Officially in Hell: My Ten Hours on a Bus with Fifty Pre-Teens.
I am recovering from shock. I have just spent three days without a computer, without a car, without a tv, and even without a newspaper. (Not to mention three days without my beloved Swedish Foam Space mattress!)
But those are not the worst parts. The worst part was the ten hours I spent on a bus this weekend, with fifty pre-teenagers.
God rest my soul.
The last time I was on a bus at all was twenty seven years ago. It was a Trailways and I rode it all the way from California back to Alabama. I had quit my job, was dead broke, had lost the best girlfriend I ever had, and had no hope of employment once I returned to my birthplace. And the trip back was interminable.
It doesn't matter. That trip still does not compare to the ten hours I spent this last weekend riding on a bus with pre-teens.
Here's how the whole thing came to be:
Simply this: My daughter asked me to go on a trip with her class to Sea Lab, on Daphine Island on the Gulf Coast. I did not want to go but she wanted me to. And knowing that in only a year or two she is not going to want to be around me at all any more, I decided to go.
I can pinpoint the exact moment I realized I was in trouble. Having learned in the Navy to always sit with your back to the wall - so you can see the beer bottles coming at you when they are thrown - I went straight back to the back seat. Kids were already there. Three of them. Boys. One of them in the seat I wanted.
I sat two seats in front of them and thought it over. They wouldn't be throwing beer bottles, but I assumed (quite rightly I might add) that they could be just as dangerous. After all, they were twelve. Still kids, and therefore not responsible in a court of law for their actions, but physically some of them strong enough to give me a hard time. Specially as I am hard pushing sixty.
I turned to the three in the back and said, "Hey, I want to sit in the back and I'll give you guys ten bucks to move.
Then I swear to God one of them said, "Show us the money."
I counted out ten and forked it over and they skeedaddled. I got the seat I wanted. And that is when things got worse. I had three seats in the back now, beautiful. But the joint was filling up and I didn't know if I was going to be able to keep them.
I wouldn't be. The bus was going to be full. I gave up one seat near the window. Then right next to me, sat the most deadliest kid in the sixth grade. A kid with a bad cold. I knew it was just a matter of time before I had one. It was too late to get up and go home and say I had changed my mind. He had already coughed all over the back of the bus.
I had to take it like a man.
The teacher did a head count, then we pulled away from the safety of my own home, my own lawn, my own city. We were now, "On the Road."
I wondered if Jack Kerouac felt this way riding with Allen Ginsberg. Probably not.
Then the sleepy chatter - it was six AM - began to raise in volume. The volume was so loud I could only hear bits and pieces of stuff I didn't want to hear any of.
Somebody saying, "I don't like you!"
Another saying "Cain't be," which in English translates to "It can not be."
And somebody offering this good advice: "Quit hate'n"
And "This is awesome!"
And "Owww!" which I assume was kind of signal they were in pre-teen pain.
From where I sit I can look straight up the aisle all the way out the front window and see the headlighted road weaving back and forth as the driver makes adjustments. He is cooking. Doing seventy right off the bat.
I am remembering headlines I have seen in the past: "Fifty students killed (And one daddy writer) when bus carreens off Interstate at 6:15 In Morning."
I'm locked in the back. There is no getting off now.
I look up up the aisle to the right. There is a tall girl and a short boy sitting together. She has this big face and he this little one. I can tell because they - like allmost all the other kids - are constantly turning around to see if somebody is having more fun than they are.
Big face and little face are indeed having more fun. Because they are already wrapped up in each others arms. I can not see if they are kissing, because they have sunk down in the seat. Big girl's legs are way out in the aisle... and I have seen nothing yet as to what will come.
Behind them, two more, about the same size though as each other though, follow suit. Other kids are staring at them as if this is a sex education course, and one they will definitely pay close attention to.
So this is where pre-teen kids learn how to make out. On trips to the Gulf.
I look up to where my daughter is sitting. She is (so far) oblivious to this classroom drama unfolding near the back. She is sitting with her same sex friend and they are playing handheld games.
I look around. The ones not watching the sex class are swapping ipods and mp3 players and God only knows what else.
One tall boy is wearing sunglasses, and has been since he got on the bus. It is, I remind you, still dark.
Then I hear the one song that drives me up the wall. Somebody has turned it up loud. The one song that makes me cringe: Sweet Home Alabama."
One kid says, "Turn that country crap off!"
Another says to him, "You're going to get shot saying that. That's a redneck song."
That doesn't bother the first kid - who I am beginning to like a lot - at all. He says, "Turn that off right now! You people are LAME!"
The song is either turned off or has played itself out. I don't know which.
I look out the window. I'm higher now than even the semi's passing. I see people going to work, and for the first time in my life, I wish I was one of them.
There goes an electrical contractor with all his gear spread out in the back of his truck.
A kid in front of me starts doing what he apparently does best. Annoying people. He pokes his finger in the ear of a normal kid who is trying to sleep. Then messes up his hair.
The same kind of behavior that makes me glad I shelled out ten bucks to sit in the back.
Somebody tells annoying kid, "You know, you may have to room alone."
He obviously has a bad reputation.
Phase two of the bus ride begins. This is when many of the kids decide they do not like where they sat down at first, and now begin to switch seats. It happens all over the bus. No one is immune. Not even me.
For cold and flu guy gets up and changes with annoying guy.
My life has just gotten worse.
Then he says something to me that you know your own kids will say to you every trip, but you never expect it from someone else's kid on a bus. He says, "How many more hours do we have before we get there?"
I just look at him wondering if I should choke him now before he gets worse. Wondering if the judge would be sympathetic at all. We have not even been on the road thirty minutes.
After playing some air guitar - not to music but to the roar of the chatter, he says to me, "Did you hear about the gangbangers? They're going to go into Walmart and kill three women at random."
I don't respond. I am playing dead. I am old and I look old and feel old and maybe he will think I am dead and leave me alone.
That's when it hit me. I am having a unique experience. I need to write about it and share it with all the people in the world who are not lucky enough to be on a bus with fifty pre-teens for ten hours. (Five hours going, and five hours coming back)
I have my daughter's Sea Lab schedule in my pocked and I take it out and start making notes, many of which I can't read now when I am trying to write this. Too bad, because they said some astonishing things.
Annoying kid sees me writing and says, "You writing down how to get back?"
I just look at him. He doesn't look retarded. And as far as I know there is no one on the bus retarded except me.
I hear more chatter, mostly very impressive geek tech talk about the differences between AT&T and MCI telephone services. Very possibly, the next Bill Gates is on this bus or one similar.
From somewhere one kid says something like, "Do that again if you want to die!"
I hear another say, "I'm a mean person."
Another says, "Ain't that rat?" which translates to "Isn't that right?"
Now cell phones suddenly appear everywhere. They are not calling home. They are texting each other. I imagine they are saying, hey look back at big head and little head... because they are now contorted beyond belief, with big head's legs straight up in the air.
But I am not the police. If their moms and dads didn't want that kind of behavior they should be on the bus in hell along with me. As far as I can tell there are only three other parents on the bus, and they are safe at the front or near the front of the bus with various teacher's pets.
One is the mother of the girl sitting with her own boyfriend behind big face and little face. And she has no clue that her own progeny is wrapped up cheek to cheek with the alpha male of this group of pre-teen boys. Either that or she has decided to go with the flow... of a river that has a very strong current.
I look out the window. I am seeing for some of the first times ever, the top of a double trailer semi truck going down the road.
I look back down the center aisle. Feet are going up on the head rests.
Then out the window something magnificent begins to happen.
There comes the sun. Glorious! What an incredible everyday miracle.
I look at it for a long, long time, because I do not want to look back and see what is going on on the bus.
But when I do look back I see something very disturbing. Big head, little head, have now placed a blanket over their bodies. I do not want to know what is going on under there.
Behind them the daughter of the parent up front follows up with her own blanket for her and her "significant" other.
Note to parents of pre-teens: DO NOT SEND A BLANKET WITH YOUR KIDS ON TRIPS. You might as well just buy them a hotel room.
Then something more dangerous than that happens. The bus pulls over to the side of the interstate. A rumor spreads that the luggage bay door has come open and luggage has fallen out onto the highway.
This is bad. Everybody that has ever watched police tv knows that if you stop on the side of the Interstate it is like placing a huge sign on the back of your car/bus that says, "PLEASE SLAM INTO ME WHILE YOU ARE RUBBERNECKING TO SEE WHY WE HAVE STOPPED!:
The driver stops the bus and gets out. I am really no kidding worried. I am sitting at the back of the bus. I will be the first killed. Me and annoying kid and cold/flu kid.
I look out the window. Cars, trucks, semi's and even other buses are passing a foot or two away from us at seventy miles an hour. They are just flashes of highly explosive missles any one of which if hit us would be disaster.
The driver gets back on the bus. A door had come partially open, but he had been sharp enough to see it and close it. Later I learned that he had driven for Willie Nelson and so screaming kids didn't bother him. He had learned to focus even through a heavy fog of marijuana smoke.
We're on the way again.
I look at all the kids and it's easy to see who they are: the class clown, the brainiac, the kids that get picked on, the bullies. The stuck up beauties and the grunge kids. They are all here. Like a garden of future American dysfunctional people. One kid is pulling up and slamming down the armrests. I am sure that if I was not here to stop him he would break it off. I have to tell him to stop hitting another kid - a really gentle person.
I believe he is angry and prison bound. Not on this bus. But on a future one.
Near me, kids are playing blackjack with more skill than I ever dreamed of having. "Hit me, Hit me again."
But the only games I can remember from my yourth are get drunk drinking games which I wisely decide, I can not share with them.
One girl yells back down the aisle at a boy, "You're a dork!" He responds with, "You're a midget!" I assume this is some kind of foreplay before they eventually end up in the same seat. With a blanket over them.
Somebody says, "Make it shake!" I don't even want to know what that was about.
I hear two boys say, "We're like sisters!"
Somebody else says, "Let me see it!" but gets "No way, Dude! Get over it!"
I am hearing every expression pre-teens have been spoon fed by MTV.
Annoying kid turns to me and says, "How old are you?"
I tell him "Two Hundred and Sixty three."
He keeps on, but I stick to my story, because that is how old I now feel, seeing all these fresh young faces and all their boundless engery.
Another kid starts talking to me. He is obviously the class loner. Just like I was. He is wearing very old clothes, even on a trip where they said to wear old clothes. Nobody took the suggestion seriously. Except him. Maybe because of poverty. He tells me he has eight brothers and sisters. I want to listen, but....
seeing he is not getting any attention, annoying kid begins singing. Not a song, just scat. And not even good scat.
And he throws in more air guitar to boot. And not even good air guitar at that. Even I can play air guitar better.
I tell him, "Does your dad ever just smack you?" I'm thinking, Like I want to do right now.
There are six television monitors hanging down from the ceiling of the bus, three on each side spaced evenly down the length of it. The one in the middle right starts shaking violently, vibrating like it is about to fall on somebody's head. Hands raise to steady it til it calms down.
The chatter is still at a deafening level.
I decide to put toilet paper from the lone bathroom in my ears to drown out the roar.
But I don't accomplish this before I hear someone say:
"Necrophilia. That's not a bad word is it?"
That's it. My brain has officially turned to jelly.
The only thing I have not heard so far are moans coming from under the blanket.
I expect them any moment.
And... we are not even to Birmingham yet.
End of Part One.
Part Two is now at the following link under the title, Holding a Teddy Bear - While Learning about Love.
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Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada