Monday, May 30, 2016

PTSD Express

As we sat waiting with other passengers to load onto our bus from Hoi An to Hue, a Vietnamese man stood up and began yelling at us, “Come on, let’s go, get on the bus”, as if we weren’t paying attention or were late to arrive. We didn’t realize our bus was parked over to the side of where we were sitting. There were no signs or directions of any kind.  It was one of those sleeper buses that run up and down the few highways of Vietnam.

When you enter these buses, the bus driver hands you a plastic bag for your shoes. You are to place them in the bag and carry them back to your seat. The seats are like recliners, with an enclosed area for your legs. Within the enclosed area is (but not always) a blanket and small leather pillow. Above your midsection is a built in tray to hold snacks and drinks. There are three rows of seats and two levels, like bunk-beds. Katie and I had ridden this type of bus before and we chose the lower seats because they are easier to get in and out of, but are still difficult. The distance between the top seat and bottom seat is small and you have to slide in at an angle one foot at a time to get your legs into the leg area.

Everything in Vietnam seems to be made for small people. I had to buy an XXL tee shirt, which is the largest size at the souvenir stands, and I’m not a very big guy. One washing and this shirt will fit my twelve year old grandson perfectly.

A very tall young man entered the bus. The quick tempered purser directed him to a seat in the back. I watched this lanky northern European tourist attempt to maneuver his long legs into the leg compartment. He couldn’t do it. One of the other passengers who had witnessed his frustrated attempts, directed him to a seat up front where there was no leg compartment. The bus driver and purser had exited the bus and were attempting to cram a motor scooter sideways into the luggage compartment. The relieved young man sank into the open fronted seat with a sigh of relief.

When the cranky purser came back on the bus and saw the man sitting in the front seat, he yelled and frantically gestured, “You go in back.”

“I’m too tall,” he replied, “I don’t fit.”

But the purser kept yelling and gesturing for him to move. This went on for a while, each man repeating the same thing. Finally the tourist said, “You are not listening, I don’t fit.”

The purser got off the bus and talked with the bus driver who immediately came on the bus and began yelling at the man, “You go in back.” But the tourist wouldn’t budge saying, “I’m not going anywhere.”

The bus driver was beside himself. He totally lost his temper and began shouting at the guy to move. The tourist just kept saying, “I’m not moving”. Some of the other passengers tried to explain the situation, but he didn’t understand or wasn’t listening. The driver grabbed the keys, turned off the bus engine, pushed the purser toward the door and they both exited the bus. He slammed the door shut, locking us all in. He sat down on a plastic chair just outside the bus, in defiance.  

It was a standoff between the Scandinavian tourist and the bus driver and the rest of us were unwitting victims of the situation. It was a hot, humid day. The inside of the bus was heating up and it was becoming stuffy. After a few minutes, a passenger needing to use the bathroom, began pounding on the bus door, but the Driver and Purser paid no attention.  I was feeling panicky, a familiar feeling that had visited me from time to time since last being in Vietnam. My heart was racing and I felt claustrophobic. How are we going to get out of here? I imagined myself kicking out a window. I knew the bus driver could not kill all his passengers, that wouldn’t be good for business. But I wasn’t thinking rationally, so I focused on my breath, deep breath in, deep breath out, to help me calm down. The other passengers were now beginning to talk to each other about the situation.

In January 1968, I was awakened in the middle of the night by one of my hooch-mates. “Yeager, get up! We’re being attacked.” The five of us in the hooch all scrambled to pull on our pants and boots. We were used to the sound of explosions in the night, but these were getting closer and there was a strange new noise. It sounded like the whistling bottle rockets we set off on the 4th of July, only bigger and more ominous.  I grabbed my rifle and steel pot. The other guys were huddled at the screen door, looking across the dirt road to the bunker on the other side. Tracer bullets filled the space in between. We didn’t know who was shooting at whom, but the explosions were getting louder and we needed to get our butts over to the bunker, post haste.

Looking over the damage after Tet offensive

One of the guys said, “We’re gonna have to run for it,” and he took off across the road for the bunker. Another guy went and another until it was my turn. I waited for a break in the tracer bullet action and took off. At the entrance to the bunker someone grabbed me and pulled me in. We all made it and spent the rest of the night hunkered down in the bunker, listening to the explosions and hoping we were not being overrun by the enemy.  I kept thinking about how easy it would be for someone to lob a grenade or satchel charge into the bunker and kill us all. We sat huddled in that humid smelly bunker until daylight, not knowing what was going on or what would be the outcome.

This hooch took a direct hit from a rocket
This was one of many experiences I had the last time I was in Vietnam and it seemed to be fueling my current anxiety on the bus. I looked out the bus window at the Bus Driver and he was talking on his cell phone. He hung up and shortly after that a man showed up on a motorbike, apparently the bus company supervisor. He got the keys from the driver and unlocked the bus door. The passenger who had been beating on the door, ran off to the bathroom and the man climbed on the bus and stood in front of the tall tourist.
“You need to go to a seat in the back.” And in broken English he tried to explain why. But the tourist didn’t want to hear his explanations and kept saying.

“OK, I’ll go in back, but you just shush.”

The man continued to explain and the tourist kept saying, “You shush,” but then went to the back and into a seat, with his knees up in his face. The Supervisor left on his motorbike and the Bus Driver and Purser came back on the bus. Now the Driver was late on his run and his frustration and anger were not abated. He started the bus engine, slammed it in gear and stepped on it. I think he was trying to peel out or pop a wheelie, but the bus just shuddered, before starting forward.

 It was a wild ride to Hue. The driver tailgated every car and bullied every motor scooter to the side of the road, all the while laying on the horn. When we finally got to Hue we were all relieved. A woman passenger with a Spanish accent told the bus driver off before exiting the bus. She told him he was a menace on the road and one day he was going to kill someone. A few of the other passengers clapped. Katie and I got off the bus and walked around the parking lot a few times just to get our bearings.