Lord of the Bus

Yesterday I learned that one of my Devon classmates had gone to the next world. It happens, right. Like Jim Morrison said, no one gets out of here alive, and besides, the pain is over then. Good point. But this particular guy had a a certain bond with me. In fact, we first met in kindergarten at St Donato’s, but his family stayed in West Philly. We met up again at Devon, and, of all place, at the Bus Stop. Life didn’t begin at the Bus Stop. For some of us, it sort of ended there, at least until later in the day. Any event, we were part of the Mafia contingent (according to a classmate I never really liked) making its way out to Devon Prep from West Philly, Southwest Philly, God only knows what Philly. It was a grind, and it started there every morning at 7:40 or so. Unless snow, traffic, or your guardian angel intervened. Never did the Bus not show. Late, maybe, but always there. Rest in Peace, dude.

Nothing special, you know, a 1960s American Superior Yellow Submarine with uncomfortable seats, lousy ventilation, few apparent safety features, and some designated driver who more or less knew what he was doing. I recall three distinct drivers, but I could be wrong. It was old school, no doubt, with a stick shift and all. If you were paying attention, you could divine the intricacies of stick by watching what happened when the driver loused up–like not giving the beast enough gas in low gear. Shake, rattle and roll, much to the disgust of the audience, who would yell “Feed her revs, you dummy.” Yup. We were all in training for LeMans at the age of 15. Occasionally, we broke out the Beatles and did Yellow Submarine, substituting “Fucked Up” for “Yellow” as a group. Happy souls we were. Animated by Pietas et Litterae and too much coffee, even then. Our stop was surrounded by gas stations and a Howard Johnson’s. City Ave and Haverford typically. Hub of the Universe. We rolled on from there, stopping at various points in Kirklyn, Drexel Hill, Havertown, Manoa, Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Villanova, Radnor, Wayne and then Devon. Main Line, more or less tracing out the route of the Paoli Local on the Pennsy, which was for days when you missed the bus. Because you were delinquent, or involved in extracurricular activities, or you just couldn’t stand riding the Bus again. Maybe you wanted to smoke, which was a big no-no at Devon. And even on the Bus. You could curse, swear, yell, fight, sleep, study, daydream, or have an upset stomach on the bus. But No Smoking. Ever.

You also couldn’t, eh, fart on the bus. We learned the hard way. Once, midway through an afternoon journey home, someone did the deed. And a noisome one it was. Juvenile, right? Everyone trying to get away from the point source of the emission. A small riot ensued. Since there was nowhere to go on the Bus, we all sort clumped together. The driver, who also doubled as a Hungarian and as a teacher at Devon was not amused. He slammed on the brakes. “Who made the burst?” were his exact words, angrily flung out at us. Silentium Profundum, for once. Not I, Master. Well, said driver got so pissed he tossed all of us off the Bus. We were in Garret Hill, a suburb of Bryn Mawr, which was…..aah, forget it. So we all got off, muttering some mild obscenities under our breath. How did you get home, you ask? Well, there was public transportation, and I recall we were near the Garret Hill P&W rail stop. So, no big deal, right? Now, can you imagine something similar happening today? Guy would’ve been charged with a some kind of felony. No, not the farter (no one ever confessed), but the driver. I don’t think I ever bothered to mention it to my folks. You know, “How was day, Richard?” “Aw, terrible. Someone cut one on the bus and “x” threw us all off in retaliation.” Sure. In 1967. My Mom would have thought about it and said something like “You must’ve deserved it.” Or, “Finish your homework.” Not exactly a Montessori move, right? Another day at the Office, and on the Bus.

Now you want some really good stories, right? Especially involving hazing, fisticuffs, girl watching, all the rest, right? I COULD give you plenty. All true. Including an incident of mooning a couple of girls in a convertible (who laughed); a guy beating out “A Little Bit of Soul” on someone’s head (no one laughed, but no one did squat, either); someone up front spitting out a window and nailing one of us in the back (pro move) in full flight. Another one involving a fencing operation nicknamed “Midnight Discount,” which involved some of the paisans, if you really must ethnic stereotype. The inevitable Playboy circulating through the ranks. You know, that sort of stuff. More or less routine. You think we didn’t somehow get desensitized to everyday forms of misogyny, homophobia, racism? Damn right we did. That was how you got through it. Like riding the New York Subway in the 1970s. “I see it every day. Nothing to stare at. Next.” Like it or not, that’s how a generation learned to deal with things that would be considered beyond the pale in 2022. Sorry, we didn’t know you’d be watching. Or what you would be thinking? Or even knowing sexism or homophobia was a thing. In retrospect, it was good training for an aspiring historian. See, I don’t expect people in the past to behave like us, since we were some of the people in the past misbehaving, and we didn’t know, honestly, that we were doing anything wrong, or seriously wrong, at least, we did it. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t have done it. You follow? Oh, well, not too many do, but that’s not my problem. Well, it is, but I have to get through the night too.

And there were some absolutely invaluable forms of education on the Bus that didn’t involve alcohol, women, or all that Brett Kavanaugh-Georgetown Prep kind of crap. Believe me, most of us didn’t have the time, the money, or even the requisite cynicism to behave like criminals. Most of us worked at least some time, even if work was playing a lame gig. There wasn’t enough time for sleep, for God’s sake. You did not force yourself on a guy’s sister, especially when he was sitting across from you. I don’t what the Hell went on at old Brett’s alma mater, but while we were no angels, there wasn’t any of that at Devon of which I am aware. Mostly juvenile stuff, maybe not harmless, but basically juvenile. I didn’t know any aspiring rapists. We had a phrase for guys like that: “body grabbers.” You really didn’t want that kind of rep, believe me. Nobody wanted to be around those guys.

However, there are one or two things that remain in memory. One of them involves my departed classmate. He was from West Philly, and not everyone from West Philly went to Devon Prep, or even finished high school. Forget college. You knew people who weren’t college bound, believe me. And he certainly did. In 1967 or 1968, if you were more or less fit and compos mentis (well, more or less), you got to join the Army. Involuntarily. It was called the Draft. And there was a War going on in, remember, Viet Nam. Oh yeah, Tet Offensive, Khe Sanh, Pleiku, all of that. We were all aware of it, and I suspect not a few of us thought, one way or another, we’d end up there.

So one day, my friend brings some photos–maybe they were Polaroids–onto the Bus. No, not that kind. These were of Viet Cong. Or a part of them, at least. Their heads. Being held, one in each hand, on full display, by a grinning grunt, who was my buddy’s friend. You might want to stop and reflect on that for a moment. I don’t honestly remember if this was before or after My Lei (you’re going to have to look it up, or, more likely, Google it), but I don’t think any of us had ever seen anything quite so graphic. Dude standing there, cigarette in his mouth, bare chested, grinning, holding up a couple of heads. To this day–and I have a pretty good memory–I don’t remember anyone making any crack about it–and bitter humor was one of our survival tools. We just passed it around and stared. Yup. You got to see the future. All of a sudden, those people demonstrating at the Draft Board in Bryn Mawr (that was mine) stopped looking like spoiled children, or a bunch of conshies from Haverford, you know, Quakers. We didn’t know beheading was part of Basic. I don’t think it was. It was a sunny day, though. There was that.

So, yeah, there was a lot of BS on the Bus. A certain, perhaps, undesirable socialization to what we now call “toxic masculinity” but was just “boys will be boys” then. Some sex ed, most of it inaccurate and more the product of fantasy than experience. The occasional card game. A lot of profanity. And then there were those moments. Damn few of them, but they happened. When you got a clue that this was not all fun and games, and that you too could be evil if you were given the chance. Not confessional evil. War crime evil. I never forgot that. The other stuff is no doubt offensive, but this was a lesson in how ordinary people could do terrible things. And then brag about it.

Like everyone, I was more than happy when I got off the Bus. I’m sorry if I had to darken it with the memory of a recently departed partner in crime. But, like Jim Morrison said, why be afraid of death. It’s life that hurts. On or off the Bus. RIP, bro.

Published by RJS El Tejano

I sarcastically call myself El Tejano because I'm from Philadelphia and live in South Texas. Not a great fit, but sometimes, economists notwithstanding, you don't get to choose. My passions are jazz, Mexican history and economics. Go figure

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