The end of the quarter-mile driveway from our farmhouse in the winter was the most desolate place on earth, and I stood there every weekday waiting for the school bus. A little boy in my blue snowmobile suit listening to the wind blow hard against the telephone wires. It emitted a lonely and anxious buzz over the tops of the barren wheat and corn fields covered in snow all around me.
That morning, I woke as usual in my bed upstairs at the old house. The air was freezing cold and the little small amount of heat coming through ducts at the top of my bedroom did little to warm me as I slinked small steps down the steep, wooden staircase through the door to the kitchen.
I fed the cats, then went to the bathroom, which was in the center of the kitchen. It was an add-on room since the house had been built before indoor plumbing. One wall and window of the bathroom faced the arctic snow outside, and as I washed my face and brushed my teeth I could see light but little else through the plastic-covered windows.
Each autumn, my family and I would cover the entire outside first floor of the house in white styrofoam, then lay haybales around the base of the house, and finally nail plastic to the windows. The windows were an opaque smear for the next six months. We did all this to keep the heat in during the freezing Central Minnesota winter, which would arrive in late October and stay until late April.
I poured myself a bowl of Quisp cereal and sat down in front of the kerosene heater. My family would move it from room to room for heat. When the clock ticked 7:15, it was time to pull on my snowmobile suit, snowmobile boots, mittens, scarf, and stocking cap, then head down the driveway to wait for the school bus.
I never stopped to wonder why half my clothes had ‘snowmobile’ in their description since my family didn’t own one. That was simply the name of my winter wear.
Outside, beyond the front porch, the front yard was packed six-feet high with snow and I made my way through the labyrinth of shoveled pathways to the driveway. It was covered in windblown snowdrifts streaked across in ocean waves of cold, frozen water.
Beyond the house, high above me stood the barn. A tin, gray monolith of gothic splendor and haunting fear. Wind rattled the pieces of tin that had come loose that winter banging an eerie bell. Crang, crang, crang.
Next to the barn, was the dog’s kennel made from old chicken coop wire. It was built against the garage, a doorless building that housed my mom’s brown Toyota two-door hatchback. Outside the garage, sitting in the snow, was my dad’s 1969 Volkswagen van.
The VW van was white with generous amounts of brown rust eroding the bottom. On the rear bumper and back door were various bumper stickers that read ‘Ecology’, ‘Question Authority’, and several ‘Mustang Ranch’ stickers promoting the Nevada brothel. On the front of the van, my father had taken stencil letters and spray-painted these words:
Reagan’s Here, The End Is Near
I just wanted to get to school where I could learn in the warmth of my elementary school.
Though my school was only two miles away, each day’s school bus ride took a full hour because I lived on the outskirts of the world and therefore needed to be driven to school with the “big kids”. After the older kids were all dropped off at their high and junior high schools, I was taken to mine. I’d climb off the school bus by myself.
The last, lone, little rider.
Each frigid morning, I’d begin the trek down the driveway early because my little legs needed a full 15 minutes to arrive in time for the bus to pick me up at 7:30. If I arrived early, I would stand and listen to the buzz of the telephone wires, making up songs to distract myself from the sound of the bitter wind.
As I trudged, I kept a close look out across the fields. They were harvested in the fall and then laid flat by snowfall. This meant that I could see for a couple of miles in all directions. I’d study the black and white horizon for the yellow school bus appearing because if it was early, I had to run.
I was a good runner and had learned to be one by escaping the clutches of many bullies. Usually larger, older kids. 5th and 6th graders who would say things like, “Hey Bronson, ya fauker! I’m gonna kick yer ass, hey, ya faukin’ faggot!”
The word ‘fuck’ was always contorted into something else by the mouths of these inbred German Catholic bullies. Children with mullets who played ice hockey and whose fathers worked at the local factories. The word “hey” was used for no reason and “faggot” was often the biggest insult they could come up with. I made fun of these older behemoths for survival.
“Do you know that faggot is a bundle of sticks?” I’d say with a precocious sneer.
“What? Fauk you, hey. Whatdoyersayin’?”
“A faggot is a bundle of sticks. Is that what you’re calling me? A bundle of sticks?”
That would usually enflame them enough to begin running at me with the intent to kill, but I was quick and I could run fast.
When I saw the Blue Bird school bus across the white fields of snow that morning, I ran with the same adrenaline as being chased by a bully.
I didn’t want to ride the bus; it was pure torture. One hour to school and one hour back each day filled with pure violence, screams, and other noise. Sometimes urine and vomit, too. And messages scrawled on frosted windows with fingers that should have read, “Help me!” but instead said, “Ass” or ‘Shit” because children could get away with words like that when anonymously written on school bus windows.
I hated all of it, but the reason I made sure to catch the bus was my father. My dad was the most frightening bully in my life. Riding the bus was better than suffering his wrath if I missed the bus.
Dad was long-haired and thickly bearded, like the cover of a 1970s Led Zeppelin or Jethro Tull album. A long, gnarled beard fell over his chest surrounded by wavy hippie hair and accented by a receding hairline at his widow’s peak.
He worked as a prison guard at The Joint, which was the prison in our nearby town. A reformatory made from granite by the prisoners themselves years before. It looked like the walls of the Shawshank Redemption. The prison employed a number of blue-collar workers and my dad was one of them.
He worked the night shift, so he would leave for work at 3:30 in the afternoon and not get home until 3:00 or 4:00 the next morning. His shift ended at midnight but then he’d go out with his friends and co-workers to party. Partying included more than just alcohol and weed.
I rarely saw him except every two weeks when he had the weekend off. Each day, I arrived home from school minutes before he left for the prison. In the morning, he was still sleeping it off when I left to catch the bus.
Missing the bus meant that I would need to walk back down the driveway and wake up my father, who would only have been asleep for four or five hours. He would be completely naked, still half-inebriated, and even more angry than normal. My dad was often angry, so this was the most frightening thing of all.
This particular morning, I was more than halfway down the driveway when I saw the school bus. I was confident that I could reach the end of the driveway in time and I did so without any problem. I stood there waiting, standing there in my snowmobile suit, ready for the day.
My morning school bus driver was a piggish man who had befriended the older kids on the bus. Even at my age, I knew it was strange for the bus driver to do that. He had been impressing the kids on the bus over the past weeks by randomly running down traffic cones and committing other childish pranks. When he drove by me at high speed it may have been to impress them, but it destroyed me.
Standing there, all four feet of me, shivering in the cold, I watched a blur of Blue Bird yellow whiz by. I began to cry. Then I turned and started to walk down the driveway toward The Farm and my sleeping father.
When I got to the house, I opened the front door and moved through the kitchen filled with Moosewood Cookbooks, paper artwork that said “Keep Truckin’”, and plates on the wall with magic mushrooms on them. I went on to the rug-covered living room with its stereo on cinder blocks, Kris Kristofferson album covers, and numerous aloe vera plants hanging over the upright barroom piano. Then, I opened the door to my parent’s bedroom.
My dad was asleep there on the water bed. My mom was next to him, but she wasn’t the one to disturb.
“Dad,” I said quietly so as not to wake him.
It succeeded. He didn’t wake up.
“Dad,” I said louder. “Dad?”
At the moment, covers of all designs and stitching were thrown high in the air and his naked body was completely exposed. He sprung from the waterbed sprouting a pile of unruly pubic hair, beard, and wild eyes with his cock swinging wide, leaving my mother to ride out the water bed tsunami he left behind.
My dad, a Vietnam veteran, was disturbingly violent and unnerving when he woke up. His first words were, “What!? What’s going on?!” What!? WHAT!?”
“Dad,” I said as serenely as possible. “Dad, I missed the bus. I need a ride. It drove by me.” Then, I started to whimper.
“What!!? What’do’ya’mean it drove by you!? GET…FUCK…MOTHERFUCK!…GET IN THE VAN!”
He didn’t take long to put on his winter clothes and stumble outside mumbling and swearing under his breath as he lit a Salem cigarette. He got into the front of the VW van and began exhaling huge flumes of menthol cigarette smoke as he started his van, leaned over the large, round steering wheel, and rolled out like a soldier. We rocketed down the driveway quickly and loudly, the muffler nearly missing.
“God damn it! Where is the school bus?! WHERE IS THAT BUS?”
“I don’t know, Dad.”
“We’ll find it. Where does the bus go?”
As we approached the nearest suburban neighborhood, I pointed to the first road we’d normally take and he sped down it. I had assumed that he would just take me to school, but all hope was lost when we saw the school bus ahead of us.
“FART BLOSSOM!” my dad screamed at the bus driver. “God damn, FART BLOSSOM!” he screamed again as he tailgated the bus and began honking his horn like a bleating goat.
I could see the big kids in the back window of the bus looking at us with amusement and some fear as my wild-eyed hippie father honked the horn of his VW and continued to yell, “Pull the fuck over, you Fart Blossom!”
I sat watching completely deflated. Embarrassed. But it was no different than most days at school, so I accepted my fate.
The bus finally pulled over and I climbed down and out of the VW onto the cold, frozen asphalt. My father said nothing as he continued to stare ahead with fury. I walked over to the school bus. Pig Driver pulled on the long metal lever and opened the folding door. My small legs lifted and moved up the high steps.
I could hear sniggering and name-calling inside already beginning.
“Hey Bronson, ya faukin’ faggot! Ha, ha, haa! Fauker! Yer gonna get yer ass kicked, hey!”
Inside my head, I armed myself with words and put my armor on for another morning bus ride, as my father drove home and went back to bed.