the Band Bus

 

 

 

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As the bus sped along the southern Idaho freeway, hurtling toward home, I looked outside at the dark horizon and yawned. I was exhausted.

I was 16 years old, and a sophomore in high school. Early that morning, all of the members of the high school pep band had gathered at the high school and boarded the bus, and then we had driven several hours from south-eastern Idaho to south-western Idaho, where we played upbeat songs for a sports team during their match. The school fight song, “Wooly Bully”, “the Hey Song”, and other inane tunes still blared in my brain during the long drive home. My clarinet was safely tucked into its case underneath the seat.

Sarah sat next to me, a senior. She played the flute. I didn’t know her well, but I’d always found her nice. She was quiet, a good Mormon girl, modest, friendly. Pretty in a homely kind of way. Toward the back of the bus were the more raucous kids, wild with laughter and teasing each other, blasting music and playing cards. Sarah and I sat at the front of the bus, among other kids who just wanted a quiet easy ride. The unspoken rule was that the more well-behaved students sat closest to the bus driver, and the more wild ones sat farther away.

The bussed had lulled into a steady dark drive, only occasional chatter now. I wasn’t really aware of anyone around me. I just felt the vibrations of the wheels against the road and listened to the sounds of traffic, and I pulled the pillow I’d brought from home up next to me, resting it against the window and pressing my head snugly into it. We wouldn’t be home until past 2 am, and I hoped to sleep the rest of the way. Sarah had a pillow also, and after trying it out behind her head and then on the seat in front of her, she asked nicely if she could rest it against my arm.

“That’s fine,” I yawned again, and she pressed the pillow against me and was soon sleeping. I fell asleep not long after that.

A few hours later, I woke up as the bus pulled into the high school parking lot, a building designed, on purpose, to look like a spud cellar, a building that housed potato on farms. Our high school mascot was a potato, and the architect had apparently felt this would show school spirit. I slowly came aware and realized that Sarah’s pillow had shifted downward until it was in my lap, and she lay there sleeping soundly, bent at the waist. My pillow, meanwhile, had moved to her shoulder, and I had been sleeping soundly there. I tapped her on the shoulder, indicating that we had arrived, and we both gathered our things and got off the bus, stretching the kinks out of our backs and necks along with everyone else. It the the middle of the night, and winter, and I pulled my coat tightly around me. As pre-arranged, a friend gave me a ride home, and I immediately went inside, changed to pajamas, and went to sleep.

School was back in the next day, so I only slept a few hours. I woke up at 7, got ready, and headed in for my usual schedule of classes. History, Math, English, Economics, lunch, Seminary, Band, Theater. The day felt a lot like it normally did, routine and easy. I did my homework, bantered with my friends at lunch, and visited my locker to change books between classes.

It helped that things at home were quiet right now, routine. It had been a few weeks since Kent, my step-father, had lost his temper and thrown all of my mom’s things out on the front lawn, screaming insults and terrible things to her while Sheri, my little sister, and I had cowered in our rooms. Usually, after one of his violent and angry spells, things got really good for a while. Kent was a great father figure in between those spells. He made meals, took us to movies, and planned family events. There was always the threat of another storm, but for now things were okay, and being at school felt safe.

And then it was time for band class. I entered and took my seat in the row of clarinet players, getting out my instrument, assembling it, and attaching my reed. With the flutes in front of me and the saxophones behind me, we waited for the band leader, Mr. Marr, to begin class. He walked out of his office, took his place in front of us, and then started to yell.

“It has come to my attention from those who chaperoned your pep band trip that some of you in this room took advantage of the fact that I was not there to engage in inappropriate behavior! The things I heard about some of you doing on the bus last night were unacceptable! Reports like the ones I received, they do not reflect the morals and standards of this band at this school! And if you think I don’t know your names, then you are wrong, I hear things. I know what happened between people like Chad and Sarah on that bus!”

He continued yelling, but I didn’t hear another word. My head filled with cotton and my stomach immediately became nauseous. What was he talking about? What had he heard? That we fell asleep in the same seats? Had someone made up a rumor about us? My heart was thudding wildly as he stopped yelling and angrily lead us through our band routines for our upcoming concert.

For the rest of class, I only pretended to play. I couldn’t calm down. I’d felt all those eyes on me, some of confusion, some of concern. A few times, Sarah had looked back at me, her face pale, and we’d exchanged looks of utter bafflement. What had he heard?

In time, the bell rang, and people made their way out of the room toward their next classes, having only four minutes to get there. I put my instrument away and waited as the room emptied. Then I walked over toward Mr. Marr’s office to ask him what he had heard.

Without even waiting for me to speak, he looked up at me from his desk. “I don’t want to hear it, Chad. What you did was not okay, and today is not the day to talk to me about it. Try next week when I’ve calmed down.”

My mouth was dry. “But, sir, I didn’t do–Sarah and I barely even– we didn’t–” I was stammering, unable to finish a thought.

“I said not today! I don’t want your excuses! Now go!”

He shouted and I rushed from the room. My fingers were shaking as I fumbled at my locker, putting my instrument away and grabbing supplies for my last class. I felt like running away. Being yelled at like that, it felt too familiar, like everything that was going on at home, me being screamed at when I hadn’t done anything wrong. I walked on autopilot into the theater class, seventh period, and took my seat in the front row. The bell rang and students around me were laughing and chatting. I just clutched the desk, my heart in my stomach, my skin tingling, feeling nauseous.

Mr. B, the drama teacher, stood in front of the class to introduce what we would be doing that day, but he didn’t get far before the tears started falling from my eyes. I sat there and wrapped my arms around myself, hoping no one would notice, but then I started crying harder. Little gasps escaped my mouth, and a sob escaped my throat, and suddenly I was sobbing, quietly and then more loudly. I gripped my desk and bent my head forward and just sobbed, my body overcome with anxiety at the same time. And then the sob was a small wail.

Mr. B emptied the classroom quickly, moving everyone into the auditorium, instructing my friends Lynda and Jill to stay with me. One grabbed tissues while the other rubbed my back, telling me it was fine, it was fine, what’s wrong, you’re okay, it’s okay, calm down, you’ll be fine. A minute passed, then two, and then my stomach seized, and I bolted out of my chair and rushed down the hallway, making it to the bathroom just in time to vomit.

Jill and Lynda waited for me outside and walked me back to the classroom, where Lynda asked me, “What in the hell is going on?”

I bit my lip, unsure what to say. “Just, things aren’t great at home, and just got in trouble in band for something I don’t even know what, and I’m tired and–”

Within 20 minutes I was home. I ignored Kent when I entered, said I wasn’t feeling well, and went to bed, my puppy sleeping on my knees. Sarah and I never talked about what happened. I never again asked Mr. Marr what he heard. And while I’d never had a breakdown like that before, I still had a few more to go before Kent was out of our lives once and for all.

the day Chad died

Word spread quickly the day Chad died.

To tell the truth, I’d barely known him, although we had been in both junior high and high school together. We were in different crowds. I had friends back then, but I was one of the quieter kids ins school, still learning to develop my confidence. My social group consisted more of the ‘outcasts’, we seemed to collect a bunch of kids who didn’t really belong anywhere else, and I was the unofficial activity planner, getting all of the friends together frequently.

The other Chad, he was blonde and skinny and obnoxious. He played constant pranks and made fart noises in the hallways and was always taunting girls in class. He wasn’t a bad guy, not one of the jerks. He was more on the edge of the cool crowd, sort of like the popular click’s class clown in a way. He was funny, cute, and nice. But although we were both named Chad, we hadn’t interacted much over the years.

My high school in southern Idaho seemed to be comprised of mostly Mormon kids. Across the street from the school was the Seminary building. Each Mormon student took a full class period during school each day to go to Seminary and be instructed in church doctrine. And on a particular evening after school, the Seminary program had a class activity where Mormon students could gather to picnic and play games.

I didn’t go that night, but word spread quickly. Chad and a friend had driven a truck too quickly into the park, likely trying to show off, and the truck tires caught the gravel wrong, and the truck flipped over. And Chad died, just like that.

I remember being shocked that night by the abrupt ending of a life, one so young. It was an absolute tragedy. I remember getting together with some of my friends and sharing stories of the last time we had seen Chad, telling stories of jokes he’d told or obnoxious things he’d done. It was a haunting feeling.

In a dinner table conversation with my mother and step-father that night, we’d discussed the Mormon belief structure, that God calls souls home when he is ready for them, that Chad’s spirit would be in the spirit paradise dwelling with other loved ones until the time for the resurrection and judgement and then Chad would likely go to Heaven. He’d see his family again and he’d get a body again. I took comfort in knowing what would come next, but I was also confused and sad.

The real grief didn’t hit until the following Monday morning. I’d arrived at school early, like usual, and a group of girls sitting inside the building looked at me as if they were seeing a ghost.

One of the girls stood up, a look of horror on her face that was quickly replaced by joy. “Chad Anderson! I heard you were dead! You’re alive!”

She hugged me tightly as I felt my heart sink. I pulled away from her. “It–no, it wasn’t me. It was the other Chad. Chad Johnson.”

And the girl sank back to the floor, a new wave of tears on her cheeks.

That moment repeated itself a dozen times throughout the day, and it was painful every time. “Chad, you’re alive!” and “Chad, I’m so glad it wasn’t you!” and even one accusatory “You shouldn’t have let people think it was you, that’s cruel”.

In class that morning, a literature course that Chad had also been in, one girl burst out crying and run from the class. In Seminary class that day, the lesson had been focused on the loss of Chad and everyone was in tears. Later that day, a special testimony meeting was held in Chad’s honor, and people got up to share their thoughts and feelings, expressing gratitude for the love of God and the joy they felt even in their pain knowing that Chad had gone home with God again.

For me, Chad’s death was surreal. The only other person close to me that I’d lost before was my stepfather’s sister, Wilma, and she’d been an old woman after a long life. I didn’t know how to comprehend someone so young being gone so suddenly.

At lunch, I heard passing comments, as people tried to find some reason in the unreasonable.

“He shouldn’t have been driving so fast.”

“You know, everyone is acting like he was such a great guy, but I thought he was a jerk.”

“He was the best person I have ever known!”

“I guess it was just his time.”

“God needed him more than we did.”

I didn’t go to Chad’s funeral. I’ve never been to his grave. It’s been over 20 years since he died. He likely would have gone on to serve a Mormon mission, go to college, get married in the temple, and have children, just like we all did. I knew very little of the world beyond our small Idaho town, and there seemed to be only one future plan for all of us at that time. And truthfully, like most everyone else from high school, I probably would have never seen Chad again regardless, except perhaps through some social media photo from time to time.

But as I write this all these years later, now as a professional who frequently helps those impacted by tragedy, including losing a loved one suddenly, my mind moves back to Chad from time to time. I think of how easily his death could have been averted. I think of the community and school that grieved his loss. I think of how horrible I felt when people had thought it was me who was gone. And while I still can’t make sense of it all, I’m glad to be alive.

And I remember.