John Howell’s Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Chapeltown bus alum swap tall tales

While riding together on any road in Panola County that is south of Highway 6 and west of Highway 35, my wife has at one time or another made the comment, “Our school bus used to come down this road; we’d stop there and pick up …” and she’ll name somebody that the location had prompted into her memory.

That includes, of course cumulatively, many years, many roads and takes into consideration her excellent recall.

The school bus was driven by her kinsman and near neighbor Lige Nelson and originated from the Chapeltown community. She was the first to board the bus after Lige left his house and the last to get off in the afternoon. It gave her extensive exposure to the topography, people and roads of that section of the county.

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Asa Hill was much steeper in the days of her childhood, she told me (again) one day last summer when we had walked from the home where she grew up, past Springhill Asa Church and along the still winding but now paved Asa Road until we came to the bluff. There the road drops straight down into the Delta. In the 1950s and 60s when she was riding Mr. Lige’s bus, the county had a hard time keeping gravel on the surface of the road, especially during rainy weather. It kept washing down the hill.

On at least one occasion, the road was so slick and the hill so steep, the bus couldn’t climb it, she said. Mr. Lige would carefully back his bus down until he could turn around and use a circuitous alternate route.

To hear her tell it, the bus crossed the Tallahatchie River bridge on Highway 6, traveled nearly to Crowder, wound its way along Highway 35, including a portion of roadway near what was then Farrish Gravel Pit. The road edged so close to the deep hole where gravel was dug, that kids instinctively moved in fear to the side of the bus opposite the precipice, she said.

Along the way, the bus collected a host of characters including Jimmy the fly eater who entertained his fellow travelers by catching flies buzzing against the bus window with a quick movement of his hand. Just as quickly he’d whisked the fly into his mouth and eat it. There was once a girl on that bus, Rosemary said, who was so mean that everybody else — boys included — was scared of her. She had whipped one or two and the rest of her passengership turned into her own reign of terror. Fortunately she rode that bus only a short time before her parents moved.

Those were years when sharecropping was common and people moved frequently, always looking for a better opportunity whether it was across the county, in the next county or somewhere up north.

I’d have dismissed her tales about that bus ride as exaggerations except that they have often been substantiated over the years when we would encounter somebody who was once her fellow bus traveler.

The question, “Didn’t you use to ride Mr. Lige’s school bus,” would be followed by another: “Do you remember the time that …” so and so. The fellow traveler would then repeat a version of one of those stories that I had accused Rosemary of exaggerating.

The best remembered story is the day that a mad mama boarded to let Mr. Lige know about what injustice or perceived injustice has been wrought on her child.

Mr. Lige was very small in statue, soft-spoken and polite. The lady was not.

“She was bad to the bone; Mr. Lige didn’t know what hit him,” recalled John Chrestman, a fellow traveler on the Chapeltown bus.

“He drove on down to Earl Brown’s store where her husband worked to get him to get her off of him,” Chrestman continued.

The stop unscheduled stop at Earl Brown’s store (later Sunny’s) put an end to the matter. A similar affair today would have required much constabulary and perhaps litigation. Times were simpler when Mr. Lige drove the Chapeltown school bus.