Al Batt: There are no ordinary moments in this life

Published 8:30 pm Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

Carl became a school bus driver because he hated kids.

Al Batt

We all knew that. He was good at his job, a safe driver who put many roads and kids behind him, but he was never happy to see us. No kid had ever seen him smile.

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I could tie my shoes and count by twos, so I sat in the third-grade row of bus seats. We sorted ourselves. Younger kids in front, the older kids in the back. The rear seats were the territory of the surly senior high boys who had lost their driving privileges due to unfair, draconian laws against speeding. The unlicensed lads played penny ante poker. We knew they did because an occasional penny rolled to our section of the bus as we traveled a rough road that provided an amusement park ride.

I sat in last class and attempted to enjoy the journey as I clutched my favorite book (a bird field guide) while the bus bounced on a frozen gravel road in December. I was returning the book I’d checked out repeatedly. My father had given me firm instructions to return the book to the school library. He was a staunch believer in a strict adherence to all school policies and the book was due to be returned.

As I put the book back on the shelf, my beloved teacher told me she needed to talk to me. I listened to her, hoping for the best. It was glad tidings. She told me the school was getting new books for the library and a recent edition would replace my favorite. She added that since I was the only one who ever checked it out, she wanted me to have the book. That was a tall kindness. My airbag deployed. Because of the tears of happiness, I declared myself a wetland.

When Carl and his bus deposited me at home that afternoon, I brought the book into the house. My father, seeing that book, told me I needed to return it to the library. I said my teacher had given it to me. Dad told me I needed to return the book as I couldn’t go through life with my hand out, hoping to be given things. I knew I’d lose that argument. My father had more arguing experience.

Carl and his bus took me to school the next morning. Christmas wasn’t far off as I slid my precious book back onto the shelf. My teacher, seeing this, asked me why I was returning a book she’d given me. I told her my tale of woe. She explained how many of my father’s generation felt great pride in their ability to provide and were intent on protecting their territory. She had a plan. I could buy the book. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a nickel, two pennies and a metal button from a pair of bib overalls.

She told me that a nickel was her asking price and I could keep the pennies and the button. I wanted to hug a teacher, but I didn’t know if school policy allowed that. I’d have to run it past legal.

I’d made the first major purchase of my young life. I wore a smile like a wave across a slop pail as I got on Carl’s bus. My smile grew larger when I saw the rarest thing I’d ever seen. It was Carl’s fabled smile. I put it on the list of things I’d never dreamed I’d see. It was a rare road victory.

When Carl dropped me off at home, I ran into the house. My father saw the boomeranging book, frowned and gave me an “I thought I told you.”
I’d practiced my retort. “I bought it,” I said, wishing I’d gotten a receipt.

My father smiled and asked how much I’d paid for it. I told him five cents had been the bargain price.

Dad gave me a dime.

“Here’s something for your trouble,” he said.

There are no ordinary moments, but this had been a red-letter day. I’d gotten a book, an improbable smile from Carl the bus driver and I made a five-cent profit.

I wish you a day even better than that one.

Have an extraordinary Christmas.

Al Batt’s column appears every Wednesday in the Tribune.