Blowin’ In: The Yellow School Bus
By Susan Mangan
Without warning, the sound arrives. Curiously, you feel the rhythm before the chorus commences and those shrill vibrations begin resounding against the tympanic membrane in your inner ear. Late summer delivers sultry humidity.
Sudden thunderstorms raise the hair on one’s arm and break the day’s balmy intensity with a violent rush of cooling rain. The sun returns and the air is cloaked in palpable dew. At that moment, a crescendo of chirping crickets reminds you that summer flees swiftly and the promise of autumn is in the shadow of the upturned sunflower.
I recall the end of summer in southwest Missouri: the buzz of beetles and crickets incessant in the heat. Despite the unrelenting summer sun, children in the country were getting ready to go back to school.
In farming areas, students were released from the confines of their desks before the second week of May dawned. Their efforts were needed in the fields. In the beginning of August, after a summer filled with hay baling and silage filling, farm children, like my younger cousin, had to go back to school, while I was still idling my time away eating cones dripping with vanilla ice cream and scratching the scabs off of mosquito bites.
Despite the ominous image of a yellow school bus tooling over country roads, testing out its autumn route, my cousin and I made the most of our time together before my family headed back to Chicago and he was to begin the new school year.
Drought was predominant in the day and my cousin and I enjoyed many a sun-filled moment gathering watermelons and overly plump beefsteak tomatoes in my aunt’s garden. On the rare afternoon that rain would threaten, we would stand amid rows of sweet corn and count the seconds, “one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi” between the roar of thunder and the strike of lightening, a country-proven technique to determine the distance of an impending storm.
How long we could stand without flinching became a daring game, testing our bravery, seemingly protected by the silken stalks of corn, before we turned tail and ran to the shelter of Aunt Peggy’s kitchen, bearing armfuls of food for dinner. What I most remember about that time is not the delightful rush of fear in my stomach, but the smell of tomato vines and earth clinging to the wetness of my skin. I remember what it felt like to be a child in the country, unencumbered of responsibility, inhaling the fresh scents of garden, sweet hay, and ripe manure – a time when children were not held captive by electronics; a time when summer reading was for one’s own pleasure and not a dreaded requirement.
Fragrance is a reliable method for time-travel. Recently, I acquired a sample of perfume that smelled, to me, like everything that I loved: cedar trees in August, aging parchment, the air after rain. Even the name of the fragrance won my nostalgic heart, “Book.” When I applied the perfume to my pulse points, I felt alive.
I was again that child standing in the heat of an herbaceous field. To my husband and son, I smelled like I belonged in a barn. Perhaps that is where I wanted to be, perched crossed-legged on a bale of hay reading a chapter from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Indeed, my memories were not theirs.
As a child and later as an adolescent, I spent so much of my summer reading books. My grandmother Mim had rows of volumes lining mahogany bookcases in her parlor; early editions of English poetry sat companionably withThe Farmer’s Almanac. My grandmother was a farmer’s wife with the soul of a scholar.
Mim would entertain my cousins and me with Mark Twain’s tale of the “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” We laughed over the unique talents of the seemingly ordinary bullfrog as we caught our own jumpers in the ponds that dotted my uncle’s farm.
On rainy days, we pretended to climb aboard Herman Melville’s fictional Pequod. Mim was Ahab, our fearless Captain, looking out for the great whale from the helm of her staircase. She was our first teacher and advocate for creativity. Our grandmother taught us about the beauty and adventure behind classic literature. For this, my heart will always be grateful. Like Mim, I cannot imagine a world without words.
As I move back to the present, I long for this simplicity for my children. I tried, truly, I tried to instill a love of nature, a longing for literature, the freedom of thought in my children.
They are each embarking on new journeys this autumn, my daughter on a study abroad in London, my oldest son on to his first year of college, and my youngest son about to engage in a challenging and pivotal year as a junior in high school. I hope above all for their health and safety in this unquiet world.
I long for their hearts to recall those cricket days of late summer when they played and ran and fell asleep to the sound of my voice reading, “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night sailed off in a wooden shoe.” I pray that they remember the innocence of their youth and find strength in the purity of their hearts, a shield against the raging temper of our current world. Funny how that yellow school bus is no longer an ominous image, but rather one of comfort, hope, wisdom, and new beginnings.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at [email protected].