Saturday, May 1, 2010


One of my favorite light houses is perched on a tiny nubble of rocky land which becomes an island at high tide, but is loosely connected to the equally-rocky shoreline for a few slippery hours each day when the tide is out. For generations, Maine’s “Nubble Light” was a family light station, and children grew up in the white-painted bungalow which shares the two or three acres of grassy landscape with the light and its red-painted oil house. Some long-ago family constructed a cable and breeches buoy connecting the island to the mainland, some two hundred yards away, so that children could safely negotiate the cauldron-like moat which isolated them, facilitating thereby travel to and from school in nearby York. Though today an automated light, the last I knew the cable car was still there.
Other island families I know of – including several from whom I am descended – welcomed winter, so that their children could skate across the iced-over bays, reaches and inlets, saving them the cost of having to “board-out” their kids to mainland families during the school year.
For most rural school kids, well into the 1940s, the long walk to school was a part of everyday life, and what’s more, the first boy to arrive at the old one-room school in West Brookfield, Vermont was expected to split enough wood for the day, and fill the wood box behind the big round stove that sat in the middle of the room. I know, because my younger brother often got that job while I was off to a much more remote school destination which was seven miles away.
The town of Quincy, Massachusetts really started something when, back in 1869, they decided to provide a horse-drawn “school wagon” in an effort to improve attendance at village schools. The idea was soon copied by others, and some of those early school wagons became impressively elaborate, with canvas-covered roofs, and side curtains which could be lowered in inclement weather. Even the driver got to sit on an enclosed perch, perhaps the better to deal with over-active passengers – probably with no more success than his modern-day counterpart. In fact drivers soon learned that the noise of children climbing aboard was troubling to the horses, leading to a coach design with a rear entry door, a feature which continued into the automotive age.
By 1920 there were a small handful of school districts around the country which put model-T based truck chassis to work as school coaches, one of which I know is still used by an automotive museum to carry patrons between outdoor exhibits. In the years which followed, other communities followed, utilizing everything from refurbished circus vehicles to converted delivery vans, painted in every imaginable color. A patriotic red-white-and-blue color scheme seems to have been very popular. It was not until 1939 that a national color standard was agreed to by every state, and the “long yellow bus” was born. Unlike the U.S. and Canada, most other countries which provide some degree of school transportation are not hung up on colors, and school coaches look pretty much like public transportation vehicles. In Hong Cong such vehicles are much smaller, and are known as “Nanny Vans” !
People who get their kicks keeping records for almost everything claim that 475,000 long yellow buses shuffle 25 million kids each day to and from American schools. That works out to something like ten billion student trips per year, in a nation which is unique in giving each driver the power to stop other traffic in both directions at each stop.
With the ubiquitous yellow buses a common sight wherever one travels nowadays, there is something particularly charming about the mule-drawn sleds crowded with Amish school children which can now and then still be seen making their way across a snow-covered winter landscape in rural Pennsylvania. Where – by the way – the one-room school house is also still alive and well. I will have to check though to find out if there are still a few fiercely hardy and independent island kids around Casco Bay who still get to make the journey on ice skates. Probably not allowed.

We don’t know where old yellow school buses usually go to die, but Al Cooper found this one, doubtless crowded with old memories, languishing away in an overgrown Utah hay field.

Al's Great Granddaughter looks forward to riding to and from her school each day on a modern day long yellow school bus!

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