Blackhumouristpress's Blog

September 7, 2011

The Road From Iraq to Detroit

Bill had finished two years in Iraq before being shipped out for four more in Afghanistan.  After six years of driving around in a light armored vehicle, he was fortunate to be alive and whole.  Bill had served one more year than his grandfather had in World War II and nearly five more than his father had inVietnam.  At the age of twenty five, Bill was hoping to become a police officer somewhere in the state of Michigan.  On Labor Day, Bertram volunteered to drive the school bus route that had been his since 1973, one more time to ensure Bill would be ready to go come Tuesday.

            Bertram had a late model Cadillac STS that he had saved up to buy for a number of years when his 1990 Pontiac had too many problems to throw money at.  Bertram sadly knew that the new Cadillac was probably going to be the last car he would ever purchase in his life.  At the age of sixty six, it just didn’t make too much sense to make a lot of long term plans like a thirty year mortgage on a house.  To buy a car out right in cash made more sense than to make payments into his seventies.

 On a bright, sunny and cool Labor Day Monday, Bertram met Bill at aConey Island off of Grand River in Detroit.  Bertram was finishing some eggs while reading about the Detroit Tigers huge win over the Chicago White Sox the night before.  Bertram, a tall and thin black man, clean shaven, wore a thin black tie on top of a long sleeved with shirt and dark tan slacks with shiny black shoes.  On the table next to the coffee and paper was a black pork pie hat. 

            Bill, a muscular young white man with four day old stubble on his head and face, walked in with a faded black sleeveless Detroit Red Wings T shirt from his high school days that proudly displayed a tattoo of a gothic D on his right shoulder.  He had a stud earring in his left ear, a furrowed brow and torn blue jeans as we walked into theConey Islandto meet Bertram.  Bill plopped himself down across from Bill as the waitress poured a cup of coffee for Bill.  Bill was tired and a bit hung over from being at the Tiger’s game the night before.  After the game, Bill and his friends hung out in the patio area of The Elwood, a bar down the street from Comerica Park.

 Bill thought it was a bit overkill to go through the bus route one more time but didn’t want to insult an old guy that gave a low level job, more respect than it deserved.  As they walked out to the parking lot, there was a huge boat of a car with the top down.  It was a 1973 Cadillac Eldorado painted light blue.

            “You evah driven one these old cars, young man?”

            “Can’t say I have…”

            Bertram tossed the keys across the car to Bill and got in on the passenger side of his own car.  The white seats were like new and the dashboard did not have a speck of dust.  Bill turned the car on.  Immediately the 8 track player began to play Summer Breeze by the Isley Brothers.  Bill still thought that the trip was pointless but looked forward to cruising around with the top down in a beautiful old car.  Bertram did most the talking.

            “So you gonna pick up the bus off Seven Mile…  My advice is to get there early so you ain’t lined up to get out there by the last minute.  You got you some fellas there with a chip on they shoulder, they gone try to cut and squeeze you outta place.  You gone want to bust them in the jaw.  My feeling is why go through that hassle the first day.  Get up early and take yo time and avoid all that mess…”

            Bertram spoke slow and in a deep rich voice.  Bill felt like he was driving in a time warp as he looked over at Bertram who was wearing a Pork Pie Hat and squared off Ray-Ban sunglasses.  Bill followed where Bertram directed him to go.

            “Make a right here onGrand River…  This is where you gone begin.  Now you gone find and make yer own way and I ain’t about to start telling you how you gone get things done.  That would be wrong of me.  I am gone to tell you how Bertram done things and you listen and decide whatchu want to do…  I started this here bus route afta losing my job at the Fisher Body 21 plant.  That’s that skeleton looking building you see off of 75 when you trying to git ovah to the 94.  I lost that job onna count I couldn’t keep mah self from drinking afta work.  You see…  I waddn’t married and I was young and had a few bones and so I would go out and have one and then one lead to anothah one and then a few moh and then before you knew what was going on, the sun be coming up.  So afta I missed work a few dozen times, they decided to drop me and they wasn’t nothing I could do even though I was in the union.  They only so much the union can do to help you when you off drunk every othah day…  Okay, here is where you gone make the first stop.  Lemme jus say this; the kids gone test you and the mo you try to act as bad as them, they gone try to git to you mo.  When I first started, there was a young guy with a large Afro and a pick stuck all up in his hair.  He came on the bus with a box blarin music loud.  I toll him to turn off the music and he toll me to do something to m’self.  My first thought was that not more than a year earlier, I was trying hard to stay alive in Nam and here some young punk who ain’t even got his feet wet yet in life gone step up to me?  I took his box and threw it out the bus and him with it.  The othah kids wasn’t scared.  They didn’t respect me no mo foh dat.  I didn’t git fired but I had to go and buy the punk a new box and aftah he looked like he did nothing wrong.  I ain’t gone throw religion in yo face cause we all got to find our way.  I started getting my life right and all the othah things in life fell in.  I began to think how I was gone to git the kids on my side and still git them to be respectful.  They gone swear and let they pants hang off they ass.  They gone git worked up ovah a pretty girl and act a fool.  How to let em know to act like young men and ladies and have respect foh each othah and they selves?  It wasn’t easy but I managed it, young man.”

            Bill had applied and accepted the job of being a school bus driver in inner city Detroit where most students were poor and all were black.  Bill looked to be a formidable looking young white guy with anger issues.  As they drove slowly downGrand River, the boarded up buildings and weeds growing in cracks in the side walk reminded him of driving in parts of Baghdad and Afghanistan.  Bill believed there were predators hiding behind windows of abandon buildings, ready to kill him and Bertram for the classic car not unlike what he had lived through in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Bill’s head was on a swivel.  He surveyed things from left to right and constantly used his peripheral vision as he drove an even thirty miles and hour.  Bertram wasn’t as cautious.

            “Yeah, I get what you’re saying.  The obvious difference between you and I is the color of our skin.  Them kids are gonna see me tomorrow and automatically are gonna hate me for what they think I am,” said Bill.

            “And you already decided that they gone look at you a certain way.  Imma tell you right now…  Some dem girls gone be workin you like a stick shift.  You a good lookin young man with a good smile and strong build.  Them girls look like women an probably they lookin as good as they evah gone look in they lives but you got to remember that they children trapped in an adult body.  Anyway…  All yo preconceived ideas and thoughts about young, poor black children gone ooze from yo eyes when they step on dat bus.  They already gone think that you some rich kid from Southfield or Royal Oak.  They ain’t gone think you jus some regular working class kid who jus live above 8 Mile all up in Warren.  They ain’t gone know you served.  They gone to think all the things they learned bout white people they whole lives.  How you gone to show dem they wrong?  I tell you what…  If enough white people and black people would put aside what they think and what they learned, we could bring this city back to what it was.  Black people blame whites and whites blame blacks.  How bout people who are black and white get together and say we Detroiters and we gone bring back this town.  I need you and you need me to do it.  I look at Nelson Mandela and the whole dang country of South Africa.  Them black people went from being nothing to running the country and they did not go aftah white people to punish them foh the past.  Why?  Cause a smart man like Mandela understood dat you need the whites to keep the country going. Detroitneed the whites to be in Detroit and if dat evah happens, things gone change.  Prejudice keep things where they at.  You ain’t gotta go to Mississippi, boy.  You got more racism in this state and city than you gone find in the south.  You and I both know cause we served in active combat that when you think might die, it don’t matter much the color of the skin of the dude next to you.  Somebody you know jus die and you not sure if you the next to git picked off and you lookin at the dude next to you and he from Hicksville, Alabama where they hated people from the north and they didn’t much like niggahs but he crying and just wants to be held like a baby and be told dat he gone make it, dat he ain’t gone die but if he does, he want you there wid him so that he don’t die alone…  Make a right up here.”

            Bill thought back to a day in Baghdad when a young boy had tripped a mine on the side of the road.  Bill had gotten out of his tank and tried to comfort a young boy that was missing a leg.  The boy, who was not more than ten years of age, died from a loss of blood.  Bill held the boy until fellow soldiers pried the boy away from him.  Despite all the gore and death Bill had witnessed, seeing a young boy die in a matter of minutes, hit Bill the hardest and had the greatest impact on him.  Tears began to stream down Bill’s cheeks.  Bertram asked no questions.  He just put his hand on Bill’s shoulder and rubbed it.

            “If I can give you one mo piece of advice, young man, I would like you to know dat you got you a finite number of days and yes when you young like you is, you can throw way years and still come out okay.  But them years gone roll like a Sherman Tank and take down evrah thang in it way.  Thirty, forty, fifty and then you git to sixty or mo like me and you wonder whatchu did with your life.  You ask yo-self if you lived or you jus existed?  What is the purpose of all this really?  I could have kept working foh a few more years but then it hit me in the spring when I had mah sixty sixth birthday; I ain’t gone be round much longer.  My wife dead, my son dead, two mah brothers dead and mah parents dead so long ago I sometimes think I jus made them up in mah mind.  If it weren’t foh pictures, Idda believe they was nevah here.  So I got to thinking bout what might make me happy and I decided that I will take this here car all the way toLos Angeles.  Imma go to California aftah living mah whole life in Dee-troit.  If you don’t count the two years I lived inVietnam, I ain’t nevah been nowhere else.  I got me an apartment picked out on computer where I can see the sun set ovah the Pacific Ocean.  Imma stay there all winter.  And so I tell you, young man, find now what gone make you happy.  Don’t keep saying someday cause that someday gone end up at the end of a road that you cain’t turn round on…  Speak of which, this here yo last stop.  Aftah here, you take dem right to school or you finished foh the day…  You gone be fine.”

            Bill drove back to the Coney Island and shook hands with an old man who had done more for him in an hour than most people had done for him in years.  After shaking hands with Bertram, Bill leaned forward and hugged Bertram.  Bill quietly spoke near Bertram’s ear before ending the embrace.

            “Not many people can begin to understand where I came from and where I’m going.  What I went through and where I could wind up…  I hope the west coast is exactly what you want and need.  Thank you for your time, sir.”

            At the second stop of the first day, a young black man with sleep still in his eyes stepped onto the bus with a straight brim Detroit Tigers hat and a white Tiger’s Jersey.  In the rear view mirror, Bill could see that the name on the back of the jersey was Verlander.  The young man sleepily stared out of the window while checking for messages on his cell phone that weren’t there.  His eyes met Bill’s several times in the mirror.  They both looked away.  Finally Bill engaged the young man in conversation.

           “Everyone thinks it’s going to be Boston, The Yankees or Phily.  We got Verlander, Valverde, Cabrera and Jackson.  Verlander might win the Cy Young but it takes a whole team and the Tigers are tough as hell this year,” said Bill.

            “If I could pitch like Verlander, I’d quit school today,” said the young man.

            “Most of us will never be a Verlander.  If we all just try to be as good as we can be everything will be alright.”  Said Bill.

            The young man nodded as he thought about what Bill said.

            “True dat…”

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