From Lumber Wagons to Cadillacs
by Jason Bohne, The Star
(This article is reprinted from the lab publication LMITCO Star of October 1998.)
We’ve all heard the stories from parents and grandparents and other old-timers about how hard living in the past could be.
Stories about walking five miles in the snow — uphill both ways — to school; about boiling water and shoe leather for supper; and about getting nothing but a lump of coal for Christmas. The amenities and prosperity of modern life make these stories hard to believe.
Anecdotes about the old buses at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory often seem just as unbelievable, especially when compared with the reliable, smooth-running, climate-controlled buses of today.
For Brent Dye, an INEEL bus driver since 1973, and many other not-so-old-timers who have driven and ridden in the buses for years, the memory of unreliable buses without heat or air-conditioning is a not-so-distant memory. Over the years, the INEEL has experienced a transformation in the quality of buses, roads and transportation for passengers.
Dye came to the INEEL in March 1973 after he tired of being away from his family at night while working as a truck driver. He remembers his first bus well.
“It was a 40-passenger, gas-powered, under-powered, rough-riding bus with no air-conditioning.”
Like an old lumber wagon
He concedes, however, that even his first bus was a vast improvement over previous INEEL buses. Once, Dye helped drive some White brand school buses back from Hanford, Wash., for use as evacuation vehicles at the Site. The White buses had been among the first ones used here, and Dye was introduced to a crude form of transportation.
“It was just like an old lumber wagon. It rattled and shook all the way.”
Dye heard stories from other drivers about old Brill buses, bought to replace the Whites. The gas-powered Brills had the nasty habit of regularly breaking down in the hot summer months, stranding passengers by the side of the road. In those days, there were more extra buses than today, so several of the extras were used as “protects.” These buses didn’t have an assigned route, but were used simply to pick up passengers stranded by a breakdown. Passing buses that had available seats also stopped for many stranded passengers.
Carpenter buses replaced the Brills. They ran more reliably, but their four-speed manual transmissions gave drivers new problems.
“They were a pain to shift,” Dye says. “They were so worn that if you didn’t shift right it would stick between gears, and there you were.” A slight lapse in concentration while shifting could result in a long ride stuck in second- or third gear.
At least the Carpenters ran, though. A later bus, made by Gillig, was among the first to come with air-conditioning. The Gilligs were so undependable, however, that they usually just sat in the yard, thus earning an inglorious nickname.
“We used to say they were an expensive snow fence,” Dye laughs.
Driving on a wagon trail
The roads to the Site took their toll on the buses, and the passengers as well. Countless potholes and soft spots caused by frost cracked the front axles of some buses and debilitated the air suspension systems of others.
“It was like a wagon trail,” Dye remembers. “You could watch the rear-view mirror and see people in the back bouncing all over.”
Creature comforts also lacked in the old buses. Most had no air-conditioning and ineffective heaters. Passengers opened the windows in the summer and brought extra coats and blankets in the winter.
Even when the first Crown bus came with air-conditioning, it didn’t solve all the problems. The air blew down from the roof, so the air at the top of the bus was frigid while the floor was still hot. In the winter, the heat didn’t go up the walls, so people often awoke from a nap and found themselves frozen to the frosty windows they were leaning against, especially in the morning when their hair was still damp.
Despite the temperature extremes, conversation and laughter were common, and there were several pranksters, such as one man who always lay down in the overhead luggage rack and slept. Dye also remembers the perpetual card games at the back of the bus. Passengers brought custom-cut cardboard or plywood sheets to fit between the seats and serve as card tables. People who wanted to sleep sat in front, and the card players sat in back. The card games were never banned, but they finally dwindled out after smoking on the buses was outlawed.
The arrival of air-conditioning and the transition to 10-hour shifts changed the nature of the bus ride, Dye says. People can ride more comfortably, and they want to catch up on their sleep.
“Now it’s serious business. People say, ‘Be quiet, I want to sleep.’”
After running through several makes of buses, the INEEL is standardizing its operation with the current MCI brand bus. Four new 57-passenger, 45-foot MCIs are on the way to complement the current line.
Budget cutbacks require the buses to run at higher capacity than ever before, which makes the buses a little more crowded and gives fewer passengers two seats to themselves. Dye also admits that some buses are a little less comfortable than others are, and it’s often difficult to find a temperature that completely pleases everyone on the bus.
Compared to the buses of yesterday, however, today’s riders have a safe, comfortable ride that the passengers of just a few years ago could only dream about.
“You’re not going to find safer, more reliable transportation to the Site,” Dye says.
The biggest problem facing today’s passengers may have nothing to do with the bus ride. It’s finding a convincing story about hardship on the buses to tell when they are old-timers.