I was on my way to take my last college final exams…life had other plans for me.
It was 1981. It had been a little over four years since I had joined the United States Air Force. Almost five years since we had married. During that time we had two children. I had just received an Honorable Discharge from the military. I had been going to college full-time as well.
I had acquired an early ‘70’s Volkswagen Square Back that needed an engine overhaul and other work. Living on the coast of California, the surfer dudes were always wanting to buy it – perfection for their purposes. I received numerous offers, but held on to it.
I have never been all that mechanical, but the VW engine is not a very complicated affair. It took awhile because of the scarcity of time and the ever present lack of money. All indications were that my rehab work was adequate, but there seemed to be numerous other mechanical issues that required solving.
Deb and the girls had flown home. I rented a moving truck and with my father’s assistance drove our worldly possessions while towing our MG back to Buffalo. I then returned to California to stay with friends for a couple of months while I finished my last semester of college.
It had been four very long years away from the land I was born, raised and grew-up in. I was ready to go back. I was very much looking forward to being a civilian again. I was anxious to be with my family once more. I had been around the sun 24 times and was eager for new adventures.
The VW ran well enough for me to use while I finished my courses. I had to tinker with it a bit, but I tested it with a couple of small trips and all systems were “go” to drive it back to New York once I was done. I had grown attached to it. It was my escape vehicle. I had been the one who brought it back to life.
So, the day of my last finals came and off I went to be tested. I had no way of knowing the real tests I was facing. Midway there, the VW spewed an oil slick that James Bond would have been proud of. I left it on the side of the highway and hitch-hiked the rest of the way. Not the glorious ending to my college career that I had anticipated…
I managed to get the VW to a friend’s and pulled the engine. I did a quick tear down and then put it back together. Not being sure of what had happened, I took it to the local shop and they replaced an oil gasket as I recall. It was functional once again.
With haste I would soon regret, I loaded the VW with my stuff and left Vandenberg AFB (a little north of beautiful Santa Barbara) and headed home. I didn’t get too far. I was near San Bernardino when the final engine meltdown occurred. I got a small amount of cash for the VW. I gave away the possessions that I couldn’t economically ship home. I was devastated mentally and emotionally. My homecoming drive was a disaster.
To make matters worse, then President Reagan, my former Commander In Chief, was taking a stand against the air traffic controllers. They were taking a stand against their work conditions and were on strike. The nation’s airlines were basically shut down for a brief period. The exact period I was in serious need of the services they normally offered.
I got a bus out of San Bernardino and once again began my trip home. Adding further to my difficulties because of the lack of air travel, the buses were full up with travelers. I and my sadness over what had happened were closely packed with other humans who no doubt had stories of their own.
I vividly remember what happened just before the bus left the Las Vegas station. A woman with two young children came aboard. The woman got the children seated just in front of me, told them to be good and walked off the bus. Just like that. The kids looked scared. The brother was about seven, the sister about five. I could feel a lot of interest in them generated by the other passengers on the bus. Some of that interest didn’t feel so good.
Isn’t it funny how sometimes, in our own bad times, we intersect with others in even worse situations?
I was handed a mission that I could not refuse. Certainly not a mission that I wanted. I had my own troubles, but I knew that those kids needed someone to keep them safe and on course from Las Vegas to their destination in upstate New York.
I moved from my seat and began talking to them. I told them that I had children of my own, that they could trust me and that I intended on helping them along the way. I made sure that the other passengers on the bus could hear me well enough to know that the kids were no longer fair game – they had a protector.
And I took care of those kids. I made sure that they ate, went to the bathroom and slept safely. During stops along the way, I took them on walking expeditions to explore the surroundings and have some physical exercise. We talked. We laughed. We had a few occasional outbursts. I read to them. We played silly child games.
Over the course of the next few days, our route took us through Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois. Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania followed and then New York. My final stop was Buffalo. I gave the bus driver primary responsibility for the kids’ safe passage for the not long rest of the way to their destination.
As it turned out, parting from them was not so easy. I have the feeling that those kids helped me more than I helped them. That’s life, ain’t it?
I think of them from time-to-time. However it has happened for them and wherever they are, I hope those kids have had good lives.