THIRTY YEARS AGO
The best Christmas gift that I ever received was not wrapped, but rather, a most unlikely raptor and presented to me near the tail end of a nightmarish journey begun four days earlier and several thousand miles to the East. On the twenty-first of December of 1977, I boarded a Greyhound bus on the Southeast coast of the United States, and embarked upon a course, carving a swath out of the Deep South and thrusting up through the Heartland and westering across the Northern tier of these United States, my own odyssey homeward.
Just getting onto that bus was an ordeal that I could not have imagined being as yet so green in years. Fresh out of high school I had enlisted in the army without much foresight as how best to arrange affairs to my advantage. On 23 September 1977 I was inducted and transported to Fort Jackson in South Carolina for basic training, an eight week course; and advanced individual training (AIT) for my military occupation specialty (MOS), another eight week course. Therefore I was scheduled to complete training by late January. What I had not foreseen was that there would be a two-week Christmas break where trainees were expected to take leave to go home and then return to the base to finish the course. For me this meant traveling to the opposite reach of the continental United States and back again. The option of staying on post and being assigned to dubious make-work known as “shit details” had no appeal, and to be honest, I was homesick.
...read more (2/13)
The late seventies, just after the Viet Nam war, was not a good time to be in the military. Many who had stayed in the military would have been misfits in a civilian world where sadism and its related personality disorders are not widely tolerated. Sure, there was no draft, and supposedly we were all there by our own choice, but so many of my fellow recruits had enlisted because a judge had given them a choice of jail time or military service. The lowest common denominator of communication was the coarsest, basest profanity where even the official names of some of our equipment and uniforms would be unprintable in family newspapers. Upon arrival at that base the drill sergeants had confiscated all contraband which included all books except religious texts. Nor were we allowed to read anything at all until after graduation from basic training. Incorrigible reader that I was, I had accumulated during those weeks of prohibition a stack of comic books and some paperbacks, and was able to trick the officers inspecting the barracks by wrapping up my readables like a package as though I were about to post it to my folks. If it looked like official U.S. Mail they would not touch it. After a few months of no television, no music, no movies, I was not just homesick for home, but homesick also for decent behavior and cultured society, the amenities and luxuries of our modern civilized world.
THE LAST STUDENT ...read more (3/13)
In late November we were required to purchase our tickets home, whether by plane, train or bus. A buck private in boot camp may have many exciting things to write home about but the dollar amount on his paycheck is not one of them. My extraordinary traveling distance and a required roundtrip fare narrowed down the choices of what I could afford to a bus ticket. Even the company First Sergeant seemed concerned for me, pointing out the length of the journey, all of which would be charged against annual leave not yet accrued. Nothing else could be done and I was stuck. Now here is where an unplanned variable came into play. The Unit Supply course was self-paced, each student worked through the curriculum on his own, reading the technical manuals and then shlepping over to the testing center for either a pass or fail mark. An avid reader, and fairly fast by army standards, I started to pick up the pace in the last two weeks, racing through the coursework, and taking several tests a day. On 20 December, the last day of testing before everyone shipped out on the twenty-first, I took and passed the last four tests of the course. Four minutes after the official closing time, I was the only student remaining in the testing center and as I handed the completed test to the NCO in charge he turned out the lights, ushered me out and locked the doors for the last time that year. He offered his congratulations and mentioned that while he admired my herculean efforts, they may have been all for naught. It takes at least ten working days, he said, for the Department of the Army to cut orders authorizing travel to a permanent posting. You see, after training I was to be assigned to The Ninth Infantry Division based at Fort Lewis in Washington State, not quite thirty miles from where I lived. I would have to travel almost three thousand miles home, and three thousand miles back to South Carolina, and another three thousand miles again back to Washington State. The next day was the solstice, the darkest day of the year and for this journey which I had both anticipated and dreaded, I was ready to go. I was packed.
SEASON OF MIRACLES ...read more (4/13)
It was a witless youth who on a whim opted not to ship his books home by mail so he would not suffer separation anxiety. Instead, I had bought these black plastic satchels known as “AWOL” bags to carry my readables. The strictures against reading had relaxed by the time I got to Supply School allowing me to accumulate even more books. As I filled up one bag I bought another and so when I was waiting finally for the expected buses to pull up into the parking lot I was laden down with four identical AWOL bags, two in each hand, and a duffel bag, crammed full of uniforms and gear, depending from shoulder straps like a backpack. Stooped forward under their combined weight, adjusting for a more radical center of gravity, I had all the appearance of a geek years before that term ever gained popular currency. We were required to depart the army post attired in our formal “dress green” uniforms, the slender garrison cap, wool jacket and trousers, poplin shirt and black necktie, and “low quarters” which is what we called our dress shoes, a term I have heard no where else. Our drill sergeants late in the morning mustered us in the parking lots adjacent the long row of barracks and in groups of twenty we were directed to the battalion supply center where we were processed through a final checkout. In addition to being issued my clutch of bus tickets, one page for each connecting bus on my cross-country jaunt, the battalion travel officer gave me another set of documents, typed in triplicate and embossed with the DA seal. Very official. He was too pressed to allow me to stand there and read the whole thing. Get moving, he said, your travel orders came down just an hour ago. Merry Christmas, soldier! So! The army can move things along when it wants. Or maybe it really was the season of miracles. Getting my orders now meant that this would be only a one-way trip with no coming back. Half of my already purchased ticket would be refunded. Plus travel time would not be deducted from my annual leave and best of all, I would be compensated for travel expenses at the rate of ten cents per mile, thereby making what in those years would have been a sizable profit, though it would not be until many weeks later that I worked through the money particulars.
TRAVELING COMPANION ...read more (5/13)
Thousands of trainee soldiers waited in those long parking lots, in formations of twenty to a column, waiting for the Greyhound and Trailways and chartered busses to take us to airports and train depots and for the most impoverished or those who live nearby, the bus would take them to the next transportation hub to catch yet another bus. From late morning to early evening we waited. Every half hour or so, one of our NCO herders would announce that the buses were due any minute and so none of us dared to slip off to the mess hall for lunch or dinner. As dusk descended, rain started falling softly at first, then pelting and then as it was reaching a fever pitch, the buses pulled in. We were hungry and we were wet and the night was dark and cold. We did not need to be asked twice to file aboard our assigned coach. I planted my bulk in a window seat on the right just a few rows back from the front and seconds later a young Black woman in uniform sat next to me. Immediately she struck up a conversation concerning destinations and family and who else was waiting at home. She asked me if she could borrow my raincoat to wrap around her legs. A female soldier’s dress uniform mandated a skirt, rather than trousers, and an appeal to my sense of gallantry rarely failed. One of the NCO herders stepped aboard to admonish us to be a credit to the uniform while in transit. He stepped off and we were underway. Next to me sat my newfound friend, and this woman, wrapped in my raincoat, her head slumped against my shoulder as though we had been lifelong chums, was asleep and snoring, soft and faint.
ATLANTA MILKSHAKE ...read more (6/13)
South went the bus down dark highways. Inside the coach with only the weak reading lamps overhead for illumination, the only prospect those windows provided were of our own gauzy reflections. The outside world remained invisible to us, unseen and unknown. So we dozed, mostly, there being little inclination for chitchat for having risen at “o’dark-thirty”, the freight of the day had fretted at our nerves, frittered our spirit and cheer. Arriving in Atlanta come midnight where the depot there served as a nexus for connecting buses destined elsewhere, many of the soldiers disembarked and their seats were filled by civilians who were also on the move to be home for the holidays. Taking advantage of a fifteen minute layover I slipped off the bus to order a strawberry milkshake from the Burger King franchise situated in a corner of the depot. Returning to my seat my companion was chagrined that she did not realize there was fast food available and was much put out that I had a shake and she did not. She said that she found something on the floor and showed me my own bus ticket which I had stashed in the pocket of my raincoat. Perhaps it fallen out onto the floor, perhaps not. She suggested that she deserved a reward for finding it and I countered that I had already lent her the use of my raincoat. No further conversation ensued. I did not offer to share. That shake was my first taste of my return to civilization and it could not have been more delicious and sweet, and I savored each and every sip.
UP THE RIVER ...read more (7/13)
We awoke at daybreak approaching the depot in Memphis where my erstwhile companion disembarked and I had the seat to myself as we then headed North, keeping the Mississippi river to the right. By now I am the sole remaining soldier on board. Outside the day lay awash in somber shades of grey unrelieved by any dash or hint of color, and the great river itself seemed less the majestic waterway of literature and legend, but rather a purgatorial flow of molten lead material, colorless and drab. Along the banks of the river stood tall deciduous trees, stark in the bleak winter light, their branches skeletal and bare with the disquieting exception of huge bird nests composed of stick and mud and which were suspended from the high branches. The nests appeared to be large enough to accommodate a full grown man and I wondered what bizarre bird would need such a sizable nest for there were no birds in sight. This surreal scene, which I found quite unnerving, remains a mystery to me even today. Nearing noon and nearing St. Louis, the overcast sky, which had been threatening all morning made good its threat, letting loose a steady heavy rain. The famed Gateway Arch presented in several prospects, as we negotiated the streets through the city’s heart to the depot and out again, once more Northward. Shortly, the rain became mixed with snow, giving way to flurries, swirling and dancing, as darkness fell.
The falling weather delayed us just enough for me to miss my connection in Chicago, leaving me eight hours to kill at the downtown depot. Ill-prepared was I to meet the chill that greeted me so wickedly in the Windy City and up popped a few more surprises, unpleasant and rude. My thick wool overcoat had been buried deep in the duffel bag when I was in South Carolina and the temperature was a mild fifty degrees. I had not foreseen missing my bus and a forced layover overnight and the deuced temperature dropping to a brutal fifteen degrees fahrenheit. The duffel bag was beyond my reach since it had been stored somewhere in the luggage compartments of the bus and the only item that I carried was one of the black AWOL bags which I thought contained my shaving gear and other toiletries. Only I had the wrong bag. The time was overdue to attend to some grooming and all I had at hand were comic books and cheesy fantasy paperbacks.
CHICAGO WELCOME WAGON ...read more (8/13)
Feeling the need to stretch my legs and explore a little bit of the city, I set out for a bracing jaunt in the biting cold, raincoat cinched tight and hands in pockets. Snow piles, six to ten inches high, bordered the sidewalks but the down the center remained navigable even to one shod in inappropriate foot gear lacking good traction. Within two blocks I had passed a news vendor’s kiosk and another block more when I decided to circle back around the block returning to the depot as the cold was enervating, my body warmth ebbing away. A shortcut through an alley proved near disastrous as one of it denizens, cantankerous and drunk, decided to dispute my passage. This foul rag-tatter man, weathered and unwashed, with but one leg, relying on a wooden crutch for movement and wielding a sharpened screwdriver in his free hand, muttered a slurred threat to skewer me if I did not give him enough money for a bottle of something. I kicked away his crutch and then planted my heel forcibly against the side of his knee which responded with a sickening crunch, though it seems unlikely that I could have broken anything - but who knows? Backing out of that alley I returned the way I came, stopping at the news kiosk to purchase a gentleman’s magazine. Inside the bus depot men’s restroom I purposed to peruse that magazine in the privacy of one of the stalls. Every single stall appeared occupied with a set of legs visible beneath the door. Yet instead of grunts or groans or growls I heard the sound of snoring. Squatters, I thought, or rather, I corrected myself, homesteaders, the city’s homeless had seeped into the facility simply to warm themselves. However, when nature calls there is no one among us who can refuse to answer and so I found a security officer, telling him that a paying customer needed to use the facilities and he obligingly rousted several of the fellows out sooner than spring thaw. I concluded my business therein and settled out in the main waiting area for a long night of staying awake as I could not afford to miss the next bus Westbound.
LIFELINE ...read more (9/13)
The place was cavernous and might as well have been unheated for all the open doors, but it was shielded from the elements. It was the human hazards for which I had to watch, as I had there observed various folks become victims of one sort or another while inattentive or asleep. My recent encounter in the alley was much on my mind. One always hopes that when things are bad they will get better, but since leaving post, my situation seemed to be sliding down a decline, and my present location was little better than a sewer. I was now entertaining some serious doubts about getting home at all, let alone in time for Christmas. A bank of pay phones hugged a wall with one unoccupied station from which I called home to talk with my folks, knowing full well at that ungodly hour I would be waking them from a sound sleep and knowing, too, that my old man who slept next to the phone would wince when accepting the collect call, but knowing also, that even though they could not help me materially in my present plight, their voices alone would lend me some comfort.
STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT
I was first in line as passengers came off the newly arrived westbound bus whose readerboard said “Twin Cities” and scrambling aboard at first chance, I sank into an available seat, relieved and ready for a nap. An attractive older woman sat beside me on the aisle seat and when I say older I mean all the way up in her thirties. I laugh now, but then it’s all anyway a matter of perspective. Right away she asked me where I was headed. Seattle, I said. She asked if I were crazy, taking the bus when flying was so much faster? When I replied that I could not afford airfare, she then countered that the military gets big discounts. A long story, I said, my final word before shutting tight my eyelids and falling precipitously into the depths of drowse. During those early morning hours as the bus jostled down snowy highways, we both slumped toward center, causing our noggins to bump and I muttered an apology, drifting back to the land of nod. At the first stop she moved to the first vacated seat and gave me a backward glance, cold and hard. No doubt she thought me crazy, and certainly by that time I must have been shrouded in three-day aroma. Not only was I feeling somewhat subhuman, but I had become the oddball character in someone else’s Christmas story.
WHITEOUT ...read more (10/13)
This day we encountered the worst weather yet, blazing our way westward through blizzard conditions. Visibility was down to no more than fifty meters. Potent gusts buffeted the bus back and forth, side to side, sometimes slamming into the coach head-on, slowing, impeding our sluggish progress. Many of my fellow passengers were goggle-eyed with apprehension, if not outright fear, or queasy-faced from the turbulent shaking that made reading a book quite out of the question. Snow pelted the windshield in fist-sized clumps neither disturbing nor daunting the driver who remained ever cool and collected. Just another day on the job for this man were these extreme conditions, so familiar to him that he knew instinctively when to stop and pick up a new passenger standing at a mailbox or cattle gate out in the measureless middle of that vast lonesome prairie. Nothing remained for me but a retreat into deep dreamless sleep.
THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
Hours late arriving in Minneapolis, there was still the slimmest chance that I might catch the last Westbound bus of the night. As we were pulling in, another bus was just leaving the depot with “Seattle” on its readerboard. My bus. So another night in another bus depot. This time the ambience was not quite so apathetic, the surroundings not quite so dilapidated, the people not quite so hardbitten. I did not venture outside the depot to look around the city, but rather planted myself in one of those sadistic plastic seats leaving only for quick trips to the vending machines or the restroom. Television monitors suspended from ceiling girders carried all night long newscasts chockfull of storm warnings and road closures. There was much talk among the assorted would-be passengers that most of the highways heading out of the city would be indefinitely closed. Ticket sellers did not have better, or more hopeful, information. Across the river was the other twin city, St. Paul, the hometown of F. Scott Fitzgerald who famously wrote:
“In the real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.”
Three o’clock seemed to last for hours. I was wretched. Winter howled just outside the doors, Winter who seemed hellbent on keeping me from reaching home.
HAM AND EGGS, GREASE ON THE SLIDE ...read more (11/13)
Come oh-four-thirty a bare dozen of us boarded a bus destined for Seattle and settled in for the long trek. The harsh weather had subsided. Yet so gloom-suffused the day, there was little to distinguish it from dark of night. My time was spent either reading or sleeping. I had slept so much on the journey that I remember only small bits here and there. Part of that was the payback for the sleep debt accrued as part of a soldier’s life and part was the defensive reaction against having so little control over the current events of my life. Morning found us just over the Montana state line and stopping in a little town for breakfast. There was no depot, just a storefront ticket office with the driver parking his bus right on the street. He gave us directions to a diner that would be open for breakfast. Two blocks down, hang a left, down one more block, on the corner. Snow drifts were piled up high against the parked cars and sidewalks were covered over with compact ice. I toddled to the diner, my dress shoes skittering helter-skelter this way and that. Several times I slipped and when I entered the diner I had wet stains on knees and sleeves and backside. Out there, said the waitress behind the counter, you gotta watch it cuz that ice’s slicker than snot. Thanks, I said, thanks a lot.
THE EAGLE ...read more (12/13)
The next morning, Christmas day, I opened my eyes to a winter’s crystal day, baby blue the sky and burgeoning sunlight glinting from ice crystals and hard to our left lay a lake all asparkle as if across the windstirred surface were strewn diamonds catching and flashing the bright happy light. And something so extraordinary! Parallel to the bus as we skirted the lake there glided an American Bald Eagle, regal and proud, just a few meters above the water and seemingly just a few meters off our port side, effortlessly keeping pace with us as though he were our escort through a land of enchantment. No one else saw this, no one else was awake save the driver who seemed oblivious to anything but the road ahead. Except on television nature programs I had never seen a real bird of prey and I had never expected to see one in my life. At that time they were on the endangered species list, their numbers had dwindled so much that they were not expected to recover. Twenty seconds he stayed abreast of us, thirty seconds, forty ... and we rounded a curve. He was out of sight and gone. I let out my breath which I had been unconsciously holding and knew that I would be home that day for I had recognized the lake as Coeur d’Alene situated just inside Idaho, not far from the border of Washington State.
HOME IS THE HERO
By 9:00 a.m. we had reached Spokane and familiar landmarks became more numerous the closer we got to our destination. We hit town at 9:00 p.m., hours late and I was met at the Seattle depot by my father and brother. All my baggage had been mysteriously split up and each piece, except for the one I carried, traveled west, each on a different bus. When my folks saw me off at the airport back in September I had hair down to my shoulders and now I returned with a regulation buzzcut and a five day beard, not to mention considerably thinner. The journey had left me bedraggled and disheveled, grubby and ripe. Like Odysseus, I had been the plaything of higher powers and I had outwitted conniving females, encountered dangerous foes, avoided monsters, suffered detours and setbacks, returning home to be recognized only by my old and faithful dog.
THIRTY YEARS LATER ...read more (13/13)
Much of my memory of that journey has been erased. I don’t remember what or where I ate except for the milkshake and the breakfast at the diner. What has never left me is the memory of that eagle who appeared as a herald of hope and light when my despair was at its darkest ebb. I am reminded of this line from a story by Nabokov:
“What is the arrow that flies forever? The arrow that has hit its mark.”
And as long as I live that eagle will fly forever.