A few hours after an armed holdup Wednesday morning at a downtown Scranton-based Community Bank, I drove my school bus very carefully down a very icy East Mountain road. Every time I applied air brakes in order to safely maneuver narrow descending curves, 35 elementary age students screamed like nervous stagecoach passengers in flight from an Apache surge. After admonishing all students to maintain safe behavior, a third grade kid, cute and corpulent, Robert A., specially seated by the administration in the bus first row, stood up and hollered, “Are we going to die, Chuck?”
“No, no, Robert, not if I can help it... but please stay seated and I will get everybody home.”
“I need to get home to feed our cat and play my new Call of Duty game!”
“Well, Robert, try to relax and behave. Before you know it, you'll be seeing mommy standing at your front door just like always!”
“O really, Chuck? Mom still might be mad because I pasted the pages of my dinosaur book. Uh, that book really stinks.”
“She'll get over it, Robert.! In meantime take a nap, because I must be very careful going down scary Grove Street.”
Suddenly, after a lengthy series of necessary brake applications, the school bus air supply lowered, and the ABS system activated. In tandem with interior red lights and a loud beeping noise, the bus automatically braked and slid downhill (on ice) for approximately 10 harrowing feet.
“Ooh, ooh, you see what I'm saying now, Chuck? We're all going to die!”
“Nope, not so. Lucky no cars were ahead and this is not how we die, Robert.”
“O really? I guess I'll have to do stupid homework tonight then.”
“You'll pass through that, too, Robert.”
Rather stressed, and precariously stranded in the oncoming traffic lane, I looked ahead (west) at a steep embankment located only a football field or so from Interstate 81 North. In foreign territory, like a US military vessel caught in Iranian territorial waters, and grateful no impatient motorists were around, I collected my head, assured the kids safety, and re-started the bus. In time, the air supply re-generated and without incident, the student's homebound journey continued. Before getting underway, I came close and looked straight into the school bus security camera, frowned and whispered, “Birthday number 64 has got to get better.”
The way home south on Main Street from our West Scranton school busyard was a turning point for me. Freezing rain struck my Dodge Stratus windshield, and the wiper blades started to scratch glass. Realizing another costly replacement cost loomed, I heaved a long sigh, and realized the fact that perhaps none of my school bus passengers had any clue knew as to what was a 19th Century stagecoach. Why, hell, unless parents watched John Wayne movies, how would kids even know that shortly after the “Shock & Awe” of Atlanta and slave emancipation, General William Tecumseh was given presidential orders to vanquish and force Plains Indians onto reservations. Very sad to consider how the American public education system (unionized) has a built-in “brake' system which stops the learning process when the teaching of factual history reaches a “No Trespassing” cliff? That's what it means to grow up, I thought..., in 1960's classrooms, “been there/done that,” and I listened to the annoying east-west saber scrapes upon the Dodge windshield.
Having undergone Matt Dillon and Cartwright family socialization, and given that birthday #64 had several hours left, I thought it best to forget how I once proudly wore a studded Roy Rogers shirt and cowboy hat.
Must accustom and adapt oneself to gadget and institutional breakdowns? That too signals what it means to grow up, and I (somewhat) understand! One cannot sensibly live in the past, and as a school bus driver, I also had to accept the fact that all my elementary school kids (grades Kindergarten-4) ever talked about were the adventures of Mario and Luigi. O, wait a second? A few boys wear Spiderman hoodies and they say he's tougher than Superman.
Having undergone Matt Dillon and Cartwright family socialization, and given that birthday #64 had several hours left, I thought it best to forget how I once proudly wore a studded Roy Rogers shirt and cowboy hat. Time passed, and while Charles Manson organized a happy desert family, I sang along to The Beatles, “When I'm 64,” and drunkenly boasted to friends that I'd never live to see such age. Somehow, I managed to outlive Lennon and Harrison, but on January 13, 2016, with my beautiful bride Carol sick at home, I decided to celebrate my birthday alone, and enjoy an Italian meal and beer at favorite Arcaro's Restaurant and Bar!
Turning right off Main Street and into Arcaro's parking lot, I looked directly east and watched a Taylor Borough police car enter the popular WalMart complex. Another robbery brewing, I thought? Easing the Dodge into a cramped parking space, I hesitated and continued to play a Tom Waits C.D., in particular the final track, New Years Eve. A “back-sliding” Baby Boomer, I am not much into the music of either Taylor Swift or Kanye West, and Tom Waits' poetic moans and groans are “tailor made” for me. Again, time passes, and I carefully opened the car door, and clung to a far out hope that a lonely American-Serb passerby might hear an unorthodox Auld Lang Syne.
Mind possessed by a large (affordable) spaghetti dinner and a tall Coors Light draft, and upon entering the bar section of the restaurant, I automatically looked right and saw a man flat upon the floor. Perhaps age late-70's, the man's face painfully stilted to the side and his body shook uncontrollably. White stringy hair, he wore navy blue Dickey pants and a print button collar shirt. On the bar's north wall, a poster of smiling Denver Bronco quarterback, Peyton Manning, proclaiming “Nationwide is on your side!”
Blood covered hands, the old man's dentures and eyeglasses lay inches away from frothing mouth; his eyes were closed. The bartender momentarily absent, I immediately knelt beside the man, pat his head, and felt for a pulse... “yes, yes, there's a pulse!” Suddenly, the seizure totally ceased... looked like the Angel of Death ministered to the stricken man, and the young bartender (Dave) emerged from the kitchen. He explained how he had to let the manager know what happened, and I immediately assured him, “I can fully relate to business, Dave, but please call 9-1-1 right now!” With haste and a precision description of the emergency, the bartender did so, and I began to move tables and chairs protectively away from where the old man lay.
“What the hell happened, Dave?”
“Well, Chuck, you see, he comes here pretty often to eat and drink a beer, and this time, as I waited on another couple at the end of the bar, I heard him growl and his hands went up in the air as if signaling a touchdown. He swooned, slouched off stool, and plopped down hard onto the floor!”
“Do you know his name, where he lives?”
“All I know is that his name is Bill Pug. You see, he usually sits alone, doesn't talk much to anyone, and I don't even know where he lives.”
Waiting, waiting for E.M.S. arrival. A minute passed, and while kneeling beside the man, his eyes opened, scared of course, he started to shift left and right upon the floor. I came close to his face, smiled, told him, “You're going to be okay, Bill. Help's on the way. Just try to rest, don't move.” In a split second, he paid no heed to such suggestion, and continued to futilely shuffle across the floor.
In order to guard against further injury, I stood between Mr. Pug's restless body and the tables and chairs. A Tarantino horror scene, I watched Bill's bloody hands try to raise his body and momentarily sit, only to fall helplessly back upon the killer floor. I think it will take another 64 years to ever forget the look in Bill's ghostly red eyes.
First on scene, a lone paramedic entered and began to question both the bartender and I as to exactly what happened. Dave and I explained all we knew, and we tried to help the cool-headed paramedic get a blood pressure cuff around Bill's right bicep. He continued to resist, moved prohibitively, and the paramedic decided instead to administer a “shot” which was likely a sedative. All three of us stood and made a protective perimeter around Bill's stricken body, and we heard the sirens of two ambulances pass by Arcaro's, north and south on Main Street.
“Do you think he had a seizure... Sugar Shock, perhaps?” I inquired.
“Yes, Mister. Does not look like he had an epileptic episode, and he might have suffered Insulin Shock – cannot get at his wallet, but time will tell though.”
Soon Bill Pug was strapped to an emergency vehicle's stretcher, and wheeled outdoors and onto an ambulance. Theoretically, yes... I was still hungry and it's Russian New Years Eve, my 64th birthday. As workers mopped the floor where Bill lay, I sat upon a stool furthest from the fall. A picturesque elderly couple, who witnessed the entire event, sat on corner stools, drank red wine and waited for orders of beef tacos. The man looked at me and said, “Do you believe what just happened?”
I shrugged, replied, “things like this and worse happen more often than I want to contemplate, Sir.”
“Fuss up sonny... that's what it's like when 'ya grow old,” said the lady.
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Soon, Dave the bartender returned and politely offered up a beer “on the house.”
“Bottoms up, Chuck!”
“Well thank you very much Dave! I really need something much stronger to settle down though.”
“Should I order your usual dish of spaghetti and meatballs, tossed salad, vinegar and oil dressing?”
“Nah. Change of stomach plans, I'll go with only a beer tonight.”
“As you saw, Chuck, I gave the talkative 9-1-1 operator the exact address for an ambulance to get here. Ain't' that so, Chuck?”
“O yea! I listened attentively while you told the operator Arcaro's exact address.”
“Thanks for saying that, I feel a bit better now. O man – had Bill taken a heart attack or stroke, and given the ambulance delay, he might have died right here.”
Dave and I looked long at one another, and we listened to a tall T.V. news broadcaster describe the morning armed robbery at Community Bank, emphasizing how “police feel this robbery is unrelated to other recent bank robberies in Scranton.”
“D'ya think we helped save Bill, Chuck?”
“I can't rightly say for sure, but I know Bill saved me from drinking too much beer tonight and further clogging my arteries with more spaghetti and bad cholesterol. Hee-hee.”
“Better than dying from mercury tuna or radioactive salmon?”
“Okay, Dave, gotcha! Just let me have a bag of no salt pretzels and I'm out of here.”
Upon return home to our apartment, wife Carol met me at our door, and told me, “my, my, where have you been so long? Figured your school bus run took longer than usual, and I'm really glad to see you're home and in one piece. Any chance you're still hungry, Chuck? I have some leftover chicken soup.”
“(Sigh) All that's left is soup, Carol?”
“Well it builds up your immunity, you forgot Jewish Penicillin helps people live longer?”
I thought about Bill upon Arcaro's floor, and how he struggled so hard to stay alive. Was he a pipefitter, a mason, maybe a cook, a plumber, an accountant, perhaps a Congressman? While Carol warmed a big bowl of chicken soup and noodles, I lay back upon our couch to think. I thought about Robert A., my little school bus rider who was so afraid to die and do homework. Will Robert ever learn about Empires and how they die, too? Could the American Empire one day arrive at a similar dreaded seizure situation like Bill's? In crisis, I watched helplessly as Bill Pug passionately stuck to a personal will to Manifest Destiny and tried to expand into the four directions of Arcaro's Restaurant and Bar .
Like Tom Waits sang in “New Years Eve,” maybe it's actually best that I go back to driving school bus come Monday? At kitchen table, Carol watched as I devoured the soup, and requested more noodles. “Ha, ha, I think you better double-up on your Lipitor medicine tonight!” I pat my wife's head, and hard-headed, she asked, “Do you think I'm a cat, Chuck?”
Copy that, I entered our parlor and started to read Tom Wolfe's “A Man in Full.” Very timely for the purpose of both self and 21st Century community enlightenment, an entrepreneur character talked to another about the best way to rob a bank, and he grimly advised, “Go and buy one.” Tom Wolfe is still hot and fresh as Arcaro's pizza!
Soon, I nodded off and Carol unexpectedly entered the parlor, and handed me our “land-line” telephone. Merrily, Carol said, “it's Aunt Helen and she has something to tell you!”
“Hello, Aunt Helen, so nice to hear from you tonight!”
“My, my, another birthday for my nephew... Happy Birthday!”
“(Sigh) How you never forget, Aunt Helen!”
“Ha, ha. It's impossibly hard to forget, Chuck! Why I vividly recall how a handsome Scranton doctor spoke with your mother in December 1951, and said “Well, Mary, how would you like to have a Russian New Years Eve baby?”
“Jesus, I never heard that slice of Orloski history before. How did the doctor know?”
“Hmm, Chuck..., you know how mystical those Russkies and Polacks are!”
“O yea, Aunt Helen, and if anyone knows how to place stints in speeding troika pipes, it's Slavs.”
“Good night, Mr. Zhivago, and many happy returns!”
“Thanks so much, Aunt Helen, and be sure Uncle Joe does not fall asleep with glasses on!”
Click went telephone receiver and an endless buzz.
Wow! In bed hours before midnight, I checked my pulse, I had one, and for extra precaution, I ate a bar of Hershey dark chocolate. Can you imagine having such for a nightcap? And for official record, my mother certainly did have a Russian New Years baby while Ike was president, healer Rasputin long dead, and (perhaps) on a cold morning when “high energy” Bill Pug rode a trolley to work at Scranton's Grove Silk Mill. I nudged my wife's aching side, cackled, “Uh, what's that noise... can 'ya hear it? Quick, quick, Carol, wake up – call 9-1-1!” An Old Believer, I swear in the names of Saints Cyril and Methodius that I heard the ghost of old Pugachev rebelliously shuffling across our attic floor; he's forever anxious about the Okhrana's swift response!