If you travel to the upstate of South Carolina, in a quiet foothills county you may find yourself on a stretch of country lane called "Old Schoolhouse Road". It is lined with old growth woods with a very small number of houses scattered along its length. There is one building of interest here, though. It is an old, falling apart at the seams, deserted gas station that dates back to the days of full service at the pump and nickel cokes.
No one hangs out there any more, not since the mid 1990s. You won't see the sign lit out front nor hear the sound of the bell as someone pulls up to the pump. No one will come out to see how much gas you need or whether you want regular or high-test. No one will clean your windshield while the tank fills. There are no sodas in the cooler and no crackers on the shelf. Just memories of past times, people and events. One of those memories is of a tragedy from 1993.
It was in the fall, the leaves were starting to turn and the night air had a bit of a nip to it. School had just begun and that meant high school football on Friday nights. Local schools battled for bragging rights as they took turns traveling to 'away' games. Their marching bands loaded their instruments into the bus and followed along to rouse the fans in support or this visiting team. And that is where our story begins.
The band had packed up their instruments and loaded them into the back of the bus and the members were jostling into the front. They were hyped up since they had just cheered their team on to victory over their hated rivals. It had been a hard fought victory to be sure, but all the sweeter because of that. Loud and raucous, it was a good bet, the drive thought, that they wouldn't settle down for the entire trip. He was thinking this as he pulled the bus into the gas station to top off the tank. The tank was usually filled prior to any trip, but for some reason that had not happened today.
It was late and the owner, old man Higgins, was just preparing to close for the night when the bus full of teenagers pulled in. He let the driver pump the gas while he attended to ringing up all the Snickers bars, snacks and sodas for the kids.
He stood and watched as the bus pulled out of his station, with a prickly sensation on his neck. "Oh, well, must be the weather," he thought as he turned the lights and pumps off for the night.
Just a mile or so from the station, the woods seemed to grow closer to the road and the night gathered its dark cloak more tightly. The only light was from the high beams the driver had on the bus. Suddenly, a young deer launched itself from out of the night, directly into the path of the oncoming vehicle. The driver, on instinct, wrenched the steering wheel to the right to avoid a collision, lost control and careened the bus off the side and down an embankment, picking up speed into the waiting arms of the trees. He collided head-on with a great, sturdy oak that gave not one inch.
When the bus did not reach its destination on time, the waiting parents began to get concerned. after thirty minutes, concern turned to fear. The school principal was contacted by one of these parents just before getting a call from the Highway Patrol. He was devastated by what he was told.
Mr. Higgins, the station owner had just closed up and was on his way home for some much needed rest when his headlights struck a cloud of oily, black smoke off the road in the woods. As he slowed down, he noticed marks on the road, aiming for the shoulder. He pulled off, grabbed his flashlight and went to investigate. What he found left him speechless. The bus that had left his station not twenty minutes earlier, loaded with band equipment and rambunctious teenagers lay in a burning heap, wedged between two pines and crumpled in the front with and old oak. The gas line had obviously ruptured and the liquid ignited to turn the packed bus into an inferno. The doors were blocked by the pines and the emergency door was inaccessible due to the equipment. The passengers never stood a chance.
He didn't have a cell phone. He never thought he would need one, until now. Not knowing what else to do, Mr. Higgins raced back to his station and called the police. They, in turn, called EMS and the State Patrol, who, after arriving at the scene, called the school principal.
Mr. Higgins closed his station for good, not long after that, saying that on certain nights in the fall, if you were at the station all alone, you could hear the sound of a school bus full of students pulling in, but when you got up to go outside there would be nothing there, except for the dark night air.
So, if you do happen to find yourself on that lonely stretch of road on a cool, dark mid-autumn night, you may want to pull into the abandoned station to rest for a spell. But, don't be surprised if you see sights and hear sounds that seem to belong in another place and time.
Then, again, maybe you should just keep driving.....