During the many years Lee Copeland has been a software consultant, he's logged quite a few travel miles and amassed numerous tales from all over the world. This story, originally published on StickyMinds.com in November 2001, takes place during and after the September 11 attacks.
When the editors suggested reposting my article, “On the Road,” on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, they asked me to add a few comments.
I first wrote the story of my travels simply so I wouldn’t forget the details of that experience. Those of my generation remember where we were when JFK was shot and what we were doing when Neil Armstrong said “That’s one small step for man …” and, later, “Good luck, Mr. Gorsky,” but the details often fade from our memories.
Reflecting back on the ten years since that tragic day, our nation seems more divided, more angry, more frightened, and more intolerant.
Now, our government protects my fellow airplane passengers by confiscating my spray starch (a product that the National Institutes of Health rates as being of “minimal” danger on health, flammability, and reactivity scales), and requires me to remove my shoes and my non-metallic belt. Last week, they required me to state my name, apparently to see if I knew what was on my state-issued ID.
It’s been a challenging ten years for me personally—a house fire, the deaths of two children, finding and losing love. But, there is also great joy—the successes of my children, the smiles and giggles and hugs of my grandchildren, the love that our family shares.
“On The Road” was a chronicle of my own personal experience. Far more important was our nation’s experience. It is vital that we remember those we lost that day. Anna Allison was a passenger on American Airlines flight 11. She was the founder of A2 Software Solutions and a member of our testing community. She had spoken at the STARWEST testing conference the previous year on the subject “Is Software Improving?” Sadly, I think the answer to Anna’s question is still no.
You may know others who died that day. Keep them in your minds and hearts. Share your memories of them. Live to honor them. Love those who are still with us.
Since then, I’ve added this signature line to my outgoing emails—a personal philosophy I share with you all: “Life is short. Forgive quickly, kiss slowly, love truly, laugh deeply, and never regret making someone smile.”
* * *
For those of you who are more accustomed to riding on airplanes, let me give you some basic information. Our Greyhound bus will be cruising at an altitude of thirteen inches, with an average ground speed of sixty-five miles per hour. Don't bother buckling your seat belt or putting your tray table in its upright and locked position. You haven't got one. And you can put your seat back in any position you want to at any time. The toilet's in the back. Don't drink, smoke, do drugs, or swear on the bus. If you do, I'll throw you off."
That's when I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore. Actually, I was in Louisiana. I had flown to New Orleans on Monday, September 10, 2001, to teach a course for Software Quality Engineering. The flight from Salt Lake City was uneventful, the rental car was ready, and Mapquest.com had given me excellent directions to the client's location, the hotel, the closest ATM machine, and Frank's Famous BBQ. What more could a professional consultant need?
Tuesday, September 11 the class began at 8:30, but it was soon interrupted by vague news reports brought into the training room by people passing by. At our first morning break we found a phone line, connected to the Internet, and clicked on CNN.com. The words on the screen made no sense. By noon the class was canceled for the day; we would begin again the next morning.
At 6:54 a.m. Wednesday, I was awakened by the shrill telephone. The class had been canceled-the building had been closed for security reasons. It was not known when it would reopen, and we would have to reschedule the course. While all airplanes had been grounded the day before, the government had announced that they would be flying again by Wednesday noon. I had a reservation for Thursday to return home and decided I'd keep it. (No use fighting the crowds at the airport today.) I spent the afternoon touring the restored plantation homes west of New Orleans.
Around midnight it was obvious that planes wouldn't be flying for days, no matter what the government had announced earlier. Should I just wait it out in NOLA or find another way home? I called the Greyhound Bus Lines reservations number and found that they don't take reservations-you have to go to the station and buy a ticket. Worried that there would be a mob the next day and no seats available, I set off to the station. At 1:00 a.m. I bought a bus ticket home. It felt right.
The next morning I packed, returned the rental car, caught a cab to the bus station, and waited patiently. At 12:30 p.m. our bus was called for boarding.
"Good afternoon, I'm your bus driver Larry Living. Living's the name-I'm Living, not dead. Although my wife says I'm dead in the bedroom. But I'm not. I'm Larry Living."
So here I was, riding on a bus, a Greyhound bus, looking forward to a long ride with a great reward at the other end--home.
I haven't been on a bus since I went to church camp in high school. I remember that ride: We put shaving cream on the gear shift knob and waited for the driver to change gears. I remember sitting around the campfire each night and then the walks in the woods back to her cabin. Oh, sorry. I digress. There's not much to do on the bus but digress. Talk and digress.
The bus was almost full, not the way it usually is. Most of the passengers were people like me, professional people who had come to New Orleans for professional reasons and who were now anxious to get home. Bob and Sally were from New York City. Actually, it's Dr. Bob. He's a physician who was in New Orleans for a medical conference. His wife Sally came for fun. Their apartment is four blocks from the World Trade Center complex. They had received information that they wouldn't be able to return home for weeks-their building hadn't been damaged but with the smoke and the soot and the rubble and no power and no water, there was no reason to even try to go home. They called friends in Santa Fe and asked if they could live there for a while. The friends said sure, so they were on the bus.
Buses don't travel like airplanes. Buses stop at every little town along the way. In Lafayette, Louisiana, all the street signs are in Cajun French. Farther up the road I saw a sign: "Wal-Mart Alternate Route" with an arrow. I guess the Wal-Mart is so popular that you've got to have multiple routes to handle all the traffic.
Dave was on leave from the Navy. He's an armorer on a carrier-that means he loads the bombs and missiles onto the aircraft. He was heading back to Utah to get married that weekend. He had been given a week before he had to report for duty in San Diego. Amazingly, his fiancée lives in the same little town I do. We asked Dave if they really wrote messages on the bombs in chalk like you see in the movies. He wasn't sure, but we found a piece of paper and wrote our names and the messages we wanted delivered to whoever the enemy turned out to be. Dave promised to write them on the bombs if he could.
"Folks, welcome to Texas. It's about nine at night. For those of you headed west, at nine tomorrow night you'll still be in Texas. Yup, just like they say, it's a whole 'nother country."
Janice is from Spokane, Washington. She's a fraud-prevention specialist with a large credit union. She had been attending a conference and, like the rest of us, wanted to get home. She spent hours describing the various ways people cheat banks and credit unions: They give checks to friends who cash them and then they report the checks stolen. They do the same with credit cards. Janice claims she can tell the phony reports from the real ones "a mile away." But these are just little scams. I asked Janice what the secret was to stealing millions. She just smiled ... and went to sleep.
"This is Amarillo, folks. We have a thirty-five-minute lunch break here. I highly recommend the lunch counter here. It's good food, not like back in the Dallas station. Try the burgers."
Our driver/restaurant guide was right. How long had it been since I'd seen a fry-cook actually toast the buns--a little bit of real butter first, and then grilled to a golden brown? And the tomatoes and onions sliced thick, and only the greenest part of the lettuce, and fries made from real potatoes ... just like I'd done it so many years ago, working my way through high school cooking burgers at Pinky's Drive-Inn. Actually, I started as a car hop. We all wore pink shorts and put little pink plastic elephants on the ice cream cones. Ed, the owner, taught me how to cook burgers right; we grilled the onions too. Oh, sorry.
"Hey, anyone named Bob and Sally on this bus? There's some people out at the side of the road looking' for you."
Rather than wait for the New Yorkers to arrive in Santa Fe, Bob and Sally's friends had driven all night to rescue them from the bus. We were all happy to see the signs and the balloons and the hugs and the tears. Why hadn't someone come to rescue us?
Dean is in the merchant marines. He works as the chief mechanic on ships that supply offshore oil rigs. He was on his way home to Cody, Wyoming, after serving six months off the coast of Nigeria. He loves the sea but loves the rugged mountains of Wyoming even more. He regaled us with tales of Africa and Belize and the North Sea and the South Pacific. Sitting across from Dean was Cliff. Cliff was with his blonde, two-year old daughter, Raven. Raven slept. Cliff talked. Seemed that he and Dean were both from Cody. The first two hours of their discussion consisted of making a list of all the people they both knew and didn't know in Cody. Cliff owns a company that leads pack trips into the mountains--hunting and fishing mostly, although he did have a prospector once who had a secret map, and a couple on their honeymoon who wanted solitude. Into the night they shared stories of encounters with grizzlies. Cliff had to shoot one once--it took three blasts from his shotgun to bring it down.
"All right, folks. This is a five-minute smoke break. Don't be late. You don't want to be left out here. And I will leave you."
We stopped in Pueblo late in the afternoon. Dirk got on the bus and sat by me. Dirk, the classic California surfer dude (long blonde hair, muscles, shorts, sandals, and a tan to die for). He asked if he could read my newspaper. "Sure," I replied. Then Dirk became very serious. He asked, "If I read your paper, will it steal my memory?" I assured him that it wouldn't. At least, I didn't think it would. Later when we stopped for dinner, he asked if the McDonald's burgers would steal his memory. I didn't reply. I wasn't really sure.
Sitting behind me were Greg and Sandi. Because they were young and cute and together, I assumed they were a couple. They weren't. Sandi was going to Salt Lake City to see her boyfriend. Greg was going there to see his girlfriend. I suggested they could save both time and money by forgetting their respective partners and hooking up. They shook their heads in disbelief. What would an old man know about love?
Luis joined the group in Colorado Springs. Luis is fifteen years old. He had just been released from prison. Served eighteen months for attempted murder. Well, not exactly, Luis explained. That was the original charge, but it was plea-bargained down. He was only thirteen at the time of the incident and the other guys did shoot first. Yes, the car he was driving was stolen and, yes, the gun he had was stolen, but they were on his turf and they did shoot first. For just getting out of jail, Luis seemed well equipped--nifty Nikes, cool cell phone, classy gold crucifix, hot hat. He was going home to see his mother, his girlfriend, and his baby, in that order. Fifteen.
"This is Denver. Everyone must leave the bus here. It's due to be serviced. This bus does not go on farther tonight. Those of you continuing on, check the board inside. It will tell you the gate. Thanks for riding TNMO. You thought you were riding Greyhound, but it's TNMO. That's what my paycheck says."
Overnight from Denver to Salt Lake City. Should be an easy ride. We'd made it this far and it was only twelve more hours. We'd heard everyone's story. We were tired. The bus was dark and quiet. It looked like Greg and Sandi may have taken my advice after all. They were wrapped around each other, asleep.
"Rock Springs, Wyoming. I know the Burger King looks closed but they open for us. They like our business. Oh, one more thing. They're really slow here, so watch the time."
The scenery was familiar as the sun rose over the Wyoming plains. I used to live in Denver. I'd driven this highway many times. Each curve and dip is familiar. As the mile markers flashed by, I was getting close to home. At last, I drifted off to sleep.
"Folks, we're about four blocks from the Salt Lake station. I want to warn you that there's no smoking in the station. There's no smoking in the back or out in front either. There is a smoking room in the terminal. They're really nasty about smoking here. If you do it, they'll call the police and you'll get a ticket. It's an amazing place."
Yes, it is.