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View from the Summit
by Catherine Cunningham : Editor, Terrain.org

Shades of February


The school bus pulled to a stop, evoking a rickety moan. Just before that, the bus driver had given his standard three pumps to the brakes. He was a grumpy old man, by the standards of 85 percent of the school children who occupied the bus twice a day. The other 15 percent were his grandchildren, all of whom remained suspiciously exempt from any sort of scolding. In the most severe instances of grumpiness, his demeanor would manifest itself in a single, hard stomp on the brake pedal, casting all passengers, including grandchildren, forward. Such misbehavior, which usually involved moving between seats while the bus was in motion, would usually yield the guilty party, as momentum sent them sprawling involuntarily up the center aisle to the front. The driver, shaking with old age and angry adrenaline, would deliver a shaking, ferocious speech and require the perpetrators to sit in the front seats where he could more easily ring their necks.

The kids riding this bus route were well behaved except two of the older boys—brothers—who were known to get into fist fights at school. They once hung my little brother by the tag of his coat to metal hooks along the bus interior; which isn’t to say he didn’t somehow deserve it. But my brother was teeny and everyone on the bus, except the driver, got a good laugh.

Hanging kids by the backs of their coats was a clear infraction of bus rules. But the driver did not see this incident in the reflection of his visor-wide mirror. He hit the brakes upon hearing the synchronized laughter, knowing that laughter could only mean someone was breaking the rules. If my brother had still been hung at that point, he most certainly would have swung to near horizontal. But the braking was unproductive and the driver had no suspect. He simply broadcast a warning and continued down the gravel road, scowling and mumbling.

image, School bus on a grey day.At our stop, we all re-snuggled our jackets and bumped down the steep, ridged steps, and off the bus. At the doorway, the wind blew the breath right out of our mouths. As the bus pulled away we all leaned into the gale and trudged up the long, narrow driveway.


Most days of the months of February had begun in the dark, the night before. A handwritten note requesting a desired wake-up time was placed on the kitchen table. My father dutifully set his alarm clock accordingly to wake each of us. Once one of us stirred, though, household activities would gradually ramp up to a frenzied urgency, awaking the rest of the house. We dressed—white shirts and navy pants—and ate breakfast—Tang and Cheerios.

The bus was amazingly punctual, arriving within a five-minute window each day. If we arrived five minutes early, however, at the end of the driveway, in the dark, with no windbreak, it could also mean the difference between a mild case of windrash and a bone chilling cold so intense we could scarcely blink away the ice from our eyes. Nevertheless, at the designated time, we all donned our coats, turned out the lights, and settled around the kitchen table.

Peering west into the morning darkness and through the network of bare branches created by our winter grove of trees, we searched for a glimpse of the quivering bus headlights. The point at which we could see them was fleeting—only a couple seconds duration. That moment signaled the bus was passing down the steep hill past the old white schoolhouse. From there it continued downhill to the sandpit road, past a grass landing strip, the neighbor’s dairy farm to Skunk Creek Bridge, then steeply uphill to our farm. The distance was about a two miles, which allowed two and a half minutes for us to grab our bags and scamper to the end of the driveway. If it was cold (-10 degrees or less), we would delay a minute and run.

Stepping up to the bus, the interior lights were lit only long enough for boarding passengers to find their seats. Soon, hints of dawn would lighten the sky. From the bus interior, one could gradually see more than vague outlines of surrounding passengers.

image, School bus on a grey day.


The windows were rectangular, vertical-slide. They latched at the top but many remained partially open as the latches were broken from years of use. The thin panes of glass were thick with frost, which enhanced the atmosphere as if we viewed the world through waxed paper. Sometimes the brightness, willing its way through the cloud cover, was painful, yet yielded only muted tones. Several times per day, new designs would emerge in the icy windows. A handprint or a haphazard scribble was short-lived, as it nearly spontaneously fogged over and again turned to ice. Yet the windows were also great message and art boards, most of which beheld profound statements like, “’74 RULES.” Eventually, we etched our own revelations.

On the school bus, minutes turned into hours, days, seasons, and years. In the Midwest, each month has its own purpose. April is for calving. May for planting. June for haying. July and August have the frantic pace of 4-H projects and events. September and October are for harvest. November and December hold the enchantment of the holidays. January is always the new beginning. And March, with its warmer temperatures, is the first hint that another long winter is almost over.

February, the shortest in days, is the longest and most grueling. We all passed many seasons according to the bus route schedule. The long, dark days of the winter season stand out, as memory drums up countless visions of the dark, light, and grey.


Catherine Cunningham is an environmental specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Western Area Power Administration, a federal agency responsible for marketing hydroelectricity produced at large dams throughout the West. She is also a planning commissioner for her mountain town.
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