Hardly more than twenty-four hours earlier I was slogging up a foggy Bosnian mountainside, escaping the war-ravaged Sarajevo valley under sporadic sniper fire. Forced to leave my new wife behind, I made it later the next morning to the besieged town on Mostar, and finally, by mid afternoon to Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. As night fell, I drifted into an exhausted sleep for the 13 hour bus ride to Zagreb, a full five hours longer since Croatian Army checkpoints and Serb held lands encroached and threatened the two lane highway.
The inky curtains of night, scented with drizzling rain brought a chill through the crowded old Yugoslav Centrotrans bus. I managed a small pocket of warmth beneath my jacket by curling tightly on the worn green vinyl bus seat. i looked up briefly as the bus pulled off the road into the jaundiced light of a road side restaurant. I’d recalled the place from a previous trip. It was an oasis of sorts, miles from the nearest town. I tucked my head under the jacket and went back to sleep.
A short time later I awoke. The bus was nearly empty. A few souls dozed in their seats. Most had gone in for a drink or a meal. Under that jacket, and better than two days since washing, I had even begun to offend myself. I decided a little cleansing was in order.
Leaving my jacket and the rest of my things on the seat, I grabbed my toothbrush, a clean pair of socks and climbed down from the bus, struggling to find my legs at first. I stretched with a yawn and looked back along that dark two-lane highway. To one side lay the Serb-held hills, to the other the sea.
Inside the sounds of diners and the glare of lights were almost assaulting. I paused, looked over to the bus driver, still working on a tiny cup of Turkish coffee, and nodded. In the tiny restroom I grabbed a hand full of towels and stripped to the waist. The cold splash of water fought against the lingering sleep in my body, the tooth-brush and fresh socks brought me a bit closer to humanity.
There were a hand full of Croatian Kuna in my pocket, enough to buy a soda. Stepping out into the diningroom I paused, the realization that the place was suddenly empty not quite taking hold for the moment. Through the plate glass window, just pulling back out onto the highway was the bus!
Swearing loudly, I was off in an instant, bursting through the door, vaulting a short wall and sprinting across the gravel lot after the bus. I yelled, and yelled again, charging into the road, but to no avail. I watched, still running, socks and toothbrush in hand, as the bus went over the hill and disappeared into the black Croatian night.
I kept running, waving my arms. What else could i do? My passport, journals from the war, marriage documents that would get my new wife to America and the one credit card I possessed were on that bus bound for Zagreb. Never in my life, not in the war or anywhere else did I feel so naked and helpless as I did at that instant on that dark deserted road.
A horn blared from behind as a semi-truck swerved around me before it too was swallowed by the night. I kept running, now thinking it was time to head back to the restaurant and call some authority, but as I reached the crest of the hill I was amazed to find the truck driver had somehow signaled the bus. They sat beside the road a little better than a half mile ahead. Shouting at the top of my lungs, I covered the distance in record time, embracing the truck driver and getting a round of applause from all those aboard the bus.
I collapsed into my seat, pouring sweat, heart pounding madly, more from the thought of what might have happened that night. After a time I started to laugh, and soon couldn’t stop laughing, drawing some odd looks from other passengers. I don’t recall that I stopped laughing that night, only that I awoke the next morning as the bus pulled into Zagreb. Never had that city looked so good.