COLUMN: The wheels on the bus go away

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

The wheels on the bus go away
By Aaron J. Brown

The frost glittered off the cold gray highway, yellow lines the warmest part of a crisp winter morning. Bright, flat sunlight beamed off the snow, deadening in the dull, dark tamaracks in the swamps of Zim. Out past these trees, we looked to the distant curve of Highway 7, now named the Bobby Aro highway, the loneliest drive between Duluth and the Iron Range. This was a road named for a polka bandleader running parallel to the train tracks that moved iron ore from the mines to the harbor, out east to the steel mills. This was a very serious road.

My sisters and I huddled at the end of our driveway, shared by our home and our family’s ill-fated junkyard. Our arms stuck out to the side from our thick coats. The faint smell of wood smoke from the neighbor’s stove mixed with the industrial decline from the wreck heaps out back. A monster groaned from the over the southern treeline, out of sight but entirely on our minds.

The highway ran slick, even the driveway tailings had frozen into a dicey surface. The rare passing car moved tentatively. The groaning sound grew louder and from around the corner our school bus emerged luminescent in the sunrise, then fishtailing like a dog in the back of a moving van.

We were young, but not so young as to accept this observation as normal. We knew that the weather was bad and had crowded around the radio listening hopefully for school to be cancelled just minutes earlier. We looked back to the trailer house, knowing that mom was brewing another pot of coffee, readying for her day. If we went back and told her the bus had skidded up at the corner she would have let us stay home. But the bus pulled up and we got on anyway. Because that’s what you do when the bus comes.

That year our bus driver was Bob, a craggy Jack Palance figure whose libertarian discipline methods left a loud teenage girl and a hulking thuggish boy in constant struggle for authority over the remaining children. We would be assigned a new driver in years to come, but no driver drove faster than Bob. Later he would drive the extracurricular bus. As an awkward teenager I once professed my desire for a nickname, even suggesting to my friends that I be called “chief.” A low cackle came from up front, as Bob’s eyes peered from the rearview mirror. “OK, then, chief.” I would not be called chief ever again.

I grew up around buses, my family entering the transportation business after the last vestiges of the junkyard had been put to mercifully rest by the Iron Range economy of the 1980s. One of my first paid jobs, which I completed rather poorly, was to wash several buses one afternoon. Always living in the country, busy in school, busy at home, buses were everywhere. Yellow cousins, metal kinfolk.

But a yellow bus rolls down our country dirt road these days, and it is strange. Structurally similar to all the big diesels I’ve come to ride and know, this bus indeed has four wheels, seats that smell of chemicals and a big engine that groans louder with each lost degree on the thermometer. The difference is that this bus appears like a flytrap at the end of our driveway to snatch and then later deposit our kindergartener. And what happens on this bus? Which forgotten, frozen highways will it explore this winter? Where does it go? It may as well fly up over the trees on its way to a school, my kids’ school, where I am a visitor and must report to the office.

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer and community college instructor. Read more at or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.