The school van

An ad in last week’s paper from a local school division advising that there could be school bus driver shortages and possible disruption of transportation caught my eye. Seems that it’s difficult to find school bus drivers and especially part-time or relief drivers. I asked around a bit and found out the answer may be fairly simple as to why we have shortage. Used to be that school bus drivers were drawn from the ranks of small-time farmers. Those were generally the farmers who could maybe break away from the barn or the tractor long enough to drive a morning run and an afternoon run. It was welcomed income and helped the farm make ends meet and make the payments on a vehicle. The drivers owned their own vans or buses in those days.
In 1954, I started school at six years of age. The school “van” route was up for tender and my dad decided that he could maybe take it on. He had a nearly new International half-ton truck and with a bit of work he made a box for it. A pretty simple box actually, the sides being a centre split sheet of plywood mounted on some oak stakes. Those oak stakes were darned hard too and they had to be drilled by hand with a brace and bit. They were attached with carriage bolts. A front and  back was fashioned. The first top was a brown tarpaulin if I remember correctly, followed by a curved plywood top.
Later, in 1958, a new three-quarter ton IHC truck was bought and the box making episode was repeated. In the fall harvest season, the truck served double duty. The top had to be lifted off, the truck taken to the field and filled with grain from the combine and loads driven to the yard. At the end of the harvest day, the truck had to swept clean and the heavy wooden roof or lid put back on ready for the following morning’s school run. One day, when the roof wasn’t fastened down good enough, the wind caught it and slowly lifted it off the truck and into the ditch as we drove along. Fortunately, it was a sunny day and all that happened was the students were a bit wind blown.
Now picture this. The students were met at the end of each farm lane and loaded into the back of the truck through a small crouch down door. Then the door was latched from the outside and the tail gate put up and latched. There was no escape from this rig. Trucks and other private vehicles were pretty much the standard for hauling students in the 1950s in the rural school divisions.
One winter, the snow got so deep that the truck couldn’t be used any longer. Out came the team of horses, the sleighs and off to town to pick up an old horse drawn van. For six long weeks, the trip to and from town was slogged out by the horses, morning and night. The roads then opened up again and the truck could get through, slipping and sliding over the greasy spring time roads.
Now students and parents of today might think that the box full of students on the back of half ton truck was a bit of a risky thing. It was in a way. But what it replaced was something even more bizarre. The previous school van tender was held by the local fuel  truck dealer. Sometimes he used  a car but sometimes, if he was headed out with fuel anyway, he would load the kids in the back of his open fuel truck. It was called an express sided truck, that is a flat deck with slatted sides and a few fuel barrels on board for good measure. If the truck had to brake or swerve, the students would have to dodge the sliding barrels. Great fun. I never had to do that as my Dad started to drive the school van route in my first year of school but my two older brothers had a few wild rides in the back of the fuel truck.
Dad’s 1958 truck was retired early as the rules changed in 1961 and school vans had to be, well, vans, closed in station wagons or the slightly bigger units we called panel vans. Some had side windows, ours didn’t and again it was an International, a 1961 IHC panel van. If it had windows it was called a Travelall and this type of vehicle was very popular for school vans and as a mainstay vehicle on Hutterite colonies for many years.
By 1967 the rules changed again and van drivers had to buy real school buses that didn’t look a lot different than today’s buses.
I am wondering if stress isn’t another reason that drivers are scarce. I am told that school buses can be pretty noisy places and that sometimes the students can even get unruly. In the old days, it wasn’t uncommon for an unruly student to be put out on the road and told to walk home. Thinking back though, once the students were “locked” in that old truck box, you couldn’t hear them anyway. They could holler as much as they wanted but the driver didn’t hear much and with the door latched and the tail gate up in the locked position, they weren’t going to get out.
Maybe the old days had some advantages after all.

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