side of Road 80, just south of Avenue 400. There were fifty-one. To the east, beyond a vast expanse of vineyards and orchards, loomed the glorious Sierra Nevada, its high peaks covered with snow the year around. To the west, a geometric quilt of fruits, vegetables, and cloddy aromatic fields, and on clear days, the gentle folds of the Coast Range melting like an orange cloud in the sun. In every direction, home, the flowering desert where my mother and father and brothers and I and my wife and children drew our first breaths, and where my father and grandparents have since drawn their last, and will lie forever waiting, listening for the footsteps of their loved ones on the ground above.
�Bus Driver, stop! That�s my house!�
July 31, 2005
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