Monday, September 26, 2011

A Short Story: The Last Bus to Plainville

The last three days ran together.  They should have been red, white and blue days, happy days, but the colors blended and formed a dark gray; an exhausting, headachy dark gray.  First there was the going away party, then the eighteen hour flight and finally the last grueling ten hours of out-processing at Fort Lewis, Washington.  It should have been a banner experience.  It was not.  It was solemn and exhausting.

Now, the whole ordeal was over.  He was on the bus from Great Falls headed for his little home town on the north central plains of Montana.  Aside from Conrad being his hometown and a place he needed to go after his discharge; there was nothing special about it.  There were no jobs, no opportunities – just a plain ordinary little town.  He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the window and thought about the past few days.  He thought to himself, “I’m on the last bust to Plainville”.

He woke on the morning of the thirteenth.  The early morning jungle sun had already warmed the interior of the GP Medium to 85 degrees.  He sat up and surveyed his surroundings.  He flailed his arms and balled up the mosquito net that had been his blanket.  He was still wearing his boots and fatigues.  He remembered now.  Last night.  Last night was the going-away-party for both he and the Brigade Command Sergeant Major. Galvanized garbage cans filled with beer and ice; now he was remembering.  He was sick.  The hangover and the hot jungle sun made him sick.

He gathered up his aluminum basin, his Vietnamese made mirror with the beer can backing and his razor and walked over to the potable water wagon outside the mess tent.  He drew a little water and shaved.  The water on his face felt good and for a few moments he felt human.

He walked down the small hill below the helipad where he had lived the last couple of months.  He and four other members of the Command Section used the GP Medium as the BEQ.  He was walking down to say goodbye.  Goodbye to the other members of the headquarters section that he had managed for the last year.

“Sarge”, the brand new Aide-De-Camp, Captain Barton called.

“What?” 

“Where were you last night”?

“I was drunk and then I was sleeping”; “Where were you?”

“Did you know we got hit last night?”

“No”.  “What was it, mortars or a ground attack?”

“Mortars”!

“Well, what did you want me to do”?  “Go catch f**kin’ mortars?”

The Aide turned and walked down the hill toward the Tactical Operations Center.  He turned again looked back again and said, “Good luck, Sarge”.

He walked into the Executive Officers tent and said goodbye to Lieutenant Colonel Bender.  He said his farewells to the drivers and orderlies.  Sergeant Major Gillorie had flown to Dong Tre with the S-3 so he could not say goodbye to him. He decided not to say anything to the General.  He walked into the Deputy Brigade Commander’s tent and said, “I’m ready to go when you are, Sir”.  The Colonel said, “Load your shit in my bird and we’ll go”.

He walked into his old office and said to Jim, his replacement, “I’m going to need a final EER signed by the CG, DBC, and the XO”, “Will you do that for me and mail it to my home of residence?” Jim said, “Sure Sarge”, “Good luck”.

The flight to Cam Ranh Bay was uneventful and the Colonel didn’t even shut the bird down when he landed.  The Colonel waved and the LOH lifted and headed west.

He loaded onto the Boeing 707 after a perfunctory and feeble baggage check before boarding.  He thought to himself, “I hope no one is bringing home any live ordnance, I don’t want to think I survived a year and a half in Vietnam just to blow up in the air over Okinawa.  He was finally going home.

After eighteen hours in the air the jet landed at Sea-Tac on April 15, 1969.  He boarded the bus headed to Fort Lewis.

Processing out at Fort Lewis was an ordeal.  It took the better part of eight hours.  Any civilian organization could have accomplished the same tasks in an hour, he thought.  He put on the new Class A uniform they gave him to wear complete with patches and insignias.  He was still Airborne, he would always be Airborne – he bloused his Corcorans as paratroopers do and ran a bit of polish over the toe.  He climbed on the Army shuttle headed for Sea-Tac; the last leg of his trip.  The stinky diesel shuttle left a huge black cloud of smoke as it pulled away from the processing center.  He sat in a window seat and closed his eyes with his head leaned against the window.  He didn’t look back.

His short flight to Great Falls was uneventful; but he couldn’t sleep.  He would spend the night at the Great Falls airport and take the bus to Conrad in the morning.  He found an empty blue naugahyde seat and dropped his duffel bag next to it.  He walked into the airport bar and waited for his eyes to accommodate the low light.  There were three people in the bar and he recognized two of them.  What a small world he thought to himself.  He recognized Jim Arbor from his hometown.  Jim had graduated in the class ahead of him and worked for the chevy dealership as a parts man.  He married Susan Hallon from his class.  They were high school sweethearts.  The other man at the bar was the home town mortician, Eddy Weiss.  He walked up to the bar and ordered scotch and water.  He said hello to Jim.  Jim looked at him with red swollen eyes not recognizing him at first.  He told Jim his named and Jim nodded hello.  Jim asked him what brought him to the airport.  He told him he just got out of the Army.  Jim nodded again.  He asked Jim what he was doing at the airport.  He told him he was there to pick up his brother-in-law Greg.  He said he did not see him on his flight.  Jim told him that it was his body that they were picking up.  He said that Greg had been killed in action on March 21.  He was a crew member on a dust-off that crashed.  They drank all three of them, without another exchange.  He thought to himself that Greg’s body must have been on his plane from Sea-Tac. 

In the morning he caught a taxi and drove off Gore Hill to the old part of town where the bus station was located.

The sixty mile bus trip finally ended.  He stepped off the bus and looked east and then west and thought to himself that nothing had changed here in Plainville.  He tossed his duffel bag over his shoulder and started walking the six blocks west toward his folk’s house.  He thought as he walked that that was the last bus he would ever take to Plainville.

©Terry Sutherland

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