THE NEFF ZONE -- BY JIM NEFF
CADILLAC NEWS -- SEPTEMBER 10, 2022
Labor Day has come and gone. Schools are now in session. This means that “experienced” people can regale whippersnappers about how easy today's students have it compared to conditions back in the day.
You know, when Uncle Zelmo went to school he had to walk ten miles there and back, uphill both ways, through snow drifts taller than the Empire State Building. His family was so poor they could only afford one boot that all the siblings had to share. Lunch was lard smeared on a wooden plank washed down with pond water. Still, he never complained.
I must admit, I did not face Uncle Zelmo's challenges. I grew up in northwest Flint and lived three flat blocks from St. Luke's Elementary. Still, we had to walk to school in the dark because we were required to attend eight o'clock mass. This was not a particularly difficult way to begin the school day.
St. Luke's had no high school, so after eighth grade we had to transition to a public school or choose one of the parochial high schools. I chose St. Michael in downtown Flint.
St. Mike's had no school busses, but luckily Flint had an extensive citywide bus system. Students were able to ride city busses to and from school. There was a bus stop about one hundred feet from our house, so I had handy transportation almost at my doorstep. This was nice, but hardly fodder for future old guy stories.
There was one thing at St. Mike's that none of us thought much about at the time, but now it seems scary and borderline crazy – the flatbed truck. Since the school was in downtown, there was no place for the football and baseball teams to practice. So, the teams utilized a city park about five miles from the school. Transport was attained by using a truck with a flat bed of about ten by ten. There was one skinny railing (about waist high) around the bed.
Imagine fifty football players standing loosely-packed on the bed while the truck weaved in and out of city traffic. If it was sunny, you got hot. If it was rainy, you got wet. And not only did this happen before and after practices. Most of our games were within the city limits, so the truck was the main carrier on game day. How everyone survived and the school never got sued was a miracle!
What brings all this to mind is a fascinating article in the Smithsonian magazine: “A Brief History of the School Bus.” Why is this interesting? “The American School Bus Council estimates that over twenty-five million schoolchildren ride more than 480,000 school buses each day, making school buses the largest mass transit system in America.” (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/history-school-bus-180980554/)
Don't tell Uncle Zelmo, but he may be onto something about the trip to schools way back when. “To attend school, children had to walk for miles. Schools trundled children to and from school on horse-drawn conveyances called kid hacks or school wagons. These rickety rides went on for decades.”
Well, those “busses” evolved from wood to steel and by the 1940s one company captured most of the market – Blue Bird. “Blue Bird is alive and well, billing itself as the leading U.S. manufacturer of school buses.”
If you have school busses, you need to paint them. How the uniform color was decided upon is another story. At a 1937 conference dealing with “school conveyances,” paint samples were hung on the wall and a small group of attendees were asked to choose a color for U.S. school buses. “The winner was the bright yellow we know today; it was deemed the easiest color on which to read the vehicles’ black lettering in the early morning light, and therefore best for safety. The color, first known as National School Bus Chrome, was later dubbed National School Bus Glossy Yellow and is, technically, Color 13432.”
School busses are familiar to all of us, but changes are coming to the industry. An experience in Virginia indicates why. “Ever since Virginia added fifty electric buses to its fleet in 2020, the commonwealth has already saved more than half a million pounds of carbon emissions.” The American School Bus Council predicts: “As of last year, fewer than 1,200 buses were electric, but that number could rise to 10,000 by 2026.”
Finally, a personal note of thanks. This is Neff Zone column number 900. I am eternally grateful to all those who take a few minutes each week to read my meanderings. For me, writing this column is like a day at the circus. It's nothing but pure fun. Onward to 1000!
Jim Neff is a local columnist. Read Neff Zone columns online at CadillacNews.com and NeffZone.com/cadillacnews.