Posted in Music and horses, pennsylvania coal country

The Bad Bus

When sixth graders in modern schools end up having to go to “extra“ math classes after school, they wouldn’t, as remedial students, be lumped into one class with the detention kids. Not so in many rural areas in the late 60’s.

Students at Carmicheals were keenly aware that Junior High classes were “seeded” back then. According to IQ, prior grades, or who knows.

The “middle” class was B-average students, and we didn’t go to detention, but we all knew the ones who did. They rode the Bad Bus home.

Bus bay

Having trouble with mathematics to a point where the teacher decided extra after-school tutoring was needed, The dreaded slip of paper was placed in my hand.

To my utter shame, I found myself condemned to four weeks of detention. 

After school, it was a miserable shuffle down the hall to “that class”, glancing ruefully as my regular classmates merrily boarded their buses to go home. The raucous noise drifted down the hall from room 8, labeled with the sign “remedial”. Inside was an expected scene: One girl was flirting with the boys up and down the aisle while they slapped her butt on her skin-tight dress. She just laughed and skittered away. Of course paper, pencils and rulers shot through the air, as well as anything else not nailed down.

Mr. Gray (fictional name) was watching the clock with half closed eyes, ignoring the ruckus. Hard to tell if he was going to do anything at all, then he suddenly jumped to the chalkboard and said dryly. “I’m going to give out some remedial work for each of you to do, that are here for that purpose“ His speech was punctuated regularly with a disconcerting, involuntary grunt. The math study sheets given me were far below even what a 6th graders’ impaired math skills would be, and had to be filled in amongst the din.

Class lasted an hour, then everyone busted out of there and piled onto the single detention bus. This bus wound throughout the entire school district which was an expansive rural area to the north of Nemacolin, then circling that mining town and returning along the Monongahela River, Stringtown Road, finally returning via the Fairdale Cash Market, my stop, and the last one. Because of the cold, I had opted for the bus when actually, I’m within walking distance of the school. Henceforth during my detention, I did walk home instead to save time.

This story is really about that particular ride. It was now time to take a good, long look at the back side of coal country. And at the schoolmates that so many of us derided, behind their backs.

I got on the Bad Bus. The hooting, shenanigans and noise was even more deafening on the bus than it was in the class.

Carmichaels, Pa. -King Coal, that’s what it was all about in South West Pennsylvania. The vast majority of the residents in this district were coal miners, many being subsistence farmers on the side. My mother’s brother, 100% Croatian, Pete Bartolovich and his Polish wife Fran raised my sister and I with privileges we weren’t really aware of. Unk had tremendous carpentry skills which added to his income during the mine strikes, and these skills helped him to design and build his own cozy home.

Back to the ride.

The Bus rolled north of the town, through hilly fields and farmland, From a distance, the scenes looked pastoral, even bucolic, in this icy Piedmont winter. A closer look revealed old vehicles, rusted farm equipment and tools jutting out of the snow.

The toughest-acting boy jumped off first. His little sister ran to him and he swung her up in the air, taking the metal bucket from her hand. His mom with a naked baby waves to him from the doorstep. They didn’t run to the old farmhouse, they ran to the barn. The cattle were filing in for their evening milking.

Okay, That’s why he smelled like a barn in class. Makes sense.

Riding the after school detention bus looking out the window at boy being dropped off at farm
A quick “memory sketch”

One after another, the kids get off the Bad Bus. The girl with the tight dress went straight to the pump in her heels to haul pails of water in, no running water in that lantern lit house, and an outhouse outside. Dreams of glamour? We’re talking about the 60’s here, long past the times when a home didn’t have indoor plumbing.

Each stop held a different untold story. Some entered darkened shacks. Pop was off in the mines, and mom working somewhere. Or gone. Lots of babies without pants or diapers, even in the cold weather.

Trumpka farm. His brother was UMWA president

We swung by the Monongehela River and the old Buckeye Shaft, past the monstrous slag pile in Nemacolin, then swinging back towards the school. Fairdale Cash Market was the last stop of the bus at the top of Schroyers Lane.

The Bad Bus was quiet by then, as I jumped off into the thin layer of snow.

It was nearly dark, walking the half mile down Schroyers lane, and the ever present wind would drive ice into the exposed part of your legs between the skirt and the knee-hi’s.

Sometimes when you’re lost in thought, you don’t feel the icy wind.

Breathlessly entering the world handmade by Uncle Pete and Aunt Fran. The delicious smelling kitchen of the beautiful rambler. The greeting from Aunt Francie at the door was, “There’s cookies and fruit rolls after supper, why are you so late?” The best answer was to say…there’s extra classes for awhile. “Well, go clean out the furnace before it goes out”. She stroked my forehead and face, like she always did. Frans’ hands always smelled like one or a combination of four things: bleach, garlic, coffee or Luckys. Unk would be home soon from Robena shaft, as black and sooty as the coal he mined.

In the furnace room, grabbing the tiny iron hand-shovel, you took out the gritty soot from the lower section of the furnace, and the fine ashes from above, the remaining coals made the furnace room feel warm, pleasant and homey.

Thoughts returned about the Bad Bus ride, about some of those shacks that didn’t look very airtight. The fresh coal went in, and next step was to go to get some tinder to stoke it, when Aunt Fran came in. “Want to see some magic?” She threw her fingers suddenly out at the coals, and they blazed up in a sparkling pattern that was truly amazing. Fran left her niece standing mouth agape as she merrily traipsed off to the kitchen, heel to toe, like a swing dancer. Was there no end to what she could do? (Do you know how she did it?)

We had everything.

A plus from the Bad Bus ride was the new friendships made among those after school detention kids. Some did very well in life, some went into the mines and are now retired, some are gone, including Fran and Pete.

It’s hard to finish this post, other than to say one never knows what a persons’ back story is, we shouldn’t judge by what is on the surface, and sometimes the way you think about folks is, very simply, incorrect.

Riding the Bad Bus was not so bad, not bad at all.

**(Check out the superb historical articles about all things Southwestern Pennsylvania on the SW PA Rural Explorations site)

Addition: a slideshow of a recent trip back. Song Penned by yours truly: 
Lookin’ Back by King Street Bluegrass

Tip Jar Help maintain our Sites

Tip Jar