Cement Truck

I haven’t been in very many vehicle accidents in my life. The school bus crash, which I described in a previous blog post was one. And the only other one I can think of is when I got rear-ended on the country road where I was stopped to make a left turn down my gravel lane. The impact shoved us forward, but there wasn’t much to see on the rear bumper of my old Suburban, as opposed to the little Honda which impaled itself onto my ball hitch. 

Periodically, while on the highway, I’ve come across accidents, as we all have, but none stuck in my memory more than the cement truck, single vehicle accident I saw a few years ago in Oroville, Calif. 

Perhaps you remember when the Oroville Dam spillway was self-destructing under the torrent of water flowing over it? Sections of the concrete had eroded away, allowing the water to eat away ever more, down to bedrock. Residents, all the way to Yuba City were evacuated over worry that a failure would send dangerous amounts of water down-river.

The next spring, after the rainy season was over, they started throwing cement at the problem, building back up the spillway and other structures. Trucks drove up from the cement plants to to the dam 7 days a week.

One Sunday morning I was headed south on Highway 70, from the Oroville area, and I saw a strange sight that I couldn’t make sense of. The two-lane country highway was mostly deserted; it was still too early for much traffic. About a quarter of a mile ahead of me, just to the left of the road, something was moving. Because of the dust being thrown up in the air, at first I thought it was a tractor in the field. But even from the distance I could see that the moving thing was out of control, erratic and very fast. It was big, smooth, and it disturbingly lacked features, like a vehicle should have.

By the time I got closer, I could finally satisfy my curiosity. It was a cement tank, lying just off the road ditch in a field. A short way down the road lay an upside-down truck, oddly bare, with just the cab and a long frame. A couple of cars coming from the other direction had already stopped, so I went on.

I checked on the CalTrans traffic website, Quickmap to see what had happened. From the CHP conversation, it looked as if a tire had blown out on the truck, causing the roll-over. The tank had been fully loaded with cement.

I had never thought about the possibility of the tank coming off the truck in an accident, although it seems obvious that it could. I played back in my mind the sight of the tank rolling in the dirt, having been flung off the truck at 55mph, throwing up a whirlwind of dust, its ovoid shape rolling like a football and inexorably smashing anything in front of it. To see something like that  coming your way would be a horrifying sight. I was sad whenever I thought of the poor driver, just doing his job on a nice sunny morning, supporting his family, killed in the accident. I thought again about how strange and unexpectedly long the undercarriage of the truck looked. 

When Valeria’s school bus was involved in an accident, I wanted something unusual to happen, something unexpected. I remembered the cement truck wreck, and imagined how badly that scenario could have turned out if there had been a bus full of people in the way.

And that, Dear Readers, is why the bus accident in my book, Valeria and The Enemy of Time, uses the destruction of a cement truck to cause the first chapter wreck, and to propel Valeria into her adventures. 

Bus Number Thirteen

A school bus wreck? Where did that come from!

I had a creative writing teacher once who insisted that we write stories that originated from our own personal lives, transformed into fiction. She insisted it made a story more real to the reader, with the details and emotion that couldn’t be totally fabricated. I had to admit it was true. Stories made from whole cloth might be exciting and interesting, but they don’t feel as real, as if they really were true. And that is exactly what we chase, a story that is true in all but reality.

In my book, Valeria & The Enemy of Time, I start the book out with a bus wreck. A charter bus actually suffers the wreck, but Valeria’s school bus is involved. I wrote up my first draft, doing a little revising, until the time came to step back and analyze things like, is the first chapter of the book exciting enough to make people want to read more? I had to admit it was not. So what I needed was another chapter to put in front. Something that might introduce the book, and in some way tie it up again at the end. An event in my own life came to mind. 

The Exeter Union High School Foggy Day Wreck of Bus Number Thirteen

I remember it well. I may not remember it accurately, but I remember it well. It was a foggy day in November or December 1974. Tulare County had thick thick fog. In fact, it was known as “Tule Fog,” and it made everything more than six feet away disappear into a thick gray blanket. It would linger for weeks, but everyone soldiered through. Even the school bus schedule. Kids in other parts of the country might have Snow Days, a day off from school because the busses couldn’t get through. You’d think they would realize that NO ONE COULD SEE THE ROAD AHEAD on foggy foggy days, and that it wasn’t safe to be out there driving around, especially a school bus full of kids, stopping periodically on narrow road shoulders to pick up kids. But no, they didn’t make allowances for fog.

So on that foggy morning, the busses were running as usual. That winter day it was so very very foggy, it seemed to me the bus driver had more trouble than usual making out the lone kids standing there, waiting for the bus on the shoulder of the country road, winding through orange groves and foothills. State Highway 198 was a main artery feeding the kids from country homes to the high school in the modest-sized town of Exeter. As the highway left the margin of the foothills to head out towards Exeter, it made a “swoop” just before the Yokohl Valley turn-off. 

Everything was normal, even the thick gray fog outside the bus windows. The bus was about half full, kids chattering, having fun, waiting to get to school, interested in the novelty of the bus driver barely seeing kids at their stops in time. We were preparing to make the “swoop.” One kid had a stop just before it. Whoosh! The driver didn’t see her quite in time and stopped a little further down the road. I wonder why the driver thought it would be less safe for the girl to walk a little ways down the shoulder toward the bus than to back the bus up to the girl? No matter. We backed up. The shoulder was wide enough, with some asphalt, some sandy loam. That alluvial sandy loam that was so perfect for healthy orange groves. We backed. But the driver did not take into account the curve. We had already entered the “swoosh” part, but she went straight, sending the tail of the school bus out into the roadway.

When I felt the impact, I thought we had backed into a telephone pole. Sure, it was tremendously higher in force, but the brain tries to put a new thing into an old slot. (Okay, we had never backed into telephone poles before, but it was easy to imagine!) It was a huge moment of noise and dust and broken glass and an impression of seat backs bent back a few inches from the force of kids’ backs slamming into them from the impact. I remember seeing a girl a few seats ahead of me holding her head in confusion, blood trickling down her hand. My things were scattered about. The mother of the girl waiting for the bus ran over and began helping to get kids out of the bus. Hurry hurry! Get out! Come along! Before I could gather my things, (¡Mis Cosas!) they hustled me off the bus along with the rest of the kids. I remember the wide-eyed girl telling how she saw the whole thing happen before her eyes. I remember the insane rumors flying about one of the boys who “lost half his liver.” I remember the teary face of our bus driver being comforted by the girl’s mother, a bus driver herself. I remember them giving me my wallet back later on. I’d never noticed it was missing from my purse. I’d never had whiplash before, and it was the most strange feeling to not be able to lift my head from the gymnastics mat for 3 days.

What had happened was this: A gravel truck with two trailers was driving the road at 55 mph, when all of a sudden a school bus hind end came into his view directly in front of him. He swerved and missed. Mostly. The last trailer clipped the back of the bus and changed things forever, not only for Exeter Union High School, but all of Tulare County. 

Let us welcome the advent of the Foggy Day Bus Schedule.