The shocks on the church bus were so worn that when the wheels went round and round into a pothole, our rumps jumped half a foot into the air. I was sitting on the bench seat in the back with several other children. My daddy was driving. Daddy was the minister and the bus driver. He was driving into the parking lot of Buccaneer State Park for an after-church picnic. The bus was full. And the sun was shining overhead through the South Mississippi pines.
This was in the late 70s, and the bus was 20 years old. It was painted light yellow and it had dark brown words on its side: Joy Bus, Church of Christ. On Sunday mornings, the Joy Bus made the rounds in our Gulf Coast town of Bay Saint Louis, picking up whosoever would come, and it carried them to church and to after-church picnics. Mostly, the whosoever was children. And I was one of them.
My dad would start the route on a narrow dirt road. He’d stop in front of an unpainted shot-gun style house, then tap the horn that sounded forth the call come ringing: Oooga, Oooga. Four children would emerge from the house –thin and clean with their hair pulled back tight in little rubber bands.
As soon as the bus had several children on it, a grown-up helper would lead us in songs. “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.” “I’ve got joy like a fountain in my soul.” “Roll the gospel chariot along.” The bus would roll on, along an asphalt road where it picked up a brother and sister who were twins. They lived in a wood-framed painted house that had a screened-in porch on the front.
“If a sinner’s in the way, we will stop and pick him up,” we’d sing. “And we won’t tag along behind.” The bus would roll on to a house on stilts where a red-headed mother and her red-headed son and her red-headed daughter became the saints that came marching in through the sand.
In town, the Joy Bus stopped in front of a brick home. Five kids in dirty clothes and uncombed hair would come running. “What kinds of kids ride the Joy Bus?” we’d sing. “Tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with dirty socks.”
On the day of the picnic, the bus was loaded with all the children on the route, plus more adults who came along to help out. We got off the bus and feasted on hot dogs together, and while we ate, the sky above us turned gray, and the wind began to blow. The grownups packed up the ice chests. And we all got back on the bus. The wind blew harder. Drops of rain hit the windshield. Daddy backed out of the parking lot and turned onto South Beach Boulevard. Water had risen over the road. White-capped waves were crashing, crashing on the asphalt of South Beach Boulevard. And the Joy Bus was driving right through them.
I’m sure we were singing as we rode along. “There’s a call come ringing o’er the restless waves, send the light,” or “All my sins are washed away, I’ve been redeemed.” I don’t remember. What I do remember is a bus full of church folk who came from brick houses and shotgun style houses and houses on stilts and houses with screened-in porches, driving through waves–driving through waves on a bus called Joy.
April Pickle lives under a green roof with her husband, four children, and two dogs. She holds a degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and teaches journalism and literature at a university-model high school. One cold day, when April was in the fourth grade, she closed the car door on her winter coat and, unbeknownst to her or her father, prevented the door from latching all the way. Half a mile down the road, her daddy turned a corner, the door flew open, and she fell out. Thanks to the thickness of the coat, she was unharmed.