Forty Miles from Fort Worth
The familiar smell of diesel fumes mingling with other night odors, and all of the commotion present in and around big-city bus terminals gets me light-headed with anticipation. I try hard to look at ease while standing in line with these strangers.
A porter and another male to my left are busy overlooking a handcart piled with luggage. The worried white man tells the black man to take it easy. The unhurried porter barely nods as he throws the last suitcase on top of the stack. Then he saunters to the rear where he leans on a handle with both hands. From there he begins to push the weighty load toward the bus.
A tired driver takes his sweet time by first examining and then clipping each of our individual tickets with a device he holds in one hand. A silver chain connects it securely to his leather belt. Sliding my suitcase across the asphalt with one foot, I offer him a folded envelope containing my ticket home. He takes the permit out and holds it up to the florescent lights overhead, squints at it studiously, and then after giving me a listless look he punches a neat hole in one corner. Then he hands me back both items. The man doesn’t bother putting my ticket back inside the envelope.
A large flap of a metal door, part of the right side of the coach, stands raised to an open position. Muffled thumps of each suitcase being tossed inside the low-slung compartment are heard as I mount the three steps to climb aboard. All the interior lights glow from the ceiling. Most of the forward seats are taken.
Clutching the ticket in one hand, it’s a bit of a struggle wrestling my suitcase to the unfilled section toward the rear. Hardly anyone pays me any attention. I lift the valise over my head, lodge it into the rack above an empty seat, and then sit down.
I wish I had bought myself a magazine to read, but it’s too late to get one now. The outside luggage compartment door slams shut. I can see the driver down there, talking to the porter. He stops and listens while he hangs on to his cart, and then he tilts his head back while a mute laugh escapes his mouth. The driver walks away as the employee pushes his now partially-filled cart to another waiting bus parked along side this one.
The hum and vibration of my coach’s engine is both relaxing as it is thrilling. In a few minutes we will leave the sleeping city of Fort Worth behind. My summer vacation has ended much too soon.
Mitch taught me how to drive one day last week. He woke me up early in the morning by merrily dangling his keys in front of my sleepy face while booming his boisterously jovial laugh, the one that always shakes rooms.
I jumped up wide-awake and dressed fast, knowing exactly what he had in mind, but stern Maria insisted that we men, as she called us, eat before we left. I gobbled down two fried eggs, toast and a glass of milk. Mitch had the same plus coffee. Maria let me skip washing dishes on that particular morning, but she insisted I clear the table, so I did that chore in a hurry, too.
They had been married for a couple of years, and rented an old farmhouse from Mitch’s parents. He worked two jobs in Cleburne; hauling garbage at one place, and as a welder at another. He had given me permission to use an old .22 rifle that he had when he was a boy. It made me awful proud, and then sick to my stomach afterwards, the first time I shot and killed an innocent bird.
For two full weeks I had free reign to wander the thick woods out behind their house, investigating and exploring hills and creek banks. Once, I took a shot at and scattered a small family of cottontails. Most of the time I unintentionally collected ticks. Mitch later hoo-hawed at my squirming while he held a hot match tip close to the deep-buried ones.
He owned an old Ford tractor that he let me operate one afternoon. We took it for a spin around a fenced pasture that sat next to the house. He perched on one of the large rear fenders while I steered, and yelled in my ear which gear to go to next. The event terrified me, but not Mitch. He held on tight while he bounced, laughing above the drumming noise from the tractor motor.
His late model two-toned sedan sat parked in a dirt driveway, right next to the front porch. He followed me out the screen door and climbed in on the passenger side. Since I held the keys, I went around and jumped in behind the steering wheel. All he said was crank her up and head for the pasture, so I did.
He sat quiet and said no more as I crept along, headed for the opened gate, but once I cleared the fence line, he told me to give it more gas, so I obeyed.
For the next thirty minutes I drove in circles around the empty field. Mitch let loose an occasional guffaw whenever I shifted and ground the gears. I just grinned and kept going.
A loud hiss comes from somewhere beneath the bus. The released air brakes jolts me back to the present. I lean to watch as the driver reaches over and pulls on a lever. The folding doors swing shut. In a moment we are sliding past a stationary bus parked a few feet away. I lay my face hard against the window as we sail out of the station, missing the brick building by scant inches. He turns a corner, and the night terminal slips past and out of our sight. Gears whine while neon signs in dark windows appear and disappear. We pick up speed as we go. Goodbye, Cowtown.
Just before leaving the city limits, the interior lights flicker once, and then they go off. The abrupt darkness brings solitude. Our driver reaches for a microphone, and while negotiating one last stoplight and a final turn, he announces destinations that lay ahead. The sounds and motions of the moving coach soon begin to lull most of the passengers to sleep.
As we leave city lights behind, I keep my face pressed to the cool glass. I can just see a portion of our headlights as they guide us onward. This is familiar countryside to me, yet this is my first time to travel it in the dark. A set of Burma Shave signs go by unread.
We pass along side of what I know to be several miles of lush green pastures. Their rolling hilly horizons are barely visible against the sky. The driver downshifts at each small rise in elevation. The bus fairly sings as it rocks and sways its way toward my home.
I gauge a half-hour has passed as we begin to overtake a slower car up ahead. Our driver expertly glides around and in front of the car, then we slide over into the two small beams of its headlights. I won’t sleep. I have an urge to help watch. I feel important.
Then far away, a gigantic green-tinted mushroom cloud rises above a distant small hill. It pushes its way violently into the night sky. A brilliant yellow glow from beyond the knoll lights up the bottom of the peculiar billowing cloud, and then fades as suddenly as it appeared. Both colors and cloud then blend back into black. All remains quiet on the bus, but my heart begins to thump as my eyes stare into the darkness in front of us.
A few turns of the road later, and our bus begins to slow down. Heads rise up as bodies stir in the forward seats. The bus comes to a halt. Murmurs from disturbed passengers begin to rise and fall while necks crane from darkened seats. As soon as the coach stops, the driver shoots out the doorway; vacating his seat. He leaves us in the dark coach. The diesel engine purrs. The bi-fold doors remain open. After a few seconds, several passengers follow in his wake.
This is most unusual. Bus drivers along this West Texas route often make unannounced stops. But commuters always keep their seats unless given permission to leave.
I step down off the bus and onto the black pavement. Curiously approaching the front, I enter a setting of surreal disorder.
Our headlights illuminate a swath of the macadam road. A huge distorted box lies some distance away. It rests at an odd angle across the highway, and the entity looms as large as our bus.
On the roadbed between the large box and us lay scattered objects. A field of cellophane-wrapped packages containing notebook paper dot the roadbed. Some have burst. Loose sheets of writing paper lay sprinkled about; white and stilled.
My incredulous eyes search the debris-strewn road – hundreds of these packages lay spilled everywhere. Among the flat packets are scores of cigarette cartons. Here and there loose packs glisten like eyes of night creatures in our headlights.
Two opened doors at the near end of the box face us. Or at least they appear to be doors – both are mangled and twisted. Then I recognize the sets of tandem tires protruding from the left wall of the box. What I am seeing is a semi-trailer flipped on its side.
Our uniformed driver jogs the length of the trailer and disappears around the far end . Passing the stunned passengers, I hurry to catch up.
There I find him beside two other men. The three stand and stare at the cab of a semi. It lays sideways. A white roof, an extended hood and a double-sectioned windshield greet my astonished gaze. One pane is covered with spidery cracks, but remains in place. Wisps of smoke (or maybe steam; I can’t tell which), rise lazily from under the hood.
One of the men points to a darkened bar ditch off to one side. There I can barely make out the inert form of a dead cow.
The two men and my driver speak, but remain riveted in place. I myself am unable to move. Fuel drips from one of the saddle tanks mounted behind the overturned cab, and it pools on the pavement below. A muffled voice suddenly shouts from inside the cab.
“Someone get me out of here!”
No one moves.
The men in front of me exchange brief looks.
The voice cries out again.
“Hurry, oh God, hurry! This thing is going to catch on fire! Both my legs are pinned.”
The pair and my driver spring forward. He aids the two as they climb to the top side where the passenger door is now located, and they begin yanking on the door, trying to spring it open. My driver, looking helpless, can only stare up at them from the pavement.
I glance over to my right and into the blinding beams of our idling bus. Several automobiles have parked behind the coach. Their headlights help to light up the scene. Silhouettes of people with heads bowed mill slowly around the roadway. One dark shape after another reaches to pick something up. Then after stuffing the items in a pocket, or tucking them away inside a shirt, the shapes move a little farther on, still searching.
The two men on the cab heave on the door while the man inside continues to plead. My driver abruptly runs back to his bus, hurls the luggage door open and begins to search for something – I hope a prying tool of some sort. One of the scavengers gives me a glance, and then his eyes follow the driver racing back to the sideways cab. The hunter then returns his focus to the road, the shoulders of the road and the wide ditches on either side.
No progress has been made with the stubborn door. One of the men stands up and tries to peer over the top of the long trailer as our out-of-breath driver arrives. The other one continues to claw and pull at the wedged-tight portal, but he is having no luck.
The bus driver stretches to hand up a crowbar when the fuel on the ground suddenly catches fire. Tiny flames spread with a fury and circles the cab. My driver jumps back and yells out a warning. Both men leap to the ground and run.
The driver runs. We all run. Within seconds the cab burst into flames behind us with a loud whoosh.
I see a yellow reflection in a pair of glasses as I dart past a busy man who pauses only to stare.