On our bus route in NYC, no one got up when a grey-haired man with a long pony tail lurched up the steps, walker first. Printed on his worn brown cap was “American Veteran” and it was the Fourth of July. The vet was going to sit though no seat was open, and he motioned to a white-haired man to move over one in the handicapped seat area at the front of the bus. And he did, grimacing, but kept his legs spread wide, his manicured white fingers trembling from age or anger, I wasn’t sure which.
The vet was a big man in a loose T-shirt and shorts, awkward, and vocal. I don’t know where he was headed. He launched into a description of how important this day was to him and the three ladies in the handicapped seats opposite listened and nodded.
“This is the first day I’m out of my wheelchair in four years,” he explained and when he spoke, his gums showed where he was missing front teeth. He began a story about the VA and his endless struggle to get his healthcare right.
He maneuvered the walker up beside him into a raised space near the front where people sometimes rest their bags. Twisting in his seat, his large backpack squeezed the space of the man next to him, who nudged it, then hit at it. I thought a fight might break out right there but it didn’t, and they settled in after a few pushes.
“I feel bad,” I said.
“Don’t,” a young woman next to me said, “He’s taking care of himself, he’s strong, and he’s going to be just fine.”
I started worrying about the night’s celebrations and the noise of it all, and how people who’d been in the wars would feel with the fireworks going off. I had a flashback to a fireworks display in Albany years ago where a homeless man raced out into the crowd from under an overpass, terrified and yelling, thinking he was at war again.
I remembered my childhood Fourth-of-July times, confusing because my mother wouldn’t condone fireworks – dangerous for the fingers and she was a pianist – and my father, also a veteran, didn’t like the noise-makers. Long after I’d left home I realized he probably had post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD) and I began to understand the “rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air” brought back painful memories, as it does for many of the men and women who’ve been in combat.
Military with PTSD is helping with signs this year for veterans and loved ones to put out: “Combat Veteran Lives Here – Please Be Courteous with Fireworks.” If you see one of these, you can let them know if you’ve got fireworks planned so they can prepare and get headphones on or at least, avoid the surprise.
May your Fourth of July be a safe one, and may you get a seat on the bus, wherever your life is taking you.