Reports of a mysterious school bus parked in town came across the police scanner this week with citizens calling in reports of suspicious activity. Come to find out, all the imagined worry that gripped paranoid tattlers was all about an older man and his small dog. Crisis averted.
“People just seem to think that there's something wrong with my bus,” said the mystery driver. “They just keep calling in. It's incredible how people just won't leave things alone. It's really...none of their business.”
The great threat turned out to be nothing more than Jay H. Burns, age 71, and his pup Frodo. They are in town to visit his daughter before they take a weekend voyage up to Stillwater to see his granddaughter graduate. Some people have motorhomes, he has an old Shelbyville ISD bus.
What is it about a school bus that gives people fits of consternation? Are the elders recalling the loads of hippies that rolled into town for Willie's picnic back in '76?
Burns was rousted out of bed at 2 a.m. one day while parked under the Hwy. 183 bridge by two Gonzales police officers who informed him that camping was off limits because the area was considered part of J.B. Wells Park.
“One complaint said that I had a child in the bus,” said Burns. He thinks the call came from a shady man he noticed loitering under the bridge, who he figured was a drug dealer that saw the bus as an unwanted interloper.
“Then later on that day I saw [a drug deal] go down. I was probably bad for their business,” he said.
The complaints aren't isolated to Gonzales, though.
“I get that all the time in Houston,” Burns said. “I pulled up in one place — in a parking lot — I hadn't been there 30 minutes and the sheriff showed up and said that they had had a report of an abandoned bus. So it's been kind of humorous in a way, aggravating in another. I'm just trying to mind my own business.
“I don't have a lot of money. I'm 72 years old and I'm on Social Security and I have a small VA pension. It's not the greatest, but it's better than a tent. This one moves a little easier and I don't have to break it down every time I want to go somewhere.”
The interesting thing about Burns is what draws him to the area. He is a herpetologist by trade — as in, one that deals with reptiles. He's been at it for 61 years and has racked up stints at the Columbus and Indianapolis zoos and the Science Resource Center for CyFair ISD. He noted that in all of those years, he hasn't been bitten by a poisonous snake once.
Gonzales County is intriguing, he says, because three different geological features meet here, creating three different habitats. He is curious in chasing down some copperheads from each habitat to compare their genetics and see how they are related. The train tracks along Hwy. 90 are also of interest, and he'd like to see how that barrier and the busy freight traffic affects reptiles.
“I'm not out to prove anything,” Burns said. “I'm not an environmentalist. I'm not into any fanaticism at all. And one of the reasons I'm not an environmentalist is because I'm a naturalist. In nature, there is no good or bad, because nature always finds a balance. Something that is bad for one species will be good for another. And I'd like to try and get that point across. The environment is always in motion, it's always changing. Change is the only constant, really. While one species will become extinct, one will become evolved.”
Burns has family in the area, counting a daughter, two granddaughters, and six great-grandchildren. Once he returns from Stillwater, he'd like to find a place to live and maybe turn the bus into a traveling herpetarium to educate school children.
“[The bus] has been my home for nine months. And when I get back to Gonzales I'll still have the same issue. And I'm getting rather tired of living like a refugee,” he said.
“I figure if I can get a herpaterium here, it would probably be about the biggest I could do. I don't think I have a whole heck of a lot more time to be around. I'm surprised I'm even around now. Somehow I keep ticking.
“I spend a lot of time in the field collecting and snake hunting. I just thought maybe I could be able to do some good before I pass.”