Carolyn J. Rose
In early June I went along on a school field trip to a camp up the Washougal River Road. As the crow flies, the trip wasn’t a long one. As the crow rides a school bus, the trip seemed endless.
The road twisted, turned, and doubled back, threading its way into the hills. Signs warned of slide areas and the pavement dipped and rose like swells out on the open ocean. The bus rocked along, windows rattling, students jouncing and swaying with each bump or turn.
By the time we reached the camp, my head ached and my stomach roiled. I felt as if I’d been sucked into a cosmic wormhole and carried back more than 50 years to the bus rides of my youth in the Catskill Mountains.
I didn’t measure the distance from my home in Bearsville to Onteora Central High School in miles, but rather in landmarks. There was where Eddie got on while his mother stood in the doorway watching. There the road curved along a stream and crossed a narrow bridge with chuckholes at the end. There was the spot where the bus slid into a ditch one snowy day and the older boys were allowed to have all the fun and push us out.
Tedious and nauseating as the ride to school was, what I truly dreaded was arriving at that long brick building and beginning another day of what I thought of as drudgery verging on torture. But I really dreaded the days when we arrived to find the principal and assistant principal waiting with stopwatches and clipboards.
That meant a fire drill.
A two-door drill or a front-door drill wasn’t bad. I generally sat up front and could get off without being shoved down the steps.
Back-door drills, however, were something out of my nightmares. The back door was high. An ankle-snapping height. And there was no time to cut that distance by squatting or sitting, no time to turn and lower myself.
When the principal clicked his stopwatch, the older boys swung the door wide, leaped to the ground, spun about, and reached for the next kids in line. They gripped our arms and yanked us from the bus, flinging us through the air. The unforgiving asphalt rose to meet us.
For them, it was a competition. Could they empty their bus faster than the others? And, of course, speed was important. Never mind skinned knees and twisted ankles, if there was an actual fire, their technique would get us out alive.
But back then, I never thought of it that way. Back then I was more frightened of the drill than the fire. The drill, after all, wasn’t merely a possibility. It was inevitable. It would happen. And unlike fire, there was nothing I could do to prevent it.