Collingwood’s Unsung Hero

Darkness. The cold creeps beneath your blazer. You stand, shivering, as silence pools around you. And then – the distinctive sound of wheels on pavement. The school bus lurches around the corner. Yellow; lights flashing a greeting as it halts before you, doors flinging open.

“Good morning!”

Gary sits comfortably before the wheel. Smiling, calling you by name. Beckoning for you to step inside the warmth of the bus – take a seat, and drowse, lulled by the sway of the bus as it weaves down Marine Drive, up Talor way, and through the shadowy streats of the British Properties.

Collingwood School – 8am. Students file off the bus in mumbles “thank yous” and “have a good day.” Gary punctuates this slop of murmurings with:

“Don’t study too hard!”

“See you tonight!”

“Have a fun day!”

His comments are short, but sharp. Plucked from a seemingly infinite well of energy. While “ his kids” (as he proudly terms his passengers) toil away at school, Gary divides his time amongst napping, shopping with his wife, and picking up a miscellany of driving gigs. At 3’o’clock, he pulls into the bus loop to await dismissal.

Students ooze from the school at around 3:10. Ambling onto the bus, bloated with essays, and decimals, and biology homework. Souls rubbed raw from school. Gary attempts to wrest each into conversation – denying them entry to the bus, handing out candy, asking new passengers to “sign (their) lives away” on his clipboard. Humour is how he maneuvers the stone-hard tempers of teenagers. He hails all – the eye rollers, the mumblers, and the sleep deprived- with quips until a smile is coaxed from the even densest crust of teenage angst. And so students slump into crackly vinyl seats – slackening ties, removing blazers, allowing some profanity to filter back into conversation. Relaxing whilst Gary navigates tempestuous neighborhoods, prowling traffic, and trundling along the perilous roads of West Vancouver. His profession devours the part of the day where most people transition from home, to work, or work, to home. Gnawing away at the still moments; the hour before school, the barren stretch in between dismissal and dinner

Gary reaches his last stop at 5’o’clock. Lions bay – the sky dim, the air cold. A silence settling across the neighbourhood, as families retreat inside for supper, reposing in the stillness of early evening. After bidding his last passenger a “goodnight,” as equally vehement as his previous farewells , he trundles back to North Van. There, he roams the seats; hunting for stray air pods, and crumpled bits of paper, to which he returns to the owner, dutifully, the next day. By suppertime, he has crossed the bridge to wish his wife and ninety-four year old mother a good evening.

Gary sets his alarm for 4 am for the following morning. He takes his coffee for a little over an hour, and, his focus sufficiently sharpened, picks up his bus in North Van to start his routine once more.

Gary has driven for some 50 years. Wheels are his passion – his sustenance. Following high school, he worked for BC ferries, left after a couple months, and drove trucks for three decades. 10 years were then allocated to the public bus system – and one to retirement, which he summarized as “the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life.” Gary thus“quit” retirement for driving school buses, and now reserves his domestic duties to the weekend.

He revels in the feeling of waking up to the brittle sound of an alarm – informing him he has something concrete to do. A purpose. Behind the wheel – he is at liberty to explore. To absorb, and acquaint himself with every nook and cranny of his home city – to see new places, like the countryside -whilst his mind is kept sharp by the necessity to stay awake. Driving school buses, to him, is“the best job in the world.” Though this is not due solely to the presence of wheels – but, rather, the students.

“The kids keep me young.” And, indeed, Gary connects to his youthful passengers more so than those of any age. His childhood memories are vivid; dusted daily by his interactions with students.

Gary is an “army brat,” bred on the cragged landscape of northern England, where his father was posted for fifteen years. In such a generation, “Canadian” was synonymous with “ruffian.” And thus, he and his siblings fraternized with the lowermost crust of society, demoted there by the British “snobs.”

He ran half-wild; fishing, playing lacrosse, roaming crumbling castles; honing an appetite for mischief. As a result, Gary weathered the cold shoulders of adults, canings of teachers, and other forms of discipline that did little but burnish his spirit. Today, he vehemently believes kids should be seen, heard, and everything in between. His bus is a venue for students to expel the energy that has amassed after a day of sitting at a desk.

“They can yell and scream, hoot and holler, sing songs…it’s good for them,’ he says, adding that he is “deaf in one ear anyway.”

Every bus ride thus becomes an adventure. A voyage through the vast, chaotic sea of people, cars, highways, and one way streets. His task is sacred; to transport every student as close to their front doors as possible. To keep them safe – and infuse their day with a dash of fun – or else a reminder to relax.

Gary describes himself as a “creative” driver; able to predict the moves of cars around him. This skill he has refined from experience; from the extra driving jobs he picks up during the day, to his annual sojourn to Saskatchewen, the home of his daughters, grand-daughters, and newly born great-grandaughter. As a veteran, he extends advice to other bus drivers; reminding them to have confidence in their ability and“be halfway crazy.”

Remember: next time you ride the 1/11 bus, greet Gary with a smile and leave him with a “thank you.”

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