Three years ago, the counselor I visit once every three weeks suggested that I had PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder. I thought she was kidding. I’d never been to war. Never been involved in daily strife.
She insisted that several happenings explained why, when greatly stressed, I went from serenity to desolation in a nanosecond. In the past year, that has happened twice:
1. Late one evening last April I realized that the skin cancer I have—mycosis fungoides, a type of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma—could kill me. Within a matter of seconds I imagined myself so ill that I’d be unable to complete a manuscript. There you have it. Serene one moment; desolation the next.
2. Last August I blithely ran the sweeper over a pile of wet dirt from a plant, thus staining the carpet. Within a mere second I had myself staying here in Missouri and being unable to move back to Minnesota because I couldn’t afford new carpeting and so couldn't sell the house. Serenity becomes desolation.
The reason I resisted the counselor’s suggestion for several months is that I’d once met a person who’d experienced PTSD on a Greyhound bus headed from Kansas City, Missouri, to Minneapolis, Minnesota.
I’d been visiting my father for spring break in 1971and was headed back to Minnesota. Next to me sat a young soldier who’d recently returned from Vietnam. He was traveling north to Ames, Iowa, to visit college friends. He sat next to the window; I, by the aisle. We began to talk. His voice quavered as he spoke; his hands trembled.
I’d read enough about the two world wars to wonder if he wasn’t suffering from shell shock, or “battle fatigue.” The term post-traumatic stress syndrome was just coming into usage in the early seventies for men and women who came home from Vietnam, troubled by an array of symptoms—one of them flashbacks.
As we traveled north toward Iowa, I asked the young man about his days in high school. He’d been a quarterback on his high school football team. I knew nothing about the game, but my ignorance was good because explaining the game seemed to calm him.
The sun set; darkness settled within the bus. We were now comfortable enough with each other for the young solider to confide that his sweetheart was afraid of him. His parents loved him but couldn’t understand why he’d come home so different from the cherished son they’d sent off to war. He feared sudden noise. Flashing lights. Yelling. He shared all this somewhat apologetically—as if he were unfit. Unmanly. Not a credit to the uniform he’d worn.
An eighteen-wheeler passed us, blinking its lights and honking, creating a wave of movement. Suddenly the young man—the soldier—the son of parents who’d been proud—began to shout. “Charlie! Get down!” Trembling, he crouched in the space between his seat and the back of the one in front of him.
The semi passed. Then other cars zoomed by, their speed swaying the bus. Blurring headlights in the deep night. Honking.
All of this caused his flashback. He was there in the jungles of Vietnam. Charlie—the enemy Viet Cong—loomed there, ready to kill him and his buddies.
He stood suddenly, whispering hoarsely, “It’s an ambush!” Pushing me aside to get to the aisle, he weaved down the narrow passageway, trying to avoid those remembered bullets. His shouts splintered the darkness with fear.
I following, hearing a cacophony of complaints: “It’s unseemly, acting like that!” “He’s drunk.” “Grab him! He’s got a gun!” Throughout all of this, the bus driver asked for calm. His plea was met with the command, “Stop the bus! Put him off the bus!”
The young man was at the front now. Panting. His eyes darting right and left. Fear scored his face as he turned back and faced all those people in the dark. “It’s Charlie,” he shouted. “Get down! Charlie!”
I began to sing to him. “Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly. Birds fly over the rainbow, why then oh why can’t I? . . . “
I sang; the passengers grumbled. And the young soldier? Ever so slowly he relaxed his shoulders. Then he grabbed hold of me and began to cry. I enfolded him in my arms and led him back to his seat. Slowly, as if he were an aged warrior, the youth sat down, then hunched over, his tears spattering the floor. Those around us told him to be quiet. “It’s unseemly,” I heard again.
Suddenly, I’d had enough. I stood up and shouted. I was so angry, I’m really not sure what I said, but something like this: “This man’s shell shocked! He fought in Vietnam and he’s come home with terrifying memories. Cut him some slack. He’s been wounded by the war. He’s having a flashback.”
Some of the women stopped crying. Some men stopped grumbling. But others shouted that both of us should be put off the bus. We’d disturbed their sleep.
The young man sobbed as if his heart were broken in two. Someone from the front yelled, “He’s a coward!” and I yelled back, “Takes one to know one!”
Then I came out with my all the swear words I knew at the time. “Dammit to hell, what’s wrong with you bastards! Don’t you realize this man’s wounded? The war wounded his mind! If he’d lost a leg or an arm, you’d have some empathy. Why not for his mind? Tell me that! Why not?”
By now we were coming into Ames, Iowa, the destination of the young man. Whispering, gossiping about what had happened, the passengers disembarked to find food and use the restrooms. When the bus was empty, the driver helped me lead the wounded soldier off the bus to where his friends waited for him.
I explained what had happened and asked them to get him to someplace where he could sleep. “He needs help,” I said. “Could you take him to see a doctor at the University?” They assured me they’d do all they could for their friend.
I went inside the depot, used the bathroom, and bought a sandwich and some orange juice. By that time most of the other passengers were back on the bus. When I started to board, several shouted to the bus driver, “Don’t let her on! Make her take the next bus!” They complained about how I’d protected “that lunatic,” how I’d shouted at them, how I’d called them cowards.
The bus driver—bless him—asked me to take the seat behind him. “I’ll protect you from them,” he said and winked. And so from Ames to Minneapolis I sat behind the bus driver in the dark of a spring night. He shared with me his own fears from fighting in the Pacific in World War II. I listened as he told me about one of his buddies who’d experienced battle fatigue.
“I wish I could have helped you when you were trying to protect that young man," he said, "but I just wanted to get to Ames. I knew he needed to get out of the confines of this dark bus.”
“You understood,” I said.
“Better than most.”
Photos from Wikipedia.
Sites to visit to read more about shell shock and PTSD are the following: