Silent Bus Ride

Disclaimer: roughly 95% of this story is true. I won’t tell you which parts aren’t but they’re very minor and only meant to clarify certain moments. This means I’m using real names – but only three of them. And respectfully, I hope. I wasn’t able to track down Efe (pronounced EFF-ee like F-Bomb) to see if he’d approve of this story but my guess is that he’d find it enjoyable. If you find him, let him know he’s been immortalized in this blog post. And if he wants me to take this post down then he’s just a big baby.  

Silent Bus Ride
by Mark McGinty

Efe was crazy. And by crazy I mean crazy funny. Sure, he had his serious side but for the most part, he was a big cut-up. Class clown type of guy. Always doing impressions of famous people, or our teachers. Talked about one day being on Saturday Night Live and probably could have been but like me, and most kids of Generation X, he was more interested in laughing with his friends then pursuing a serious career in acting or comedy.

And this is a story about two things. One: laughter. That uncontrollable laughter that erupts from your body loudly and obnoxiously, before it can be contained, so that it disrupts the people at the next table and causes them to look over to see what is so damn funny. And two: a situation where laughing out loud can have dire, life-altering consequences.

But Efe. He was one funny guy. You could hang out with him for an afternoon and never stop laughing. It was almost like he existed purely to make you laugh. And he knew this. He was one of those guys that at age 16 had already discovered his mission in life – making people laugh. The funniest thing he ever did took place on the silent bus ride to one of our high school football games. Yes, that’s correct – a Silent Bus Ride. For anyone who has not played high school football, allow me to educate you on the extreme reverence we football plays all observed while in transit to this most important high school attraction. Yeah, I know it’s like a multi-billion dollar sport and the Super Bowl is always like the most watched event of all time every single year. But c’mon. I’m talking about high school kids here. Many of whom are playing high school football simply to be part of the team and to get in to all the best, and often most of the worst parties. But there are some elite players who may make a short career out of football or even get a scholarship or make their dads very VERY proud. I recognized at that age, age 16 or so, that I was involved in a sport that is taken very seriously! Almost too seriously at times, but I did my best to respect the game and keep my real opinions to myself.  

Because to guys like Efe and me, high school football was just a convenient way to fit into a larger social group while fooling the casual observer into thinking we were actually in it to experience the allure and adrenaline that came from being under those Friday night lights. Which was pretty cool when there was a large crowd there watching. And there was usually always a large crowd watching, because this is a very serious passtime.  Truth was, Efe and I were minor players and barely saw the playing field. I think I probably played in 3 or 4 games at the varsity level, and only for a few plays at a time or when the score was extremely lopsided. I wasn’t getting a scholarship and I knew that wearing the uniform was enough to make my parents proud. Looking back at it all, I don’t think I ever really cared about the game, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that I did. I cared about the parties, and sitting at the right lunch table and not getting my ass kicked by bullies. I had dealt with that in middle school and figured football was an easy way to inoculate myself from the pain and frustration. It worked, so I followed the rules and acted like I really, truly, honestly cared.

Because a lot of these boys did care. The coaches certainly cared. The rest of the faculty and student body seemed to care. And I know the alumni, the dads and former football players who were writing the donation checks definitely cared. So we took it seriously. All of us did. Even when we didn’t really care. Because not taking it seriously meant you got yelled at (by coaches, other players, fans and those dead-serious alumni), or worse….not taking it seriously could get you kicked off the team, bullied and discharged from society.

And that meant missing out on all those fancy high school parties.

Before each game, after a week of grueling practice that built up to those climactic Friday nights, the entire team would pack into a school bus, seating two players to a seat, and ride to whatever stadium would be illuminated for the big battle. And there was one BIG rule that everyone followed as strictly as any rule I’ve ever encountered. The entire bus ride was to be silent. Not a word could be spoken. It was heads down, eyes closed, locked in deep meditation about your role. Remembering your plays. Talking yourself into a fire, a burning wad of venom ready to douse your opponents and melt them into puddles of chalky Friday night mud. Each and every Silent Bus Ride took place immediately after Coach Slater’s pre-game speech.

Prior to boarding the bus, after we were in our uniforms with pads in place and helmets in hand, we all filed into the school gymnasium – which was almost completely dark – and laid quietly on our backs. I had only seen the gymnasium so dark on the night of parent-teacher conferences, when you’d wander down the dark and empty halls exploring the school that looked so different when it was devoid of children and faculty. No slamming lockers, no shuffling feet, no teasing voices or laughter, no teachers telling us to knock it off, or to “Step lively!” and hurry up and get to class. All classrooms were dark and locked. All lockers were shut. There was no one around. I’d crack open the door to the gym and peer inside, only to see complete darkness. A silence the high school gymnasium has never known.

That’s the gym we all gathered in before each game. Dark and silent and sacred. Like a Catholic church on Monday morning. Just us, the football players, our coaches, and our thoughts. Serious meditation time. Though there were probably 50 of us, as I laid on that floor on my back, surrounded by football pads with my helmet resting beside me, I felt like I was all alone in the dark. Waiting for something to happen. Never knowing that Coach Slater’s weekly pregame speech would end up being, to this day, some of the most memorable moments of my life.

Gone was the yelling, intimidating, authoritarian coach who pranced the field each afternoon, shouting commands at his boys and running us through sprints almost sadistically. Like he wasn’t just training us to play football, but punishing us for the very notion of deciding to be alive at all. That coach that we all feared was gone and in just a few minutes, I understood why this man was so well respected by faculty, alumni and students alike.

His pregame pep talk was nothing but sincere, honest positive reinforcement. There is no speech or lecture in my life that made me feel so good about myself – and I hardly played! It’s the type of speech that I wish could be given before every job interview, before every big presentation, before any high-stakes social event, before any race or physical challenge, and before any evening of love making. We felt SO GOOD about ourselves when we left that gymnasium that I look back wishing it was a feeling everyone in this world could feel just once. I wish I could have felt that way more than just once a week for 10 weeks every fall and I realize that’s a whole lot more positive vibes than many people on this earth will ever feel. I guess high school football is good for one thing: boosting your self-esteem.

Whenever I encounter someone about to embark on such a challenge, be it a job interview or a tough race, I try to replicate Coach Slater’s pep-talk, usually falling way short in the confidence-boosting. He was a natural who really thought it through. His pep-talk was always very detailed. He would call out individual players by name and tell them nothing but how ready they were for the night ahead. And he did it with such nurturing honesty that you believed him. Whether you were ready or not, he convinced you that you were.

And after he was finished, the team silent rose from the gymnasium floor and filed quietly to the bus, speaking not another word until we took the field. I treated my first Silent Bus Ride the way I treated my first communion. It was a serious thing that I needed to take seriously. Speaking a word, making any sound whatsoever would break the collective silence, and could possibly cost us the game. At least, that was the mentality of the Silent Bus Ride. Everything was on the line and you’d better keep your mouth shut and think about what you’re supposed to do on that field – or else. Or else you’d disappoint the team, the fans, your school, your parents and those ever watchful alumni. So I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t even look at anyone. I didn’t want to risk it. I kept my head down and my eyes closed and for the first three or four games, I was a model Silent Bus Rider. Like laying in a dark, silent gymnasium, or attending church on Sunday – I pretended like I wasn’t even there.

It worked. For those first three or four games, I was as silent as the rest of them. No distractions. Total concentration. I was focused. I was ready. I was IN THE ZONE.

Until one day, one unforgettable Silent Bus Ride, when I sat next to Efe.

We filed in quietly as usual with the rest of the team. I remember the coaches, captains and star players tended to sit in the front half while juniors and B-team players sat in the rear. Efe and I were of course, almost all the way to the back row. We took our seats without saying a word and I think I kept my eyes forward and observed the rest of the players in their silent meditation as the bus pulled away from our high school and took to the road.

Having no clue what Efe had in store, I glanced over and saw him making an unusual movement in his seat. He appeared to be glancing over the top of the seat in front of him as if he were looking to see if anyone was watching. Then with a quick motion, Efe loosened the string that kept his pants tight, where the zipper would normally be, reached down the front of his pants and pulled out….I couldn’t believe it…a wrapped McDonald’s hamburger.

Immediately I thought of several things. There were so many questions I wanted to ask but couldn’t. So many thing I needed to say but due to the present rules and restrictions, had to say these things with my eyes.

When did you get that?

Was it down the front of your pants during Slater’s entire speech?

Do you plan to eat that right now? (he did) How are you going to unwrap it without making a sound?

That wrapper is going to be LOUD on this silent bus!!

And most important – I hope to God I can keep myself from laughing.

Because right away I was attacked by a sudden jolt of that uncontrollable silent laughter. Where you can’t help but laugh but are using every ounce of strength in your body to stifle the noise, to keep the chuckles and snickers buried down deep. But your abdomen is not cooperating. And your brain is simultaneously telling you to unleash the laugh, to let it fly with a burst of happiness that will provide instant relief – while at the same time, warning you that making any sound means you’re a dead man.

This type of suppressed laugh is popular during a typical high school lifespan: when someone passes you a funny note during a boring teacher lecture – or even riskier – during a test! During Mass when everyone else is praying yet your pal a few seats away makes a funny face directed at the priest, or that same boring teacher from before. Or during the school play, when the most serious acting student in school is making the most serious monologue of the play, and your buddy jabs you again and whispers something totally inappropriate. Laughing at any of these times would likely result in detention or serious reprimand, so you do everything to can to keep that laughter inside, even though it’s fighting with all it’s might to be set free.

Your body shakes, your face turns red and your clench your arms and legs around yourself, tightening your own muscles around your torso and squeezing that laughter inside. Keeping the sound down is one thing, but the reddened skin and spastic gyrations are almost always a dead giveaway.

“Boys!” The teacher would finally shout once you’d been caught. “What the devil is so funny back there?” Usually all you needed to do was stop laughing, say sorry and the teacher’s lecture would continue. Sometimes you’d be removed from the room and scolded in the hallway. But usually you and your friend were just separated and not allowed to sit next to each other, until they next time when you could.

But hysterical laughter during the Silent Bus Ride? Until this moment, as I sit here and write these words, it is something I never actually considered. The way you never even want to consider what would happen if you jumped off that bridge. It would be nothing short of instant and gruesome death. Death of a football career, death of a social life, death of your high school honor. I don’t want to even imagine the dirty looks from players and the reaction from coaches as I upset the balance of the all important pre-game ritual. The coaches would have no choice but to berate the obvious laughing traitor- that would be me. What about the guy with the hamburger? He wasn’t laughing, he was just hungry, and I didn’t want to get Efe in trouble. If I let out even the tiniest snicker, it would lead to infinite methods of death. I mean one of our coaches, one of the largest and loudest coaches known casually as “Zee” had been known to kill students with the volume of his shouting alone. I did not want to face his wrath nor live the rest of my pathetic high school life having to avoid Zee, or any other angry player or coach. No, the consequence of laughter are so dire that I can’t even go there.

But none of those things happened. As difficult as it was, I was able to hold my laughter inside for the duration as Efe silently unwrapped his hamburger and chomped it away in about three bites. Now just try and imagine Efe trying to chew a mouthful of an entire burger while trying to suppress HIS laugh. Can you imagine trying to chew an entire mouthful of McDonald’s burger while at the same time containing hysterical laughter? I had to look away because if we made eye contact with each other, our laughter would win and he’d spit his entire burger all over the guy in front of him. Look at the floor, I told myself, look out the window, close your eyes and pretend it’s not happening. Ignore the whole thing.

It was my only defense.

To this day I’m not sure if anyone noticed. No one said I word to us (that I remember) and no one looked our way. Though I was so caught up in fighting my own laughter the memory of anything happening around me is a bit foggy. Yet, Efe got away with it. He crumpled the wrapper and wedged it into the seat and then sat back quietly while the hamburger made its way to his stomach.

Why did he do it? Hunger? For laughs? For thrills? An act of rebellion? Maybe a bit of both. As a growing high school boy I remember always feeling hungry. And find me a 16 year old kid that it’s a little rebellious. But if I think back to those days I figure Efe probably thought “I’m not going to play anyway,” and so he had nothing to lose. Even if he were reprimanded or kicked off the team, he wouldn’t lose any friends over it. In fact, he’d probably GAIN friends. Be exalted as the hero who dared to defy the rules of the Silent Bus Ride and scarf down a McDonald’s hamburger. The unusual and daring idea alone was enough to garner respect from just about every non-football in the school, which was just about everyone who wasn’t on that bus.

But they guy sitting next to him? The guy laughing his head off and disrupting the silence. The guy WITHOUT the hamburger? The one who broke everyone’s concentration and potentially cost them the game? That guy would be no hero. He’s be forever remembered as the guy who laughed out loud during the Silent Bus Ride.

I didn’t laugh during that bus ride, but I did later that day. Plenty. And I’ve laughed about it often since that wonderful day. With others, and with myself. On buses and in gymnasiums. While eating burgers and while clinking beer glasses with friends at those big, important parties. Efe’s hamburger didn’t cost me my life, and if I had laughed, it probably wouldn’t have big that big a deal anyway. Heck, even the coaches would calm down and laugh about it. It might take them five years to get over their rage. But who can’t laugh when a high schooler smuggles an entire McDonald’s hamburger down the front of his football pants?

Maybe it’s not funny at all. Maybe it’s just two dumb high school kids doing dumb things. Maybe you  just had to be there, and really, I wish you could have been.

~MCM

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Minneapolis Running and Yahoo! Entertainment. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards. Mark lives in Minneapolis with his wife and daughter. 

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