ORRINGTON, Maine — People often are surprised when they learn Gerald “Red” Briggs’ age.

His eye doctor tells him he has 70-year-old eyes, he said.

His many “girlfriends” — he’s always looking for more, he’ll tell you, just before he breaks into a high-pitched giggle — might think he’s even younger than that.

Even the passengers on the buses he drives for Cyr Bus Line likely are unaware their driver is a record-setter. The 90-year-old recently was recognized as the oldest transit bus driver in North America by the Maine Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association.

“I wasn’t shooting for being the oldest driver in North America,” Briggs said. “That was never the idea. I just enjoy driving. My wife died a couple of years ago, and it gives me a reason to get up and get out and do things instead of sitting in a rocking chair and dying a couple years later.”

Several times a week, Briggs gets a call: His employer needs him to shuttle a sports team to Bucksport or Portland or Boston.

Sure, he’ll say. Where do you want me to be? When?

Then, for several hours, he’ll be a bus driver.

But that only scratches the surface.

Briggs also is a former teacher and coach, who spent more than three decades in schools across the state.

He’s a proud father of three sons.

Chat with him long enough, and you might even learn he took part in one of the most important military campaigns in world history.

Omaha Beach? D-Day?

Yeah, he was there — in the first wave that went ashore.

So yes, Briggs is a record-setting bus driver. And if that were his whole story, it would be interesting enough.

But the rest of his life has been a pretty wild ride, too.

And he’s not done yet.

War stories

When Briggs begins the recitation of his working career, he skims over a key part.

“Like a lot of us that came back from World War II,” he begins, generically, “we wanted to get into phys ed.”

That, it seems, explains his teaching career. But it skips one of the stories he knows everybody wants to hear.

Ask him again about his World War II service later, and you learn the rest of the tale.

“I was in the Seabees,” he said. “Most people, they think about them building roads out in the islands and so forth. But the outfit I was in, we went in on Omaha Beach in the first wave.”

His outfit built “rhino ferries,” which were huge barges used to shuttle troops and large equipment ashore as the battle raged.

Briggs said the peril he and his friends were in didn’t really occur to him at the time.

“When you’re 20 years old, you figure everything’s going to happen to somebody else, not you,” he said. “Some ask me, ‘Were you afraid going into Omaha Beach? ‘ The answer is ‘No.’ I wasn’t, then. You’re at that age where all the bad things are going to happen to somebody else. Not me.”

Today, he’ll admit the battle and his wartime service did take a toll.

“Now they have fancy names, like post-traumatic stress disorder,” Briggs said. “I went through all that stuff. But back in those days they just called it ‘one flew over the cuckoo’s nest,’ or something like that.”

At the end of the war, Briggs returned to Maine and began college. His job while attending school in Farmington?

He was a bus driver.

The forgotten profession

Briggs said many people know a couple of things about him, but few seem to remember another.

“Now, if any of my friends talk to me, they want to talk to me about my bus-driving stories or my war stories,” he said. “It’s just like I didn’t do anything else. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”

That, he said, leaves out a huge chunk of his life. From 1946 until 1983, Briggs was a teacher and coach. And he was one of the state’s first driver’s education instructors.

During that period, he and his wife hopscotched around the state as Red, the coach, continued seeking greener pastures.

From Bath to Boothbay, Richmond to South Paris, the couple never stayed in one place for too long.

“And then my wife put her foot down and said, ‘Why don’t you move for money for once, instead of for a bigger gym or taller players?’” Briggs said. “So I went to Long Island, New York, where all the money was.”

Three years later, he returned to Maine to teach and coach. Then, in 1984, it was time to hang up his whistle, just like everyone else did. He was 60 years old when he retired — briefly.

“I was like everyone. You always dream of retiring,” Briggs said. “I was going to hunt and fish. But I’m sitting out there in my canoe all by myself, and I said, ‘Something’s wrong with this.’”

What was wrong wasn’t hard to figure out, he said.

“My good friends were still teaching,” Briggs said. “So I thought I’ve got to do something. And I knew how to drive buses, so I applied for a bus-driving job. And they hired me.”

Thirty years later, he’s still driving.

Age is just a number

Buses have changed a lot since Briggs first drove them in 1946.

Automatic transmissions didn’t exist back then. Need air conditioning? Open a window.

“I go back to the crank phone,” Briggs said, describing the phones he grew up using.

Nowadays, every passenger is a potential backseat driver, thanks to global positioning system apps on their smartphones.

Briggs just bought his own iPhone and admits he’s still learning to use it. But he’s a map-and-memory guy. He said he doesn’t need modern technology to tell him how to get from Point A to Point B. Chances are good he’s been there, done that. Repeatedly.

“Are you shitting me?” he asks. “My GPS is in my head.”

To Briggs, age is just a number. And he said his eye doctor has given him some good advice.

“[She says,] ‘You don’t look at numbers when you’re talking about people,’” he said.

Dana Laughlin, Cyr Bus Line’s dispatcher, said the company has confidence in their 90-year-old driver and said Briggs wouldn’t have the required license if he wasn’t qualified.

“It was his goal to get recertified for this year,” Laughlin said. “And, of course, you have to go through a lot of medical [tests] to pass to get your [federal Department of Transportation] card. He met all the guidelines and made sure all of his paperwork was there at the time it needed to be there.”

Laughlin said that in addition to certification at least every two years, a physician working for the bus line will seek additional information from a driver’s doctors if needed. During that process, any health concerns must be addressed before a driver is cleared for service. Briggs passed all required tests and has been recertified every time.

Still, Briggs said his biggest fear is that a reckless driver will hit him. If that were to happen, he knows what the backlash would be.

“What do you think the [headline will say]?” he asked. “It’ll say ‘SUV runs into bus driven by 90-year-old.’ And 99 percent of people at home, they’re going to say, ‘Oh, man. Why don’t they get that old guy off the road?’”

That old guy, though, is still confident in his abilities.

“If anybody wanted to compete with me in precision driving or any kind of driving, I don’t care. Whether it’s motorcycles or buses or what. I’d be willing to go up against anybody,” he said. “Call it being cocky, call it anything you want. That’s the way I feel.”

Briggs said he has been getting some pressure to retire — again.

His son has suggested he hang up his keys when he reaches his 91st birthday in February.

He said that’s the plan, for now — maybe.

Laughlin isn’t so sure.

“Come February, we’ll see,” Laughlin said, chuckling. “[If that happens], I think there’s going to be a big void, not seeing him in my office two or three times a week. … [He] drives up here just to say, ‘Hello, how’s everything going.’ Hopefully he continues to do that. Just because he’s retiring doesn’t mean we’re not a family.”

One thing is certain: When Briggs retires from driving, he won’t be retiring from work. Or life.

He plans on seeking another job and keeping his active social life alive.

“What do you think has kept me going for all these years?” he asked. “If I didn’t keep wanting to do things, I’d probably just wither away, right? You know, you’ve got to look for new girlfriends and every other thing to keep you going.”

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...