Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
We were a couple of drivers short because of holidays and I had to do an extra morning shift. After dropping off all the High school students I then went to Boronia and did a State school pick up around the back streets. There was a huge difference in driving on flat country. I had spent all my time in the hills and until I got onto flat country I had never realized the concentration that went into hill driving. Suddenly, I could relax and thought for a little that I might nod off. But thanks to all the little girls I did not have to worry. The piercing screams that made me sit up. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. My hands gripped the steering wheel extra hard. My mind was suddenly crystal clear. How did I ever think I could fall asleep?
So back to Belgrave and there was another note for all drivers. Smoking on all school buses is to be stopped. If any pupil is caught smoking they can be evicted from the bus by the driver of course. At morning tea there was a discussion about the new rule. The older drivers mostly were in favour, they often ejected trouble makers anyway, so this was no hassle. But I did not like it at all. I wasnít interested in putting anyone off. For some reason I just did not have any trouble on my bus and as for the pupils smoking, I thought that this was the parents job to tell there siblings, not me. I was quite vocal at the discussion so everyone knew how I felt. I even went to the trouble of telling all my students that afternoon that if they were to smoke in the bus, do not let me see it. And please, when we are driving through any town do not blow too much smoke around.
A couple of weeks went by and at lunch time one day I was sitting at the table minding my own business when Tom Leggett, sitting up one end of the table started telling everyone in a loud voice.
ďI passed 49 yesterday. Thought she was on fire. There were clouds of blue smoke billowing out the windows.Ē
Tom was only making fun, and I ignored him but it was to prove to be an uncomfortably close premonition. I had stopped at Selby to let off some of my passengers, and then I had to climb the hill to Hermanís corner. The stop at Selby always slowed me down because I couldn't get enough speed to change up a gear. Not that the old girl was struggling. She wasnít as a matter of fact; she had just had a service and tune-up that morning and was running well. But it is a fair gradient up. I had just entered the long sweeping right hand bend just above the township. I was sort of half switched off day dreaming, when a big crash from under the engine canopy woke me. The crash was followed up instantly with a big cloud of oily black smoke, billowing from under the engine canopy. One second later, very hot flames. The girls in the seat opposite me across the engine canopy suddenly decided that this was not the place to be so they took off to the back of the bus. The bus was deathly quiet. I glanced in the rear vision mirror and every eye was locked on mine. Ah hell I must be in trouble again. The flames shot up the dash and caught the windscreen rubber alight. The girlís seat was burning underneath in the stuffing. I think by the feel of it my seat was burning too. It was smoking and my backside was warming up. I knew if I stopped here I would block the traffic, maybe for hours, so I had drive through the bend and try to get the bus off the road. Either a driveway or where the road verge was wide enough to pull the bus out of harms way. I did not have to speak loudly; I had everyoneís undivided attention. I told them what I was going to do and tell them to make sure they had their bags. I also picked out two of the older boys and asked them when they got off if they could find the nearest phone and ring the fire brigade and US Motors as soon as possible.
We were about halfway into the bend I had to lift my left leg up and away from the canopy it was very hot. The flames had now leaped up the windscreen and had caught the top windscreen rubber alight, and were starting on the hood lining. The windscreen was blacking out; it was time to get out. The verge I pulled over into wasnít really wide enough, but beggars canít be choosers. I opened the door, and was about to say take it easy but the bus was empty. Never seen a bus empty so quickly, but they had a bit of incentive didnít they? I got up and leaned over my seat to grab the fire extinguisher. It was empty. While I was mucking round with the extinguisher my seat was suddenly a pool of flame. The hood lining was burning well and the rubber floor mats were well alight adding to the billowing toxic smoke. We sat on the bank on the other side of the road and watched all the windows slowly black out to the back of the bus. All my passengers were enjoying this unexpected entertainment. But a million things were going through my mind. Only yesterday, Don Cameron was telling me that not too many years ago 49 was the pride of the fleet. Working on the Gembrook run she had clocked up well over three million miles. In comparison, her twin bus 44 had only half that mileage. So old 49 does not owe us anything, Don said. Maybe Don shouldnít have said that. I think he might have put a mozz on poor old 49. I had not done many of those three million miles. but I will bet 49 and I have been in places where none of her previous drivers had dared to go. The fire brigade arrived and hot on their heels was Ken Elliott in bus 43. We all got aboard 43 and I drove off slowly. I would have liked to stay. I had a sinking feeling watching 49 burn but I had to get my passengers home. I watched through the rear vision mirrors until she disappeared from view. To me she didnít look too good. I wondered if this was the end of a great duo, 49 and me. I really loved that old bus we had some good times.
Next morning after my school run I hunted out Don Cameron, and told him all about it. How bad is it, can it be repaired? Don said he would find out and let me know and he did. Amazingly, the damage was not too bad. And thanks to the timely arrival of the fire brigade, damage was confined to the front section of the bus. The wiring was worst, all burnt. Canopy rubber seals, windscreen rubbers, front floor mats, hood lining, all the front of the bus required painting. Another passenger seat, driverís seat and steering wheel. Now what caused the fire, that was amazing too? Bus 49 had just had a tune-up and grease and oil change on the morning of the fire. Whoever had done the grease also did an air cleaner service. The big air cleaner was an oil bath type. It took about four and a half pints of oil to fill the air cleaner, which is then secured to the top of the carburetor with a clamp. In this case, the clamp was not tightened and the air cleaner worked off the top of the carby. It fell on to a nearly white hot exhaust spilling the oil on the exhaust, then fell down behind the starter motor, shorting out the live connections on the back of the starter. Boom, big spark, hot oil and big fire. 49 will be out of action for quite a while.
But I think it was only nine days later I got the message that 49 was right to go. Early the next afternoon I was working in the garage and 49 went down the back to park. I got ready just a little early that afternoon and walked down the back. There she was. To say I was happy to see her would be an understatement. I was thrilled to bits. I checked her all over. What a job the bus workshop had done. She was perfect. I sat behind the steering wheel and looked around. How good this was, but I will have to have a word to the bus workshop if anything else is done. I donít want 49 looking too good, I might have to get in a queue to drive her.
I drove slowly up the hill between the workshop and the Puffing Billy line, then down the main street heading for the High school. A thought popped into my mind. Was this the end of a great duo? Not likely.