What had begun in the cold, rainy, damp-gray late May adjourned in the humid, stifling-hot mid-July in Cape May, New Jersey in 1966.
Eight weeks, abbreviated from the twelve or more week peacetime regimen to meet the demands of the Vietnam War. Eight weeks of some of the most intense experience this lifetime offers. At last complete. I was IN the Coast Guard … I was “G.I.”
I don’t even remember my own graduation.
The airlines were on strike. Nothing was flying from Philadelphia to Tampa. I never even considered a train. Whatever moved “South” first … I wanted to be ON IT. Dad had tried to get the company jet to come get me and fly me to Tampa, an AMAZING thing for him even to be ABLE to request, but at the time, the honor the man was paying me never registered.
He was trying to get me a private jet to take me home from boot camp.
That’s what y’call, “Cool!”
Anyway, the first thing smokin’ southbound was a Greyhound bus out of Philly. Sea bag, “AWOL” bag, “Parade” dress whites and spit-polished “Drills,” Seaman Apprentice John E. Gillmore, Jr. fresh from eight weeks of military training (that put the final patina on the previous 19 years at home with two (that’s “2” …) World War II veteran United States Marines) did eagerly climb aboard a Greyhound Sceni-cruiser one late mid-July afternoon in 1966 at the Union bus station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
I don’t remember leaving … hell, I don’t remember getting on the bus … or being at the bus station, except as brief, still flashes of individual moments, like vivid but fleeting slides. What do I think I do remember? It was HOT … Mid-July-in-the-coastal-northeast sopping, oppressive HOT … and I got on that bus … that bus that was leaving toward home!
I swear, if a “honey wagon” with no air conditioning had moved toward Florida in those moments, I would have jumped aboard the tank and clung to the dripping hoses.
There are sharply focused, intense little pictures of rose yellow street light and headlights and deep black sky, and of the inside of the bus, which seemed in those early hours pleasant enough, not much different from my few brief experiences of airline cabins. I seem to remember “blue-gray” … upholstery, and shiny light gray plastic window frames set in a sort of fuzzy side panel the same colors as the rest of the interior.
I got the window seat, deep under the overhead racks.
Beside me? At first I have no idea and, soon, we stopped, it seems, and a young black woman and her toddler girl got aboard. I remember a crisp white little dress on the toddler and little white shoes. She was beautiful … as was her mother.
I had read a novel, I think it was “Eternal Fire,” in which there was a supremely “evil character” named Harry Diadem. It was a very powerful … “stimulatingly” impactful … story for a guy just out of high school. Harry was the most utterly corrupt, amoral, IMmoral, criminal character I had ever encountered, and he was definitely the most powerful, sexually predatory character, with his numbered conquests and scoring system for his exercise in psychopathic self-gratification actually hand-written in a journal. In one scene that galvanized my testosterone-blazing Id Harry sat beside a young, innocent woman on a bus. As the trip progressed he began to shove his hand under her as she sat. You may conclude the scene at your leisure … the novel was more intense than that.
I know that by now you may be able to see where this is going … you may wish to return to your previous activity.
Here, the recollection seems to occur in two clearly incompatible streams. On the one hand I remember that beautiful young black woman and her angelic toddler daughter boarding the bus in what seems to be the early morning sunshine. I also recall that, as we cleared Philly I started to sing “Sloop John B” … strictly manipulative behavior … even up to the point of asking “… if you mind if I sing.” Deep into it …
“No.” was the answer … “In fact you’re quite good.”
This portion of what was developing into a karmic vision trek becomes a bit … segmented? Suffice it to say that I did, indeed, attempt to put my hand under this young woman’s buttocks as she sat beside me, rumbling along.
Y’know, I have no idea what happened. I think she chose to simply, utterly and absolutely ignore me. My own approach/avoidance to my outrageous behavior was such that I don’t think it took much to persuade me that this really wasn’t a good idea, and it was ab so LUTE ly NOT going to play out as did the scene in the book.
We rolled along … scenes flash by. Down a highway through the mountains in, I guess it was, North Carolina, in a driving rainstorm over roads that appeared to the eye as a jet black glistening ebony sheet. I was near enough the driver to be able to read the big, round speedometer: Eighty five … or just a little better … miles per hour that is, down the winding mountainside Interstate in the pouring rain over the broad ebony-mirror pavement among the cars, trucks … a bus … careened through the dim stormy … hot … afternoon. We passed a horrid, meat-rending, obviously high-speed wreck and as we crawled by I got to look down at the mangled, now-bloodless leg hung from under the white sheet, still crumpled into the dark remains of the demolished car. We crawled past … and resumed our hurtling flight through the pouring rain.
The air conditioning aboard had failed, at least partially, and the passengers had popped open the tilt-in top vent windows. It brought a continuous buffeting flow of saturated, heated air and an almost constant spray of light mist into the bus and so we rolled: wilted, heated, in the constant bluster of the open windows, increasingly damp in the blowing mist.
The driver insisted that the air conditioning would cool the cabin. All we had to do is close all the windows, he said. All we had to do was seal ourselves, careening along the ebony slick in a mid-July rainstorm, into the bus with the other … I really don’t know how many, but I don’t remember any empty seats … passengers, sealed in with the damp, the heat … people … lots and lots of people.
Uh uh … nnno … nope … huh uh … that was NOT happening. It was a hurtling sauna packed with one-day-past-fresh travelers and there was little tolerance for the resulting, uhhh … air quality …
… and soon … quite soon … the vents were once again tilted open and the blustery, saturated, spray-laden summer afternoon was among us.
Among my fellow travelers, riding in the center of the seat that crossed the very rear of the passenger cabin, was a black man who boarded in Philly carrying a nice, nearly full-sized, suitcase. It was, it turned out, filled from side to side with fifths of Johnny Walker Red, which he proceeded to open, and drink. The result was just what you might expect and soon we were southbound with an utterly, insensately, ramblingly typical drunk. He continued to drink the Red label scotch, I suppose just as you would a Coke, and benumbed himself through drunkenness into unconsciousness. There was quiet at the rear of the bus.
When he awoke … regained consciousness … he reached into his nice new bag and began again.
We stopped from time to time. I don’t recall much other than a brief bright frame of inside light spilling out through a diner’s window past a dark brick wall onto the floor of the inside of the bus station, a sort of cool, lemon-yellow lamp in the dark. As we boarded, ready to resume the already-tedious trek, the drunk dropped an unopened fifth of Johnny Walker Red in the back of the bus and it shattered. The bus was unfit for human habitation.
… and we had to change buses. Greyhound had to locate another coach, offload our luggage and reload and … hell, I don’t know how long it was.
The bus we ended up with?
… was the one aboard which we’ve been careening, stifling, down the rainy mountain asphalt luge.
He was a popular guy.
At some point I did get to talk to that young lady, astonishingly enough. As we talked her beautiful toddler daughter watched and commented from time to time and became very much a part of our conversation, scrambling back and forth between our laps. I think I tilted my seat back in the dark and she reached for me. Momma looked over and said, “Is it OK?”
“Yes.” and, in a moment of life that floats free of all time, independent of all geography, that child came to me and lay upon my chest … and fell softly asleep. I can still feel her heartbeat and the sweet, clear warmth of her at my heart, the small arms akimbo and the hands at rest on my shoulders, my chest as her pillow.
It transfixes me to this day. There is no language adequate to offer the … I’m sorry, I wish there was another word, this one being so very overused … utter profundity of those hours.
… and through the night, naps and brief glimpses of dark interior and streams of light flashing, a beautiful child slept in utter trust in safety, her heart upon my heart.
In the sunny next morning, mother and child reached their destination and left our grimy trudge.
In Savannah I got off the bus. My sparkling “Parade” dress whites looked like I had successfully camouflaged myself in a dust pile, or had perhaps just wrestled someone on the floor of an abandoned factory. We were headed for Jacksonville. I was nearing Florida.
“How long between Jacksonville and Tampa?”
… another “night in th’ box.” (“Cool Hand Luke” reference … One of the perks of being on a ship is they send you first-run flicks … which we projected on a screen on the fantail and all lounged around on the deck and lay in hammocks to watch … “Cool Hand Luke” … at sea, at night … but, I both digress … and get over a year ahead of myself … try that … ;<)
No … fucking … way! That particular shit is NOT happening!! I am NOT reaching Jacksonville deep in the second dark night of this now fetid, rumpled and bone-weary trek and still have eight …hours … to ride.
I found a phone.
“Hey … It’s John … look … I’m leaving Savannah in just a little while headed for Jacksonville? I am getting OFF … THIS FUCKING BUS … in Jacksonville. If you’re there, I’d VERY much like a ride home. If not … I’ll WALK!!”
So, I never got my ride in the Weyerhaeuser corporate jet, but their top Florida account manager and his wife swept from Brandon across the Florida summer late night in his company “limo” to Jacksonville, met me and carried me home.
I changed uniforms in a toilet stall in the bus station “Men’s Room” in Savannah, a feat that required the balance of a Wallenda and the balletic precision of a Nureyev, and arrived in Jacksonville for the “Marine Reception” in starched, creased whites and only sliiiiiightly scuffed “spit” shined Drills, shouldering a regulation-rolled sea bag, gripping an AWOL bag with the crossed, bayoneted Springfield rifles of the United States Coast Guard Recruit Training Center Honor Guard emblazoned thereupon, a suitably raked “salty” hat, and a freshly-melted, blown-wide-open heart, of which, incredibly upon reflection, I remained almost utterly unaware for many, many ensuing years.
… and that, I guess, was the end of that beginning.
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