It was Elsie’s bus. Not the old pickup she and Evelyn Fernamburg drove to little Branch school. No it was the second one, the yellow one the district fobbed off on us after it was no longer needed by a bigger school. You don’t need a very big one when there are less than 60 kids in school and many walk or are delivered by their moms and dads.
Elsie parked the bus in her front yard which was just across the valley from the little school house. I guess she washed it now and then but mostly it looked like the farmers pickups, dusty in the spring and fall, muddy in the winter time. She drove the route which was just a circle around the upper valley, picking up the kids who walked down from Corralitos Canyon to the intersection with the road up to the Routzhans, Thompsons and the other old ranches in the foothills of the Santa Lucia. She’d head down to the Gulartes to pick up Judy and Dickie, back to Squeaky’s house then cross the old Harris bridge to grab the Gregory boys, Bruce and Jim, next; Billy Perry then the four corners, hang a right and head out to Newsom Springs to get Jimmy Genovini, the Hubbles and the Hunts. On the way back it was out Huasna road for Dennis Mineau, the Domingo’s, past Frank Branches old victorian house to the Coehlo’s, and Berguias. She turned her around in Al and Emma’s driveway, a pretty upscale word to describe a muddy dirty road filled with petrified ruts. The Coehlo boys, Al, David and Richard were the last to board on Huasna Road. A common thing for most of us, no asphalt anywhere. Maybe gravel if your dad had had a good year. On the way back a right turn up Alisos Canyon road, it had no name then, it was just the road to Jinks Machado’s ranch. We’d pick up the Silva kids then roll back to school.
Only the Gregorys and the Mineaus lived in houses you might consider modern. Nearly every other family lived in older wooden houses built around the turn of the twentieth century or earlier. The Branch houses, there were five existing at the time, were either Victorian or earlier adobes built before California was a state. Standards of wealth were different then, no family would have been considered rich and some were pretty poor. Descendants of the original Ranchero families owned vast tracts of land but had little money, the land poor as they were described. These were some boys who wore the same clothes to school for days at a time and were lucky to have a single pair of shoes. Many came to school hungry and Mrs. Brown had to keep a close eye on the paste jars. I guess we were somewhere in the middle but those things are something we didn’t really notice as kids. Our shared experience was the school itself where we were all equal. No one was picked on because they didn’t have. It’s been a good life lesson for all of us.
Our bus driver, Elsie Cecchetti was a woman of many talents. She wheeled that little bus around twice a day and being a pragmatic farm wife did things like roll the bus to a stop in the middle of the road, hop out and pick up the odd head of Celery or Romain lettuce that had fallen off a farm truck on the way to market. She didn’t get paid much. The census listed her as a farm helper which meant in census speak, a wife. In 1950 her income was listed as zero. Supplemental vegetables were fine, just dust “em off and throw them in the pot.
The kids all liked her because she was so nice. No troubles on her bus.
In the second half of the twentieth century the state of California was just a hundred years old and different from eastern cities and towns where ethnic peoples tended to cluster. Out here immigrants came from everywhere. Our bus carried the children of families who had come from Ilocanos province, Phillipines, Argentina. Switzerland, The Azores Islands, Ireland, Wales, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan and even descendants of those soldados who had walked here with the padres who built the missions. We had one family who were of the first nations that predated everyone. Funny thing is, as kids we weren’t concerned with any of that. Our fathers were mostly farmers, our mother kept house and raised children and we accepted each other without complaint.
Elsie herself was the daughter of an immigrant, Jao Azevedo who was born in the Azores Islands in 1894 and came to America in 1910 as a sixteen year old who spoke no English and could neither read nor write. When she was born in 1922, he was living and farming on what has come to be called Couchetti road on the old Corral de Piedra Rancho.
Perhaps her most impressive and greatest moment came by way of Jeanette Coehlo. Kids passed around chicken pox, the mumps or the flu every winter. The bus could be a petri dish of bugs. One bright sunny morning we were passing the Perry’s house headed for Gregorys just opposite the old Harris place for which the bridge was named. The Harrises were grandparents to the three Hart kids who lived in town but were well known to us. Small town life there. Everyone knows everyone personally or by reputation. Anyway, since its less than a hundred yards from Perrys to Gregory we were moving slowly when Jeanette, sitting up front suddenly made a sound like “Urp,” did it again then heaved her entire, half digested breakfast all over the rubber floor and the opposite seat.
Jeanette (Shannon Family Collection)
Because it was a cool day all the windows were up, no draft you see and the other dozen or so kids seated around the bus were almost instantly confronted with a wave of nauseous, richly scented, miasmatic and, I swear, greenish cloud of a vapor guaranteed to trigger a sympathetic response from one and all. Like an wave it surged toward the back of the bus with a vengeance. The older boys, as is the custom, sitting in the “Cool” seats in the rear leaped for the windows, slammed them down and stuck their heads out as far as they could. We must have looked like an old circus wagon with all the animals sticking their heads out the side.
Ever the mother, Elsie just opened the door and drove on down to her friend Mary Gulartes house, turned onto the dirt road to the house and pulled to a stop.
“Every body Off, ” She ordered.
All the kids quickly walked down the aisle, shoes slipping in the slush, some still dribbling vomit down their chins, some holding their noses as tight as they could, mouths tightly closed, they jumped down and quickly got away from the reeking little truck. Elsie calmly opened the back door and found the Gularte’s garden hose alongside the house and began sluicing sheets of water across the floor and spraying any seat that was dirty. Mary helped her with some old burlap sacks and they wiped her down. Mrs Gularte then went to the back porch and into the kitchen where she loaded up a plate with homemade cookies. When she came back out the hose was being passed around as kids washed off their shoes and took a swallow or two of water to rinse away the bad taste.
Cookies were gobbled right down, Elsie shooed the kids back on the bus, said goodbye and thanks to Mary, whipped the little bus around, out the driveway and we continued back to pick up the Gregory’s and finish the route.
It was luck all around. The kids who missed the excitement considered themselves fortunate. The veterans felt superior. Just another day in a little rural school where things like this were taken pretty much in stride by all. Farm kids in the fifties had animals; horses, cattle, chickens, scads of dogs and cats so they tended to be not so finicky. We knew we were superior to the town kids. Always.