Traveling Man

The plastic chairs were hard and uncomfortable, but I still managed to drowse off. Suddenly the harsh staticy blare from the speakers, announcing the next departure, brought me back to wakefulness. “Providence, Boston, Augusta, and points north,” I was pretty sure the voice said. “Now loading at Gate 14.” I was heading for Bangor. That’s north of Augusta. Does this bus go to Bangor? The lady in the next seat didn’t know. She looked nice, so I asked her to watch my bags while I went to the ticket counter to ask. “No it doesn’t,” the ticket seller said. His name tag said his name was Brad. “But you want to take it to Boston and change buses there.” I went back to my seat. The nice lady was gone, but my bags were where I had left them. Shouldering the larger, and picking up the other, I headed for the line at Gate 14.

The driver was at the door taking tickets, and deciding which bags were too big to carry on the bus. He pointed to the one over my shoulder and nodded toward the open baggage hatch. I slid it into the hatch. “Welcome aboard,” he greeted me as he took part of my ticket. I climbed the steps and turned down the aisle. The nice lady from the waiting room was in the first seat behind the driver. “I couldn’t wait,” she said. “I had to get a seat up front.” I smiled and continued down the aisle, finding a window seat about halfway back. In no time at all the driver got into his seat and welcomed us all again over the PA system. The trip to Bangor would take about twelve hours he said. With that I settled back into my seat and watched the streets of Scranton pass by as we headed north for the interstate.

A tractor-trailer accident just somewhere in New York had the road covered with chickens, so the bus was a half hour late arriving in Boston. I barely had time to find out which gate the next bus was leaving from and make it there. Then I remembered I hadn’t picked up my big bag from the baggage compartment on the first bus. The driver told me he would wait for me, but that I should hurry. I was back in a jiffy, huffing and puffing, and the new driver helped me slide my bag into the baggage hatch on the Augusta/Bangor bus. Once again I settled back in my seat, but this time quickly fell asleep.

Some time later I awoke to bright lights and loud music. The door of the bus was open and I was the only one on it. We were at a truck stop somewhere in southern Maine. I got off the bus, found the restroom, and then the payphones. I dialed my brother. “The bus should be in at 1:30 in the morning,” I told him. “I know. I told you I’d arrive later in the morning, but I would have had to lay over in Hartford for five hours. You’ll pick me up, right? Or I could just sleep in the waiting room until you can come.” He said he would get me when I arrived. “OK, thanks. Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing you too.” I hadn’t seen my brother for years. Not sure why. Everybody is busy I guess. Suddenly I just needed to see him again. When I called him a week ago to say I was coming he sounded pleased. I really was eager to see him and his family again.

As I hung up the phone, I noticed our bus driver on one of the other phones. He was shouting into the phone. “Forget it. I won’t do it! You can have your lousy job!” I headed back for the bus; didn’t want to be late. The other passengers were straggling back on too and we were soon all settled into our seats. The driver didn’t come back. We all waited. I was the only one who knew that he no longer worked for the bus company. We waited longer. He finally came, but only to say he wasn’t going any farther. “Any body here know how to drive a bus?” he joked. “I drove buses in the army for four years,” I announced. He threw his hat to me. “Good luck, kid,” he offered over his shoulder as he disappeared back into the truck stop.

“What’s going on?” asked a man near the front. “You can’t really drive this thing, can you?” a little old lady across the aisle wanted to know. “Well, we can all just sit here and wait for who knows how long, or you can let me drive the bus to Bangor. It’s only a couple hours more at the most.”

Three people got off, but everyone else just wanted to get to the end of their ride. I put on the hat, sat down in the driver’s seat, looked over all of the gauges and controls, and said to myself, “No problem.” In five minutes we were several miles up U.S. Route 1 heading towards Bangor. It was a little past 11 at night. A half hour later the bus passed a sign, “Entering Popham – Population 2,568.” I slowed down. “Don’t forget, this is where I get off, Sonny.” It was the old lady who had been sitting across the aisle from me. I didn’t know where the bus station was, so I took her right to her house. As I headed back to the main street I noticed a sign. “Bus Terminal,” it said. The arrow pointed left. I thought I better check in.

The station was locked up tight. It was after eleven after all. But there were two folks waiting on the bench outside the door. They had suitcases. They jumped up and picked up their bags when they saw the bus coming. I guessed I’d better stop. “We want to go to Bangor,” they both said in unison, “but we didn’t get here in time to buy our tickets. Can we get them from you?”

“Sure,” I replied. “Why not?” I said to myself. My ticket from Augusta had cost me $17.50. We were about half way to Bangor. “That’ll be $9.25 each,” I told them. They each gave me a $20. “Got anything smaller?” I asked. “Anybody got change for a $20?” I asked the rest of the passengers, and in no time at all had made change, and helped them get their small suitcases into the overhead bins.

I was soon back on the road. It felt great. This was really a great bus, easy to drive. I looked in the rearview mirror. The hat looked good, felt good too. I pulled into the Bangor terminal at 1:15 AM, fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. “Where’s Dave?” the station master asked me. “I thought this was his run.” “I’m a substitute,” I answered. “Dave got sick just out of Augusta.” Then I turned to help the passengers off, and get their baggage from under the bus. One of the maintenance men took the bus to fuel it up for the return run while I went into the station to use the restroom and grab a quick cheeseburger.

In a few minutes the PA system was announcing that the bus to Augusta was loading at Gate 2. I hurried back over and started taking tickets. Just then my brother came out the door. “What are you doing out here?” he asked. I excused myself from the passenger line. “Be right back,” I told them, and went and gave him a huge hug. “Golly it’s good to see you! How are Carol and the boys?”

“We’re all great. Everyone’s so thrilled about your visit. Let’s get going. Where is your luggage?”

“Tom,” I told him straight out. “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be able to stay. I have to get this bus back to Augusta tonight. I didn’t want it to be this way. I’m sorry. I just can’t help it.”

I’ll never forget the look on my brother’s face as he stood there on the bus platform in Bangor, waving slowly as I backed the bus out of the terminal. It was seven years before I saw him again. I was loading my bus in Boston for a run to Branson, Missouri. There he was, Carol beside him. Tickets in one hand, suitcases in the other. Tom tried to talk to me all the way to Missouri. I had to keep pointing to the “Don’t Talk To The Driver” sign. But gosh it was good to see them again.