Submitted by Karl Breckenridge
When last we met here in the pages of This is Reno, I wrote of a steam bus that ran, sort of, in our town in the early 1970s. Some friends asked about another column I once wrote of buses – school buses. I couldn’t find it in my remarkably complete records, but remembered enough to crash out a story of local school buses.
Travel with me now to a time, and this a time not in the dark ages but one still vivid in the minds of many readers, when every high school kid, including children of Stead Air Base families, from Reno’s northern city limits all the way to Bordertown at the north state line, could fit in two 66-passenger school buses. Similarly, every high school kid from Franktown to the south city line would fit in a similar-size bus. I know – I drove it. And here I note that Reno High was then the only public high school in Reno
The county district didn’t operate their own buses back then, “back then” being 1960 as a year to base this tale upon. That task fell primarily upon a couple of local private bus companies – V&T Transportation, a successor to the railroad, and Nevada Transit, managed by Orville Schultz. Operating those 20-or-so buses for the most part were University of Nevada frat rats taking advantage of a job that was a perfect “fit” for college – drive from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m., park the things on campus and go to class, and return to work near the three o’clock hour. It worked well for all.
Leading the effort was one of the greatest guys ever to ply the streets of our town – James E. Wood was his name, “Jim” to us, “Dad” to sons Bob and Larry,who bought the transportation rights soon after the demise of the V&T Railroad in 1950, together with some buses that couldn’t be given away for free in 1953 but would bring a pretty penny now for Hot August Nights cruisin’.
Jim was a member of most of Reno’s service clubs and a State of Nevada Assemblyman from the early 1950s through the 1970s, and in that capacity was instrumental in getting the University’s medical school underway. Vic Charles, another popular Reno guy was the company’s manager, Vic’s sister Dollie the office manager, and her husband Al McVey the dispatcher. They all remained good friends of many of the old drivers of five decades past; all have passed away as I write this.
Jim built a fleet of buses, starting with some pre-war and ex-military recycled units, to newer, yet used, vehicles, eventually to all-new and first-class rolling stock. And he expanded the non-school bus transportation side of his business into tour buses serving Virginia City and Lake Tahoe, some charters with over-the-road equipment, transportation of school athletic teams for every school in northern Nevada, and the Reno Ski Program.
Weekly on ten Saturdays a year we’d leave from Southside School downtown on Liberty Street or from Huffaker School ‘way out South Virginia. In later years Carson City added a ski program, and a skate program was added from Reno High to Blyth Arena in Squaw Valley. We didn’t know what “snow days” were; short of a full-blown Sierra blizzard, off to Sky Tavern we’d go, chaining up as necessary (and Jim was there helping put on the chains). It was a great deal for drivers to ski all day until one among us busted his leg, stranding his bus and its passengers. And that was the end of ski days for us.
Jim had a little “showman” edge to him; the photograph is of Jim and Tina, Tina pictured sporting a bus driver’s hat as a promo for John Ascuaga’s Nugget in the early 1970s. I know not who dreamed this stunt up; the names James E. Wood and John Ascuaga come to mind and I detect the fine hand of a young Sigma Nu named Fred Davis, by then the Nugget’s PR director, as a co-conspirator to it. The back-story is that one must understand that elephants don’t as a rule back up, nor do much else, with any grace or predictability when in tight quarters, and secondly that elephants aren’t accustomed to being passengers in tour buses.
That said, we learn that Tina, after the frivolity with the cameras and flashes and dancing girls was over and being an elephant known to be somewhat recalcitrant anyway, basically said to hell with all of this and just plopped down, as best she could, leaving others to deal with getting her considerable mass off the bus. Several stories exist, maybe more, one option being driving the bus to Flint, Michigan where it was built, to be there disassembled by GMC who had built it a few years before. The operative story is that Bertha was brought alongside, who inveigled her smaller partner to vacate the bus that it might be used by others.
And at this point for the benefit and enlightenment of younger readers or those not from around here in the early 1990s I should mention that Bertha and Tina were performing elephants, hence the long-standing name “Circus Room” at the Sparks Nugget.
Virginia & Truckee Transportation Company had strong Nevadans and visionaries at the helm and was manned by good men and true – and few ladies, you out there Misha Miller? – who all had a lot of fun, and were aboard when many of Nevada’s earlier memories were taking shape. The Olympic visitors in 1960. San Francisco’s airport would be socked in by fog and the airlines would bring their passengers to Reno, and we then bused them to SFO. The filming of “The Misfits?” Yup – we hauled Monroe, Gable, Clift, screenwriter Miller, director Huston.
One of our frat brothers didn’t know the Chollar Mine from the Sutro Tunnel yet became one of the most requested drivers on the Virginia City tour. But mostly, we hauled the school kids. Safely. We’d moderate study groups on our long daily runs to and from Franktown and Bordertown. We’d patch them up with our first aid kits.
To the consternation of couple asshat school principals who couldn’t understand that by Nevada law moving sheep or cattle took precedence over vehicle traffic, we’d arrive a half-hour late some mornings when Highway 395 was blocked by a couple bands of sheep being moved from high pasture to low.
We’d get the kids singing Broadway instead of “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer…” On my bus on Friday mornings when all were settled aboard northbound on Highway 395, we’d sing “Home Means Nevada,” with great gusto. I’d like to think that somewhere this morning there’s a 65-year-old kid reading this column who can still nail that State Song!
So – if it’s tale of buses you wanted, there’s one now. Thanks for reading, see you in a couple days right here when the more salient news stories permit – which happily are becoming more prevalent in place of the C-word stories we endured for the past couple months. I couldn’t be more pleased that Jody and I have become “filler” contributors. But, I’ll still end this with the usual, be safe, huh?
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Karl Breckenridge was slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Now that it’s over he’s back to his usual antics, drinking coffee with the boys at the Bear and, well, we’re not sure what else. But he loved sharing his daily musings with you, so he’s back, albeit a little less often, to keep on sharing. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally.
Read more from Karl Breckenridge
Karl’s pal Jody shares the rich history of bootlegging, decorating, and engineering within the confines of the Truckee River’s banks and its picturesque islands.
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