High school, for me, was tough. Oh, sure, it is for most everyone in one form or another. What was supposed to be the veritable ‘time of my life’ was certainly something – but certainly not that. I could count my friends on one hand, and (very nearly) never attended any function whatsoever, of any sort.
I grew up on the west side of Rockford (on Pauline Avenue, in case you’re really not paying attention), but was fortunate enough to have two parents who were alumnus of Boylan Central Catholic High School. As I may have mentioned in the past, we were anything but wealthy (far from it). I was, however, further fortunate enough to have qualified for a tuition scholarship to this auspicious center of learning.
As such, while most kids my age were shipped off to public school, I was imbued with the rigorous educational program that is mandatory to all students attending Boylan. Essentially, the main differences were the inability to take study halls (that is, in comparison to public institutions), the escalation of the grading scale (a “D” in public schools qualified as an “F” at Boylan, and the remainder of the scale was, likewise, ratcheted up significantly), long school days, and the equivalent of roughly 5.5 years of commensurate education when compared to the four-year program in the Rockford School System. To a kid, this was one big pile of suck. To the adult I have become, it was a generous and incalculably valuable gift that prepared me to meet the world, head on, and make it my proverbial bit… well, you get the picture.
A plethora of things, unfortunately, stood to set me apart from the other students in attendance. First, most had come from other Catholic feeder schools (I had come from public schools, having only been in Catholic school for K-2nd grade), thereby firmly cementing long-standing friendships that I did not share. Second, most were a bit more monetarily endowed than I, generally speaking. Third, most weren’t as fat nor cigarette smoke-infused as I. And fourth, I rode the city bus: one of a whole whopping four kids who did so.
I still recall being in Homeroom in Sophomore year, and overhearing this conversation being had between two girls at the next workstation over:
“My Dad has my car in the shop, and I had to drive the new Mercedes to school again.”
Yeah, ladies: life’s tough like that.
My first problem with driving was that I had begun school young (I graduated at 17), so I was a year behind everyone else in getting my license (I had to wait until Junior year, with about four other kids.) The second problem was that my first car was… unremarkable and very, very used. I loved it but, for obvious reasons, it wasn’t going to win me any popularity contests with this set, either. To me, though, it was a blissful freedom machine.
My second problem was that – because of my first problem – I had to take the city bus for another year. And we city bus riders were CONSPICUOUS to all other attendees of Boylan. Sort of like those red-fannied Baboons at the zoo: you just can’t miss them. That was us.
And you know what? I’m glad that I rode that bus. The reason? The driver. Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce you to Mr. George Vestal: bus driver, Rockford resident, and friend.
It was my first day of Freshman year. My Mom had figured out how to work the city bus schedule (something that confounds the hell out of me, for no real apparent reason, even to this day), and learned that I could be picked up on the corner of Auburn and Kilburn each morning (and re-deposited there each afternoon), to be ferried along with other Rockfordians to our respective destinations, up to and including Boylan High School. Boarding the bus for the first time was something of a traumatic experience: what if I was on the wrong one? What if I missed my stop? What if I was late for school? What if I couldn’t figure out how to pull the dinger cord? What if an Airbus A380 fell flaming upon the bus? What if that shady looking dude next to me tried to rob me or – worse – farted and blamed me? Oh, the humanity!
For weeks thereafter, I began to acclimate to my surroundings. I learned who the regulars were. I learned their stops. Some of them engaged me in conversation, and I learned that they were people – just like me! With stories – also just like me! And were not, in fact, perverted alien replicons who wanted to steal my pants – also just like me! It was uncanny how much we had in common.
I don’t recall how it started, that first real conversation with George. Most likely, it was on an afternoon trip home, when the bus was crowded, forcing me to stand at the front (behind the sacred yellow line, of course). I quickly learned that George was a fairly intelligent and engaging human being. His passion was Commodore 64’s. Apparently, there was a group of Commie 64 throwback enthusiasts who operated out of the Rockford Area as a means of sharing ideas and workarounds to make these mundane machines do things that they were never intended to do. It sounded sort of dumb to me, at first (I mean – hey – x386 SX’s & DX’s were all the rage at that moment), until I realized it for the two things it really was: a chance for like-minded individuals to hang out, and use their ‘outside-the-box’ ideas in a hands-on manner.
Over the ensuing months, George and I would talk about anything. I often watched his interactions with others and it seemed that, for whatever reason, he looked forward to talking with me as much as I looked forward to talking with him. It was sort of… nice.
For nearly three years, George and I enjoyed one another’s company – twice a day – during the school year. My morning pick up spot had me standing directly next to a fireplug and, one day while out shopping, George found a postcard of Odie parked next to a hydrant (I’m guessing for differing reasons, however). As a joke, he bought it for me, and would jokingly call me ‘Odie’ when he was feeling mischievous. I still have that postcard.
George even went out of his was to attend Boy Scout fundraiser events, when I mentioned them to him. It was at a Spaghetti Dinner that I finally met his wife, and spoke with the pair of them in a social setting outside of a tubular transport. In hindsight, I realize now how much of a sacrifice it was for him to come to that event. I mean, >I< hate going to things like that. You know no one, the dinner is cooked by kids, it’s palatable at best, and you over pay for it. Still, he thought enough of me to come, and meet my Mother, and just talk for a bit.
Over my final year at Boylan, I would sometimes see George pulling in or away, and we’d share a wave. On rare occasion I would stop and say hello on my way to my own car, time permitting.
Somewhere in Rockford, this man still resides. A man who told me the stories about all of his regular riders. Stories that spoke volumes about his compassion for his fellow man, and his kind hearted interest in their lives. Someone as genuine as that is so rare that it’s a poverty. Wherever he is now, I hope that he’s happy. And I also hope that Rockford knows how lucky they are to not only have benefitted from his years of dedicated public service, but to have him as a resident as well.
I miss you, George. God bless you, and yours, just the same.