“Thank you, driver, for getting me here.”
That line from “Magic Bus,” a Top 40 hit for The Who in 1968, resonates with me on a special level. Always has.
Some of my earliest memories, like grainy bits of film footage and faded black-and-white snapshots, were imprinted on buses. Pulling up to the Little Rock Zoo entrance, crossing the railroad tracks into downtown Stuttgart, rumbling over the old Mississippi River bridge into Memphis — witnessed from the seat directly behind the driver of a Greyhound bus.
The driver was my dad. He drove for Greyhound Lines for 37 years. And on some glorious occasions when I was a kid, Dad let me ride along with him. I imagine it was against company regulations, but Dad could never say no when one of his three sons really wanted something. And I often wanted to go with him because he was away from home so much.
Dad died two years ago on June 2. With Father’s Day coming up, this seems like a good time to remember someone who drove thousands of people millions of miles.
Like a lot of folks in his generation, Carlton Maurice Rhodes had a hardscrabble early life. Born in his parents’ farmhouse on Sept. 10, 1928, he went to work early in his father’s small dairy. By his teens, he was getting up at 3 a.m. to milk cows, process the milk, and get it on doorsteps in Pine Bluff that very morning. Delivering those bottles often made him late for school, and then he would have to leave school early for the afternoon milking. He would go to bed exhausted.
He and Mom were married in 1948, and four years later, with Mom expecting their first child (me), he went to Dallas to learn to drive a Greyhound.
That began decades of travel during which Dad, his big, farm-boy hands gripping the wheel of a Scenicruiser, saw much of the United States and quite a bit of Mexico and Canada.
He met many memorable people, good and bad.
In March 1958, when I was 5, my mother received a collect call from Dad. Guess who was on his bus, he asked. Mom, of course, could never have guessed. It was The King: Elvis Presley, along with other young Army recruits on their way from Memphis to Fort Chaffee.
We caught up with them when they made a stop at Roy “Cuz” Fisher’s restaurant on East Broadway in North Little Rock. Elvis was having a chocolate doughnut and coffee when we walked in. With coaxing, I sat on his lap and sang a line or two of “Hound Dog” before I was overcome with performance anxiety.
Presley and my father developed a lasting acquaintance on that trip. Ten years after that trip to Fort Chaffee, Dad was driving my brother and his Little League team back from a tournament in Manchester, Tenn., when he decided to make a detour by Graceland. Once again, I was along for the ride.
Dad stopped his bus at the Graceland gates, got out and spoke into an intercom. Magically the gates opened. Elvis wasn’t home, but one of his uncles chatted with my parents while the Little Leaguers posed for pictures outside the mansion.
Now, about the bad. One day Dad was driving from Memphis to Pine Bluff when an elderly passenger breathlessly approached him and said she had missed her stop. He checked her ticket. She was bound for Forrest City, about 50 miles ahead.
Dad tried to explain, but the lady was unconvinced and highly agitated. She cursed him, said she had a pistol in her purse and that if he did not let her off right then and there she would blow his brains out. When she opened her purse, Dad stopped the bus. And let her off in downtown West Memphis, then he drove to the nearest phone booth and called the police.
Dad taught me many things — to hunt, to drive and to have a sense of humor. That it’s nice to be nice. To be accommodating, whether you’re dealing with the King of Rock ’n’ Roll or a threatening little old lady.
When I feel I’m working too hard or when I’m cussing rush-hour traffic, I try to remember Dad and all the conditions under which he worked. He may have shuffled off from this mortal coil two years ago, but he’s still very much a part of me.
So, thank you, driver, for getting me here.