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Remembering the old bus driver

While placing planters on some graves for Memorial Day, I get a chance to walk around and see some of the markers and remember the people buried there. 

Today, I saw the grave of my old bus driver, August Lindberg, and his wife Nora. 

I remember August from the first day of kindergarten. 

Scared and not knowing what to expect, that first big bottom step felt a lot like a step taken two years earlier on the moon. 

It was a small step for man, but a big step for a kindergartener. 

I grabbed the handle bar, pulled myself up and stopped to catch my breath. 

I looked up and saw the most welcome smile in my short life: Wiry August, dressed in the drab green work clothes farmers favored at the time, held the silver handle that opened the door. 

Our family had just moved back from the city. I had never been exposed to gruff old farmers in green clothes with Pall Malls in their shirt pocket. I wasn't sure I wanted to put my fate in the hands of such a foreign species. 

But August's smile told me that it was all right for me to take my time struggling up those big steps. It also eased my fears of school. 

I imagined that the first thing they would do when we got to school would be to give us all shots. And then the whippings would begin. 

Eventually, they did give us a German measles vaccination. But it wasn't the first day. 

And there were no whippings. 

However, school was still frightening. Things weren't always peaceful on the bus. And the long, full first grade days caused me dread. 

Through that rough year, August was my protector and friend. If I wasn't at the top of the drive, he would wait. And wait. 

One time after a fresh snow, I didn't show up at the mailbox. Instead of driving off, as he would have for anybody else, August maneuvered the bus up our long, unplowed drive and found me outside of our trailer house making snow angels. 

He figured I had gotten distracted. He wasn't even mad. I was so grateful that he had saved me from getting in trouble with Ma and Pa. 

After the long school days in first grade, we kids spilled out to where the buses lined up on the other side of the playground's chain link fence. My bus was #5, three buses down from the first.

The drivers, most of them gruff farmers in drab green work clothes, leaned against the fence, tugged on filterless cigarettes pinched between their thumb and forefinger and mumbled gruff man talk with their smoke-buffed voices. 

I was scared to death of them. 

But when I showed up lugging my books, August left the man talk to lean down and ask me how my day went. Every time. 

Our little daily conversations became a daily ritual. The approval from gruff-looking but sweet-hearted August always made my day better. 

One day in second grade, we had a substitute driver. I was sick in the pit of my stomach. Where was my friend August? 

August had had a stroke. He was paralyzed. 

At the time, kids were protected from medical knowledge, but I did overhear two neighbor women say that August couldn't talk. 

When somebody visited August, the women said, a tear rolled down his cheek. That was the only sign they saw that he knew they were there. 

It broke my heart. It was my first loss, and it was a big one. 

August died a year later. 

I eventually got to be friends with Clarence, the new bus driver. He was nice to me, too. 

But nobody replaced August. 

A few years later, August's widow Nora told me how much August had liked me. She treated me as well as August had. We continued to talk even after she moved away and I went to college.

Now, my memories of August and Nora are sparked when I head out to the cemetery once per year and see their marker. 

I noticed today that August was born 102 years ago. 

Many years have gone by, but I remember like it was yesterday struggling up that first step of the bus and looking up to see August's smile. 

I guess that's what Memorial Day is for.