“Hell, I thought you were right behind me,” Murph said matter-of-factly.
I wondered what both of us would have done if the bus doors had slammed shut and I wasn’t out of the grasp of the holy roller still standing in the middle of the street preaching fire and brimstone to the oncoming cars. He was still there. I saw him clearly through the window as the bus pulled out.
It was now after one in the morning, and we rode the bus for about 15 minutes. Murph got up after the bus stopped for the sixth or seventh time and said, “This is our stop, I think.”
When I excited the bus, the preacher from before was standing on the corner waiting for the light to change. I know it was the same guy. The one who grabbed me in the cross walk. We had come several miles on the bus and he hadn’t gotten on the bus, so I was totally mystified how the tall, thin man in the black tail coat with the tattered bible had gotten there, at the same time as we did.
As soon as he saw me he started in again. “Do you want to go to HELL, boy? If you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your savior, this minute, boy, you’re surely going to HELL. As surely as I’m a standin’ here.” He pounded his palm on the bible he was holding.
I was so shocked to see him there I had nothing. “Sure, whatever.” Murph grabbed my arm and we hurried across the street. I never saw him again, but I still, to this day, wonder how he got there and why he was at that particular bus stop telling me I was going to go to hell.
We spent what was left of the night in a Holiday Inn within walking distance of the Trailways bus station. After a shower and some breakfast, we headed off, refreshed, for the bus station, purchased two round trip tickets to Canyon. The bus was already loading.
The bus, with final destination of Dallas/Fort Worth flashing on the sign over the windshield, was almost full. There were no seats left together, so Murph jumped into an empty seat, and I grabbed the next one in the row. The man I was sitting next to was dressed in a black suit, the coat over his lap, and the sleeves on his white shirt were rolled up. The shirt was so wrinkled, either he had slept in it, or he didn’t own an iron. He didn’t say anything when I sat down. Just looked up and I kind of nodded.
As the bus rolled on down the highway, the man next to me finally said something. “Where you headed?”
“Going to Canyon to check out the university,” I replied.
“You a student?” he asked.
“No,” I thought, “I’m just going to the university for something to do over Spring Break (which was partially true),” but I said, “Yes. Going to New Mexico Highlands University right now. Thinking about transferring.”
“Oh. Where’s New Mexico Highlands University?” I was no longer finding it surprising that no one knows where Highlands University is located.
“It’s in Las Vegas. New Mexico that is. If you ever win a trip to Las Vegas, make sure you know what state it’s in,” I added. I always find that funnier than anyone else ever does whom I tell it to. “What do you do?
“I collect for charity for a living,” he said. “I’m currently collecting for ‘basket cases.'”
A basket case usually means someone who is hopelessly off their rocker, but what my bus companion was referring to, as he explained in detail, was an offensive slang term that was coined by the British Army during World War I to describe a soldier that had lost all four of their limbs through amputation. Known medically as a quadruple amputee. He described that these basket cases were so-called because they put them in a sort of hanging basket so they could be held upright. I’m pretty sure that’s not true, but what did I know. I couldn’t believe there could be too many of these that needed his charitable work. The mental picture that was developing in my head was shocking.
“Doesn’t matter how many there are,” he explained. “I don’t even know. The point is it’s a pretty sad condition, don’t you think, and people will donate money for them.”
He vigorously described his “sales pitch” for my benefit. He would go into bars, order a beer and start talking to a customer at the bar. The conversation would inevitably get around to what he did for a living. He would tell them horror stories about the basket cases he had seen from the Viet Nam War and that he had found it his life’s calling to collect donations for their treatment and hope for some kind of life. He even invented a name for his charity. I don’t remember what it was, because after he said this, “Hell, I even give them a receipt for tax purposes if they ask for it,” I right away understood what “I collect for charity for a living” meant.
“How much do you make collecting for these basket cases?” I asked.
“I make a living,” he said. “Do you want me to help you practice a sales pitch?”
“Uh, no,” I answered and tapped Murph on the shoulder who was seated in front of me. “How much farther we got?”
“Not long,” he said. The man turned away and watched the passing scenery, or lack of. Not much to see in this part of Texas, although you can literally see for miles. Flat.
When we arrived on the campus of West Texas State University, now West Texas A&M University, after a short walk from the bus station, two things stood out to me. One, all the men seemed to be wearing ROTC uniforms. The other, all the girls were in dresses, no pants, no jeans, no shorts. At Highlands, in 1971, a lot of the girls wore bib overalls, usually with nothing underneath, halter-tops were big, bell-bottomed jeans, short shorts, and we heckled anyone walking around campus with a military uniform of any kind. Entertainment was 10 cent beer night at La Casita, or sneaking into Joe’s Ringside, the strip joint with the clever girl who could launch ping-pong balls into the crowd, or eating greasy fries at 2 am at The State Cafe. I was about to be introduced to the Bible Belt.
We found the administration building and, even though we told no one we were coming, the attractive girl…in the a dress… at the information desk was able to get me in to talk with someone in the admissions office. Murph declined and said he would meet me back here in a couple of hours. I have no idea what he did during that time, but I got the sales pitch of the century. Yes, I was still accepted to attend school there, my financial aid package was still good, my program of study was the best on campus and in the state even, (Which was funny because I really didn’t have a “program of study.” I just made one up, Pre-Law), I would fit in well with the student population (I did not believe that for a minute), we could get all the paperwork done today and be ready to attend classes Spring semester.
I looked out the window and saw an Army ROTC group drilling on the quad. Two girls walked by in frilly dresses. I turned back to the task at hand and completed the transfer paperwork. I shook hands with the admission’s counselor and thanked him for helping me on such short notice, and told him I was looking forward to attending school there starting in two weeks. As I walked out the door I knew with certainty that there was no way in HELL I was going to be going to West Texas State University. The first obstacle would be that my parents had no idea I was even thinking about it. I couldn’t figure out how I was getting back here in two weeks. I didn’t know anybody. I had already registered for classes at NMHU. I was in a fraternity that had no chapter on this campus and fraternities and sororities on this campus probably held Sunday Socials, not the Saturday night kind of which I had become accustomed.
“Your left. Your left. Your left, your right, your left.” I could hear it coming from the lawn as I met up with Murph who was sitting on a garden wall out front.
“Well, whatta ya think?” he asked.
“Not a chance in hell,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “Let’s go home.”
We took the bus back to “Amarilla,” as they say in Texas, and, with our remaining funds, bought some provisions for the trip back to Vegas. Two more cans of Vienna Sausages. Although I’ve never developed a taste for them, I ate most of one of the cans during the trip home. We made it back to campus late the next morning. I was to attend New Mexico Highlands University for only two more semesters.