Sunday, November 08, 2009


BUS STORY # 158 (There But For Fortune)


I board the bus and find a seat near the door. There are two old guys sitting in the two seats in front of me. At first, it sounds like they’re having a lively conversation. Then I realize why: the two of them are going at it.

The guy nearest the door is the older, somewhere in his 70s. He’s tall and rangy, and decked out like a worker: faded gray cap, blue work shirt and jeans, big brown well-worn boots. He’s got those old style plastic glasses with thick lenses and two enormous, magnified eyes.

The guy nearest me looks to be ten years younger. He’s maybe five-nine, but looks in good shape, too. He’s got a white, patterned short-sleeved sports shirt worn outside his light-colored pants. He’s got a straw hat with the front brim turned up. He’s also wearing glasses, also with thick lenses, but the style is more contemporary.

“So what branch of the military were you in? Marines?

The older guy stares at him.

“Army? Navy?”

He’s still staring back with those huge, distorted eyes.

“Coast Guard? Merchant Marine?”

“I didn’t say I was in the service.”

“You sure did.”

I said I was in the government service.”

“Well, that’s service, isn’t it?”

“Damn right.”

“I was in the Air Cav.”

“What?”

“The Air Cav – Air Cavalry.”

“Sounds like more bull____ to me.”

“Here. Lemme show you.”

The younger guy reaches for his wallet. I’m looking around and everybody, including the driver, is listening to the exchange and laughing to him or herself and flashing knowing smiles at one another. The younger guy is playing the audience. He pulls out a card and holds it up.

“Anybody can buy a piece of plastic.”

“Just like anybody can say they were in government service.”

“You callin’ me a liar?”

“Oh, no, sir. I was taught to respect my elders – say, were you in the Depression?”

“What?”

I said were you in the Depression – do you remember the Depression?”

“Damn right I do. You don’t know ____ about that, either.”

“How could I? I wasn’t there.”

“You think you’re so smart, but you don’t know ____.”

The younger guy just cackles. The older guy adds, “Lemme tell you something. You got a mouth even bigger than mine, and that’s sayin’ something.”

The young guy laughs hard, says “That’s a compliment I’ll take.” He puts out his knuckles. The older guy responds automatically, but you can see him try and catch himself. He doesn’t want to bump with this younger guy, doesn’t want to make what’s going on look like it’s not as hostile as it really is, at least where he’s concerned. But he’s gone and started, and he manfully finishes it off with a scowl. The younger guy understands exactly what has happened here, and laughs even more.

“That’s a good one, that’s a good one,” he laughs.

The older guy gets off a couple of stops later. He’s got a bike on the rack. When he gets the bike out, he slams the rack closed. Then he calls something I can’t make out through the front door. The bus driver closes the door, laughs, and shakes his head.

When the bus pulls out, the younger guy starts talking to those of us who were ringside for the exchange.

“That guy didn’t like me one little bit. He’s got some anger issues. But I’ll tell you this: I think he’s a good man. And strong, too. That guy is in shape. You know he works hard. He’s a hard worker. He’s just got somethin’ eatin’ at him.”

“Like a bad day at work,” ventures the guy across the aisle.

“Lot more’n that. But you know what? He’s tough. And I’m tough. I think he saw himself in me and it pissed him off. But you gotta be careful with guys like him. They go off and somebody gets hurt. That’s why I played him straight up.”

He continues.

“See, I was drafted when I was 19. And it was hell. They beat me and beat me and beat me and beat me. They had these socks with stuff in ‘em. And they made me crawl. Six, eight, 10 miles. But you know what? They taught me how to survive. You hated them so much you wanted to kill them, and you took that hatred with you and you just wanted to kill kill kill.”

The last three words have a slightly out-of-control intensity to them. He’s left the bus here for a few seconds. But he comes back quickly.

“And then you come back home and you try to put all that in the back of your head, but you can’t ever make it go away. Sometimes you sit at home at night and cry, and you ask God to take you away from here.”

Everybody is still listening, but nobody’s smiling.

“I’m 62 years old, and I’m as tough as I was when I was 19. Slower, but just as tough. That old guy was tough, too, but if I’d had to, I would’ve knocked him out the door. Right out the door.”

The guy across the aisle is looking like he wished he’d never opened his mouth.

“Hey, wanna see what I do now?”

With that sentence, our guy completely flips his mood. He whips out a cardboard photo envelope and pulls out two 5 X 8s. I can see a pretty fancy, very colorful bike.

“Looks like a Harley, don’t it?”

He laughs, puts the pictures back in his bag. He gets off at the next stop.

There is a kind of nervous laughter when the door closes. The woman sitting behind the driver makes the cuckoo sign at us. Somebody asks “Which one?”

I’m not laughing. I’m thinking about that high draft number back in 1969, and I’m listening to Joan Baez singing words I haven’t heard or even thought about for thirty, maybe forty years. The old Phil Ochs refrain comes through as crystal clear as young Joanie’s voice: “And there but for fortune go you or I, you or I.

No, sir, I'm not laughing.

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