The Law of the Jungle
The public school I attended had various rules: no yelling, no talking back to the teacher, no chewing gum in class, no defecating on the azaleas out front, and so on. These rules were enforced by faculty members and were generally obeyed. On the bus, however, there were no rules. I mean, they had rules, but there was no way of enforcing them. The bus driver had to watch the road and I'm fairly certain the camera they installed was a fake just to keep us from going all Lord of the Flies on each other and declaring someone's Trapper Keeper a conch meanwhile bludgeoning the fat kid to death with a large rock.
Suffice it to say, the bus was ruled by the law of the jungle: only the strongest and fastest survived. My generation never stormed the beaches of Normandy or got drafted to fight communism, but on that Twinkie-shaped nightmare we waged our own private Vietnam.
I grew up in a very small town in Northern Idaho called Hayden Lake. Hayden Lake was home to the last Neo-Nazi compound in the United States. It was an area of a few square acres surrounded by a guard tower and a large sign at the entrance which depicted a blazing red swastika. Most of the people that lived in the compound were elderly, but they occasionally managed to inspire a few younger skinheads in town to take up their moronic ideology and go around beating up anyone who didn't fit within a certain ethnic profile. My bus route ran directly pass the Nazi compound and we always had to stop to pick up a handful of little Hitlers.
Here's a few pictures of the compound:
Surprisingly, I actually didn't mind the Nazis who rode the bus. They generally left me alone and I even slightly befriended one of them for awhile. I say slightly because I only really talked to him because he let me play his Gameboy every now and then. I was willing to the let the whole Axis powers thing slide in exchange for some Gameboy time.
It wasn't until my oldest brother got in a fight with a few skinheads that the dynamic changed. He was living in the nearby town of Coeur d' Alene at the time and either buying or selling drugs from the local skinheads. Something went wrong during the deal and a couple of them ended up jumping him. He defended himself with a boxcutter knife and managed to stab one of them in the gut before they pinned him down and took turns kicking his face in with steel-toed boots. Both my brother and the guy he stabbed survived the ordeal but ended up being hospitalized. My brother's face was smashed to pieces and he had his jaw wired shut for several months.
After that incident, it was difficult to relax when any of the Nazis were around. They weren't the same people who beat up my brother and they probably didn't even know or care who I was. Regardless, playing Gameboy with a 10 year old Der Führer after that just wasn't the same.
A few miles down the road from the Nazi bus stop we stopped at a house full of foster kids. The kids we picked up would change every few months as new foster kids rotated in and out. For a short time, we picked up a large Mexican boy who looked to be about 22 years old despite being in junior high school. When he boarded the bus, one of the Nazi kids made a pistol shape with his finger and pointed it at the mexican boy, mouthing the words "pop pop" -- the implication being that he wanted to shoot him. I watched the the Mexican ignore the Nazi and walk to the middle of the bus where I was sitting. He sat down next to me and I wanted to say something along the lines of "Gosh, what a jerk! Don't let him get you down, he's just an ignorant little Adolf Shitler." I turned to the Mexican boy and as I was about to speak he faced me and said "What are you looking at, faggot?" and bashed his elbow into my face, splitting my nose open. I was a nervous little overweight kid, so for the remainder of the bus trip I sat there cupping the blood from my nose and weeping.
On my bus a hierarchy existed which determined how horribly you were treated by your fellow bus-mates. Typically it went by age: youngest sat in the front and oldest in back, but if some kid proved himself as being a bigger asshole than the kids behind him would get upgraded to a few seats back where he could more easily spit on and throw trash at the kids in front of him.
Our bus driver was a large woman in her late 40s who always wore bright pink lipstick and a giant black coat with animal fur on the shoulders. Lipstick aside, the coat closely resembled something a Nordic Viking would wear. This, coupled with the fact that she seemed like the kind of person who would tear the head off a mountain goat and use its blood to keep warm in a blizzard, was how she came to be called "The Viking." The unruly kids hated The Viking, but I came to love her because when she was in charge there was some semblance of order. The Viking's tactic for dealing with a bus full of little assholes was to be a bigger, scarier asshole; it's like the school district decided the best way to fight a bunch of rabid, down syndrome badgers was to deploy a Kodiak bear.
Occasionally The Viking would disappear for a few months and we'd have a substitute driver. I assumed it was because she was back in County again for headbutting her parole officer or something like that. I always felt bad for our substitutes because if there's one job in the world that's worse than being a substitute teacher, it's being a substitute bus driver. The kids on the bus would do everything within their power to break her spirit: calling her names, throwing food at her, and one time they even opened the door on the back of the bus while she was merging onto the highway just to see what she'd do. One of our substitutes eventually broke down and started crying, pulling the bus over so she could bawl for a few minutes and compose herself. Being a bus driver is like being hired to face a wall with a room full of immature morons taunting you from behind meanwhile you can't do anything because if you do the room will fly off a cliff and kill everyone.
Snow and Mutiny
Idaho is one of those places that unless there's 25 feet of snow and people are dying by the hundreds they won't close the schools due to bad weather. One year we had a mixture of rain and snow that froze overnight and the school district refused to cancel school, and subsequently five different buses flew off the road and crashed in ditches during their morning route. My bus didn't crash, but it did get stuck trying to drive up an icy hill which caused the back end to spin out and slide backward into a small embankment. The kids reacted by opening the rear door and shoveling snow into the back of the bus, filling the back couple of rows with heavy slush. This served two purposes: enabling us to have a snowball fight as well as increasing the weight on the back tires which would disable the driver from getting us to school. This was fairly par for the course for our bus: if one minor detail changed in our routine we'd all explode like zitty, caffeinated water balloons.
Explosions and Fire
About mid-way through its route our bus passed along an explosives factory which produced dynamite for removing tree stumps and other small demolition projects. When this factory caught fire, they had to evacuate an area a few square miles around our route because the resulting explosion was supposed to be on par with a poor man's nuclear bomb -- one or two kilotons. When normal people are informed that there's a very real possibility that everything they've ever known and loved with be burned alive, their typical reaction is fear or sorrow. When they announced it to the kids on our bus, however, everyone began cheering and throwing their backpacks into the air. It seemed appropriate that these soulless little shitheads would erupt in celebration upon learning that our little Idahoan middle-earth was going to be engulfed in an all consuming fireball.
The fire was put out, however, and no one died. Years later, however, my brother and I took an interest in building explosives ourselves and we began building bombs using supplies purchased from a local sporting goods store. You had to be 18 to buy a gun, but you could buy smokeless black powder and waterproof cannon fuses without getting carded. We'd spend our summers creating new and exciting pipe bombs and detonating them in the woods. We weren't hurting anybody, we just liked creating craters where old trees used to be and producing massive fireballs and brain-trauma-inducing concussive shockwaves. Shrapnel was a problem too, but most of the time we'd just stand near a tree or crouch down a little to avoid the bits of metal that whizzed by our heads.
We eventually decided to teach one of our friends how to build bombs so he could also take part in our fun blow-shit-up-to-smithereens adventures. He'd come over and we'd all build bombs together and then go find an old shed or dead animal to splatter into unrecognizable bits. One particularly popular type of bomb we'd make is what we called a "crater maker," which involved filling an empty CO2 cartridge with black powder and sealing it with a fuse. One Christmas this friend of ours decided it would be a good idea to give these to his friends as gifts so they could take them home and have fun blowing things up like we did. He wrapped them in adorably festive Christmas wrapping paper and applied an equally adorable Christmas bow. He then handed them out to all his buddies as they boarded the school bus. He specifically instructed them NOT to open them until they got home from school, and I clearly remember one kid shaking the box next to his head and saying "What's inside? I can hear it rattling."
Nowadays when I see a school bus I don't think of homework, pencils, academia, or the children of today being responsible for the future of tomorrow. I think of fascism, rage, and the moral compass we all have which can bend completely backwards when packed into a sweaty, motorized box full of Nazis and overly-caffeinated, puberty-stricken howler monkeys.