Looking back on bumpy school bus rides in old Hemet

Photo by Rob Lindquist
The author’s rendition of the Hemet school buses of yore

■ By Rob Lindquist / Contributed

Looking back to the ‘40s and ‘50s, I suspect that more was absorbed than learned by my riding a school bus around this valley. At least it felt that way to me. All the normal sensory faculties went numb when the buses of old Hemet got under way. Most of the time I sat in my seat looking vacantly ahead, bouncing around, occasionally glancing at whatever might make the ride more interesting. Sometimes there was excitement; a fight might break out, the bus would break down or get stuck while crossing the Bautista “wash.” But much of what I gathered from bus riding proved to me that a great deal of what was important to a kid was more often sensually absorbed rather than consciously studied.
Bumps were a perfect example. Sixty-six years ago, when I was enrolled in Hemet Elementary’s kindergarten class, we lived in a home in East Hemet at the corner of Girard Street and Devonshire Avenue. Mr. Fisher, a tall, lanky, likable fellow with a broad smile and a few missing teeth, drove “Old Number 4,” a 1935 Ford bus that was at the end of a long career. Part of Devonshire was in those days an unpaved “washboard road” from Girard eastward. On that rough stretch, Number 4 turned totally symphonic with every sort of noisy rattling imaginable. The fenders rattled, Mr. Fisher rattled; our lunch pails danced all over the metal flooring and the side windows fell open automatically. In the resulting din, talking and listening were useless. And, yes, somehow in my innocence, I came to believe that being shaken to pieces was a basic means of acquiring knowledge.
Case in point: I did learn to make signals for Mr. Fisher. If I stood on my seat and pulled the exposed cable that ran above me just above the windows, the mechanical signal arm on that side of the bus would swing up. Unaware of my effort to assist him, Mr. Fisher began to encounter angry horn-honking and rude gestures from folks and farmers that shared the road with us. Rather than chiding me, Mr. Fisher wisely sat me in the front of the bus and let me push and pull the door lever instead.Other than the handsome Crown-bodied Number 5, our valley buses weren’t fancy. Most were based on International truck chassis. Pig-nosed and utilitarian, these were powered by big six-cylinder inline engines. Somebody with a wry sense of humor designed their mufflers and long tailpipes so that in the quiet of a dawning school day, two or three Internationals combing east Hemet for young riders made a chorus of distinctly flatulent sounds that set me and my pals into fits of laughter.

Photo by Rob Lindquist
The old Hemet school bus.

One bus was really different: the 1941 former Los Angeles Metro line bus known as “Old Number 3.” Maybe this ungainly, rear-engined monster was an advanced design for the early ‘40s, but aside from dozens of remarkably springy seats, it left me unimpressed. Long, with a low ceiling and huge tires, it moved with consummate lethargy. We always sat in the rear end, where it’s troublesome motor could be monitored for signs of another breakdown. I don’t think I ever laughed so hard as on one afternoon when a wad of paper was intermittently stuffed in the engine’s air cleaner (which was inside the bus!).
The resultant asthmatic conniptions set all 50 bus riders to rocking back and forth in a succession of wave-like motions that followed the motor’s death struggle. I still chuckle remembering how its driver, John Riesland, looking like some mad organist, pushed and pulled at every lever, knob or pedal that might have kept his ancient charge on schedule that afternoon so many years ago when there seemed to be so little to learn and so much to absorb.

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