Sunday, November 07, 2010

BUS STORY # 209 (Honoring Our Veterans)

vietnam, originally uploaded by dirk32787.

We get off the Rapid together, me through the back door, him through the front after the ramp is put down and his motorized wheelchair makes the exit.

I’m waiting at the intersection, looking west for my connection. He rolls up and I move to one side. We both wait till the white stick figure appears and the numbers start ticking down from 25.

On the other side, we head for the bus stop to wait for our connection. He wheels his chair around and faces due west.

He looks to be in his 60s. Big guy, but solid, not fat. He’s in a navy blue polo shirt and navy blue shorts. The right leg is a long-healed above-the-knee amputation. The left is a long-healed below-the-knee. Later, I determine he’s also missing the first two digits of the fingers of his right hand.

He’s got a cap on that says “Vietnam Veteran” across the front of the hat and across the hatband in the back. He’s wearing those old style aviator sunglasses. He sits – and, really, this is the only way to describe it – he sits tall in his chair.

Things that he doesn’t have, and which are striking by their absence in this particular scenario -- at least, here in Albuquerque -- are an American flag or pennant flying from a flexible rod, and patriotic bumper stickers plastered across the back of his chair.

Across the intersection to the west, there’s another rider waiting for our bus. I’m thinking it’ll stop for him, then get caught by the light, and we’ll have to wait another two minutes for our turn.

But the rider is looking our way, too. And then he gets up and starts walking our way. In the crosswalk, I see a lean guy in a baseball cap, long black beard streaked with gray, a turquoise tank top and faded, ragged jeans.

He walks right up to the vet, leans over, says something to him, puts his hand on his shoulder, says something to him again, moves the flat of his hand to the side of the vet’s head, pulls it back to his heart, then gently thumps his heart. He starts to turn away, then turns back and says something more.

I can’t make out what he’s saying, and I can’t tell if it’s Spanish, or English slurred with emotion or alcohol or both. He puts his hand on the vet’s chest, then pulls it back to his. And then he walks to a railing behind the bus stop bench and sits in the shade.

Throughout this exchange, the vet hasn’t moved a muscle. I have no idea if he spoke to the man or not.

I don’t know if these are two vets who recognize one another and don’t need words, or if the guy is overcome, and the vet is gutting it out with dignity or a patient appreciation of the intent. A dozen other possible stories blossom.

The vet takes his hat off. His head is bald, lumpy, scarred. I assume it goes with the legs and fingers. He leaves it off until the bus comes.

The other guy and I wait for the ramp to come down, wait for the vet to board. That’s when I smell the alcohol.

He wants me to board, but I tell him I’m waiting for the driver to finish getting the chair buckled in. He goes around me, and waits by the till. When everything is settled in, he’s sitting on the bench seat across from the vet. The vet keeps his face fixed forward, and there is no conversation, attempted or otherwise.

When we reach the guy’s stop, he lurches forward and almost falls right across the wheelchair. He catches himself, and lurches out the front door.

The rider behind the vet turns to the guy sitting next to me and says he hasn’t seen Tommy* this drunk at this hour in a long time.

“He’s the sweetest guy when he’s sober, but he’s a mean drunk.”

And then he notices a plastic grocery bag Tommy must have left on the bench seat.

Throughout all of this, the vet has been sitting silent and motionless. He is staring straight ahead, out through the front windshield.

I’m thinking he knows something we don’t.

*Real name changed.

The photo at the top of this story is titled “vietnam” and is posted with the kind permission of dirk32787. You can see this and all dirk32787’s photos on Flickr at:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Powerful story, Thanks. BBBH

5:19 AM  
Blogger Busboy said...

Thank you, BBBH. It was powerful to see.

7:11 PM  

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