Let me tell you about the school bus. One morning Ronnie told me he was going to go to Shakopee on an errand. I think we were staying in northern Iowa then, maybe at Spirit Lake.
“Shakopee!” I said, “There can’t be any place with such a name. You made it up, didn’t you?” I wasn’t fooling. I thought I knew. It turned out I was as wrong on the name Shakopee as I was on the name Leslie Leland. To be fair to myself, it wasn’t only that Shakopee didn’t sound like any western European name. I was used to Anglicized versions of indigenous place names, like Waukesha and Ozaukee – but in my ear I had heard “Shock a Pea.” Anyway, it turned out Shakopee was a real place.
When Ronnie got back in the afternoon or evening, he told me he had bought a school bus. It was still there, not here. He needed to arrange for a crew member to drive up and fetch it, and also he was having some mechanical things and modifications done to it.
Of all the busses in the world, it turned out, this one had been owned and used by one Becker Community School District, and so it bore that name in bold painted letters on along each side. Ronnie loved that. It reminded him of his friend Arlo Becker, a Cedar Rapids stock car racer of some fame or notoriety, however you look at it.
Ronnie hadn’t bought the bus for transportation of people, and it was never used thus later, either. He used it – after someone rode up to Shakopee with him and then drove it back to where the crew was staying – to carry product from town to town on jumps. I had never thought about this, but it was plain once I saw the bus in use: Ronnie or a manager had formerly had to order periodic shipments of product in loads of limited size, amounts that could be unloaded into one or a couple of hotel rooms until taken to territory to be sold, except only for however much could be carried in someone’s car along with their own luggage and bodies, as they drove to the next town. But now with the bus, with its passenger benches removed, Ronnie could order larger shipments, using the bus both for transport and for a storage space so long as liquids were not allowed to freeze. During the coldest months it was still necessary either to work in the south or to use a space heater within the bus – or again, to lug inventory indoors much of the time.
This use of the bus went pretty well at first. I recall that Ronnie had a couple of his brightest, most capable agents drive the bus – men who also owned nice automobiles of their own. So one of them would have to entrust his new, sporty, comfortable car to be driven to town by some other person while he drove a used school bus bearing that proud name of Becker Community School District (or just Becker), laden with product and equipped probably with a seat that was less than cozy, to the next town. But Ronnie could get people to do things or him and not mind too much. I suppose it was fortunate that most of the time the next town was not very far. In fact, as I write, and I double-check, this system worked well enough that soon there were two busses, in a growing company that had two main crews.
I also recall a way that it didn’t seem to be working as smoothly. My memory may be faulty since it was a long time ago, may be different from Ronnie’s, if he was pleased enough with things to have purchased a second bus. But this is how I remember it.
One of the agents brought in a citation – with a fine, not a warning. Apparently it was illegal to drive around a bus purporting to be a school bus when really it no longer had anything to do with schools or school children. I had never known that. Sadly Ronnie paid the fine and got the words “Community School District” painted over with brown paint, leaving only the name “Becker” still showing.
Yet, nevertheless, there was another ticket, and another, and I think some more. Not all at the same time. I don’t recall details, but these were tickets for equipment violations, claiming that some aspect of this vehicle was unsuitable for the way it was being used. Ronnie paid these also, of course, without much pleasure. Eventually he just got rid of the bus and bought delivery trucks. He had the drivers study the manual and get commercial drivers’ licenses too don’t recall what happened to the buses. Maybe he sold them back to the dealership in Shakopee?
I remember this as an exciting and energetic time. The bus, while we had it, was a large and distinctive thing that went with us to every town. It reflected something of the crew’s corporate identity and travels together –and also definitely, the bus and trucks reflected the growing number of cases, gallons, and buckets sold and delivered, the growing number of checks collected and agents returning from territory with quota met. There have been a few group photos of the crews. In one, the bus is a backdrop, along with some of the newer cars belonging to agents.
I picked up on something else too. I had not at first understood that there were – or should be – any concerns related to the use of a school bus to carry inventory. In my growing up it had almost been a way of life to use items for other than their original purpose –a butter knife to tighten a screw or a shoe box to hold cherished old letters, a wooden spoon or ruler to support a window sash in the summertime. But as the tickets had gradually and continually come in, I began to recognize a new idea.
I began to think that a bus full of liquid cleaners stacked multiple cases high and 20-pound buckets of laundry powder also stacked up might weigh considerably more than a bus carrying 60 or so passengers, especially young ones. A safe vehicle for one purpose might be very different from a safe vehicle for inventory. That substitution was not like the use of a shoe box to store old letters.
My then new boyfriend, now husband, cared deeply about the people who worked for him, and he would never have wanted anyone to get hurt. We all traveled together, ate together, shared an important bond that is hard for me to describe to you. But for all that, and for all the goodness in Ronnie’s heart, it was not awareness of safety, an idea, that that seemed to cause him to give the busses up. But the civil authorities had rules about such things. None of them got to know Ronnie or me or any of the agents. I do not know how much, really, any of the individuals issuing and tracking tickets thought about deeper issues either. But the tickets kept coming until Ronnie – or the company, however you look at it – improved equipment and practices.
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Since writing this, I have asked Ronnie about his memory of the bus. He reminds me that we called them “Magic” or “Magic 1” and “Magic 2.” He doesn’t remember so many fines as I do, but he does recall that when he encountered the trucks available at a good price, it seemed like the right thing to do, to buy them, knowing that they were better suited. He reminds me that eventually there were three trucks, two white and one red. “And they were Mercedes Benz.”
His memory about the tickets is clearly different from mine, and it seems important to recognize that. Meanwhile, what I have described is very much how I remember it, and it gradually settled deeper into my mind, with realizations about how things that seem like such low-stakes choices could actually involve very high stakes and how incredibly lucky we were that neither of those busses was involved in an accident while being used in this way.
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Years later, agents moved on to many different careers and lives. I have never been good at keeping up with friends across distance, but two with whom I do still have some contact are very effective and successful in their current work, one as an over-the-road truck driver and another as a dispatcher for a cement company. It is their accomplishment and not really my place to be proud of them, but I am.
Also, years later, I was a clerical worker at a college library built atop one of the steepest hills in Iowa. You, reader, may smile at this description as well as at the name “Mount Vernon, Iowa,” since our state is known as a flat, prairie land. But this is an area close to rivers. From the library you could look out and down over a wide and visually stunning view of curved roads and long driveways that can be difficult in winter weather.
Some of the employees pooled funds for bottled water to be brought in – the 5-gallon jugs that are set upside down on a water cooler. This water cooler was placed across from my desk, something I liked because it allowed me to say hello to so many people thirsty people every day.
The young man who delivered the water, a chatty and friendly fellow, told me once he had just gotten a ticket for an equipment violation on Highway 30. He wasn’t worried because the company always covered these, but he thought it was astounding how high and how many these tickets in his line of work were. He told me an annual amount and I was shocked. I don’t recall the number but it was beyond anything Ronnie had paid in all the days of the busses.
I thought about some of the roads the water deliverer drove. Were schedules altered for snow? Even if so, what about rain? I became fonder of the young man that day. I worried about him. His company was, by my measure, a very large one, considered respectable. How many drivers did they have? After that day, as the fellow would say good bye after making his deliveries, I often told him to be safe and drive with care with a seriousness that probably made me seem a bit goofy to him.
But still, he reminded me so much of many other young men I had lived and traveled with back then: personable, confident, maybe over-confident. There was this difference also: clearly his company had determined that it could factor such citations into its normal costs of business, profitably, instead of making changes in how it transported its inventory.