As a kid, I rarely caused any trouble outside of home. I was a smarty pants; my teachers liked me, and I was never really interested in deviant behavior. I got a detention in 6th grade for not doing my homework but that was about the worst thing I did. However, the hour before and after school spent on the school bus was a completely different story. It was like the Wild West…anything went, and I was often the instigator, or at a minimum, an active participant. At school I spent most of my time with other “good” kids, but on the bus there’s no chance for separation. Everyone is thrown together in one big melting pot. There are boys, girls, elementary, middle, and high school kids, the Amish, white trash, cool kids, nerds, rednecks, brothers and sisters, Christa Schipper ( Oh yeah!), farmers, the handicapped, and a bus driver who hates her life. I’m not certain the bus driver hated her life, but considering she had to drive around the aforementioned lot twice a day, I’d say it’s a given. So it was in this environment that the worst of me came out.
They say prison is often like school for criminals. Well the bus was kind of like that. We were always scheming to come up with something to top the last thing we did. One time a kid made blow darts out of needles and a straw. You never knew when you would get shot. Even the Amish joined in and would occasionally stick someone with a hat pin. I remember tying fishing line to my alarm clock and dragging it behind the bus. That was fun for awhile but quickly lost its appeal. Once we decided to pit two elementary school boys against each other. We convinced the one boy to spit in the face of the other and then convinced the other boy that he couldn’t be disrespected like that. We knew it would lead to a fight, and sure enough, when they got off the bus, at the trailer park no less, we were treated to a show of them duking it out. Another time we convinced a kid to stand up on his seat and play the air guitar while the bus was going down the highway. The bus driver was furious. She stopped the bus, made the kid stand on her seat up front, and play the air guitar for everyone. I’m sure it was humiliating for him, but we thought it was hilarious. Also, were you aware that if you open your bus window and spit, it will fly back in through an open window two seats back? We were; it’s a marvel of bus physics that works every time. But none of this stuff compared to our biggest stunt.
Like all boys I enjoyed fire. I wasn’t a pyromaniac or anything, but fire fascinated me. It’s just part of being a boy. I was never one to play with fire, but one day in gym class a kid sprayed a puddle of his aerosol deodorant on his locker, shut the lights out, and then lit it on fire. It was a pretty cool display and there was no smoke or damage done to the locker either. My friend Derek and I were impressed, and we decided this would be cool to try on the bus. So the next day I brought the matches and Derek brought the Right Guard; we determined to start a fire on the ride home that afternoon. We waited until nearly everyone was dropped off that way there would be fewer witnesses. We huddled in a seat toward the back of the bus, sprayed a bunch of Right Guard on the floor of the bus, and lit it.
It went off without a hitch. No smoke, no damage to the bus, and completely out of sight of the bus driver. It was a nice cool controlled blue flame. We thought we were pretty cool. We were starting fires on the bus and nobody knew anything about it! It became our little trick that we did often after that day.
Then one day Derek sat next to me and said, “Dude, I’ve got some model glue at home that says ‘Highly Flammable’”. I instantly replied, “Bring it in man; let’s start it on fire.” The Right Guard was getting a little boring and it was time to try something new.
The next day Derek brought the glue; I couldn’t wait to start this stuff on fire. Instead of waiting until the bus was empty like usual, I wanted to start the fire while the bus was still loading in the parking lot. Derek acquiesced and squirted a glob of the glue on the bus floor. I pulled out my matches and lit the glue. It was highly flammable alright! But instead of a nice cool controlled blue flame it produced instant black smoke. We stomped it out immediately, but it was too late. The bus driver knew something was wrong. I quickly gave the matches to Derek to hide and braced myself for the bus driver’s wrath. She stormed to the back of the bus and demanded to know if we had started a fire. I lied. Not just a little lie either, but a big fat fib. I said, “We didn’t start a fire. That would be crazy. There’s no way we would do something so stupid.” Then some little kid pointed at me and said, “That boy has matches.” At this point I took the lie to the next level. I stood up from my seat and pulled out my pockets to show they were empty and said, “Martha, do you think I would have matches on the bus? There’s no way I would do that. That’s totally crazy. I’d be in a ton of trouble if I had matches on the bus.” At this point Martha said something about not really believing us, but since she didn’t see any evidence of a fire, she wasn’t going to do anything. As she left we threatened the little kid that knarked on us with bodily harm if he ever ratted us out like that again, but we felt confident the whole thing was behind us. We were relieved to have escaped the situation unscathed.
Unfortunately we weren’t going to get off so easy. My sister’s friend and I’m pretty sure my sister too ratted us out later. Derek and I caught wind of the fact and knew we were in some serious trouble. I mean we had started a fire on the bus and totally lied about it. This was serious. So we started to scramble and tried to think how we could squirm out of this. It seemed hopeless until one of us came up with the idea to go see the Guidance Counselor. In my middle school, the Guidance Counselor was little more than an unqualified shrink that screwed up kids boo hooed to about all their issues. We had seen other kids go cry to the Guidance Counselor about their problems and get away with stuff so we figured we’d give it a try. We decided to tell her that we were in some way mentally impaired and had started the fire as a way to express our rage and anger toward our bus driver. We figured that if she bought the story and thought we were crazy maybe we’d get away with this.
While in gym class, Derek and I told our teacher that we needed to go see the Guidance Counselor. He stared at us and said, “What in the world do you two need to go see the guidance counselor for?” We refused to tell him and just said it was personal. I’m sure he thought we were a couple of flamers or something, but he let us go.
The Guidance Counselor ushered us into her office and inquired what the matter was. At this point we spilled the beans. We told her our bus driver was mean and nasty and that we couldn’t stand her. That she singled us out and made our lives miserable. We just couldn’t take it any longer and finally our rage bubbled over and was expressed by the fire we started.
We were hoping for sympathy and compassion; instead, as soon as we finished our story, the Guidance Counselor began to take us step by step through the process of expulsion. All the way down to what the judge would say, what the court room would look like, and what would be required of us. At this point, I remember thinking, “Oh, #@*&! I’m in serious trouble.” She sent us back to our class terrified of what would come next. We thought for a moment maybe there was some kind of Guidance Counselor-Student privilege thing and that she wouldn’t tell anyone. We knew it wasn’t true, but we hoped. We spent the rest of the day just waiting for the hammer to drop. We made it to our very last class of the day and then were called to the Principal’s office. What dread!
As we walked to the office, Derek said to just deny everything, never admit to anything. That was our only hope. We were ushered into the Principal’s office and there was our bus driver, her boss, and the Principal. Derek strolled in with a popsicle in his mouth and the Principal snapped at him, “Get that popsicle out of your mouth!” Then we were told to sit down and our principal asked, “Do you boys know why you’re here?” I’d decided to let Derek do all the talking. I knew I would cave. Derek responded and said he had no idea why he was there. The Principal wasn’t too happy and began to tell us that he knew all about the fire we had started on the bus and that we were in serious trouble. Then Derek with his cocky attitude said, “What fire? I don’t know anything about any fire.” The Principal lost it at this point. He jumped up out of his chair, slammed both hands onto his desk, and shouted, “Don’t make me come across this desk and slam dunk you. If you don’t tell me about the fire right now, I’m gonna jump across this desk and take you to the mat.” I was scared, and I guess Derek was too because he responded sheepishly, “Maybe there was a little fire.” So there it was. No more denying. We were had.
At this point I was expecting to get expelled or at best suspended. Our bus driver started to yell at us about how mad she was that we lied to her. Then her boss yelled at us for endangering a bus load of kids and told us that the seats on the bus create a toxic killer smoke if they catch on fire. (If that’s true, that’s a real hazard!) Finally our Principal yelled at us about being irresponsible and reckless and how disappointed he was in us. I knew the punishment was coming any minute now. How was I going to explain this to my parents? I thought “My mother’s going to kill me!” And just as I was waiting to hear my fate, the Principal told us to get out of his office and go back to class.
What? Just leave? No expulsion? You’re not calling my mother? Not even a detention? You mean if I don’t turn in my homework I get a detention, but if I start a fire on the bus, there’s no punishment? What’s going on here? To this day, I still have no idea how I got away with this.
That was the end of my fire starting days. Even though I didn’t get punished, I was scared straight! I had stared into the abyss, and I wanted no more.