In an Ideal World

Originally written for a job interview on May 8, 2007:

In an ideal world, a man will know who he is by the time he hits twenty-one. That’s what FOX television taught me. Sometimes his identity reveals a distinguishing individual, ripe with a heart for travel, eager for a first-class seat to a European country where its famously unique sport calls for distinguishing individuals to outrun the bulls. And sometimes that heart thrusts him into a great world of adventure, a world where casual housewives desire reading about.

In an ideal world, I could’ve been that man. But to call me a distinguished traveler in the face of twenty-one would’ve been like calling a duck on a pond a discriminating seafarer. My 1997 bus ride to Missouri proved that.

Heading for the plains of Mark Twain’s country couldn’t be written off as some adventure-free excursion, for there was a story to tell on the road leading there—one far scarier than sipping Champaign (or apple juice as the case might have been for someone not yet twenty-one) on a first-class to flight to anywhere. Not that one could control his outcome in the face of excitement, granted, for the journey outlined its plot long before it fulfilled itself. Only by picking a different seat could the story have unfolded with alternative details.

A month before I turned twenty-one, my mom informed me that she bought Greyhound tickets for the family to visit my grandmother in Missouri. At first I couldn’t believe I was leaving Florida in a week. Then, when the day actually came, I couldn’t believe I was going to be stuck on a bus for more than thirty hours with nowhere to run. And that “nowhere to run” feeling was the very thing that haunted me when some ex-Vietnam War veteran sat next to me (pinning me to the window) during our stretch from Gainesville, Florida, to Tifton, Georgia.

“The problem with the war is that it programs you, turns you into a monster,” he said. “You could be sitting at home minding your own business, and the next thing you know you could be killing your cat.”

I’d nod—psycho.

“And it could happen anywhere. I mean, you seem like a nice guy, but all it takes is a small trigger, and next thing I know, I could snap your neck. I wouldn’t want to, but by the time I’d realize what happened, it would be too late.”

By this point I’d wish I were in a different seat—or on a plane, which was odd considering I was afraid to fly.

Yes, the journey started there, laying the tracks for a colorful week away from home. But this moment taught me something valuable: adventure has its place, though anxiety lurks in the byline. Anyone who ever lost his luggage in Bermuda would’ve known that; the man who hit a tree on his way down a slope would’ve known that; and the scuba diver who looked up from the depths of the ocean to see a school of sharks separating him from his boat, even he would’ve known that. Once some strange forty-something veteran told me he could kill me where I sat and not think twice (with my mom and five-year-old sister sitting behind me), I came to know that.

And traveling on a bus was not the adventure I wanted. I came to know that, too.