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Bus Ride

by Terry Sanville

I don’t mind this place. It’s got a nice view of the valley and they let me play my guitar. I’m here because of my age and because poorly controlled diabetes has taken a leg and threatens the other. But it’s sure better than Camarillo State Mental Hospital. I spent years there before they shut down in ’97 and shipped us long-stays to hell and gone. The new meds advertised on TV seem to help me clamp down on the manic phases when I’m rapid cycling while not sending me into the deep purple abyss where suicide seems like the best answer. Hell, maybe it is.

Picture of an older man playing acoustic guitar.
Image credit: Canva

I used to patrol the streets of this West Coast town, talking to myself at 78-speed. Remember record speeds? It had started during my senior year in high school during the ’60s: the run-away irritability or euphoria, like I’d taken speed, what we now call meth. My classmates and teachers thought I took drugs. I got labeled a nut job, possibly dangerous, and definitely not somebody you’d want your daughter to go on a date with. And being in crowds fed my mania, all that energy, all those minds and bodies spinning and spinning and spinning.

After high school I attended the State University in my hometown, going for a degree in political science. I always did well in school, although in college it became harder and harder to focus, to concentrate, to perform. My saintly mother let me rant and rave around the house on any number of my favorite topics – the Vietnam War and its amoral politics being at the top of my list. And she would befriend other kids my age at the Newman Center and invite them to our house, hoping some good Catholics would become my pals. Most of it didn’t stick, except maybe with Alex, who seemed depressed about flunking out of Architecture School and being dumped by a girlfriend.

But the gift Alex gave me went far beyond friendship – the gift of music. One afternoon in his apartment in 1967 he put on an album and Jimi Hendrix blasted forth with Manic Depression. That crazy sound seemed to suit me, the title fit me, and I loved its fast waltz rhythm. I wanted to be part of it.

Alex had a cartoon poster on his wall that showed a bunch of people sitting in an old bus. Some of them grinned wildly and flailed their arms while others sobbed into their hands. The bus rested on blocks, the wheels missing. The cartoon was captioned, “The Manic Depression Bus.” I wondered if Alex had posted it for me to see, some less-than-subtle way of saying that he understood, that I was on that bus, traveling at warp speed but going nowhere.

I also learned to love the blues. Over the years of playing guitar, I’d discovered one of the secrets of musicians: playing or singing the blues can actually raise your spirits. What a concept! It’s like the opposite of feeding ADHD kids Ritalin to calm them down. Maybe it’s the release of emotion that forces each note out of the instrument or a mouth. Hard to say. But after blues sessions, mostly involving myself, I’m calm and smiling and at peace . . . well, almost.

Like Alex, but for different reasons, I couldn’t make it through college. I spent nights at the University library, pacing the stacks while my mind framed arguments, considered alternatives, postulated outcomes, put forth theories, conjured up feelings of satisfaction or dismay, then felt all that energy boil down into a depressive soup. The librarians would find me weeping in the reference section with dozens of books spread over the tables, opened to pages ripe for citation.

During the summer between our second and third year, Alex and I quit the University. We drove my mother’s dog-puke-green Rambler station wagon from San Luis Obispo to the Expo ’67 in Montreal, Canada. Both the car and my mind flew across the United States, the energy from the road just roiling up in the North Dakota heat. We passed through a summer-baked Detroit, three weeks after the riots, then ducked into Canada. I thought a lot about ditching America and moving there, trying to avoid being drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. The draft kept me manic and awake nights.

I had applied to the Selective Service for 1-O (Conscientious Objector) status and had enlisted the help of a local hippie priest. But the good padre proved to be no help whatsoever, pointing out that I only objected to the Vietnam War and not others. I got reclassified 1-A and received my draft notice, ordered to show up at the Armed Forces Induction Center on South Broadway in Los Angeles. The place had made the evening news: film clips of anti-war demonstrators distributing pamphlets outside while lines of draftees marched like robots single-file through the doors. I had no doubt what group I belonged in. But my craziness kept me from joining any group and I could barely stand to be around Alex. On our trip back from Montreal he abandoned me and our fair prairie Rambler somewhere in Iowa and hitchhiked back by himself. I think he would rather leave than say what he thought of me; he was kind in a sort of backhanded way.

I refused to respond to the draft notice. Three months later, the cops showed up at our home and hauled me away, my mother screaming at them to stop. I spent a month in County Jail, refused to eat, barely spoke. I didn’t need to; the conversations in my head kept replaying in short bursts, like a stuck record, and beat back the sleep. Finally, they released me. My mother and I had worked out a deal with the Feds that I would provide alternative service to fulfill my so-called military obligation.

I boarded a Greyhound bound for Long Beach and my job as an orderly at the huge VA hospital. The Veterans Administration had just completed some new buildings and I got assigned to the psychiatric unit – what the hell were they thinking? Many of the

Picture of an empty white bus, at the bus stop with the door open. The trees around have no leaves.
Image credit: Maria Lysenko on Unsplash

vets couldn’t get out of bed and suffered both mental and physical wounds. This one man had a huge scar on his forehead in the shape of a perfect asterisk – but with no footnote at the bottom of his page. He never spoke . . . no lights on in that house. In some way I felt envious.