Military precision required for trip

December 02, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

Imagine driving more than 2,000 people to a football game five hours away.

For Tom Eyre it's been an annual ritual for 15 consecutive years.

As co-owner of the Glenelg-based Eyre Bus Service, Mr. Eyre is used to transporting large groups of people hither and yon.

But even Mr. Eyre (pronounced air) finds transporting about 2,400 Navy plebes and midshipmen to the Army-Navy football game a tad daunting. This year's contest begins just after noon at Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

"You have no idea what it takes to organize. It's quite a job," he says.

It's seeing to all the little details that makes the day run smoothly, he says. Those details include making sure the car following the convoy has a check ready to pay the toll for the buses crossing the Bay Bridge before heading up U.S. Route 301 through the Upper Shore into Delaware. Another vital detail is keeping the buses properly paced and spaced.

"We'll have probably 53 buses this year driving one behind the other. So if the lead bus slows down, the buses in the very back have to come to a complete stop. Slowing down suddenly could cause an accident. That's the worst thing you can have happen," Mr. Eyre says.

Eyre has experienced only one fender-bender in the years the company has been hauling the midshipmen to the big game.

Another important detail is setting aside a rest room stop for drivers on the 250-mile trip.

One thing drivers don't have to worry much about is keeping their passengers entertained. Most of them go right to sleep after boarding -- and stay that way until they arrive at the stadium.

Since he is playing a part in what is one of the greatest sports rivalries, it seems fitting that Mr. Eyre maintains one tradition of his own -- setting the convoy pace by driving the lead bus.

"I really enjoy it. It's an exciting day," says Mr. Eyre, 44, who got his first taste of the big day as a young man riding with his father, who founded the company.

"We have a police escort the whole way up. We don't stop for anything. Not traffic lights or tolls. People stare at us when the police stop traffic so this huge convoy of buses can pass through. It's not every day you see 60 buses flying up the road. A lot of people look kind of flabbergasted."

The Army-Navy convoy is the company's largest job of the year, but Eyre's bread and butter is its full-service tour operation and providing transportation to school and church groups.

The company got its start in 1947 when Mr. Eyre's father, Harry Lee Eyre, began driving school buses for the county. Aided by his wife, Mary Kathryn Eyre, the operation grew to 18 buses. In time, the family gave up the school bus business in favor of group charters and by the 1960s, the company had a fleet of 65 buses.

The elder Mr. Eyre retired in 1989, turning the operation over to his sons, Tom and Ron. Tom heads up the operations end of the jTC business, while his brother handles administration. Today, they run a company with 140 employees.

"The thing I'm particularly proud of is that our company has a lot of really good employees and still has the family spirit to it," Mr. Eyre says. "That's what's brought us success."

The Navy convoy used to be larger than Saturday's 53-bus group, however, says Mr. Eyre. The convoy peaked in the 1960s at about 100 buses; three years ago there were 85 buses. The decline is the result of the Navy's decision to allow senior midshipmen to drive to the game. Still, Mr. Eyre has to lease other buses to supplement his company's 50-bus fleet. The company also transports the Navy Band to the game. The football team travels on its own bus.

Bus drivers will report to Eyre's terminal in Glenelg at 1 a.m. Saturday to get buses warmed up and ready for the trip to the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Ironically, they never get a glimpse of the game. The drivers check into a motel near the stadium to get some rest before the return trip.

Boarding starts around 3 a.m. in Annapolis and this year the buses will roll out of the academy gates at 3:45 a.m.

For Mr. Eyre, a part of the day he relishes is watching the throng of midshipmen board the buses.

"It's truly an amazing sight. They coming marching out onto a field, dressed in their black overcoats and white hats, and board the buses in perfect order. Each time I see that I think what an honor it is to have this job. We're part of an American tradition."

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