Suddenly, school is back in session and my wife, Stephanie aka the old hippie bus driver, is again driving her school bus route. Mornings come early to a rural school bus family and there are many duties performed behind the scenes in the wee hours before dawn. For example, the Old Hippie has informed me of some legislation recently passed in West Virginia that requires spouses of female bus drivers to perform a morning foot massage, start the coffee brewing, warm up her commuting vehicle, and scrape the frost from the windows of said vehicle, if needed.
She didn’t elaborate as to where this statute could be found but assured me that penalties were severe for non-compliance. In addition to learning the legal requirements associated with being a school bus spouse, I’ve had to become familiar with some of the nomenclature as well.
For example, we recently stayed in a motel where the plumbing wasn’t exactly state of the art. For this vintage plumbing to perform its most essential duty, the handle on the commode needed to be moved a second time after flushing. “Don’t forget to double-clutch the toilet, dearie,” came the reminder from my heavy hauler.
She’ll occasionally mention something called an “engine brake.” In my work, I’m not required to know how an engine brake works. I have some idea but, basically, they’re just that mechanism that makes big trucks sound really cool when they go downhill. There’s a switch for an engine brake on her bus and it does slow the bus down somewhat, but it doesn’t make it sound any different. Since most of the students that she hauls are high-schoolers, a cool sounding bus can be a real asset.
I’ve assisted Hampshire County bus drivers with minor emergency roadside repairs back when the buses were gasoline powered and less reliable and lacked two-way radios. In the strictest sense, though, I shouldn’t work on school buses as I lack the proper authorization.
However, until recently, I would be called out “unofficially” on occasion by the Old Hippie to make minor adjustments and inspections on her bus. Anything serious or safety related is deferred to county mechanics. The process of getting a minor bus repair done on short notice can be complicated by the drivers having to hang out at the bus garage all day. Moreover, this may put the driver in the position of having to use a spare bus, which may be slower and less comfortable. The students on board are sure to remind the driver of these shortcomings with some regularity. Though not all drivers agree, minor chores such as tightening a wayward mirror or doing continuity tests on engine heaters are far less complicated when performed by the driver or a volunteer such as myself.
On these occasions, I have always tried to make a big show with my service truck by setting up lighting and making lots of compressed air noises and so-forth. These visits would lend spectacle to her 6 a.m. pre-trip inspections. It gave passersby the impression that she had brought out the “big guns.” Being seen working on school buses at six in the morning (folks couldn’t tell that I was doing something sub minor) wasn’t bad for business either.
But was all this fun really worth deploying the Old Black Truck at 5:30 in the morning? Hardly. I wish that I could take credit for the situation that I’m about to describe, but, alas, it happened more or less by accident.
I like to think that the phase of my tractor repair business that involved doing major repairs in the field is past. Toward the closing years of this phase, I thought it prudent to have two service trucks more or less identical in appearance and equally tooled and equipped. The reasoning was that should one of the trucks suffer a major breakdown, the second could be used and production could be maintained without interruption.
The needed repair to the broken down truck could be scheduled for a more convenient time. Poppycock. This kind of talk may impress stockholders but due to a limitless variety of unpredictable circumstances, it just doesn’t happen that way in real life. The original Old Black Truck (OBT 1) was a fuel-thirsty Ford F-350. This truck would sit out of the season at home or one of a number of satellite locations around Northern Virginia, while lapping away at a healthy plate of tax revenue, insurance premiums and depreciation. Meanwhile, the smaller, more economical OBT 2 would and still does run around doing the work.
With 20 years in the field, OBT 1 was starting to show some wear. In December 2011, the tired old truck went to its reward and joned a collection of antique, classic and historical farm vehicles at Middleburg, Va. Of course, de-commissioning OBT 1 yielded a plethora of tools, many of which found their way into the large toolbox behind the cab of the Old Hippie’s 1979 F-150.
We built this truck from a couple of free junkers and other parts also acquired gratis. With her thrifty Scottish heritage, she likes the fact that we don’t have a dime invested in major components. She won’t let me paint it. She likes the look of rust with lichen on the fenders – that’s her Polish side showing through.
Anyway, these tools being kept on her truck gives me the comforting feeling of a second truck with at least some tractor repair response capability; if she lets me use it. It also provides tools for a group of female bus drivers who fire up their rigs in the pre-dawn hours.
Occasionally, during their morning pre-trip inspections, a need for an adjustment or minor repair might be found. Out comes the 12-volt droplight, the toolbox doors on the Old Hippie’s truck open and in the can-do spirit of that World War II icon, Rosie the Riveter, as many as five women converge on the problem while the big diesels warm up in the pre-dawn.
A mirror bracket is refastened on a spare bus using bolts borrowed from elsewhere on the bus. A loose crossing arm bracket is repaired using donated hardware. Even complex electrical diagnosis and trouble shooting is sometimes performed. All of this is done at tremendous savings in county resources and personal inconvenience. (The county mechanics had to more clearly define the limits of teamwork when one of the ladies offered to replace her bus’s on-board computer).
Still, the best thing about the six o’ clock rosies is that they make early morning visits by the old black truck obsolete.