I boarded the northbound number thirty bus at Forth and Federal. The bus was crowded as usual. Though my eyes remained safely directed at the ground, my attention was immediately drawn to an older man sitting a couple seats behind the driver in the section of the bus reserved for the elderly and handicapped. I chose a seat two places further down on the same side of the bus. My attention was so divided between this man and the ground that I didn't notice the beautiful young latina sitting across the isle from me. For the sake of this story, I'll call her Lucia. As I un-shouldered my backpack and sat down I made contact with his glazed-over and bloodshot eyes. His face was very weathered as was his leather jacket and his blue, U.S. Army baseball cap. I couldn't guess his age, but the glassy eyes and lazy, persistent stare betrayed drunkenness. We nodded at each other and I looked away.
An the older woman was sitting right next to the door. She tried to look busy with her purse, but her body language betrayed that her attention was as focused on him as mine was. She and the woman sitting immediately behind the driver exchanged occasional glances. He commanded everyone's nervous attention though no one looked him.
There's an unspoken rule on crowded buses: avoid eye contact to preserve a sense of personal space when the space itself has been compromised. He was oblivious to that rule, or just didn't care. Everyone shrank from his stare.
At the next stop another young latina boarded and sat directly across from him. I'll call her Maria. He muttered, shifted his weight, shook his head a little, and smiled at her. She was unmistakably afraid. Searching the front of the bus for a safe face, she found Lucia and they exchanged a knowing glance. They shared similar outfits and the same fear. Maria feebly tried to adjust her very tight clothes into a more modest arrangement. She clearly wasn't planning to be seated across from this guy when she got dressed that morning.
I imagined my dad there looking over his glasses at Maria asking "Do you like older men?" Dad still flirts like he did when he was young and handsome. Whereas in the past she might have been flattered, these days his missing front teeth and unkempt clothes would probably evoke similar fear.
" Mutter, mutter, mutter. I tthing mutter seea movvie." A long pause. "I seen tthat one ... wha was it? With Freddie Kruger an ... oh I know ... man, wha was it? You know, Freddie Kruger and --"
"Jason?" I asked, overcoming my own nervousness.
"Yeah," he replied with a somewhat toothless grin. "It was preddycool. Heh heh." Long pause. "In th end when mutter, mutter? Heh heh ... itwas cool." I didn't see the movie and I couldn't make out the spoiler he was sharing. I nodded along as if I'd understood. Judging by his grin and chuckle he must have really enjoyed it. His joy contrasted starkly with the fearful tension in the air.
A number of people got off the bus at the stop in front of Social Services. Maria escaped to one of the vacated seats somewhere behind me. His eyes followed her as she went, stopping to make contact with Lucia. He wasn't so drunk as to miss the rejection in Maria's escape and Lucia's reaction to his gaze. It hurt. That moment of joy quickly submerged, replaced with anger.
" mutter need thiss!" he announced to everyone and no one in particular, gesturing to Lucia. "I was in tharmy ," he said as he swayed forward and pointed with both hands to the logo on his cap. He grabbed the lapels of his leather jacket and sat up more straight, said "I'm retired," and swayed back into a slouch.
"Were you in Viet Nam?" I asked, hoping to distract him from the rejection and anger.
"Yeah." he answered gazing into the distance for quite a while. My mind filled in an educated guess at his age: probably in his late-fifties, maybe sixties. The average age of the U.S. soldier in Viet Nam was nineteen. n- n- n- n- nineteen. nineteen plus thirty-five or so.
"How long were you there?" I asked. The whole bus held its breath. His anger was confirming their worst fears. Something Unpredictable could happen. For me that fleeting chuckle and my daydream of Dad made me want to know his story. I hoped it would relieve some of the pressure.
"Thrddy eight monthss," he said, still gazing into the distance.
"That's a long time." Three years and two months of war, probably up close and personal. "What was your occupation?"
"I'm an engineer ..." he announced almost proudly. " ... a combat engineer." He was definitely up close and personal.
"So you built bridges and stuff?"
"Yeah. An blew'em up after you got across. I did all kinna shit."
"My uncle was an aviator ... a marine ... flew air support in an A6-Intruder," I offered.
"Oh yeah? I shudda done that." He replied, snapping briefly out of his distant gaze and then drifting back into to it. He's probably right. My uncle is in considerably better shape for his time in Viet Nam.
"My dad was in the Navy. But he was in and out of the service before Viet Nam got started." I was kinda surprised at the connections my brain was weaving. Dad was also an aviator -- communications or radar or something -- but never saw any combat. He and his crew did get escorted out of Soviet airspace by a couple of MiGs once when their navigator screwed up.
"My dad was in th Navy too ... World war two," he said nodding, back out of the gaze again. He seemed a little surprised that we had anything in common. "We had his flag and mutter " he said making a triangle shape with his hands.
The bus stopped again. More people got off and more people got on. In my peripheral vision I could see Lucia specifically avoiding eye contact as he looked back her way again. His anger returned.
"I was in thArmy" he said, swaying in her direction and again pointing both hands at the logo on his cap. "Why she mutter look at mutter, mutter ?" he asked me, gesturing to her again. His gesture lingered there oddly. His fingers stretched wide and tense, his arm outstretched straight from his shoulder, pointing at her almost with his palm.
"She's okay," I replied.
"Shlook at me like I'm a dog ... I represented my country."
While he paused again I turned over the image in my mind of the United States personified as a drunken, retired combat engineer rejected by a teenager.
"I wanna ... there a thheater downtown?" He asked the woman sitting between him and me as she tried to ignore him. I moved to the now empty seat right behind the driver thinking he might stop swaying over her.
"I don't know which theater you're looking for but this bus will take you downtown," I answered. "Can you find your way from the Sixteenth Street Mall?"
"Yeah, th ... its two stories? You mutter ?" he asked incomprehensibly.
I didn't understand, but the topic changed before I could clarify. He had looked back at Lucia again.
"I was in the Army ," he said again with the same sway and both hands pointing to his cap again. "I represented my country. ... For her?! Hers."
It may not have been clear to anyone but me that "Hers" meant something special. It was a meta-syntactic variable for any American woman, or probably any American.
"I signedup during Viet Nam." He announced indignantly. His gaze drifted away again.
He knew he would see combat. A young kid imagining the hero his father might have been and wanting to follow in his footsteps. He wanted to represent his country in combat.
"I ... my friends died ... for hers. An she look at me like I'm a dog."
"She doesn't know" I replied. "She doesn't know what you went through. I don't think she has any idea. Probably none of us know. Very few ... almost no one has seen war like you have. I haven't."
"An I pray you never have to," he said looking me steadily in the eye. "I pray to God."
He put his hands together and muttered at the heavens while I choked back the tears welling up in my eyes. Something in the way he looked at me gave me a tiny piece of his pain. I could imagine the feeling: a friend killed right in front of me. I could feel the fear and anger and helplessness and guilt, or at least my imaginary equivalents. Probably nothing I could imagine would ever compare with his real experience. Even so, I could feel the deep resentment for returning home to a country that was too afraid of me to understand my pain. And here it was playing out again thirty years later on this bus. Like nothing had changed in more than three decades.
"There's a theater downtown ... two stories ..." he said again.
"Oh! I know now," I exclaimed. "At the Pavilion. It's right up there. You see the yellow sign going down the building on the right side of the street up there?"
He stood up as the bus stopped at the light at 14th and Glenarm?. "You look at me like I'm a dog," he said to Lucia in a more menacing voice. "You never represented your country."
"This isn't a stop. And quit hassling my riders," said the driver.
I leaned forward and told the driver "he'll get off right here if you'll stop." The thirty bus doesn't usually stop at 15th and Glenarm, but it did this time. The combat engineer turned back to shake my hand as several other people moved past him nervously to get off the bus.
"Thank you for what you did back then" I said shaking his hand. He thanked me too and muttered something else at Lucia. Then he got off the bus.
The bus let out a tangible sigh of relief. Several people shook their heads. One commented "he's not all there."
"That's what war does to people," I said, feeling that pain again. "It breaks them. It chews them up and spits them out." The driver nodded. "There's kids in Iraq right now learning the same as he did. In another thirty years ..." I couldn't finish that thought. I just shook my head and felt that pain.
I didn't make this story up, except for the names of the two latinas. This is how I remember what happened on a bus trip home in late August. I wrote most of this story the night it happened, though I tightened it up a little this afternoon. Seemed an appropriate way to remember Veteran's Day. Many vets never recovered from their tours in Viet Nam. I pray the next generation fares better.