Archive for February, 2011

To Snaggletooth, Wherever You Are

by Terry Burlison

My introduction to public transportation came in kindergarten, when I first climbed aboard Bus 13 to Eugene Field elementary school. A glance at our bus driver proved this was before background checks and violent criminal registries. He was a mean, lean, leathery man, his front teeth broken into yellow shards–most likely from bar fights or gnawing the bones of misbehaving riders.

Snaggletooth brooked no nonsense from us kids. He whipped Bus 13 across the Indiana countryside with all the joy of man on work-release, one eye on the road (if we were lucky), the other peering into his wide, all-seeing rearview mirror. No Stalag inmate feared the watchful gaze of a Nazi guard more than we feared Snaggletooth.

Snag had inflexible rules for riding his bus: no running, playing, smiling, thinking happy thoughts, or breathing too loudly. And most of all, no toys. He was not above pat-down searches if he suspected us of smuggling contraband. I don’t recall the penalty if someone got caught; most likely I’d need regression hypnosis to uncover those memories. But he never caught me, because I had a secret weapon: I was poor.

On those frigid Indiana winter mornings, my mom sent me to school wearing an old hand-me-down winter coat. This was a huge, bulky thing, a mattress with sleeves. I don’t recall where we found it; probably abandoned on the roadside by some train-riding hobo who got tired of being ridiculed by the other hobos. It was worn. It was threadbare. The pockets had eroded completely through on the inside. The lining was not attached to the shell anywhere except at the zipper and along the bottom. This meant anything I put in my pocket would fall into the lining and eventually work its way around to my back, where I had to dislocate my shoulders to retrieve it.

But then I realized this could work to my advantage.

In what was probably my first act of civil disobedience, I snuck a couple of toy cowboy revolvers into the lining and clambered aboard Ol’ Number 13. No FBI informant was more nervous smuggling a wire into a mafia den. Snaggletooth patted me down, checked my pockets–and waved me in.

Dawn rose on a world of possibilities. Soon, I was smuggling every toy I owned onto the bus. Had Snag ever looked at me from behind, he would have thought Quasimodo had moved into the Muncie school district.

One day, I took my usual seat near the back of the bus and deployed my green plastic army. A chubby kid with a buzz-cut was sitting in front of me. He heard the carnage and turned around to see, as he later put it, “The entire invasion of Anzio” spread out on my seat. (That’s ridiculous, of course. It was the invasion of Sicily.)

“How did you get those on the bus?” he whispered, glancing fearfully at Snag’s omniscient mirror.

I showed him my “undergarment railroad.”

“Wow! Hey, my name’s Phil. Can I play, too?”

“Sure,” I said–and a lifelong friendship was formed.

Over the years, Phil and I saved Hoosierland from numerous German invasions. We stoutly protected hearth and home from Japanese and Koreans, rescued the earth from Martians, Klingons, and other aliens too horrible to describe. We built elaborate settlements in corn and wheat fields, erected fortresses from logs, snow, or just our imaginations. In later years we graduated to cars, girls, careers, and the Senior discount at Dennys. Through eleven presidents, four marriages, and thousands of miles of separation we have endured. It has been a friendship for the ages. And we owe it all to one mean man with bad dental work.

Snag disappeared the next year, never to be heard from again. We had many other bus drivers over the years, all of them nicer but none as memorable–and none who left me such a legacy. So thank-you, Snaggletooth, wherever you’re incarcerated. I hope they’re treating you well. And if you ever need anything, let me know. You see, I have this coat . . .