From horses to strobe lights

“How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood” – Samuel Woodworth.

How did I manage to live past my 10th year?

I often sit in my big green chair and watch the school buses arriving at the school. A strobe light on each of the yellow monsters warns approaching drivers to exercise caution. Then red flashing lights and a mechanical sign warn all traffic in front and back to come to a complete halt.

On the worst of snowy winter days, the buses stay home and so do the kids. I shake my head and I remember. Standing in my front window on the farm I’d watch for the flashlight signal that would tell me the school van had started down into the coulee about 600 or 700 metres away (of course, we would not have thought metric back then and said “yards”).

Leaving immediately, usually at a run, we’d meet the van at the farm gate in the coulee bottom over 100 metres away. You will have noticed I said “van” and not bus. The wooden, horse-drawn van could carry about 10 kids and a driver. A van didn’t have a strobe light, flashing red lights or a stop sign. It had no headlights or tail lights. It did have a flashlight and, at 6:20 on some cold mornings, moonlight or starlight lit the way.

A tiny wood-burning stove at the front opposite the driver kept us warm. Well, it kept us from freezing. Most of us placed a piece of firewood on the icy floor beneath our feet. By keeping our feet off the floor, and by tapping our toes on the firewood, we’d make it to school without suffering from frost-bitten digits. The ride lasted an hour and a half.

But I have got ahead of myself. Today, residents of Wellington County have become concerned about coyotes. Seventy years ago the dog-like rascals thought they owned the Alberta countryside.

We’d often hear them howling as they passed through our yard, upset because they found the chickens safely locked away for the night. We knew they’d hide nearby as we made the dash for the van. Although a little nervous, I actually felt sorry for them, because my big brother armed himself before beginning the trek. Pity the poor coyote who dared to attack an 11-year-old farm boy brandishing a four foot fence post.

Ah, but back to the van. We travelled back roads that never saw a snow plow – if in fact someone had invented snow plows back then. Sometimes in blizzards, the wind would blow a van off the runners or it would roll over when trying to mount a major snowdrift.

When I heard others kids describe their rollovers, I regretted never having that experience.

Keep in mind that getting to school was only half the battle. At four in the afternoon, we reversed the procedure, arriving home after dark.

So today, a lifetime later, I sit in my green chair and watch the yellow school buses with strobe and red lights flashing, stop signs extended and crossing guards halting traffic.

I furrow my brow, and think, “Boy, it must be dangerous to travel to school in 2010. Why else would they need all that protection?”


Ray Wiseman