How I Became a Bus Nut

Looking back through my collection of BCM magazines I found the term “Bus Nut” used quite literally. Thanks to Gary, publishing my bus-related articles in his magazines, I have enjoyed many hours of educational research and writing bus-related articles.

Not only does my hobby of writing and researching (I hope) keep my brain functioning longer, it has given me a purpose during this long COVID-19 quarantine. Best of all I feel like it qualifies me to be a “Bus Nut”.

My “Bus Nut” career started back in 1986 when my son, Jason, and two of his high school friends decided to join the Denver Blue Knights Drum Corps.

Drum Corps units are made up of high school-age students that spend their summers traveling all over the United States, sleeping in schools, and practicing many long hours in the hot sun with the goal to be the best marching Corps in the country.

After many performances in stadiums during the summer, all the Corps meet in Madison, Wisconsin to determine who is the best.

Once a month we would make the 4–5 hour trip from Montrose to Denver to attend winter training camps. To help pay for Jason’s expenses I volunteered to drive one of the three buses it took to transport the kids all summer. I would take vacation time from the company to do this, I had driven large, loaded vehicles before and the size was not the problem, everything else was a new learning experience that I cherish to this day.

My chauffeur’s license I still carry.

I knew I would need a bus driver’s license and I happened to be installing a telephone system in the courthouse in Telluride at the time. This allowed me to take one test each day I was working there and take the next test home to study for the next day.

If I remember right, there were several different segments I had to pass to get my license, which worked alright because the telephone installation took several days. I had to take my driving test in Denver with Pacesetter Coach Lines, I still have my Pacesetter certificate in my billfold and pay extra to keep my CDL license, just for old times’ sake.

The engine compartment. What a mess. I guess it all works!

As spring came and it became warm enough, I would drop Jason off at the school and go to the mechanic shop and start driving one of the buses for the experience. The mechanic’s taught me a lot about how the bus functioned.

I would sleep in one of the bays and go shower at a Sapp Bros Truckstop nearby, I was in hog heaven. At that time, I felt “invincible” as I motored around the Denver traffic in my big orange and white MC-8 bus. You might note that I turned too quickly out of a parking lot once and poked a hole in the side, somewhere the kids came up with a big Band-Aid, as seen in the photo.

Ouchy from turning too short by a fence post.

It was time for my inaugural trip, the Corps was to perform in Grand Junction, an hour’s drive north of Montrose where I lived. Barb, my wife, delivered me there to drop me off to watch the performance.

Air Force Academy Chapel.
NORAD entrance.

This was the first of my “driving Drum Corps” that lasted for three exciting summers, I drove one summer after Jason had quit the Corps. The second year, the Corps leaders decided to hire professional drivers and I felt honored they considered me a professional and paid me to drive the third year. Our convoy was made up of the leader’s car, leader’s camper/office, cook’s van, three MC-8 buses, two semis’, one carrying all the musical equipment, and the other one was the kitchen truck.

On my first trip I learned driving was the easy part, changing tires in 104-degree temperatures, and engines shutting down while traveling 65 miles on an 8-lane interstate, that is where I learned you could hold the starter button down to override the overheating shutdown alarm while trying to cross four lanes of cars.

On the first day as I entered the I-70 interstate, I realized a bus with 40 kids and all their luggage was totally different than an empty bus. It took me a while to be able to shift without grinding gears and a four-speed transmission did not give you much flexibility climbing or descending hills. To be honest, another father driver and I considered the option of flying home at one point.

My father taught me to always finish a job, no matter what. If I would have quit, I would have never been able to watch with pride as my son perform along with all of my now extended family, mainly the 40 young men and women that rode behind me. I would not have watched the Corps march through the main street of Disneyland down the 4th of July parade in Long Beach California, lie on the beach watching the fireworks, and being a proud part of each marching performance.

We did take the complete convoy through the “Strip” in Las Vegas one time just for kicks. The second summer we traveled at night which made it a lot cooler and less traffic. The only problem was I could not enjoy all the scenery I traveled through.

By the time I completed the first trip I was hooked, not only on the bus driving but being part of such a great organization. Feeding 150 people three times every day was quite an accomplishment, it required a considerable amount of “KP” duty from us drivers. We slept and practiced in high schools that sometimes did not have hot water. The wrestling rooms with mats made for good bedrooms.

I would have driven all summer but that was not possible, but the days I did drive, I enjoyed every minute of each tour and have photos and memories that will never fade away.

The second phase of my “Bus Nutty” career was while the boys were in high school. Montrose High School had an excellent Navy Junior ROTC program. The school had a couple of Suburban’s. I would volunteer to drive one hauling the young ROTC student on different trips.

The Commander was retired Navy and would schedule a trip to Colorado Springs each year to watch Navy and Airforce battle it out on the football field at the Airforce Academy, and I was able to tour the beautiful Airforce Academy Chapel.

We would spend two days in the Springs, spending the nights in one of Fort Carson’s barracks. They would have to make up their bunk military style which was comical since a lot of them probably did not make their own beds at home.

The bus I owned at one time.

The troops would also tour top-secret NORAD in Cheyenne Mountain. That proved more interesting each year I made the tour. They would round out the trip by going ice skating. We made several other trips to the East Slope for marching events.

During spring break, the Commander would load up the bus and take the kids to the San Diego Naval Base for their military experience. The last year they drove to San Diego, “old blue” broke down and it took two days to get back on the road. The next spring break I was invited along, and we flew both ways on a huge Naval Airplane to San Diego. That was quite an experience I will always cherish. On the flight out there were several duffel bags strapped in a seat with explosives printed on them.

“Old Blue” was a bus the Navy gave to the school to transport the ROTC members. On its last trip to Colorado Springs for some reason, the Commander decided to put two cans of fuel cleaner in the tank. I guess the cleaner loosened up enough gunk to soon stop the engine. We had to wait until they dispatched a school bus from Montrose so we could continue the trip.

Not too long after that the high school superintendent called me into his office and ask if I wanted a bus? All of the sudden, I was the proud owner of a bus that only cost the towing bill. After a few months of storage bills, I again towed “old blue” to a diesel mechanic. They cleaned out all the gunk and I soon had a running bus again. I still remember the excitement of having my own bus as I drove around and around the mechanic’s parking lot!!!

Problem number one was Barb and I had decided to move to Buena Vista Colorado, 150 miles east. Problem number two was it required going over Monarch Pass to get there, problem number three the mechanic suggested I repair my braking system before I drove it very far.

I cannot remember how I listed it, but I sold it to a man in Las Vegas. He arrived with cash in hand and drove it back to Las Vegas. I asked him to send me photos of his conversion, but I never heard another word from him. I did sell it for enough to cover all my expenses. From then on, I could always say I was one of the “elite bus nuts” that once owned a bus!!

My dream that did not work out.

Phase three of my “Bus Nutty” career, in 1991, after I retired from AT&T, I started Western Slope Getaways. I was going to buy a bus and promote tours. It did not take long to realize the cost of insurance alone, not including the bus was way out of my reach. I did find a bus company in Moab Utah that would be interested in chartering my “many” tours. I drove the three hours to Moab to meet and tour his buses.

When I retired, I started my own telephone company keeping most of AT&T’s customers. It did not take long to realize which business I was going to have to keep to survive financially. I did put together a tour package to a Boulder dinner show, renting an eight-passenger van instead of a bus. I set up a Western Slope Getaways booth at one of the Montrose farm and garden shows.

I placed a notebook for people to write down where they would want to go. Almost everyone listed Wendover, Utah. Wendover was located on the Utah-Nevada border and had a gambling casino just across the border into Nevada. This was before there was a gambling joint on every corner.

I hope you enjoy reading my “Bus Nut” articles as much as I do writing them.

 

By John Swartley

After retiring from AT&T in Colorado in 1990, John moved back to Springfield, MO. In 2000, his mother passed away and left a treasure of family history records. Re-searching the collection and writing about his family started an addiction to researching and writing that grows stronger each day.

Besides John’s BCM articles, he has had other articles published in telephone, railroad, and other historical publications. To keep himself busy, to keep his brain functioning longer, and to stay out of the bars, he also writes a newsletter about whatever interests him.

John may be contacted at:
attt.jrs@att.net

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