Spring is in the Air (What are the Odds?)

Spring is in the air, the kids are out of control and the school year is winding down. That also means that the Kerrville Folk Festival is right around the corner. Kerrville is an eighteen day festival that starts the Thursday before Memorial Day. It overlaps with the school year by a week or two but in the good old days (5 or 6 years ago) Kerrville started the day after the last day of school. I would drop off the kids, clean out the bus, race home, pack tent, guitar and cooler, and head for the hills.
Every year is like a family reunion with my adopted musical family. We live for the late night song circles and jams in the campgrounds that often go until dawn.

One spring, around the turn of the century, I drove out to the ranch to kick off my summer vacation with some ’round the clock pickin’ and grinnin’. I pulled into the campground to set up camp when I saw two boys from my elementary route with their dad. Shane and Wyatt (names have been changed, not to protect the innocent, but because it was a long time ago and I don’t remember them) were excited to show me their camp. We all walked to their site. They had one of those big stand up tents with two or three rooms. A Suite. We talked for a bit and I went back to set up my own camp.

That night I grabbed my guitar and strolled from camp to camp. If I liked what I heard I sat down and joined the circle for a while. I stopped and played at several camps until I made my way up the hill to Camp Crow’s Nest.
It was around 3am and the vibe had mellowed out considerably. I may have been dozing when a man stumbled into the camp, breathing hard from the trek up the hill. He said, “Excuse me, sorry to bother y’all. I just got here and I’ve never been here before. I know it’s a long shot but I’m trying to find my brother. He’s camping with his two boys.”
Suddenly I was wide awake.
I said, “What are the boys’ names?”
He said, “Shane and Wyatt.”
I stood up and said, “Come with me. You just happened to find their school bus driver and I know exactly where they’re camped!”
I led him down the hill, into the meadow, through a sea of tents until we arrived at the “suite.”
He called his brother’s name and he emerged from the tent. He did a double take when he saw me. I think we were all equally amazed at the serendipity.
What are the odds?

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What Makes it Worthwhile

I’m not crazy about waking up at 4:37 every morning.
And sometimes I wish the schools would have a big sleepover so I could drop the kids off in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon of the next day.
Sometimes the kids rip the seats or shove chewing gum in the seat belt buckles.
Occasionally the little munchkins get so wild I have to pull over to regain control of the bus.
The job has its trying moments but it also has experiences like these that make it all worthwhile:

Two girls boarded the bus at 6:43 in the morning. They often ride in the afternoon but this was their first time riding the bus in the morning. They were excited to be the first ones to get picked up.
I was surprised to see them standing out there in the dark.
I said, “Hey, there are two girls who look a lot like you who ride in the afternoon! Their names are Anna and Maya.
The younger of the two said, “My name is Maya!”
Her sister said, “My name is Florence!”
Maya: Florence?!?!?
Anna: Yes, Florence is the other me.
Me: You mean your alter ego?
Anna: My what?
Me: Your evil twin?
Anna: Yes, I’m my evil twin!
Me: What have you done with Anna?
Anna: I boiled her in a pot with little unicorns. Then I ate her up with delicious green goo!
Me: You ate the unicorns?!
Anna: No! I love unicorns. I did not eat them!
The next day Anna/Florence assured me that she did not eat the unicorns and that she was only half Florence.

*********************

As mentioned before the buses are tracked by GPS. Back at the office they can see where I am, where I was, how fast I’m going, etc. They can even see where and when I open the door. This feature is useful when a parent calls in to say the bus never showed up. The supervisor can check the GPS and say, “I’m sorry but the bus was at your stop at 7:23,” or they might say, “Gee, you’re right. It looks like Jimmy Joe burned right past your house at 87 mph!” (Hypothetical, of course. I don’t know of any school bus that can go that fast.) It’s a double edged sword and a useful tool in today’s world.
The drivers are encouraged to stop and open the door, even if nobody is there.
On my morning elementary route I always pull up to one particular stop with loading lights on, pop the brake and open the door. I then close the door and drive away.
One morning a child asked me why I always stop there when no one gets on.
I replied, “There’s an invisible boy who gets on at this stop.”
Without missing a beat, an eight year old girl named Sydney said, “His name is Bob. Hi, Bob! You can sit here with me.”
Sydney went on to explain that Bob spilled an entire bottle of potion on himself, hence the invisibility.
Now every morning when I pull up to that stop and open the door, two or three kids will say, “Good morning, Bob!”
We’ve also taken to calling him by his proper name, Invisibob.
I’ve learned from the kids that Bob has a younger sister named Invisabella and a dog called Invisibubba.
One of the students asked me if I knew  Bob’s last name.
I said, “No, it was written in invisible ink.”

*********************

A seven year old boy, wise beyond his years boarded the bus one afternoon. He asked me how  I was. I told him I could use a nap.
He put a hand on my shoulder and said, “I feel ya man, I feel ya.”
Then he looked at me as if he had some secret words of wisdom to share and he said, ” Word of advice… Don’t Freeze the Cheese!”

Have a spectabulous day and remember…
Don’t Freeze the Cheese!

Stupid School Bus Tricks

My latest stupid school bus trick:

The minute I depart from the elementary school in the afternoon to take the kids home I pick up the microphone and say, ”Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?…”

The kids often ask me to turn on the air conditioner. I always reply, “I’ll turn it on when we get on the highway. Just keep your windows open!” This is Austin. It’s not like it’s hot… every single day of the year!

Today I was driving a spare bus while the route bus was in the shop for a brake job. The spare bus didn’t have the fancy three point seat belts like the new buses. It had the old simple lap belts. I told the kids to buckle up. A few of them asked for help. I looked around and noticed that the five-year-olds were putting the belt over one shoulder. It occurred to me that these kiddos had never seen a lap belt!  One more item to add to the “Make Jimmy Joe Feel Old” list.

The Good Old Days/There’s an App for That

The Good Old Days/There’s an App for That

 

I pulled up to the bus stop this morning and saw two figures in the darkness approaching the bus from the side street. As I got close to the stop I could see that it was a mom and daughter running to the bus. While the daughter boarded the bus her mom said, “I love this app!”

I said, “What app?”

She held up her phone and said, “This new app shows me exactly where you are and when you’ll be here.”

I looked at her phone and saw what appeared to be a GPS screen with a dot in the middle that represented my bus. Not only is Big Brother watching but little brother and little sister and their parents are watching now as well. You too can track my progress with a simple download.
My first experience with this was several years ago when I was driving to New Braunfels to pick up a group at Schlitterbahn Water Park. It was a one hour drive in the empty bus so I put the pedal to the metal on I-35. The bus was governed at a top speed of 62 miles per hour, well under the posted speed limit but in excess of the state school bus speed limit which nobody ever pays attention to (or so I thought.)  I was cruising down the highway minding my own business when a voice came over the radio, “Jimmy Joe, slow down!”
Last week I was called out for making an unauthorized stop on my route. On my way to stop #1 I pass stop #5 where a young girl is waiting early every morning with her dad. I saw no harm in picking her up before stop #1 but somebody saw it otherwise. So now I have to pass by the girl and her dad and wave to them to not come to the bus as I proceed to stop number 1,2,3 & 4. Then and only then can I come back around to that same street and pick up the girl at stop #5. Makes a lot of sense right?
Back in the good old days the administrators would say, “Nobody knows the bus routes like the bus drivers so bus drivers please help us out. Give us suggestions on how we can improve the routes since you experience them first hand every day.”

Those days are long gone. Now the routes are all put together on a computer programmed by someone sitting in an office who has no concept of the reality on the streets and no desire to listen to the people driving the routes.
Back in the good old days we would find ways to get to our destinations and write out our own directions. On field trips my friend Patty and I would often get lost trying to find new routes back to the school but we never got in trouble and we always found our way. We had fun.
Way back in the good old days when I was a new bus driver, the old-timers spoke about the good old days. They described their method of cleaning out the bus. They would drive on the highway and the air circulating through the open windows would push the trash to the front of the bus. Then while driving full speed they would open the door and the trash would fly out of the bus onto the side of the highway.
When a student was misbehaving the driver would just pull over on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere (and back then there was a lot more nowhere,) and send the kid on his way for the Long Walk Home.
Well, maybe some good old days are better left in the past.

First Day of School

It’s that time of year again and I am a little concerned about how the new school year began.

It wasn’t the car that was so far over in the lane that I was forced to jump a curb in the median on the way to the middle school (I could jump the curb or leave the tail end of the bus sticking out into the access road).  Nor was it the ‘first day’ traffic that set me back fifteen minutes on my route. It wasn’t even the torrential downpour that drenched my high school students because the bus was running late due to the traffic at the middle school and the car that sat too far over in the lane.

My concern comes from the fact that the driver of a black pickup truck didn’t even slow down when it passed my bus as I opened the door and the flashing lights went from amber to red at my VERY FIRST BUS STOP OF THE YEAR!!!! We can only hope that the cameras are working properly and the owner of the black truck gets a surprise in the mail and starts to notice school buses on the road from now on.

So here’s my public service announcement:

Where there are school buses, there’s a good chance that children are nearby. Please pay attention! When you see a bus with flashing amber lights, slow down and prepare to stop. That’s not the time to speed up to beat the red. Somebody’s kid might be running across the street to catch the bus.

And for the love of all that is everything, STOP when you see a school bus with red flashing lights!!!

Okay, enough of  the soap box.

Chrissie and I recently returned from our west coast tour. It was wonderful! We visited friends and family and made new friends and shared music from the mountains to the beach to the desert and back. We played a lovely little farmers market in Fairfax, CA. Families set blankets down on the grass in front of the band tent. The kids ran around and danced. We performed as The Better Halves and our alter ego Mr. Bus Driver Man Sir & Her. At the end of the market a farmer named Clarence said, “What are you driving? Blue Bird? Thomas? International?”

I said, “Are you a bus driver?”

Clarence said, “Yes, I am. We go back next week. Now help yourself to whatever you want, Mr. Bus Driver Man Sir.”

Clarence hooked me up with a bag full of fresh produce, including some fabulous heirloom tomatoes.

Thank you, Clarence, and have a great school year! I hope they’re stopping for your bus out there in California!

Wildlife in Austin

Austin is teeming with wildlife.
This afternoon I was hauling a bus load of kids (different kind of wildlife) back from a field trip. Up ahead on the side of the road was the carcass of a poor old deer that didn’t quite make it across. Five or six turkey buzzards were circling over and swooping down for the feast. As we passed the party at 50mph, one of the vultures flew out in front of the bus. It was huge and flying level with my head! I slammed on the brakes, the kids screamed, and the buzzard went straight down. I didn’t know if I hit the big beastly bird. I’ve heard that you really don’t want to hit a turkey buzzard. They’re big enough to do some real damage and their innards stink like the dickens, as I’ve been told.
I checked the rear view mirror and saw the bird fly out the side of the bus between the front and rear wheels. A close call.
Later, as I was driving kids home on my afternoon route, I went around a bend and saw a snake slithering across the road right in front of the bus. I couldn’t stop or swerve so I centered the bus the best I could over the snake.
I checked the mirror and I saw the snake slithering away.
Another close call.
A few blocks later a bushy tailed red fox ran across the road. This one wasn’t that close but the coolness factor was off the charts.

Let’s Go For a Ride

I figure it’s time to take y’all to school. I’ll take you along on my morning route. Please have your bus passes ready!  But first I have to warn you that the route involves space travel. Space suits and gravity belts are encouraged but not required. Fasten your seat belts!

“Ground Control to Major Tom” – David Bowie

I get out of my warm car into the cold predawn air. I clock in and head out for the four minute walk to the far end of the parking lot. My permanent spare bus seems colder than outside. Check fluids, start the big diesel engine and walk around the bus to check lights.
I approach the first stop of the day in the dark. Three kids are waiting. The last of the three is a little girl I’ll call Penelope. She’s four years old, smart as a whip, cute as a button and full of imagination.
She says, “Uncle Jimmy Joe, it’s COLD out!”
How cold is it?
“It’s BIG COLD!”

You may have noticed that Penelope calls me Uncle Jimmy Joe. We are not related as far as I know. I’ve never asked her to call me Uncle but she does. She gave me a Christmas gift card addressed to Uncle Jimmy Joe. It was obviously written in adult hand, not four year old scratch, so I’m guessing her parents and/or grandparents think of me as Uncle Jimmy Joe as well. I’m honored.
I help Penelope with her seat belt.
She says, “Uncle Jimmy Joe, can we go to the moon today?”
I say, “Of course we can. But first we have the three circles.”

I continue on the route toward the first of three circles. The Big Circle is the U-turn lane that goes under the highway. As soon as we come out of the big circle we see the Circle on the Sign, which happens to be in front of a Target store. We go right and left and stop to pick up another student. Now it’s time for the Little Circle, the third and last of the three.  The Little Circle is at the end of a cul de sac. As soon as the three circle sequence is completed, the bus is flung into orbit on the Moon Highway.
The bus lands softly on the moon in front of a big house with a turret in the middle.
I say, “Look, Penelope, it’s the Moon Castle!”
She says, “That’s not the Moon Castle, it’s the Moon Castle House!”
“Oh,” I said. “Have you seen any moon cars?”
“No, but I see a moon dog! And Moon Trees!”
We pick up more kids. Moon kids.

Penelope says, “Uncle Jimmy Joe, I painted the moon pink.”
“What?! You painted the moon pink? How did you do that so fast?”
“I wore my running shoes.” Then she said, “Are we at school yet?”
Me: Yes
Penelope: No, we’re not!
Me: How will we get to school if we’re still on the moon?
Penelope: The school is on the moon, silly!
Me: Oh, okay.
Penelope: Uncle Jimmy Joe, when will we get to school? I want to learn!

Right about then I pull the wheel hard to the right to make that wide turn into the bus circle at the school. I guess it’s really a four circle sequence.
One of the bigger kids helps Penelope with her seat belt and she scoots out the door and into the school where she goes to learn.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our ride today. As my late great Uncle Wendell told my brother Mike on his first day of Kindergarten long, long ago, “You don’t have to go to school. I spoke with the teacher. It’s okay.”

How Long is that Train?

How Long Is That Train?

I’ve often wondered sitting in my vehicle at the railroad crossing how long that train was. I’ve tried counting but I get distracted and lose my place after 20 or 30 cars. I’ve tried timing it but I forget to check the time when the train passes and it’s time to move on.
I did get an answer one afternoon a few years back. I was alone with my guitar in the school bus but I’ll get to that in a bit.
A few weeks ago I left the school yard with about 44 high school students. We were the last in a line of buses heading west on the FM road into the sunset. As the bus in front of mine crossed the railroad tracks I secured my bus with the parking brake, as we do at all railroad crossings. Just then I heard the bells as the arm with the red flashing lights descended across the road.
I told the kids to get comfortable because we might be there a while.
I pulled my little guitar out from under the dash and took it out of the case. As the train crossed our path I played that old signature opening riff to Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues. I sang, “I hear that train a comin’ It’s rolling round the bend.” I sang through the verses and played the guitar solos as we watched the train go by. Twenty, thirty, forty, fifty cars? Who knows? Not me. I just kept playing that song until I got to that same riff that holds the song together like a pair of bookends. I hit the last chord as the last car passed us by. I received a round of applause. One boy said, “Hey, did you see that? The song and the train ended at the same time! How did you do that?”
I slipped the guitar back under the dash, released the brake, and continued on the route.
My question was answered some years ago when I played that same song at that same railroad crossing. Yes, the song began and ended with the train back then as it did now.
This time I had a few dozen witnesses.
So, how long is that train?
I now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that that train is as long as the Folsom Prison Blues.

Ellen’s Ride

11/22/15
Ellen’s Ride
A few years ago I won the bus route lottery. It wasn’t a real lottery. Every summer bus routes are administered via a bidding process. One summer about eight years ago I came home after my summer travels to a message from my supervisor. She said, “Jimmy Joe, where are you? You missed bidding! Are you coming back to work? We only have three routes. If you want one you’d better get down here!”

It was slim pickins. I chose a route that had only one school, a high school, and barely enough hours to cover the health insurance. The day before school started an elementary school was added to my route.

On the first day of school I set out in the dark looking for my new stop. I didn’t have time to scope it out so I drove slowly down the winding hill until I saw a little girl and her dad waiting on the corner. Ellen was five years old and cute as a button. No other kids rode the bus to the elementary school that morning… or the morning after that or any morning for the next three years. There were as many as three to five kids riding home in the afternoon but in the morning it was just Ellen and me. I was Ellen’s personal chauffeur.

There are many advantages to having one child on a bus route:

1) Seating charts are easy. Seat #1 = Ellen. Done.

2) No fighting to worry about.

3) If Ellen wasn’t riding the bus her mom would text me early in the morning and I would relax and have breakfast on the bus.

4) If a paper airplane hit my head I’d have a pretty good idea who threw it. Ellen. (Just a hypothetical – Ellen never threw paper airplanes.)

I could go on and on.

Disadvantages to having one kid on the bus:

I told my Pop about my great new route. He said, “That’s costing the taxpayer.”

Thanks, Pop, way to burst my bubble.

A middle school was added to my route. After I dropped Ellen off I picked up fifty ornery middle school kids. It balanced out.

Ellen and I became pals. We would make up fun and magical places and creatures to see on our way to school. It was like driving in a parallel universe. One day I picked up Ellen and asked her where she wanted to go.

She said, “Mt. Everest!”

“Mt. Everest it is! I’ll just push the magic purple button to activate automatic snow tires and oxygen tank. Now if we can only get the heater to work…”

We would travel to the moon, the bottom of the ocean, around the rings of Saturn, and always get to school on time. One morning we even went back in time to Brooklyn, circa 1955. I spoke in my native New Yawk tongue, which Ellen picked up on right away. It was cuter than cute hearing her say, “Hey, what are you tawkin about?”

During this time I went to see Ellen’s principal and offered to do a free lunchtime concert for the kids. She loved the idea and it became a tradition.
I wrote a song called Ellen’s Ride. It takes the listener through our morning ride to school, complete with The Jungles of Forest on the Cliff, Rhinocepotamus, and the Three Legged Iron Back Rusted Belly Fish. I gave it to Ellen for her 10th birthday. Ellen’s mom put the cd on and asked Ellen if she knew all the places in the song. She smiled and said she did.
Fast forward a few more years.

Chrissie and I recently finished recording an album of music for Children. It’s called Playing in the Dirt and for this project we’ve named ourselves Mr. Bus Driver Man Sir and Her. 

It took us a year and a half to complete and we are very pleased with the finished product.

Yes, Ellen’s Ride is included on the album. The whimsical, playful and darkly colorful tune features none other than Ellen, now in middle school, on the cello! Her mom asked if I would mind giving her a ride home from the recording studio. Would I mind?! It was wonderful catching up with Ellen and I still knew the way.
We also have plans to add a picture book to accompany the cd. Illustrations will be done by multitalented musician and artist Darrin Kobetich.

We are running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for production costs for the cd and to get the book done by next year. So here’s my shameless plea:

Please help us out by contributing to our project! We have a whole batch of rewards available based on the amount you pledge.

The campaign ends Dec. 7 @ 11:11pm. If we don’t meet our goal we get nothing so please pledge. We’re pulling our hair out over here!

We have some great guest musicians on the album and the production is superb. I am very excited about it! You will love it!

Here’s the link:

kickstarter

Life gets even better when my worlds collide!
Jimmy Joe