Updated: Feb 28
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A short story written by me. Life on Long Island, New York. For more information on the burgers, go to very end of post.
I stared out my classroom window that Friday morning in the middle of June, waiting for a glimpse of the three coach buses that would line the curb where the school buses usually parked. Our trip would soon be underway.
Miss Santiago, our teacher, mumbled again under her breath about how the trip would be more exciting next year for our country’s Bicentennial.
Would we be missing out? Why couldn’t I have been born one year later so my trip would be in 1976 instead of ‘75. I guess I’ll make the best of it. How bad could it be? I mean, they’ve been doing the trip every year since the late 60’s.
The rumble of the buses turning into the half-moon drive vibrated across our classroom floor breaking my trance. Is that what an earthquake feels like? I don’t think I ever want to visit California.
Three loud hisses from the bus's brake system told us the coaches were in place. Miss Santiago didn't make us wait long. She clapped her hands louder than any other teacher I knew and always got our immediate attention.
“Line up everyone.” she said, accompanied by her rhythmic clapping.
She switched to banging out the tune by tapping her desk with the blackboard pointer. We marched to the beat and formed a line at the classroom door.
With a stern reminder to keep quiet through the hallways, all 30 of us 5th graders walked out of the classroom into the hallway excited for the other five classes to hurry and join us for our weekend trip. Once all 180 of us were in place, we began our parade, making it outdoors with barely a sound.
Cold air blasted us in our faces as my class and Mrs. Bryan’s class climbed the steps of the second bus single file. The vibration of the idling carrier increased our excitement as we found our seats, three to a row. They were tall, gray leather-backed benches whose perfume filled our noses with their smoky tobacco aroma. Our view was limited once we sat; our only option was to look out our window or at our three classmates across the aisle.
I sat in the back, on the left, next to the window. My best friend, Lisa, was beside me, stuck in the middle with Brooke next to her alongside the aisle. We made the best of our fate.
“All set,” Mrs. Bryan told the driver, taking her place up front with the teachers and chaperones.
Our convoy rolled out, headed for the Long Island Expressway, and the two classes erupted in enthusiastic chatter.
“I can’t wait to see the liberty bell,” I told Lisa.
“I can’t wait to go to the zoo,” she responded.
It would be the first time many of us were visiting the historical landmarks of Philadelphia and we were excited for the adventure.
By the time we reached the Throgs Neck Bridge, where the buses were allowed to cross, everyone had quieted and we were enjoying snacks or swapping treats we’d brought along for the three-hour ride, an eternity for our age group. When there were no more snacks, we played simple games.
“I win!” Lisa threw her cards down into her lap.
“You win every time. How come I never win?”
When the game became monotonous, we switched to watching the passing greenery as the bus traveled along the highway.
“We’re making good time,” one of the chaperones commented.
“Yes,” Miss Santiago agreed.
No sooner did the words come out of their mouths than a bolt of lightning cut crazy zig zags through the darkening sky, bouncing off the blacktop of the highway as I stared out the large window. Soon after, the sky went pitch black. Day felt like night. A fierce clap of thunder rocked the bus.
Cries of fear mingled with shrieks of delight throughout the bus and one girl covered her ears with both hands. I was not fearful, nor was I thrilled. I found no fun in the storm, just acceptance of what was.
“Shhh! Quiet,” Miss Santiago admonished. “The driver needs to concentrate.”
Raindrops the size of peas splashed the windows making visibility nearly impossible.
“Wow, cool,” Joey said. “It sounds like horses stampeding above our heads!”
“It’s just the rain pelting off the top of the bus,” Miss Santiago said to calm the frightened children, lest they think something horrible was happening to horses. Kids take things literally sometimes.
Traffic slowed to a crawl for the next hour while the downpour assaulted us.
“Hey, we’re on a carnival ride” Joey yelled, as the bus swayed from the high winds.
The inclement weather was unexpected and the teachers and chaperones hoped we’d drive out of the storm soon. Until then, they continued to do their best to sooth the frightened children.
Boom. The thunder rattled the ground and rumbled, rolling above as if it were chasing the bus. Bright streaks of light followed, a short reprieve from the darkness, then it started over again, as if the thunder was in competition with the lightning to see who could be more ominous. Then, it stopped, as suddenly as it had started.
“Are we finally in the clear?” Mr. Muller, a chaperone, asked.
The bus picked up speed as small rays of sun peeked through the clouds and the sky grew brighter.
“I hope so,” Mrs. Smith, another chaperone, answered. “Looks like we outran it.”
Nicole, a young teacher’s aide, chanted, “Hip, hip, hurray,” egging us kids on. After our second round of cheers, she calmed us, satisfied she had eased the tension and fear. Everyone smiled except for Michael.
“What was that?” Michael gasped, jumping up from his seat.
“What was what?” Nicole asked.
“That bump, it’s doing it again.”
Nicole grabbed the back of a seat, stopping herself from falling as she made her way to the boy. Another thump jolted the bus, almost knocking her to the floor. She plopped into a seat just as the click of the intercom came to life.
“We have a slight problem,” the driver announced, holding the device close to his mouth. “Everyone please remain seated, stay quiet and calm, I’m pulling over.” His robotic words echoed off the interior of the bus, reverberating in our ears.
We came to a sharp stop in a grassy area on the side of the highway. Traffic zoomed by jolting the bus causing many kids to lean toward the center of the bus; no one wanted to get struck by an 18-wheeler doing 65 miles per hour. We leaned, so our seatmates leaned too to avoid being squished and we strained our necks or asked other students what the driver was doing.
The driver swung the door open in one swift motion and sprinted down the steps to inspect from outdoors.
“Quiet,” Mrs. Bryan reminded, her finger to her lips. “Sit still.”
We were silent and the bus swished with each passing vehicle.
The principal had a rule, we had to stick together, so the other two buses pulled just a bit ahead of us, and we strained to look out the windows on the right side of the bus.
The three drivers walked back and forth through the high grass, bending down out of sight to evaluate the situation. They stood to talk, then bent again. Then, our driver climbed the bus steps, his grim expression telling us the story wasn’t good. Grabbing the radio, he cackled into it. “Dispatch, this is vehicle number five-six-three-two, we need assistance. We have a flat. We are located at. . .”
As he spoke to dispatch, the teachers herded us off the bus and split us into two groups, one half to go onto one of the other buses, the other half, the remaining bus, to wait for help.
“Be careful, walk in a line, don’t push, don’t run and walk straight,” Miss Williams, our chaperone, directed.
The buses weren’t far but it felt like the walk was 100 miles when the sky once again turned dark. In an instant children threw arms over their heads and trudged on shrieking as hail the size of nickels hammered us, violently bouncing off the ground and whipping us in the ankles like BB gun pellets.
“Don’t panic,” Miss Williams shouted.
“Stay calm,” Miss Santiago called out.
Lifting our feet through the wet muck made the trek slower. We lifted and hopped as the hail anguished our legs, then we again sunk into the wet ground. Our eyes set on our destination, we watched as the ice balls popped off the buses in front of us shooting in all directions like a lunatic wielding a machine gun. We trekked and ducked and one ball hit me on the temple just missing my eye.
When the hail stopped, heavy rain accosted us.
“We smell like wet dogs,” Brian whimpered, as our group climbed into the first bus and walked to the back.
We squeezed into seats with the children already seated on that bus and those who didn’t get a seat stood in the aisle pulling at their soaked clothing, releasing its tight grip on their bodies.
“I want to go home,” Maria cried.
“We’ll all be fine, everyone stay calm,” Miss Williams said, patting Maria’s wet head.
Our interest was piqued when the big truck pulled up to help us out of our predicament. We watched the mechanics change the tire, at least those who could see. Those who couldn’t see clearly, got a blow by blow description from the kids who could see out the back windows. It took our minds off our circumstances for a while and we got a few chuckles when one of the kids would whisper a bad word they overheard a mechanic say as they yelled to each other and worked in the downpour. We counted five bad words between the two mechanics, the worst being Mother… as one guy slid in the mud and landed on his butt. We didn’t let the teachers know why we were giggling.
More confusion ensued getting everyone back onto our original bus once the flat was fixed. After muddling through the rain and mud and stomping our feet on the first step of the bus as instructed, the teachers counted heads then called out their class roster.
Satisfied all was in order, Miss Santiago said, “We’re good to go.”
The unexpected events left everyone cranky, tired, and hungry.
“We really didn’t need this,” Mrs. Bryan complained to our teacher.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could just bring a little personal phone with us?” Miss Santiago said, exasperated.
“Maybe in the next millennium, Mrs. Bryan responded, shaking her head. “This is 1975, we’re on earth, it’s not 2001: A Space Odyssey but we can dream.” The teachers shared a laugh at the ridiculousness of the suggestion.
“Well then, we should ask the driver to radio dispatch and ask them to call the hotel and lunch stop,” Miss Santiago suggested.
The pinging of the rain against the window was interrupted by a blare which grew louder and more annoying as it got closer. Red swirls reflected through the rain drops on the glass and wet pavement. A car whizzed past, siren screeching, light twirling.
“Now what?” Mrs. Bryan said, exasperated as we once again pulled over.
The students groaned and strained to see.
“What’s going on?” several kids asked.
“Relax everyone,” our driver said out loud, swiveling his body around to address us. At least we didn’t have to endure the squeak of the intercom and his robotic words. He was speaking to us like a human, in his own voice without that dreadful radio he seemed to kiss every time he picked it up.
The driver informed the adults of our new dilemma. Like a game of telephone, the kids up front relayed the information to the kids in back. The first bus was getting a speeding summons.
“The driver said their attempt to make up time backfired,” Keisha told us.
The state trooper ticketed the first bus and was nice enough not to ticket the other two but he did check the licenses of the drivers and all pertinent paperwork.
After this new twenty-minute delay, we were once again on the road. At least it stopped raining, that was a plus, even if gray clouds remained.
I hadn’t eaten breakfast and I finished my snack by nine, so I was hungry and so was everyone around me from the groans throughout the bus. Getting back onto the highway again was a welcome relief. We only had forty minutes to the rest stop.
“Yay, hurray, whooo hooo,” we hollered in unison as the tall signs scraping the sky came into view. The service area wasn’t far.
No group was ever more happy to take a break. The McDonald’s had been expecting us, much earlier, but the driver had dispatch update them. No matter the preparation, feeding 180 children, plus adults, was no easy task.
We couldn’t all fit inside McDonalds at the same time, so the first bus load lined up inside and started placing their orders. We waited in line outside, inching our way to the entrance.
“Miss Santiago, my sneakers are squishing and are all muddy,” Marcus complained.
“Mine too and my clothes are still wet,” Jackie chimed in. “I’m freezing.”
A list of complaints followed while we stood lined up outside and around the building awaiting our turn to go inside to order.
“It’s ok. Hush, you’ll be fine, I promise,” Miss Santiago announced. “Remember, order quickly, we don’t have much time.”
Loud claps of thunder followed by a torrential downpour proved the storm had caught up to us. Screaming, jumping and crying ensued. Lining up outside was a bad idea. They’d done it so we could stretch a bit, but the weather wasn’t cooperating.
“Ok, everyone,” Mrs. Bryan instructed, “calmly and orderly head back to the buses. Go now, single file, and remember, this is a parking lot.”
We waited on the buses to be called into the restaurant in intervals. To ease the boredom and anxiety, we made the adults endure an endless chorus of, “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame-seed bun,” sung by sixty hungry kids.
“Are we having fun yet?” Mrs. Bryan said, rolling her eyes.
When it was finally our turn, we walked swiftly through the deluge, and once inside, lined up between the metal rails to order as fast as we could. We had no choice but to change plans and take the meals to go rather than eat at the outdoor picnic tables. We juggled our drinks and bag of food, dodging the rain again back to the safety of the bus.
“Now it smells like wet dog and cheap food,” Miss Santiago observed. “Does the driver have an air freshener?” she chuckled.
In a moment, that would be the least of her problems.
Wrappers crackled and kids squealed, eager to eat. I ordered a cheeseburger, fries and a coke. I couldn’t wait to dig in and we all did at the same time.
A pungent, bitter taste tormented my tongue and I grimaced and spit my bite of burger out onto the wrapper.
“Ewwww, yuck, gross, what is that, oh puke!” voices overlapped.
“What was that?” I looked at Lisa.
She had the same disgusted look on her face. The top roll lifted up slowly as we each pulled ours back, and we investigated, like we were conducting a science experiment, terrified of what we might find.
“Mustard?” we said.
Mustard on a burger was a foreign concept to us Long Islanders. We weren’t masochists, we didn’t ruin hamburgers with poison. No one had the heart to destroy a perfectly good burger.
Our displeasure grew and the kids continued to voice their aversion, some refusing to eat. The bus driver announced that the other buses were in the same state of distress.
“Ok, everyone, listen. Listen up,” Mrs. Santiago clapped hard.
She stood in the aisle, her arm raised, once she got our attention.
“Shhhhhhh, hush,” she waved. “Everyone relax, we know you’re uncomfortable, soaking wet, and hungry.”
Multiple groans flared up throughout the bus and we heard Calvin say, “It’s too gross.”
We all erupted in agreement.
“Quiet. Everyone, try to neatly wipe off the mustard, put the dirty napkins into the food bags and you will be able to eat. You’ll survive, mustard never killed anyone,” Mrs. Santiago instructed.
A new young teacher had made the arrangements for our trip and she had forgotten to ask for our burgers without mustard, much to our indignation. We did our best to wipe off the offending condiment and ate through multiple grumbles.
“Pretend it’s a hot dog,” Bobby suggested.
“Hot dogs and burgers don’t taste the same,” Justine responded.
“Who puts mustard on a hamburger, these people are weird,” Stacy yelled out.
“It doesn’t say mustard in the song,” Carlos observed.
The whining and general disapproval lasted several miles once the convoy left the McDonalds and then, with full bellies and miserable taste buds, the majority of us fell asleep.
“We’re here!” Several kids yelled in relief as we pulled into the hotel parking lot, albeit, three hours late. Check-in was semi-chaotic, but within an hour we were in our rooms.
I shared a room with Lisa, Brooke and Sharon. After choosing sleeping partners and settling luggage, we played Paper, Rock, Scissors to decide who would get cleaned up first. Warm showers swept away the grime, mud and sweat from our bodies and after dressing and slipping into dry shoes, we felt better. Though my eye still throbbed from the chunk of hail that hit it. I didn’t dare tell the teachers, I might miss something sitting in an urgent care or Emergency Room with a chaperone.
Dinner was at seven, changed from the original 5 p.m. Fast food doesn’t satisfy for long and the aroma of seafood and freshly baked pastries crept under our door from the hotel’s buffet, alerting our tummies that we were once again hungry. When dinner was called, we lined up, eager for a good meal.
We piled our plates high with baked ziti, fish sticks, mashed potatoes and a variety of vegetables. They even had hot dogs, but no one dared touch the mustard!
We were rambunctious from sitting for so long on the buses so running back and forth to the buffet was exciting. Each time we lined up and wound around the four banquet displays, we discovered another dish we hadn’t noticed before. I gave Lisa half my potato tots for half her chicken tenders. Brooke offered one of her small burritos for one of my baked clams.
A roar of voices emitted from the dining room as we enjoyed dinner then dessert. Afterward, Perez, known only by his last name, charmed the teachers into letting us have a bonfire in the hotel yard. There were pits available and several swings and slides.
“Everything is there, they must want us to use it,” he reasoned.
The teachers agreed and guided us outside. We played tag and took turns on the playground while the Chaperones started a fire after Perez and some of his friends gathered sticks and small logs.
The soft flames kept us warm in the cool night air as we roasted marshmallows supplied by the facility. I blackened mine, they were best that way! We gorged ourselves until bedtime at ten.
“Lights out,” teachers and chaperones called, making their way down the long hallway, tapping on doors. My roommates and I piled onto our chosen beds and swore we would stay up all night chatting. We were asleep within the hour.
The next morning, we heard rumors that the teachers and chaperones took turns monitoring the hallways, so they didn’t sleep as well as we did. Be good was the mantra, they’re cranky.
Right after breakfast, we ventured out into the city of Philadelphia. We walked all over taking in the sights. The most intriguing to me was the Liberty Bell.
On our last day, we learned that the Philadelphia zoo was the first true zoo in the United States and it opened way back in 1874.
The weekend had gone smoothly other than when one of the boys almost fell into the gorilla enclosure and a girl cut her finger on a mysterious object in her hotel room. We all yelled out guesses at what the object could have been until we became bored and no longer cared.
Monday morning, Lisa and I took turns sitting on each other’s suitcases so we could zip them for the trip home. How did our moms fold everything so perfect to make it fit into our suitcases so they could zip with ease?
We put all our souvenirs between our clothing in the hopes nothing would break. They were cheap doodads, but to us, they were gold and we couldn’t wait to give them to our family members. Most of the items were small plastic clones of something important and then there were the t-shirts for our younger siblings. I thought my grandfather was in need of a plastic replica of the Liberty Bell and my father couldn’t live without a tiny beer mug for show that he could put on his office desk. There were gifts for the rest of the family too.
Dragging our bulging luggage down the long hallway, through the lobby and across the bumpy, cement walkway into the parking lot to the buses was agony on the arms. What a relief when the bus driver took them to load into the underneath compartments.
Exhausted from the weekend, we were solemn and quiet, like the rest of the kids, as we boarded the buses.
“Take your same seats,” Miss Santiago insisted, eager to avoid arguments. We did as we were told and when the buses pulled out to head home, we sat in silence.
“So, what was the most interesting thing you saw or learned this weekend?” Miss Santiago inquired, standing up front in the aisle.
A lot of hands went up, but she picked me.
“Remember to hold the mustard!” I told her.
Based on true events.
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Why don't they put mustard on burgers downstate New York?