Ralph the Psycho School Bus Driver

Mar 29


John H. Paddison, PhD

John H. Paddison, PhD

  • Share this article on Facebook
  • Share this article on Twitter
  • Share this article on Linkedin

Just about everyone who attended elementary school or junior high in the 1950's remembers his or her own Ralph the psycho school bus driver. And certainly a good deal has changed in educational discipline and behavior modifiction since then...so much so that Ralph's actions would no doubt be considered corporal punishment and child abuse by today's standards.


Everyone at South Tamarind Elementary School dreaded being condemned to riding ol’ Bus 23 . . . it being one of the three buses from the district that serviced the school’s pick up area.  The beginning of each school year presented an anxious time of trepidation as everyone came to grips with the fact that they all had a one-in-three chance of getting Crazy Ralph.   But the really bizarre thing was that after the schedules were announced,Ralph the Psycho School Bus Driver Articles the unlucky third just accepted their fate . . .  accepted their lot in life . . . accepted that Crazy Ralph was just a fact of living and of growing and of the learning experience.  Riding on ol’ Bus 23 had to be dealt with,  just like being assigned to the endless boredom of Miss Battle’s fifth grade class (Miss Battleaxe we called her), or of experiencing the pain of Principal Morgan’s paddle. Principle Morgan taught science before becoming the school’s chief administrator, so he really knew physics.  That’s why he had bored holes in his one-inch thick disciplinary paddling device, so that with less wind resistance it carried more force when applied to a miscreant’s backside.  Just before delivering the "swats" to a student who had the misfortune of being summoned to his office, Mr. Morgan laced his moral lecture to the culprit with didactic tales of his World War II exploits, all the while excitedly spraying the air in front of him with fine droplets of plosive saliva that seemed to glow in the still air.  

Word had it among the older students at South Tamarind Elementary School that Crazy Ralph, the psycho bus driver, had once been a marine, but had been drummed out of boot camp for his inability to adapt to military life.  But as a bus driver for Rialto Unified School District, he had finally become a symbol of authority.  Every day he drove Rialto Unified School District Bus #23 with purpose and dedication.  Middle-aged, tall, and lean, he filled handsomely his gray cotton bus driver uniform, which was invariable pressed and tailored with pride.  His shoes were always shinned to a high sheen and his black, thick hair was closely cut in the traditional high-and-tight military style crew cut.    He did, after all, skillfully maneuver the mustard yellow, black stripped, hump-backed school bus through the traffic with a measurable degree of skill, while at the same time tightly controlling the youngsters under his charge.  Consequently, following his third year of accident-free service, RUSD awarded him an expert driver badge, which he continually wore with pride on the heart side of his uniform shirt. 

His narrow, chisel-chinned, unsmiling face, along with the black brush of his crew cut hair, continually inspired fear into the young students of South Tamarind who were condemned to ride his bus. Most remarkable about Crazy Ralph was his dark brown, penetrating eyes, always visible in the mirror positioned before him over the windshield.  Those compelling eyes roved restlessly, darting between the traffic ahead of him and the rascally students to his rear.  Periodically he would raise his eyes to scrutinize in his rear view mirror the youngsters riding under his charge, looking carefully for any sign of misbehavior . . . of violation of the rules clearly posted on the rear of his high backed, air ride, hydraulic driver’s seat.   The narrower Ralph’s stern eyes appeared in the mirror’s visage, the greater the sense of uneasiness among the young riders.   He continually scanned, scanned, scanned for any trace of aberrant behavior, which when spotted would immediately raise his ire.  And if his stare fell directly on you, you instantly froze and ceased any actions that might be construed as improper.
Crazy Ralph’s reaction to his charges’ trying of his patience came at varying levels.  The first was his use of the microphone that hung on a chrome goose-neck that extended from the corner of the dashboard:  over the intercom his voice boomed out a warning threat to individual youngsters or to the riders in general.  If that warning wasn’t successful, he would pull ol’ number 23 to a full stop on the side of the road.  The young riders would stiffen and freeze with the "pusheesss" of the air brakes being applied as the bus abruptly came to a stop on the shoulder of the roadway.  Crazy Ralph would turn on the bus’ emergency flashers, set the parking brake, rise from his hydraulic seat, and deliberately walk down the narrow aisle separating the two lines of seats.  Stopping before the seat of the offender or offenders, he would bend slightly toward.   "I better not have to stop this bus again . . . is that clear?"  In low, measured words, he delivered the stern warning through clinched teeth, his lips barely moving, leaving little to the violator’s imagination of what would happen if the behavior did not cease immediately.  If the infraction was really bad, though, the perpetrator would without explanation be promptly grabbed by the collar, or worse be grasped by the nape of the neck, pinched between rigid thumb and fingers, and roughly escorted to the reserved seat just behind Crazy Ralph’s.  He kept that seat vacant for just such purposes.  Directly under Crazy Ralph’s glare, the student would be imprisoned there until his or her bus stop came.  After such incidents the bus would remain eerily silent for several minutes and then voices would gradually rise to a controlled mumble, nowhere near what it had been before the stop.  Crazy Ralph knew how to control children…with fear!
I still remember well the day that I ran afoul of Crazy Ralph.  The time was early April when the warmth of Southern California was emerging, the air not yet tinged with the smell of smog.  The anticipation of nearing the end of my sixth grade infused me;  I remember feeling eager to be freed from  the confines of South Tamarind and moving on to the big arena  of Arrow Junior High in the fall . . . filled with anticipation about leaving the "elementary" world and moving on to the more mature, experiential world of middle school. 
On that joyful, carefree afternoon I must have been exuding a haughty, indestructible attitude, so full of my own youth and potential, and this is probably what drew Crazy Ralph’s attention to me.  The end-of-school-day clamor of kids released from classes filled the front entrance of the school as kids raced around and  past Miss Bush the bus monitor (Miss Bushwacker, we called her),  who stood old and gray and powerless amidst the swirling eddies of students racing for their assigned bus.  Drunk with the impending freedom of the afternoon, I bound up the bus steps two at a time, turned the corner, and raced down the aisle to the preferred bench seating along the back of the bus.  Stevie Merton crowded closely behind me, but I beat him to the comfort of the corner seat.
"Hey, fatty, move over!" Stevie Merton yelled as he let his momentum propel led him along the dark green plastic of the seat, driving me into the metal side of the bus. 
"I got here first, man," I replied meekly, with my breath somewhat gone from his body blow.|
A series of progressively harder elbow pokes and locked forearm pushes began as the struggle for control of the seat continued.  Because Stevie was taller and stronger than me, I found myself on the losing end of the dispute.  Finally Ralph closed the bus door behind the last student entering the bus and pulled away from the curb.  But I knew he knew . . . I could see him watching my struggle through his rear view mirror . . . his eyes mere slits . . .  his intense stare fixed on us . . . the "gaze of the tiger" look.  And I was right . . . as soon as Bus #23 moved out of sight of the school, it bounced to the side of the road and the air brakes hissed.
"Now you’re gonna get it, Stevie," I whispered to my adversary/tormentor.
Ralph rose ominously from his seat and walked deliberately but quickly down the narrow aisle;  the other student riders watching him tangentially, their heads bowed or turned to look out the window, each probably praying that the agitated man would not stop at his or her seat . . . that they were not the target of his wrath.  But he headed directly, steadily toward Stevie and me.  I smiled, maybe even smirked, knowing full well that Ralph has witnessed the entire incident and I would be vindicated.  I would be deemed the victim. 
In stunned disbelief, though, I watched his huge, hairy hand reaching down for me, his curled fingers and glossy nails growing larger and recoiled defensively into the corner of the seat.   But instead of going for the scruff of my neck, as he usually did, Crazy, Psycho Ralph went straight for my head.  My whole body lurched forward and slid easily past Stevie as Crazy Ralph, his eyes no doubt flaming in anger, grabbed a handful of my think hair, jerked me out of the seat, and pulled me down the aisle towards the discipline seat.  His stride was great and I believe that my feet only touched the floor twice or three times as I glided down the aisle behind him, bowing to his assault.  Finally the heavy dose of Dixie Peach Pomade that I had combed into my hair that morning allowed me to briefly escape his grasp.  However, he reached back, grabbed my collar, and shoved me roughly into the special seat.  The entire event transpired without Ralph saying a word.  As the bus pulled back onto the road, the passengers behind me remained grimly silent.
The bus made its routine stops, releasing the riders one-by-one.  All the while I held my chin rigidly down on my chest.  I could only hope that the passing students, especially that Stevie Merton, didn’t see the tears leaking from my tightly closed eyes.  There was no way that I could add to my humiliation by letting everyone see me bawling.  I tried desperately to stop the drops but somehow couldn’t.    The only consolation came when Karen Luby, the most beautiful girl at South Tamarind Elementary, gently placed her hand on my head, in a kind of patting way, as she walked by and slowly exited at her bus stop.  Her hand felt so soft and good that I sobbed worse, knowing now for sure that she would never fall in love with someone like me. 
Adding to my shame was the fact that my bus stop was second to the last, so there I sat in solitude for perhaps an eternity, on ignominious display.  But during those minutes I plotted my revenge.  My face flushed red with anger and shame as I looked up with deep loathing at the closely shorn back of Crazy Ralph’s head.  I hated his guts!  And within that anger and hatred my plan solidified.  
Not cognitively advance enough to be able to play the game of "what happens next?" I set the plan into action without reservation.  At my stop I quickly exited the bus and began running madly.  I knew that if I ran hard enough . . . on down Valencia and along the shortcut over to Dupont Drive . . . I could arrive at Ralph’s last stop before he did.  I ran up breathlessly and hid behind a huge eucalyptus tree just as the huge yellow vehicle slowed to a stop.  I peeked out and could see Crazy Ralph behind the driver’s window, looking all cool, and that look drove me to action.  I jumped out from behind the tree and threw a rock at the bus; Ralph looked over at me, a surprised expression on his face as the stone bounced harmlessly off the front tire.  His fierce stare locked onto me and with extreme satisfaction I flipped him the jack with both hands, triumphantly holding my hands and middle fingers high and rigid and erect for several seconds before running off home.
The next morning I sat in Principal Morgan’s office and stoically accepted my punishment.  In order to avoid his shower of spittle and escape his paddle, which was reported to leave round welts on one’s butt, I said nothing about the hair pulling and simply confessed to the rock-throwing and finger-giving incident, for which I was summarily kicked off the bus for the remainder of the school year.  Of worse consequence, though, part of my punishment me required to write a note to Crazy Ralph, apologizing for my unacceptable behavior.   I could not bring myself to write the apology.
But certainly Crazy Ralph, the psycho bus driver, had that day provided for me with one of life’s simple but never forgotten learning experiences.