Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Snowbrawl 1977

Mike sure was a “different” kind of school bus driver, but not exactly in the burnout mold of The Simpsons iconic character Otto the bus driver. To be sure, the usually laid back Mike had infinite patience with our antics—although when we stretched his even temperament to the limit, it could snap like the many rubber bands we shot around the bus and out the windows at passersby.

I am well aware, however, that since all school bus drivers in pop culture will forever be compared to Otto, I guess I’ll have to differentiate Mike’s free spirit with that of the cartoon bus “duuuude.” They were kindred spirits, but they weren’t clones.

Simply put, Mike let us do whatever the hell we wanted, and we loved him for that. Whenever there was a fight on the bus, for example, he would wait until the two kids adequately slugged it out before he told us to break it up. If the fight were a really good one, he’d pull over and watch the donnybrook before putting an end to it with a single command. We were Mike’s entertainment, and boy were we eager to entertain.

Mike was our afternoon driver, carting our obnoxious asses from Ursuline Academy on Plumtree Road to our bus stops all over Sixteen Acres, Pine Point, and Bay Street, which at times made for one hell of an entertaining voyage. In January of 1977, when I was in eighth grade, for some reason (probably because we begged him) he began to stop at Handy Variety in Pine Point and let us go in the store for a little snack break on the long bus ride—until the store owner informed him that we were shoplifting, and he put an end to that pit stop.

Mike’s blond handlebar mustache slumped into a frown the day of the plundered munchies debacle. We had let him down. He was disappointed in us, and he let us know it. There was only one we could redeem ourselves. Our bus used to get peppered with snowballs throughout our route, so he asked us to get out and throw snowballs at anyone who nailed our bus, and we said, “Of course we will, Mike.” We couldn’t let him down again.

Confused about Mike’s request? It’s rooted in several incidents two years earlier. Let me explain.

January, 1975

Perpetually placid and rarely riled, Mike should be made the patron saint of bus drivers, because he really was the perfect chauffeur and bus monitor—in OUR view, as he did very little monitoring. We figured that out quickly during the 1974-1975 school year, when I was in sixth grade. But one thing did get Mike’s dander up: kids who threw stuff at our bus. To wit: in January of 1975, when we dropped Bob Cahill off at the corner of the North Branch Parkway and the North Branch Parkway Service road, a group of teens called the Rail Gang, who hung out nearby behind the guard rail at the end of Blanche Street off the Parkway, would nail Bob with snowballs and make him run down the Service Road to his house, while half the dirty dozen turned their attention to our bus as we pulled away. As they opened fire on us, through the rear view mirror I saw fire in Mike’s eyes.

Mike stopped a couple of times after these volleys and got off the bus, but the kids just taunted him. And poor chubby Bob Cahill: if getting tormented by the Rail Gang wasn’t enough, his situation was compounded by his mother writing a pleading note to our beloved driver. The missive, which Bob sheepishly passed to Mike, asked him to make a special detour on our route and drop the boy off right smack in front of his house.

This Mike refused to do. After all, the Service Road was a dead end, connected to the North Branch Parkway only by a small crossroad as narrow as a driveway. It would have required a 90-degree turn, and the bus wasn’t capable of pulling it off without at least a three-point turn—and probably more. “The bus is just too big to turn down your street, Bob,” Mike explained.

“What about Overlea?” asked Bob, his eyes welling up with tears as he mentioned the only other Service Road outlet: Overlea Drive. “You could turn onto Overlea.” God, what a pussy.

“Nope,” Mike answered, “That just leads back out to Parker Street. I’m not gonna drive around in a circle and try to take a left on Parker to get over to North Branch.” He handed the note back to Bob.

Mike had a better idea: if the little fatty needed an escort, he would be the butterball’s personal bodyguard. So just for several days that winter Mike walked Bob three-quarters down the Service Road to his house. The first few times Mike glared at the Rail Gang, who simply stood there, with snowballs in hand, in disbelief.

Then the Rail Gang stopped coming. For once it seemed as if all was well on the North Branch Parkway. No more pelting the bus. No more chasing Bob.

But nothing is ever that simple, is it? Of course not. One day the following spring the Rail Gang responded to Mike’s insolence by nailing the side of our bus with a couple rocks! They didn’t hit any windows, but we were stunned.

The next day, when we drove by the rail, most of us had been wary of the rock throwers and stayed away from the windows, but Robert Arbuckle had announced as we turned onto the Parkway that he was going to yell “Fuck you!” to them. He opened his window, opened his big mouth, but he never got the chance to say anything. His head snapped back like a Pez dispenser. (Yes, I know I used this allusion in another post, but I like it.) He had gotten nailed in the head by a rock thrown through an open window!

How the hurler managed to throw with such pin-point accuracy to get a direct hit at Robert’s noggin was almost beyond our comprehension, but it happened. Mike stopped the bus, the Rail Gang ran into the woods, and Robert cried, until, comforted by our fearless bus driver, he stopped his wailing.

All Arbuckle got from his braggadocio was an egg-sized lump on his forehead and our incessant teasing, because we gave him a wee bit of shit after that, singing to him the Fred Flintstone song from the Pebbles breakfast cereal commercial: “If you put sweet Pebbles in your mouth, you’ll never have rocks in your head.”

The following afternoon the air was electric with suspense as we turned from Parker and drove down the North Branch Parkway. The tension was suddenly brought to a boiling point.


The window next to the seat in front of mine was transformed into an intricate spider-web design of cracked glass with a hole in the middle. The handball-sized rock landed in the aisle. Gerald Kane, who was sitting next to the window, yelled, “Holy Shit, Mike, they got us again!” He stared bug-eyed at the shattered glass. “Ho-ly shit!” We had just passed the guardrail.

What had gotten into the Rail Gang? The only explanation comes with a recent close-up photo. Could it be SATAN?

Mike slammed on the brakes, bounded out of the bus, and this time leaped over the guardrail and continued down Blanche Street after the gang! We were in total awe of Mike as the Rail Gang scattered in different directions—mostly toward the woods and the Colonial Estates apartments. This guy has balls, we thought.

Mike returned to the bus winded—and somewhat embarrassed after his little chase. It was a wild move on his part, but they never threw rocks or snowballs at us again. Mike’s aggression had indeed worked. We discovered that mellow Mike had a long fuse, but when it was lit—look out!

Now let me just say right here that maybe it wasn’t the Rail Gang that perpetrated these acts. These guys mostly partied at the rail and weren’t really known for violence—although there is the time the Mallowhill Road Gang came down to the rail for a good old-fashioned rumble. But that is another story for another day. The Rail Gang hung around there predominantly at night. Maybe Rob Cahill and his mom were wrong, and the snowball and rock throwers were another bunch of kids using the woods behind the rail as cover to do their dastardly deeds during the daytime. But I doubt it. The Rail Gang would have never have put up with that.


January 1977

Welcome back Mike! Who’d have thought we’d see ya back here where we need ya!

The previous September marked the return of Mike the bus driver after a one-year hiatus. We had assumed that Mike had gotten fed up his job, with all its aggravation, and had found another one—or that the Longeuil bus company didn’t like Mike’s laissez-faire attitude toward rowdy students and had sacked him.

In fact, I don’t remember the reason for Mike’s “sabbatical,” but he was back, and we were ecstatic, because, just like the old days, he let us roam from seat to seat. We certainly couldn’t do that with the previous year’s bus driver, “Pickle-Puss” the asshole, who screamed at us if we talked too loudly!

What was Pickle Puss like? Think Mrs. Crabree of South Park.

Good old Mike. He allowed us to wrestle and raise hell. But he drew the line at Jeff Ottaway nailing a guy in a convertible with a spitball. We were stopped at a red light at Berkshire and Bay, right next to my church, and the dude in the left lane had his right hand on the steering wheel when he suddenly flicked the spitball off his hand, pointed at Jeff, and yelled, “You little bastard!”

We roared with laughter, and Mike was somewhat amused, but he still confiscated Jeff’s straw and told him never to do it again.

Okay, fair enough. He couldn’t have motorists calling our school and complaining, could he?

Or maybe he didn’t really give a damn about the prospect of getting fired. One thing, however, we knew he felt strongly about: people throwing shit at our bus. And Mike was starting to get pissed at all the fuckers who were nailing our bus with snowballs along our route.

It wasn’t the Rail Gang this time. We didn’t go down the North Branch Parkway that year, thank God. But there were plenty of kids to take the Rail Gang’s place on Mike’s shit list.

“Can I ask you guys something?” said Mike as he turned to us. We were about to get a barrage of snowballs from some a couple of kids on Grayson Drive. “Could you give these snowball throwers a taste of their own medicine? Just get off, throw a few snowballs at ’em  and then get back on the bus. Let ’em know they should screw with somebody else.”

“Of course we will, Mike,” said Mark Catarius. So whenever we got bombarded, he would routinely stop, open the doors, and let a handful of us eighth-graders out for a counter-snowball attack.

I know this seems difficult to believe. Very hard to swallow. But it happened. So I provided the photo below of my hand on a stack of Bibles and to let you know I swear it’s the God’s honest truth.

The reaction from our snowball retaliation was mixed: some of the older high school kids thought it was hilarious, and they played right along in a little snowball fight. But kids our age—around 13—were intimidated by this strange situation, especially when they were outnumbered. There we were, piling out of the bus, chucking snowballs for around 15 seconds, and then running back in the bus.

I can remember jumping out of the bus and getting in a snowball fight with John Coleman—one BIG dude—and a couple of his friends on Creswell Street after they pelted our bus, but it was cool. He was probably four years older than we were, and it was good fun, John had a good laugh, and we got back on the bus, and went on our way.

But we had a little drama on one of the side streets off the West Bay Path Terrace in Springfield’s Pine Point section. Now it's a black neighborhood, but at that time, it was still racially mixed, and every time we dropped off Gary Thompson, a little black third-grader, there were three white kids, around 13 years old, who would start throwing at not only Gary, but also the bus. After Gary ran into his house, they turned their undivided throwing attention on us and really let our bus have it. They even took ice chunks from the snow banks and heaved them into the side of the bus. Big mistake.

Sound familiar? Just like the Rail Gang. If Yogi Berra were black, he’d sum it up like this: “It’s deja fools all over again.” But this time we were eighth-graders. We had the power to do something. This shit had to stop. We looked at Mike. Mike looked at us. He didn’t even have to say, “Get’em.” He simply opened the door.

Five of us poured down the steps and the snowball fight was on. With five of us, of course we trounced them. They retreated up a set of stairs and inside a porch that sported plastic bag-type sheets over screened windows. Typical Springfield lazy white trash weatherizing move. We started tattooing the plastic with snowballs with the three of them hunkered down in the porch.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate the house with absolute certainty on Google Maps. Yes, I’m such a laptop potato that I cruised around the East and West Bay Path Terrace neighborhood on Google Maps instead of driving over there. That’s better for the environment, right? What a lame new technological world we live in—one in which we can just keep clicking down the street on Google Maps and take a virtual drive around a neighborhood instead of doing it in person. My clicking finger tapped away. Tap, tap, tap. Taking lefts, taking rights, spinning the camera around—doing virtual donuts—and all I could come up with were two houses that could have been our bombing target. My Swiss cheese memory can’t recall precisely where we tried to make Swiss cheese of the porch screens, but it might have been, say, at the corner of Lorenzo and Burghardt (pictured above), but it could as well have been at Lorenzo and Sylvester (below). I don’t know. I do remember that the house had a porch and it was at an intersection and it was right around that shit-ass Pine Point location.

Just when it looked like these boys had learned their lesson, Mike called us back to the bus. But before we turned around, the porch door flew open, and one of the kids, around our age, charged down the steps and tried to tackle Tom Lane. Mark Catarius grabbed him and Tom slugged him in the jaw. Then Tom and Mark wrestled with him, holding his arms, while I joined two of my other friends and worked him over with some punches and a couple of kicks. All this time, his two friends stayed on the steps of the porch and watched!

“You guys!” Mike yelled. “Get in here!”

We threw the guy into a snow bank and climbed back on the bus.

I expected Mike to be furious, but he didn’t chide us for the violence. It all happened so fast, and Tom WAS physcially attacked. Still, we began to wonder about the repercussions as we drove away and watched the guy’s friends pick him up. We watched the asshole regain his bearings, wipe blood from his nose, brush snow off his jacket and then shove one of his buddies, undoubtedly for not helping him in his REAL time of need: when we were kicking his ass.

Our adrenaline was going, but I might have felt a slight undercurrent of buzz-kill regret coursing through my exhilaration. As I detailed in Spitting to All Fields, Part 2, my neighborhood friends and I bombed plenty of buses and cars. This is what kids do. We also knew full well, though, that there was a risk of getting beaten up.
 Luckily, the guy we teamed up on only had a bloody nose. But what if we had kept going to town on the guy and really hurt him?

Also, I feared that this was getting out of hand—that Mike in some way was getting back at the Rail Gang, sublimating his anger toward the rock throwers and directing toward these kids, who were only guilty of throwing snowballs at a bus—something we did every other day. Was I actually felling some kind of—gulp—guilt?

Oh, who am I kidding? I felt nothing even close to remorse back then, and I don’t feel guilty about it NOW, 34 years later. I guess it’s, well, the CHRISTIAN thing to do to entertain the thought. Now I’ll just banish that notion from my head and keep writing. Christ has nothing to do with this.

Look, these kids threw ice chunks as well as snowballs at the bus, so I think that’s where our post-traumatic stress disorder kicked in. As I wrote in Snowbrawl 1979, sometimes your punky actions have consequences, and the sooner they learn this, the better for their social development.


On Monday, we knew we had to contend with the aftermath of OUR behavior. Would word get back to the principal? Would Mike get fired? No and no.

At the beginning of the ride home that day, Gary Thompson told us that our victim’s name was Gino, and the kid had been telling the whole neighborhood that there was going to be hell to pay for the beating. “Oh really?” asked Mark Catarius. “We’ll see about that.”

It was a moot point anyway, because there was no way Mike was going to let us off the bus again, especially if Gino had additional—and more reliable—backup.

As we drove down Bay Street and approached East/West Bay Path Terrace that day, there might as well have been a drum roll going, because we knew something was going to happen. A warm front had rolled in over the weekend, making the snow soft and perfect for throwing.

Sure enough, as we passed Gino’s house (that is, I’m pretty sure it was Gino’s house), there he was in the side yard. But he didn’t have a snowball in his hand. He was holding a brick! There were a smattering of kids hanging around both sides of the street, but they looked more like an audience than potential assailants. They weren’t gripping snowballs or any other missiles. Gino brought the brick to his shoulder, like a quarterback, as if he was going to throw it. Everyone on the left side of the bus moved to right. Mike stopped the bus.

“Go ahead,” said Mike. “Throw it.”

“Yeah, I should throw it, you asshole!”

“Yeah, you SUCK assholes, buddy!” Mike barked.

The tidal wave of laughter and yelling from our bus was deafening. Even first-graders were squealing with delight.

As we drove away, Gino cocked the brick back again, but he didn’t throw it. He may have been pissed, but he wasn’t crazy. Or was he?


On Tuesday, when we took the fateful left off Bay Street, we thought that there was NO WAY Gino would be around, especially after he wimped out with the brick. But, to quote Yogi Berra again, it ain’t over ’til it’s over, because unbelievably Gino had set down a couple of large branches to block the street! And there he was, in the side yard again, brandishing a baseball bat-sized branch in his right hand and with his other hand beckoning someone—anyone I guess—to exit the bus.

Mike pulled over to the right curb. Oh. My. God. Was he actually going to call Gino’s bluff?

“There’s the bastard—over there!” screamed Mike out the window to someone behind us. Who the hell was he talking to? We found out a moment later when Gino dropped the stick and broke into a sprint through back yards as a police car whizzed by our bus and over the “blockade,” sending the branches flying. Mike was a genius—prior to the ride he had complained to the police and they told him they’d to follow us once we turned from Bay Street.

“Yeaah!!” we all bellowed. It was a thunderous ovation louder than the cheer that went up in Fenway Park after Carlton Fisk’s 1975 World Series Game Six blast.

And like Pudge’s home run being the highlight of the Series for Sox fans—with not much to celebrate in Game Seven—the Gino police chase was great, but it brought an end to our practice of throwing snowballs at snowballers. Once the cops were involved, Mike certainly couldn’t risk an incident like that happening again. What began as innocent fun—a prank to turn the tables on snowball throwers—had snowballed (yuk, yuk, yuk!) out of control.

It’s unclear what happened to Gino after that. Gary Thompson had filled us in the next day, but I’ve long forgotten the details of the outcome. I believe it went something like this: he eluded the patrolmen, but neighbors ratted him out, telling his mom about not only the chase, but also the events of the previous few days. If that was the case, how was Mike NOT disciplined for our assault on Gino—or even arrested? I could easily see his mug making the newspapers after this debacle:

Come to think of it, why weren’t WE arrested for the beatdown? Didn’t Gino’s mother tell the police about it? If there were a full investigation, maybe Mike would have thrown us under the bus and said something like, “I opened the door to yell at the snowball throwers, and these kids stormed off the bus and attacked them!” Would he have done that? No. Not Mike. Besides, there were too many witnesses on the bus that heard him encouraging us. These are the unanswerable questions that will be forever lost in the fog and the smog of the crazy, hazy Seventies.


It’s funny, but back then I thought a whacked-out school bus ride like ours would have made a perfect TV sitcom: a half an hour of bus antics by a bunch of punky kids. Every day I got off the bus and said to myself, “That ride was hilarious! It would have made a great show!” Now that I’ve been off the Ursuline bus for 34 years, I still feel this way. It’s not like I have the time to write a screenplay—especially with this blog and all—but maybe I’ll send Snowbrawl 1977 to the major TV networks as a “treatment” with the promise of more to come if a producer bites on the idea.

Nah. It wouldn’t even get a nibble in Hollywood. A bus driver who uses kids on his bus to get revenge on snowball throwers? Too farfetched. Even if the writer swore on a stack of bibles—he must have had his fingers crossed.

For the record, my fingers weren’t crossed. And although I always change the names of the people in Hell’s Acres, I left Mike and Gino’s names intact, as well as Robert Arbuckle’s name, because they’re out there somewhere, and if they ever come across this blog entry, I want to remove all doubt in their minds that it was them I was writing about. Thank you, Mike, Gino, and Robert for making the winters of 1975 and 1977 such special seasons.

Come to think of it, maybe the Otto character is an inaccurate comparison to Mike. I recently learned that Cheech Marin once made a children’s album called My Name is Cheech, the School Bus Driver.

Cheech was probably more like Mike—incredibly mellow:

...but even Cheech was capable of mayhem. Remember the time he did some space coke in Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie?

Yes, this is what Mike looked like when he went after the Rail Gang.

All right. That's all I got this month. Later.

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