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I don’t recall the names of the towns that we drove through that afternoon. We stayed clear of the freeways, traveling on two-lane back highways through the springtime landscape of southern California. I never knew the names of the people in the crowds that lined the shoulders of the road – after thirty years, I can’t even tell you who I sat next to on that ride.

I know that the bus was cramped, crowded, and that the cracked green vinyl seats looked decades old, manufactured before I was born. The only air conditioning came from the handful of windows that we managed for force down into a half-open position. Someone suggested we just smash the other ones open – he wasn’t entirely kidding, and we didn’t entirely rule out doing it. There were no bathrooms on board, but it turned out the alarm on the door in the back was either broken or turned off. 

That bus was paradise, and every bump in the road felt like freedom offering a friendly swat on my backside.

The gleeful throngs in those little towns knew we were coming through; I never thought to ask how they found out. America was feeling gloriously patriotic, and welcomed their Marines back home from the Persian Gulf with cheers and signs. In several of the towns, as the driver slowed down to the speed of a fast walk, strangers handed cases of beer through the accordion doors in the front, and bottles, two-by-two, through whatever windows were ajar enough for our arms to reach outside.

Some of the beer was cold, most of it was warm, and all of it was the best beer we had ever tasted. 

We toasted each other, and we toasted those cheering residents as we passed through them. We rewarded their adulation by waiting until we were out of sight before we tossed the newly-refilled bottles of recycled beer back out the windows to shatter wetly on the faded asphalt.

I regret that my memory of that afternoon is fragmented, and largely missing. It was a span of hours where freedom and joy wrapped around me like a warm quilt that reversed gravity. Coming home with my brothers that day, I gave no thoughts to the future. I was living in the moment in a way that I have rarely experienced again. The future could have told me that even when you come home, part of you will always stay away. 

But for that day at least, I was home.

Photo Curtesy of John Petelle (Image Description: A tall man stands in front of a brick wall. In front of him is a mic and a stand with an open notebook. He is wearing a black U.S. Marines shirt.)

John Petelle (he/him/his) is a Desert Storm veteran (disabled) of the Marine Corps. His career includes time as an editor, elementary school instructor, technology startup member and veteran’s service officer.

A full-time writer, John bakes and distributes fresh bread to bookstores and coffee shop baristas in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Current and pending publication credits include print/online literary journals, anthologies and magazines.

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