Harry Messimer: On the road for 55 years
Published 8:01 am Monday, July 7, 2014
Harry Messimer has spent a lot of time on the road.
Or, you could say, on the bus.
The former Elizabethton resident, who now lives in Salem, Va., was a bus driver for 55 years before he retired four years ago. He drove 31 years for Greyhound, then 24 more years for Abingdon Tours.
Messimer grew up in the Lynn Valley area and attended Elizabethton High School. He was the son of John and Amy Messimer, and has a sister, Dianne Long, who still lives locally.
Messimer began driving for Greyhound in 1955 after a four-year hitch in the U.S. Navy. He had previously driven a truck, but took the bus driving job because he thought it would be easier.
Messimer soon fell in love with his job and the open road.
“I drove a lot of different places and for sure, I met many interesting people,” he shared.
“It was a wonderful life and a good job for an old Tennessee boy like me,” Messimer said. “I had a different load of passengers every day, and I tried to treat them all with courtesy.”
He drove out of places like Jacksonville, Fla., Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C., and for a time was assigned to the Roanoke-Knoxville area.
“In the heyday of intercity bus travel, people used the bus for both long and short trips. It was a cheap way to travel, and it was how people got places,” Messimer said. “We made stops in almost all small towns, and it was not unusual for folks by the side of the road to flag the bus down. They would pay you 50 cents, a dollar, or whatever to travel to the next town,” he noted. “Now, they can’t do that.”
In recalling his days as a bus driver, Messimer said safety was most important, and courtesy was next.
“Greyhound always kept our buses in good shape, and we drove some top-of-the-model buses,” he said.
The bus once played a vital role in transportation; bus transportation started at a time when autos were beyond the means of working Americans.
“But the American auto was also what did the bus in,” Messimer said, noting that Greyhound Bus Lines is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
During his time of travels, Messimer’s favorite stopping place was Nashville.
“When I drove out of Knoxville, Nashville was one of my stopping places. Also, I did some tours for Greyhound, and Nashville was one of those cities on the tour route. I visited Nashville when the old Ryman’s Auditorium was there. Always, even if a show was booked, the bus driver had a seat. Sometimes, they would give us a folding chair to sit in, and it would be next to the stage,” Messimer recalled as he reminisced about his travels.
He also did tours to Nashville with Abingdon Tours.
“I traveled everywhere with them, out west, up north and places in between. I enjoyed all my trips,” the former bus driver added.
And Messimer’s travels weren’t confined to high-speed, multilane superhighways: he drove a bus before the building of interstate highways.
“Many of the roads, especially in West Virginia and Virginia, were two-lane and in mountainous areas. Snow and ice made the winter trips sometimes difficult,” he noted.
One of his most memorable trips was Thanksgiving Day, 1976, when he and his busload of passengers were stranded south of Washington, D.C., for 13 hours because of a snowstorm.
“We had to wait for the snow plow to come through. We were on the bus with no food. We had a bathroom on the bus and we had enough gas to keep the bus running for about 48 hours,” the veteran driver said.
Once the road was cleared and the bus was able to move, the first stop was a service station to get a snack. “As luck would have it, the store had sold out of snacks, and all they had was ice cream,” Messimer said with a chuckle.
Another trip, he remembers, was a snowy drive to Knoxville.
“The road was covered with ice and snow, and the bus started sliding and skidded several yards sideways. An elderly lady was sitting on the edge of her seat, tightly gripping her handbag. When I got the bus straightened up, she settled back and very quietly said, ‘I was praying for you.’
“I can’t ever recall a trip being canceled because of the weather, but we were late a few times,” he recalled.
While with Greyhound, Messimer logged more than one and one-half million miles, all accident-free. “I take great pride in that,” he said.
Messimer admits missing his bus adventures, which he had to give up because of age. Now, in his mid-80s, he volunteers three or four days each week at the Virginia Transportation Museum in Roanoke, where his huge collection of memorabilia from his bus driving days is displayed.
He said he’s always happy to show museum visitors around and share his Greyhound experiences.