Rocket Man Meets the Magic School Bus

Speaking as a parent, I am really glad that someone finally attached an engine from a Phantom fighter jet to a big yellow school bus. It’s about time we had a bus that could reach 371 miles per hour.

The visionary behind the jet-powered school bus is a former snowmobile dealer and motorcycle and snowmobile racer from Big Bend, Wis., with a great sense of humor. His name is Paul Stender. Now Stender owns Indy Boys Inc. in Indianapolis, a small group of guys who live to attach jet engines to things and then ride the contraptions around the tarmac at air shows or the track at NASCAR events. Previously Stender gave us, among other vehicular breakthroughs, the jet-powered outhouse.

“The (jet-powered) outhouse goes back to an air show in El Paso, Texas,” Stender told me. “There was a huge wind and some of the port-a-potties were skating along the tarmac and I thought, ‘Why not attach an engine to one?'”

So Stender bought a new outhouse (“The last thing I wanted to do was ride around inside a used one,” he said wisely.), put it on wheels, and attached a Boeing jet engine to the rear. He steers it with a snowmobile steering column. Now, just so my Addison County neighbors do not get any ideas, the jet-powered outhouse would not be allowed to compete in the annual Bristol, Vermont Outhouse Race on the Fourth of July. Those rules are clear: The outhouses must be powered by people. Besides, Stender says his rig “is about as aerodynamic as a house,” so that even with a good tailwind (no pun intended) the outhouse only reaches about 71 miles per hour.

Consequently, it may be the school bus that really gets Stender’s engines running. “I lived on a farm in Wisconsin in the middle of nowhere when I was growing up. I walked two miles each way to the elementary school,” he said. In other words … no school buses.

I, on the other hand, grew up in suburban school systems that always had school buses. When I was a sixth-grader in Stamford, Conn., I was even a member of the school safety patrol, which meant that I got to wear a neon orange nylon sash and belt with a badge. Yup, a badge. It also meant that I was the biggest geek in my neighborhood, since in addition to loving my neon orange nylon sash and belt with a badge, I was still pretending that my wallet was a “Star Trek” communicator.

So, you can imagine how much I would have loved to usher kids on and off a school bus that was going to hit 371 miles per hour. This would have been an especially heady experience since school buses back then did not have seatbelts. Stender’s school bus, however, only has three seats, so I don’t see it ferrying kids up and down the Lincoln Gap at 371 miles an hour.

And while Stender might feel the need for speed when he is atop a jet-powered port-a-pottie (Don’t we all?) or behind the wheel of a jet-powered school bus, his driving record is pretty clean. He is 43 years old and has received only one speeding ticket in his entire life: He was towing the school bus to an air show and his truck was clocked at 71 miles per hour. “The officer thought the school bus was pretty cool, but I still got the ticket,” he said.

My sense is that outhouses and school buses are just the start for an artist like Stender. After all, Michelangelo was in his 60s when he was finishing the fresco of “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel. And while a jet-powered school bus might not be considered great art, heaven knows I would pay money to see one.

(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on August 22, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

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