That Bus Was Built to Fly

UP in the far north where I once lived, the town was divided into two unequal parts. The top part, where most of us newcomers lived, was called New Town. It was big and spacious and it had paved streets and taxis and a row of fancy boutiques where rings and watches and everything else - of no use at all to a northerner's life - could be found.

The bottom part, where most of the old-timers lived, was called Old Town. It was cramped and decrepit, and it had a gravel road and bush planes and a general store where beans and rubber boots and everything else essential to life in the bush could be found.

Needless to say, all the interesting people I knew lived down in Old Town.

To get from New Town to Old Town you went down a steep road that started out paved but quickly corrugated into a series of washboard grooves, owing to the constant sucking of the permafrost layer underneath.

It was at this point of deepest corrugation that Old Town began. It was also there where Charlie's trailer stood.

Charlie was our bus driver. He drove the twice-weekly bus service from our town to the bright lights of the south. He was Australian, a thin, wiry man with wheat-colored hair and a liking for ice cream, circus elephants, the music of Cole Porter, and denim jeans.

Charlie was a freedom fighter. He fought anything that opposed his freedom - clocks, tight collars, girls who wanted diamond rings. In a way, he reminded me of Crocodile Dundee.

Charlie's bus was as colorful as he was. It was an old Western Flyer from Winnipeg, blue and silver and pockmarked all over with rock dents. It had two small rear windows that looked black from the outside and made you think of contraband. There was nothing of the sort, of course. Charlie was an honest man. But his bus had a certain gangster look to it that made it the target of many an Old Town joke.

In truth, Charlie's bus was perfect for the North. It had heavy-duty shocks and a suspension system that could survive the deepest pothole. It had high air intakes so that the interior didn't plug up with dust. But most importantly, it had a big, Detroit diesel that kept purring along like a cat with a bowl of cream even at 40 degrees below zero.

That engine was Charlie's pride. It surpassed anything they had down in Old Town. Even Jake Elrod, the bush pilot, had to admit that with a couple of wings and ailerons, Charlie's bus could probably out-distance his lumbering old Norseman any day.

Well, one hot day in July, Charlie had a chance to prove Jake right.

He was going down the road with a dozen passengers and a side of beef for the Hudson's Bay Store in Fort Rae when he ran into a roadblock at Little Pine Beach.

Now, normally, Charlie didn't carry any perishable goods in his bus, owing to the unpredictability of his itinerary. (You never knew who wanted to get picked up or dropped off where.)

But the beef had missed the refrigerated truck from town and was needed for a church picnic the next day. So Charlie had agreed to run it down since the journey to Fort Rae was only a couple of hours, and the sun couldn't do much damage to it in that short a time.

Well, maybe the sun couldn't but the rain sure could.

That morning, down at Little Pine Beach, a road crew was trying to shore up a mile of roadbed that kept sinking into the lake and they had just scraped off the gravel surface when the rains fell. It was only a cloudburst lasting not more than a few minutes, but when the sun came out again the road was a sea of mud.

You could hardly stand up on it, let alone drive a vehicle over it. Well, unfortunately, somebody tried to.

A few minutes before Charlie got down there a lumber truck coming up from the south had jackknifed across the road, blocking traffic in both directions. The road crew could do nothing but radio back to town for a tow truck. Word came back that one would be down in about four hours.

Charlie figured he didn't have four hours to spare, so he got out to see if there were any way around the lumber truck. On either side of the road, the land was rock and scrub, difficult enough for a dune buggy to navigate, let alone a passenger bus.

But Charlie kept thinking of the kids at Fort Rae who were looking forward to their Sunday feast. Each of them had put $5 down on the side of beef and what would they say if he turned up with a carcass fit only for the maggots? So he decided to test Jake's hypothesis and see how well his bus took to the air.

The cars in front moved over a bit to give him some elbow room. Charlie disembarked his passengers, revved up the big diesel engine to full power, fastened his seat belt, and let off the brake.

That old bus rumbled down the mud road like a 747 on take-off. They said you could see heat shimmers in its wake. It left the ground with all four wheels in the air, soared over a fallen log, bounced off the edge of a rock outcrop, broke through a stand of scrub pine, splashed down in a water ditch, ground up the gravel embankment like a World War II tank scaling a sand dune, and rejoined the road on the other side of the lumber truck with nary a scratch on its body and Charlie and the side of beef intac t.

There was a lot of cheering and fender-thumping as Charlie took up his passengers again and continued on down the road.

Back at the Miner's Mess that night there was endless talk. Some said Charlie's feat wasn't flying at all, just reckless driving, the kind of devil-may-care stunt that gave the North a bad name.

But Charlie said the devil had nothing to do with it. That bus was built to fly. He knew it the moment the wheels had left the ground.

How else could you explain those pedals turning into rudders under his feet? Or the gearshift turning into a throttle in his hand? And how about that tremendous lift he got when he took to the air? Did you see how far he went? Was that just the result of excessive speed?

Jake said probably not. Speed would only have taken him straight into the ditch. That bus had achieved sustained flight, all right. There were more than a hundred witnesses to it.

No, Jake thought it was probably a combination of that big Detroit diesel finally getting a chance to strut its stuff and the collective wish of a dozen school kids down in Fort Rae.

Wishes had a habit of inflating sometimes. Jake knew that from his own experience in tight spots. You just had to sit back and let them do their work.

Wishes could make even the most impossible things lighter than air.

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