Flamingo Street Bus Ride


It was an amazing sight to behold: Bradley McAllister, actually smiling and enjoying himself, and he wasn’t even pounding on anyone. But how and why Down the Street Bully Brad came to such a state is the end of this story. Here’s the beginning.

Before accepting a job as a substitute teacher at our local elementary school, I was asked if I’d like to be a bus driver instead. Better pay, retirement, medical insurance, and summers off — none of those things are offered to substitute teachers but are to bus drivers.

My answers were quick and easy questions.

“Can I paint the inside of my bus to look like a fire truck?” The person from Human Resources gave a strange look before answering, “No.”

“Could I install an air horn, just like the one that was on my fire truck, so folks could get out of the way? After another strange look came another resounding, “No.”

At this point I responded, “I’ve only known one person who loved the idea of getting up before sunrise, climbing aboard a cold bus, driving around in the dark picking up kids, taking them to school and back home again in the afternoon.”

Walter P. Holcomb

A long, long time ago on that old familiar street not so far away, our bus driver made his announcement in a booming voice that reverberated through the entire bus before reaching the backdoor, “All aboard! Take your seats! This train is about to depart!”

Mr. Holcomb was a retired conductor from England. Luckily for us after driving trains for over fifty years, he moved to Flamingo Street and bought the small house next to Betsy McGriffin, all so he could drive our school bus. (At least that was his answer each time he was asked why he moved from England.)

Not your ordinary school bus

Bus #9 on the inside was unlike any other bus in the school fleet. Mr. Holcomb had gotten special permission to alter the insides to look like a train car. We knew it was only painted cardboard, but it was cool all the same. But the coolest part of Bus #9 wasn’t the painted interior. It was the antique whistle he had installed in the ceiling next to his seat.

Our “train” parked right in front of Mt. Olive Elementary School each afternoon, awaiting permission to depart on the main track. After everyone was seated, he had only one more thing to do before we could leave the station: choose one lucky kid to pull the golden chain to the train whistle. Each time the gold chain was pulled, sound from the whistle pierced the air, sending a warning that the bus was about to move or that children were boarding or disembarking. Each morning and afternoon, he picked the lucky child to pull the chain.

The choice criteria

The reason for painting the interior of his bus and choosing one of us kids to pull the golden chain was quite ingenious. Mr. Holcomb made an announcement after his bus was loaded, “I will choose one of you each day to sit behind me and pull the golden chain when I stop to let kids off or on. But to be chosen, you must have perfect conduct while riding on my bus.”

With that announcement, Mr. Holcomb had hoped to prevent any future misbehavior. So, who was the first child chosen at the start of our third-grade year at Mt. Olive Elementary School? Once announced over the PA system, his name sent ripples of disbelief through the other kids on the bus and sent chills down my spine.

A well behaved and happy bully

The first person selected to pull the train whistle was none other than Down the Street Bully Brad! I managed a sideways glance as he walked past and noticed he looked even more surprised than the rest of us. Whatever the reason for Mr. Holcomb’s first choice, it had worked. Bully Brad had perfect behavior on our bus for the entire school year. He was rewarded not once, but ten more times being the puller of the golden chain.

Years later I asked Mr. Holcomb about his choice that first day. I’ve never forgotten his answer and have often used his logic throughout my adult life. “If you treat a bully with kindness and friendship, they don’t know what to do. They’re not used to being treated that way. It disarms them, and they will forget about being a bully … at least for a little while.”

There are a lot of bullies out there in the world, and I wonder if Mr. Holcomb’s golden chain puller logic can work on them — logic I witnessed firsthand while riding a school bus a long, long time ago down that old familiar street not so far away called Flamingo.

[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories weekly in The Citizen since 2001.]