Friday, December 31, 2010
Wheels on the Bus
About fifteen years ago, I met Ken Bilderback. He worked at a newspaper in Portland, OR, and I was selling newspaper archiving software with my friend, Glenn Cruickshank. I immediately liked Ken. He was funny, dark, witty, shy, a bit awkward, very accomplished as a newspaper man. I knew there was more to the man than being the managing editor of a mid-sized paper.
Over the years, I left the newspaper archiving business, moved to Virginia and became a consultant. I lost track of Ken. And then, along came Facebook.
And along came Ken. It was nice to reconnect. Over the course of many posts, I learned Ken had written and self-published a book called Wheels on the Bus. It's a fictionalized memoir of a trip Ken took when he was 18 in 1974. It sounded interesting and before I knew it, Ken had sent me a copy. Signed, of course.
I read it over the holiday. He warned me it was "raw." Yes, what Ken talks about is hard to read, but I choose "honest" over raw. Raw for him, to be sure, but he probes the dark places with honest emotion.
The premise is simple: Teenaged boy wants to escape an abusive father and passive-aggressive mother, so he buys an Ameripass and takes off for a month on Greyhound in a trip around the States. Oh, you say, been there, read that. Probably, but I found the read to be a carthartic experience. It wasn't On the Road; it was much more personal than that.
I kept seeing the lines on an EKG chart, the ones that blip up and down with every heartbeat. Ken's account is like an EKG chart: he dips into the dark places before retreating to the brighter places. On the bus, he met a variety of people, many he thinks about thirty years later. He learned lessons that would also stay with him, too.
Ken is ten years younger than I am. If I overlay my EKG with his, slide it forward a decade, it could be my EKG. Maybe that's why I related to book. I went through many of the same things. My bus was a beat-up VW, and four of us drove or pushed it to Arizona to spend some time on a reservation. One of the four is Apache, so we decided to see what peyote, among other drugs, were all about.
Touch points with Ken include abusive stepfather, passive-aggressive mother, dreams of escape, knowledge that I would not stay in my stepfather's house after high school graduation. That was my ticket out. I've seen UFOs. My car was a Mustang, not a Camaro. One non-touch point: I always knew I was going to UCLA and that eventually I would earn my doctorate.
Ken provides vignettes about the people he met: The disfigured veteran with "rickets of the eye," the hippie chick with the tiny tits, thugs and a dead man with flesh-colored shoes, whores and kindly old ladies, a Muslim who trusted his young child to Ken's care to deliver to her grandmother in another city. And there was the lesbian stripper in New Orleans twenty years later who wrote on her website that Ken was a good guy. He didn't suck.
When I met Ken, I knew he didn't suck. Now I know why.
If you want to read Wheels on the Bus, you can buy it from Ken's website or buy the Kindle version at Amazon.