The Christmas Bus

Chapter 1 - The Orphanage

Not so very long ago and not so very far away, there was a place called Peaceful Valley.

It was a green and pleasant place, with orchards and pastures and farmland, vegetable gardens and sturdy barns, and a dusty road meandering from one end to the other.  But Peaceful Valley was not exactly a peaceful place, and the reason was the Peaceful Valley Orphanage.

The orphanage sat atop a small rise in the middle of the valley – a sagging white frame house with shutters askew and paint flaking from its weary sides.  It had the rather desperate look of an old shoe that has been worn too long and is in great need of either repair or the trash can.

Its residents were known far and wide as The Hooligans.  They were an energetic and rambunctious collection of young people, given to high jinks and mischief.

There were four girls: Clara, Hilda, Louann and Jenny.  Clara was the oldest, fifteen or thereabouts, and though she could be just as rowdy as the rest when it came time to play, she was also a motherly type and helped take care of the younger children.  Hilda was twelve, just beginning to be interested in boys and makeup, both of which frequently landed her in the doghouse.  Jenny was ten, a sweet-tempered girl who nevertheless enjoyed a good romp and had a voice that could make the windows rattle when she was especially happy or bothered.  Louann was the smallest and youngest of all the children, and frequently referred to by the others as “the munchkin.”

Eighteen-year-old Thomas was the oldest of the four boys.  More about Thomas in a moment.  Frankie was next, but among all the children, the most likely to dream up mischief and then to be the ringleader of some especially mischievous act.  Everything from his slightly crooked grin to his constantly moving feet said that he would do something daring at the drop of a hat and then dare you to catch him.  Eugene was perhaps the brightest of the bunch, a fine student of cause and effect.  Eugene was forever trying something new, like jumping from the roof of the orphanage to see what it would be like to land in the nandina bush below.  You could usually tell Eugene immediately among the children, because he was the most likely to wear a cast or bandage as a result of some mishap.

And then there was Donald, who was a fairly recent arrival, and his constant companion, a potted geranium plant.  There had been a fire at Donald’s home awhile back, and Donald and the geranium were the only survivors.  A sad story.  But Donald was doing okay at the orphanage.  The other kids were kind and understanding, and nobody paid much attention to the fact that he carried that geranium around all the time.  The unwritten rule at Peaceful Valley was that you just accepted everybody as they were, geraniums and all.

So those were the Hooligans, and they pretty much lived up to their name.  On most days, the orphanage wavered between chaos and confusion, with a little hullabaloo thrown in for good measure.

The only thing that kept the place from completely coming apart at the seams was Mrs. Frump.  The kids called her simply, “Frump.”  She was officially known as the Director of the orphanage, but Director didn’t nearly describe what she did or what she meant to the residents.  She was mother, cook, nurse, tutor, wiper of noses, soother of hurt feelings, and all-around Number One Fan of her children.  She had been at the orphanage for many years, and sometimes it seemed that she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Her favorite cry was, “It’s a madhouse!”  But she was a kindly and optimistic soul.  The kids loved her and called her a Good Egg.  She gave big hugs, tucked every child into bed every night, darned their socks when they got holes in them, didn’t raise a fuss when somebody spilled his milk, and kept her apron pockets full of jellybeans.

Frump’s right-hand man, her trusted assistant, was Thomas, the oldest of the orphans.  He had been at the orphanage almost as long as Frump.  She found him one morning on the doorstep: a little baby, wrapped warmly in a blanket, in an apple crate.  Over the years, most of the kids who came to the orphanage stayed for awhile, then went on to good, permanent homes.  But for some reason, nobody took Thomas.  She he stayed, growing up and helping Frump.

Thomas was a smart and clever young man, a whiz at things mechanical and electrical.  He could take apart a broken lawnmower or kitchen appliance, figure out what was wrong, and have it back together and working properly in a jiffy, even without written instructions.  In a few months, he’d be graduating from high school, and wanted to become a mechanical engineer.

Frump marveled at Thomas’s intelligence and cleverness.  She was forever admiring his work – for instance, the day she found him hunched over his desk, drawing intricate lines and angles and shapes on a piece of paper.  “What’s that you’re working on now, Thomas?” she asked.

“A kid-o-mometer,” he said.  “See,” he showed her on the drawing, “you put a dirty, hungry kid in this end about five o’clock in the afternoon, press a button, and he comes out the other end at six: clean, fed, and with his teeth brushed.”

“What on earth will you think of next!” Frump exclaimed.  (She was a woman of great enthusiasms, and was constantly exclaiming about one thing or another.)  “One of these days, I’ll be telling the children, ‘If you study hard in school, you’ll be a big success like our illustrious Thomas – Doctor of Mechanical Engineering, distinguished Professor of Cum Laudes, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Thing-A-Ma-Jigs.’”

“You’ll be my special guest at the award ceremony,” Thomas said with a grin.  And then his grin faded.  “But that means I’ve got to go to college, and there’s no money for college.  I’ll graduate from high school and get a job at Dub’s Garage and spend my life rebuilding carburetors and patching tires.”

“Nonsense,” Frump said.  “We’ll find a way, I’m sure of it.  I’ve got faith in you, Thomas, and you must have faith in yourself.”

There was, indeed, no money for college educations at the Peaceful Valley Orphanage, or for much else, for that matter.  Frump had to make do on a very limited budget and the goodness of people who lived in the nearby town.  But she patched and mended, scrimped and saved, and served gallons and gallons of stir fry for dinner each week.  The kids moaned and groaned about all that stir fry, but it was chock full of good vegetables and occasional bits and pieces of chicken and beef, and it quite nicely filled up young stomachs at dinnertime.  During the warm months, Frump and the orphans planted and tended a large and bountiful garden and their stir fry had plenty of fresh vegetables.  What was left over, Frump put in jars to last through the Winter.  When the kids groaned over their stir fry on a cold January night, they sometimes wished that garden hadn’t been so large or bountiful.