The Old Man and the Pumpkin

The horror of a volunteer parent’s school bus trip

The Old Man and the Pumpkin

When had I last slept? Or bathed? Or eaten? I could not remember. All was wet and dreary, rain spitting from iron skies, soaking my bones. And everywhere I looked was mud. The inhumanity and the screaming…

My God, the screaming.

My wife appeared out of the fog, as weary and muddy as I, her face set and grim. Clearly, she had also seen the horror, but she marched on, resolute. 

Resolution or madness, I could not tell which. 

“Come,” she said, “it’s time to leave. We’re going home….”

“Home?” I murmured, finding no meaning for the word in my tortured brain. “I cannot remember home. Let me die here in peace.”

“Spare me the drama, Hemingway,” she spat, trudging past me. “I need a latte, a handful of Advil, and a long, hot bath… so just pick up your #$&^% pumpkin and get on the bus or, I swear to God, I’m leaving you here!”

The bus. 

Oh, dear God in heaven, not that yellow torture chamber again. I couldn’t… I wouldn’t…

“Shake a leg! We ain’t waitin’…” 

I got on the bus. 

A little backstory may be in order…

It’s late October and, at some ungodly hour of the morning we, along with a dozen other bleary-eyed parents, had been herded onto a school bus with approximately 11,000 first-graders, all of them hopped-up on Fruit Loops and shrieking like Valkyries. 

You see, at our daughter’s school, every parent — in addition to an exorbitant tuition and possibly a redundant internal organ — is also required to “volunteer” for a number of events throughout the school year.

They call it, “Giving back.”

I call it extortion.

We’ve agreed to disagree.

Anyway, the bus…

Having once been a short, vaguely gourd-shaped child with Coke-bottle glasses and Kmart clothes, I did not have fond memories of riding in school buses. Before climbing aboard, I’d tightened my belt to wedgie-proof myself just in case.

The door slammed closed with the grim finality of a coffin lid, trapping me inside an OshKosh mosh-pit of crazed children. Now, I am a man of healthy proportions, and no longer designed for school-bus seats. Knees to chest I sat, my nose inches away from the hard, green seat in front of me. The whole vehicle reeked of plastic and cleaning fluid… and evil. 

The next hour was a blur, playing out like some bizarre ’70s music video. All noise, darkness, flashing lights and confusion. To top it off, I’m severely claustrophobic. Yet, here I was… wedged against the window like three pounds of Spam in a one-pound can. 

Gritting my teeth, I swore I would survive this… if only to find and kill whoever wrote the song “Let It Go” — which would be screeched by a Mormon Tabernacle Choir of tone-deaf howler-monkeys for the entire ride. By the time our bus lurched to a stop in a cloud of diesel fumes at the edge of the pumpkin patch, I was fairly certain that I had permanent hearing damage, I couldn’t feel my legs anymore and I suspected that my left eye may have exploded at some point. 

Stumbling out into the gray morning light, I fought the urge to drop to my knees and kiss the sweet, sweet ground. But there was no time for that as, without delay, we were rounded up and marched down a path toward the pumpkin patch, the children fanning out in front of us and taking the field like Highland berserkers or a Biblical cloud of locusts… take your pick. 

Either way, it was a bloodbath. 

And, yes, my own sweet little angel was right there with them, elbow deep in pumpkin guts and fighting tooth and nail for her prize like it was Black Friday at Bloomingdale’s and she was holding the last Gucci handbag. 

(I was both horrified and disturbingly proud at the same time. Now I know how my mother felt…)

It was like a vegan slasher movie. I was Googling “childhood traits of serial killers” before we’d been there an hour. 

I looked around for the teachers who had accompanied us on this fateful trip, hoping to find them marching our way in full riot-gear, but they were already in the wind.  Personally, I suspect that they were hiding en masse behind one of the buildings, chain-smoking and popping Valium like Tic Tacs. 

Teachers are smart. 

Oh, did I mention the petting zoo?

There was also a petting zoo there. It was stocked with the most bedraggled and pathetic group of farm animals I’ve ever seen, having spent the last two weeks being man-handled, moo-ed at and generally tortured at the sticky, clutching little hands of an endless parade of less-than-optimally supervised children. 

They watched us coming for them like death-row inmates staring hopelessly through razor-wire.

“Mommy! Look what its eyes do when I pull on this…!”

“Look Daddy, I can kiss the pig right on his nose!”

“Look Mommy, the hair comes right out of its tail!”

“Daddy, Daddy! I hugged the chicken SOOO tight, and now she’s taking a nap!”

Standing in a palatable cloud of sadness and resignation, their dull eyes cried out to me, “For the love of God, man… just eat us!”

Anyway… what seemed like months later we arrived home, shambling through the front door like mud-wrestling zombies, leaving a trail of filthy clothes, boots caked in pumpkin viscera, and our @#*%# pumpkins in our wake. My wife made a beeline for the tub.

“Wait,” I groaned, “I have to use the bathroom.”

“Use the yard,” she growled, closing the door without the slightest hesitation, “I’m taking a four-hour bath.”

“Oh,” she called through the door, “that reminds me. I signed us up for the Christmas caroling field trip.”

Kill me. Just kill me now.

I’ll be in the backyard… burying a chicken. 

 

Contributed by Perry Perkins