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A Memoir

four

Her two sons carried her into the trauma clinic and with the help of staff got their mother up on a medical table where doctors began working feverishly. With her two sons, what looked like four or five doctors and two nurses and John there wasn’t much room for me so I backed out of the room and watched from the hallway. In all honesty it was difficult to tell what the doctors were doing a part from trying to bandage up both legs, her abdomen, nearly her entire body.

I saw a nurse draw something into a needle that I could only hope was some serious pain medication. The old woman’s groaning had become louder and I thought how helpless it must feel to be her sons, adult men, who could do nothing other than stand by and watch. I thought about how hopeless it must feel to be a community doctor one day and the next you’re a white coat version of a combat medic. One day you’re doing ears, nose and throat shit and the next you’re trying to stabilize people who’ve been literally blown apart.

Now I don’t know exactly what type of medicine these doctors were practicing two months prior to the moment we all found ourselves in right then, but it’s safe to assume they weren’t attending to people who had been ripped open by shrapnel from mortars, artillery, and tank shells.

Bosnian doctors and nurses race to stabilize and bandage an elderly woman brought into a former medical clinic turned trauma center by her two sons. A Serbian mortar had hit their home and her sons rushed to the nearby clinic with her in the backseat. ©Thomas James Hurst (1992)

Within just a few minutes doctors had done what they could and her sons once again lifted their mother off the table and were rushing as best they could carrying someone who was at this point unconscious back to their car. Still running, the two men jumped into the front and just as fast and noisy as they had arrived, they were gone, headed to Sarajevo’s main hospital.

Just as intense as the last few moments were, now it was silent. Nobody spoke. The two doctors took off their latex gloves, sat down in what could only be the clinics waiting room area, each pulling a pack of cigarettes from the front pocket of their medical coats, lit them, took a very long drag and looked off into nothingness.

I fall back into one of the waiting room chairs in exhaustion. I’ve only been in-country 24 hours and yet it feels like days.

Staring up in the ceiling I start replaying the entire timeline from how I got from sitting outside my professors office waiting to talk to her about the upcoming final, picking up the MAY 11th issue of Time magazine, thumbing through it and stumbling across a two-paragraph regarding Bosnia-Herzegovina declaring its independence and civil war brewing with the Capital of Bosnia, Sarajevo at the heart of it.

“…But try telling Belgrade that its own constitution proves that the Serb-led Yugoslav army is now an occupying force on the foreign soil of Bosnia. One week into a new ceasefire, fighting continued unabated in at least five towns, as well as the capital city of Sarajevo. In a letter to Bosnian officials, army chief of staff General Blagoje Adzic refused to remove his troops, which number as many as 100,000.”

I read that and thought, ‘isn’t this where the Winter Olympics were held?’ Some seven years earlier I remember watching the US Hockey Team play with my dad, a born and raised North Dakota Man who grew up playing hockey and being a huge fan of the Minnesota North Stars when they were in Minnesota. I remember being absolutely sure, in that aragonite American way we’re so globally recognized for, that the US Hockey Team would be wiping the ice with those Commie bastards we beat four years earlier in 1980 for the Miracle on Ice Part ll (they didn’t even come close – the US team scored 4 goals in 5 games and finished 3rd or 4th in their group and those Soviet Union absolutely destroyed the rest of Planet Earth to take gold).

Nonetheless, something about having watched the Winter Olympics with dad gave me a connection with Sarajevo. Regardless of how silly it was, there was something about that made me sincerely interested in what was happening there now. ‘I wish I could go there and see what war is really like,’ I thought. And the next thought in my head was, ‘why not?!’ Summer was a week away, I was just going to work some pointless job, drink beer and smoke weed, which was very likely what I did every Summer since 8th grade, so fuck it I’m going to go find out.

Now…how one goes from sitting outside Betty Georke’s office at College of Marin Jr. College (COM) in Kentfield, Ca to sitting in a makeshift Trauma clinic in Sarajevo seeing dead men, women, children and blown up moms in a matter of a few weeks…when you’ve never traveled anywhere that required a passport, had to actually make a plan at a point in our history when the Internet didn’t exist as we know it to be today, I honestly have no idea, but I did it and this is how…

First, I was going to need a plan! ‘Ok, Thomas what’s the plan?’ Well, I’ll go to the library and do some research. So I headed out to find out where the library on campus was kept. I’d been attending COM off and on for a couple years, so it was cool to finally learn where the library was. When someone told me where to find it, I was shocked! “Really?! That’s the library?! Huh, I’ve walked by it a hundred times and missed it every single time!”

I stepped into the library and let the librarian know I was going to Sarajevo to see the war and could she give me some stuff to help me plan my trip. Being in Northern California, I’m sure the perplexed librarian thought I was just stoned. She found a couple books on Yugoslavia at which point I smugly said, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to Sarajevo and that’s in Bosnia.” Inside I was rejoicing in the fact that I knew more than a librarian did for once in my life, or so I thought. “Open the book,” she said in an almost sarcastic tone of voice that conveyed, ‘you’re a dumb ass.’ I opened the first book and was like, “ohhhh, yeah, no okay, I mean I knew that, but what I meant was…” she had already turned and began walking away clearly not interested in hearing the rest of my bullshit.

I looked through books and there was a lot of Communism, Soviet Union, World War 2, Tito history and I was like booooring. I needed a plan to go there soon, not a plan to help me travel back in time to see something that didn’t exist anymore – duh. I took the books back to the librarian’s desk and said thanks (but no thanks) and as I turned to leave she said, “why don’t you look at some back issues of the newspaper. She showed me where those were and I was able to find several articles by some reporter named John Burns at the New York Times. I started reading everything I could find and began gleaning anything I could from them. I learned about Croatia, and the Serbs, and how the Yugoslav army was predominantly made up of Serbs. I learned about Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and about a bunch of other stuff. But it was the Serbs making up most of the military and that their capital was Belgrade that jumped off the page at me like a bolt of lightning thundering down from the heavens. I was struck with a bulletproof plan! I mean this “plan” was brilliant as much as it was airtight.

The Plan

Step 1: Get to Belgrade (no idea how to do that, but I figured it would require an airplane).

Step 2: Locate the road leading out of Belgrade heading towards Bosnia/Sarajevo and stand there.

Step 3: When a military convoy drove by headed to war, I would stick out my thumb, use my deceptive good looks, and witty charm to hitch a ride.

Step 4: Arrive at war!

Plan Over…

As far as I was concerned my plan was so airtight that if we’re trapped in my plan you’d suffocate! #Boom (p.s. in ‘92 “hashtag” was just some weird wasted button on a phone).

So with a genius of plan figured out, I was inspired to figure out the next hurdle, how to get from San Francisco International Airport to Belgrade.

“Hello, Delta Airlines Reservations. This is Jane Doe speaking, how can I help you?” I don’t remember her name. It obviously wasn’t Jane Doe.

“Hi, uhm do you fly to Sarajevo?” (hell, I might as well see if they’ve got something direct, right?)

“I’m sorry sir we do not,” she said sweetly.

“Ok…do you fly to Belgrade then?”

“I’m sorry sir we do not,” she said again.

“Okay…hmm, well I’m trying to get to Belgrade because I’m going to Sarajevo to see the war that’s starting there so how close can you get me?” I asked.

“Oh, well that’s interesting. Let me look,” she said. ‘I think she is totally into me right now because I’m so dashing and dangerous,’ I’m thinking to myself (for the record, she was not into me at all)

“Well sir, the nearest country we could get you to is Hungry. We have flights from Frankfurt, Germany to Budapest.”

“That’s Awesome!” I exclaim.

“Uh, where’s that?” I ask sheepishly.

“Where is what sir?” She is suddenly confused.

“Um, Hungary and Budapest,” I say still rather sheepishly.

“It neighbors the country you’re trying to reach sir,” she sounds a touch less into me at that point.

“Well, that’s awesome! I’d like to book a flight!”

The travel time would be much longer than the stated direct flight of 14 hours. With layovers at JFK International Airport in NYC and Frankfurt, Germany. ©Google Maps

After a while of giving her all my info I hung up having accomplished that issue – plane ticket to Budapest, Hungry – Check. I then spent some time  contemplating why anyone would name an entire country after a very uncomfortable state of being, but resigned myself to the fact that I’m not from there so why do I care?

Next…how do I get from Budapest to Belgrade…hmmm

Well shit, that’s an easy one to solve. When I was in high school, kids going to Europe for the Summer would get something called a Eurorail Pass. They made it sound as if it let them ride a train anywhere in the world, or at least anywhere in Europe. I like trains so I figured I’d get one if indeed there was a train that would go from Budapest to Belgrade. I opened up the Yellow Pages (it was a super shitty version of Google before there was Google. If you’ve never seen one…Google it), found a travel agency in San Francisco and they confirmed that there were trains running between the two cities and that they could sell me a Eurorail Pass. I did that and I felt like, “damn this war travel shit is easy.”

Next, where would I stay? Now, I’m no idiot, I know enough about war to know that I’m not going to be sleeping in a Holiday Inn or some shit. I mean I’m headed to war for goodness sakes! Once my Serbian Military Taxi picks me up, I’m going to be roughing it in a trench or bunker or bush. But before I catch my ride into battle from Bullets and Bombs Boulevard in Belgrade I might need a place to crash and I can’t be spending my Traveler’s Checks on fancy hotels. Hmm, oh I know! When I was in high school, kids going to Europe for the Summer would get something called a Youth Hostel card and they would crash out at places for travelers backpacking around the country. So I called the same Travel Agency I got the Eurorail Pass from to see if they have those too. They did so I made another trip to the city and got that (yeah, I know – I should have thought that through better).

Okay, now what? I’m going to probably need some money…hmm. Well I don’t have any of that so where can I get some quick. Bank robbery? Nah. Drug Deal? That’s dumb. Sell my plasma? Not even sure what that is and I might need it so…nah. Sell my…EWW, that’s just gross and I can’t even believe people by that stuff. Yuck! Borrow the money from a family member? They don’t have any so that’s not going to happen. Well, I guess I could sell my motorcycle…ouch that hurt to even think about. I had finally gotten a motorcycle and now I would sell it? Maybe I should consider selling my…fuck no, that is still way gross. I sold the motorcycle…I got $1,000 for it and that’s all the money I would need (because it was all the money I had) to get me to war. Then to make sure I protected my money I smartly went to the bank, let them know I was going to the war starting in the Balkans and was going to need some cold hard Traveler’s Checks (as if they needed to know that before issuing them to me).

Now what…hmm. I’m going to need some gear, but what should I take? Nowadays all you need to do is Google something like “packing for a war” and 1,000+ posts are provided, but in ‘92 no such thing existed. Instead you had to imagine what things might be like and pack accordingly. I bought some boots (some sweet Nike hiking boots that I saw some hip hop guys wearing in an MTV music video back when MTV still played music. I mean, if I’m going to go to war, “I’ma look fly as F###!” I bought some cargo shorts…It was Summer after all. T-shirts, a hat to keep the sun off you – I of course brought my nothing screams spoiled American like Mickey Mouse trucker hat from Disneyland. I was going to need a pack to stuff everything in so I bought one of those framed packs kids from high school took when…you know. I bought a super light-weight (thin) sleeping bag that the clerk at the camping store said had high-tech in it so it would keep me warm atop Mt. Everest, let alone Summer nights in Europe (that clerc was a liar – I froze my ass off it that thing) and I bought some other stuff I don’t ever recall needing or using.

What else do I need? “Hell, I’m ready,” I thought!

As I finished my college finals all I could do was and day-dream about my upcoming trip during the day and it was all I could dream about at night. A few days before my invasion of Europe I woke up out of a dead sleep startled by a single thought; ‘When the Serb soldiers stop to pick me up on the roadside, they’ll probably ask me WHY I’m trying to bum a ride to their war. What in THE hell am I going to tell him?

“Hi friend, I’m a college kid and I want to see what war is like.” Shit if that didn’t sound stupid, I thought. Okay, what else could I say?

“Hi friend. I’m studying abroad and writing a thesis on…” Nope, that’s stupid.

“Hi friend. I want to be a mercenary.” Nope, Super Stupid.

“Hi friend. I like things that go BANG.” Also Super Stupid.

“Hi friend. I need to know if I’m a coward or courageous!” Actually, this was very true, but I’m thinking that answer is going to require a shit ton of explaining and likely a therapist. Nope.

“I got it!” I’ll tell them I’m like that guy John Burns – the reporter from the New York Times. That’s it! I’ll tell them I’m a journalist. Bam!

I rolled over feeling pretty satisfied with myself for solving that problem so quickly in the middle of the night waking from a dead sleep.

Suddenly, I woke up out of a dead sleep again, ‘what if they ask me to prove it?’ I laid in bed tossing and turning trying to devise a plan. As the sun began to rise I had an idea.

That morning I swung by the law office of a close friend of mine. Since 8th grade, when I had met this close friend of mine, we’ll call him Doug Reilly (because that’s actually his name and we’re still close friends to this day), his family had become a second family in a sense. Doug was just about the only kid I knew whose parents were still married and weren’t totally dysfunctional. His father, Jim and his mother, Sandy, had met back in the ‘60s when Jim was still at West Point. Sandy was a kind and loving lady who always made sure there was a meal on the table and food in the fridge for their family of four +1 (me). Jim was a man of strong character and integrity. I’ve never known the man to do anything other than the right thing. When I recognized that Doug had a family and that they liked and enjoyed each other I immediately began embedding myself into the family unit. I would be at their house as often as I could during the week and after school on Fridays until the last possible moment on Sunday night. For the most part I was either at Doug’s house or our other best friend Toby’s house which conveniently enough, was directly across the street from Doug’s. I’m sure to some degree that Jim and Sandy knew my home life was probably a bit more intense given how much I was over, but I think they gained a new level of understanding of how chaotic home life was for me when one morning Sandy got up early to run to the store to buy groceries to make her famed egg, bacon, and cheese breakfast sandwiches and…almost crushed me with her big blue van. I hadn’t wanted to go home the night before and I hadn’t been invited to stay over, and was too ashamed to ask if I could, so I slept under her van that night.

Home life was difficult for me. So when I wasn’t invited to stay at Doug’s house or Toby’s house (again, across the street) on weekends I would hold out as long as I could at either of their homes and when they finally said they were going to bed and I’d not been asked if I wanted to stay the night, I would leave like any friend would. However, rather than going home I would walk the streets in their neighborhood until I saw a car pull into a driveway. I would wait until the unsuspecting residents would go into their home for the night and then I would wait a few minutes in the shadows of some bushes or trees until I thought the coast was clear and then I would creep up to their car and try the car door to see if it was unlocked. If the car was unlocked I would quickly get inside to ensure the dome light in the car didn’t alert anyone and then quietly close the car door for the same reason, to not alert anyone. I would then go to sleep in a relative warm space and slip out early in the morning before any suspecting resident could catch me. While I grew up in an insanely affluent community (my family could only afford to live in an insanely affluent community because my step-mom was super brilliant and had bought a home there way before it was insane or affluent). Albeit ‘strange,’ insanely affluent people like to keep their shit, so more often than not they locked their cars. That being the case, the next best option for keeping warm was sliding under their cars while the engine was still warm and sleeping there until the engine cooled and it just got too cold to lay still on cold concrete.

So on this particular morning, Sandy had come back late the night before having had to run one or three of her other children around so when the lights had finally been turned off and I still hadn’t been invited to stay the night, I crawled underneath the family van and hit the sack.

Have you ever had one of those lucid dreams where something is actually happening in real life and it’s translating into your dreams in some way? Like a ballgame is on the tv when you fall asleep and all of a sudden you’re dreaming about playing left field for the San Francisco Giants and you make a bottom of the 9th game-winning diving catch against your division rival the Los Angeles Dodgers who you fucking in hate in the dream AND in real life and the tv broadcaster is screaming about your amazing play, your speed to get to the shallow pop-up and how you sacrificed your entire body and career with no concern for yourself or the multi-million dollar contract you just signed, while the 80,000 fans in attendance are chanting your name and bowing down to you because of how just saved the series and launched your team into the playoffs and you’re slowly jogging off the field waiving to your adoring fans when you’re suddenly swooped up by your teammates who hoist you onto their shoulders and carry you around the stadium for or five times just so you’re able to soak in the moment and then the crotchy old first baseman on your team whose respect you’ve never been able to earn because he came up in the game with the like of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron – when baseball was a “man’s” game and you played for the love of the game, your teammates, and the organization not for the number of zeros at then end of your paycheck and that guy finally walks up to you after your interview that is being broadcasted around the world, even in North Korea, and he slaps you on the back and says “good job out there today kid” and you know that is the nicest thing that guy has said to anyone including his wife and children ever and you know you’ve finally earned his respect and everything in your life is going to be epic and amazing and all that’s kinda of happening on your tv and in your dream and then you suddenly wake up and realize your dream has been highly influenced by what was happening in that moment in real life? Has that ever happened to you? Well that’s kinda what it was like when I’m laying under Sandy’s van and I hear the engine fire up and the van tires start crushing bits of gravel rock as it slowly rolls backwards in reverse. Now diving catch for your beloved San Francisco Giants, no announcer or adoring fans or teammate shoulders or global tv interviews or seasoned veterans finally passing the torch of leadership from the crotchety old first-baseman when you wake up, but rather a two-ton dodge van that looks like it steals children from their warm beds enticed by puppies, candy, and ice cream rolling slowly over top of you when you finally come awake. In a flash I did one of those tuck arms in and rolled out from the right side of the undercarriage of the vehicle before I’m crushed.

I must have unwittingly let some sound out as I startled awake to suddenly realize I was about to be crushed to death because Sandy slammed on the brakes, slammed the van into park and came flying out of the van to locate the neighborhood dog that she was sure she had just run over. When she came around the van to find me laying on my back, arms now spread out staring up at the sky silently checking to make sure my legs or spine hadn’t been crushed and I still had use of my legs. “What in the world….” she gasped. I rolled my head over in her direction and as casually and calmly as I could muster, let out a pleasant “oh, good morning Sandy. Is Doug up yet?” In a very stern, yet loving tone Sandy said, “what in the world Tom?! You know what I don’t want to know. Get in the house right now.” From that point on the Reilly family always asked if I wanted to stay over.

So I swing by Jim’s law office and lay out my entire plan to him and ask him how I should go about the fake journalist part. He laughed, “What?!” he belted out loudly, the sound reverberating off the cherry hardwood floors and built-in bookcases propping hardbound law books that spanned nearly all four walls of his law office. “You’re crazy!” he continued. So far, I had anticipated those two responses from him. Leaning back in his leather bound chair, the arms of which were a few shades of a lighter brown from having been rubbed and worn after years of him working away at his large heavy desk. He looked up at the ceiling as though there was something up there far more interesting than the vaulted ceiling and exposed wood beams. “You know…” his voice carried off as he was formulating an idea and knowing Jim as I did for as long as I had, something crazy and doable was about to be spoken. “You know…I do have a newsletter I write and I’ve been thinking about naming it Tamalpais Publications. Technically that makes me the Managing Editor for the publication and if I’m the managing editor of albeit small, but real “publication’…” I could see him rolling over the ‘Letter of the Law’ legal mathematics of it all – “…technically that makes me the Managing Editor and then I could be the sponsoring publication sending you to Bosnia and I could draft an official looking ‘Letter of Introduction’ for you to use if you needed to prove to anyone that you are a journalist.”

This is just one of the reasons I’ve alway loved Jim Reilly and counted him as a mentor in my life. Why? Because he is willing to think outside the box and while he practices law he is not afraid to buck the system where the system needs a good bucking. For some reason Jim was able to see my determination in seeing this idea through and he wanted to help. In true Jim Reilly fashion, he immediately drafted and handed me a professional looking and sounding letter of introduction – I, Thomas Hurst, had been tasked with traveling to the Balkans on official press business for a publication that no one had heard of and was near impossible to pronounce. A publication that he was the “managing editor” of and that I should be afforded all the rights, privilege, access and support given all International Correspondents covering the conflict. He printed it on really nice thick stock paper, dropped a logo at the top, a signature at the button, and then printed several of them out for me. I then asked Jim if I could use his computer for a few minutes and explained why – I needed to make a Press badge, He turned over his desk to me and I quickly created a basic looking press badge that Jim printed out on some blue card stock. I cut the press badge out to size, glued the extra headshot I had from my passport photos, and off to Kinko’s I went for a little lamination to make it official. Holy crap, now I’m super ready for this trip. Or was I…

This is the 1993 version of my “Letter of Introduction” Jim Reilly created for my first trip to the war in Bosnia in 1992. Because there was no Internet (at least not prominent as it is today) there was no way to verify if Tamalpais Publications was real or not. ©Thomas James Hurst (1993)
The fake press credential I created to convince the UN to fly me into
Sarajevo in June of 1992. ©Thomas James Hurst

The day before I was set to leave my step-mom who has been an avid photographer her entire life asked if I was taking a camera on my trip. I told her I hadn’t thought of it and hence wasn’t intending to. She thought I must be crazy to go to Europe for the Summer without one and she handed me her beloved Nikormat and a couple lenses to go with them. “Sweet! This will go perfect for passing myself off as a professional journalist,” I exclaimed. “Well in case you don’t get to the war, maybe you’ll want to use it for any other adventures you get yourself in,” she said. I couldn’t tell if she was being serious or not – I thought to myself, “like what other adventures would I find myself in? Is there another war going on that she’s referring to that I don’t know about because the only place I’m going is to war places.” It was War or Bust for me, but as I would come to find out my dad and step-mom and probably a shit ton of other people thought I would get over there somewhere, have some scared shitless moment and bag the war for topless beaches in the South of France. Not a bad plan really, I mean I’m 21, 6’3” and 190 lbs of pure ripped muscle – South of France could be fun! Ok, first I’m not 6’3” and 190 lbs of ripped anything. I’m 5’9” 205 lbs and built like a brick shit-house – strong like bull for sure and the only ripped thing about me is maybe my shirt. Regardless, I’m not even thinking topless or beaches or France – unless bullets and bombs are dropping there. I am 110% war focused – it’s a thing for me now and I won’t have it any other way. She offers to give me some pointers on how to use the camera since I’ve never used one before, but I turn it down thinking, ‘It can’t be hard, right?’

I had seat 4C out of NYC, Laguardia airport – Not a bad seat indeed! @Thomas James Hurst

I leave the next morning, my flight plan is San Francisco to Laguardia (NYC) to Frankfurt, Germany, to Budapest, then one night in Budapest and it’s a train from there to Belgrade. I’ve got a travel book that outlines all the youth hostels available to me on the cheap and a little blurb about each. As I thumbed through the youth hostels in Budapest there were a lot so I figured I’d just choose one during the flight from Frankfurt to Budapest and there was only one in Belgrade so not much to do about that other than to show up when I got there.

I packed, repacked, and packed all my stuff and then noticed I didn’t really have any place to carry the camera except for around my neck and while I thought that was cool it wasn’t very practical so I ran down to a Walmart or KMart – some cheap ass store to buy something. I didn’t want to waste a bunch of money on something kinda stupid so I found one marked down because it didn’t have the shoulder strap it was supposed to and I figured I could find one somewhere.

It’s late afternoon and I’m headed home to repack a bunch more times, not because I have to, but for some reason I think it’s cool to pack for a big adventure so why not enjoy it to the max by doing it over and over and over and over again. As I’m headed home I’ve this trashy camera bag sitting on the seat next to me and figure it would be stupid if I show my camera off to some military commander to prove I’m a real journalist, but I don’t have any film so I stop at this 24-hour film store in town and as has been my story for a couple weeks now, I stroll, no more like a saunter, like I just got off the dusty trail wrestling cows or gunning down villains in some dirty saloon somewhere. There’s a nice lady leaning on the opposite side of the counter reading a brochure tech-spec sheet of some kind.

“Hi, yeah, I’m headed off to war tomorrow…” I say it with a slightly more deeper tone in my voice than I actually sound like and just let the statement hang out there for a longer than is comfortable moment as I wait in anticipation for her knees to buckle ever so slightly because of how strong and dangerous and sexy the war-man is now standing in front of her.

“Umh, okay, so…” she says, seemingly annoyed at the obvious attempt for attention.

“Uh, I need to buy some film for a trip I’m leaving soon,” I practically squeal as I stand deflated and trying to regain some sense of manhood.

“Well, we have all kinds of film so what do you want?” she says, still seemingly annoyed.

“Honestly, I have no idea. I’ve never used a camera so could you recommend something?” Feeling far less insecure about myself, as her continued annoyed attitude was going to be here whether I cowboy up to the counter or not.

“If you’re going on a trip you should take slide film because the colors will look better,” she offers, still annoyed, but less so probably she can see the finish line to our interaction.

“Ok, that sounds good, how much for a roll?” I asked.

Now I don’t remember the price she quoted me and I’m not going to try and pretend I do, but I do remember my knees buckling when she quoted it to me.

“Wow, okay. How much do you think I would need for a few weeks?” I ask, having NO idea what would be necessary even if I did want to take pictures.

“If I were you,” and by her attitude it was clear she wanted nothing to do with me, let alone BE me. “I would buy 14-20 rolls, about one roll a day depending on how long you’re gone for,” she said.

Being the mathematician I am, I asked her to please tell me what the total cost would be…with tax. She did and it was stupid expensive. It was around $100 and given I only had about $850 left from the $1,000 I got for my motorcycle for this trip I told her I’d take 12 rolls and call it good. She rang me up and I was off to play ‘Adventure Packing’ back at home.

Now, before I move on with the story I need to take a moment and say something I’ve been waiting a really long time to say…like almost 30-years long; “Hey, Film Store Lady who sold slide film to a guy who said he had never ever used a camera before…FUCK YOU! You don’t sell ‘Rickie the War Rookie’ who has never taken a picture in his LIFE the least forgiving film on Planet Earth. You sell him some Black & White film or some Color negative film at the very least. Not some shit where if your more than a .5 stop off up or down your image turns out to be total shit! I took a knock-off Nikon with me and God knows how accurate the built in light meter was on the 10-20 year metal brick! I’m not Ansel fucking Adams out here – sell me something that if I get killed my parents could have developed it and seen what I was up to. Instead, they would have gotten my film back and wondered why in the hell I was shooting pictures directly at the sun because the film was so horribly overexposed. Or they would have wondered why I had been taking pictures in a blackout room given how underexposed they were. The fact that I came back from that trip with any actual viewable pictures at all is a fucking miracle no thanks to you”

Now back to the story…Got home packed my pack, loaded up my camera back, checked to make sure I had my tickets and passport and went to bed unable to sleep a wink.

Boarded my flight the next day and at some point in the future I arrived in Frankfurt. I thought it was cool as hell that I had made it that far already, but other than looking out the window onto the tarmac and seeing police walk around with machine guns, there wasn’t anything too amazing happening. No big epiphanies or aha moments. I was just a dude in some fly as f### Nike hiking boots who looked like they were headed somewhere to go backpacking. I waited in the gate for the flight to Budapest and when it was ready to board I boarded.

The plane was much smaller than I was expecting, but I didn’t care much as there were not but a few people on it – plenty of room to stretch my legs out. The cabin crew were making a few announcements in a language that was not English so I wasn’t paying much attention. Having covered a couple commercial airline disasters in my day, let me assure you that all that shit they say about “in case of an emergency landing or incase of an emergency water landing do X, Y, and Z.” In a word, bullshit! That water landing they speak of, it might as well be a nose dive into cement. Now I know someone is going to pop off about how their dad’s best friend’s cousin twice removed was on a plane that landed in the water blah, blah, blah. Cool, I believe you, everyone lived and it was because everyone used their seat cushion as a floating device. Okay, big guy I’ve said it no need to leave a down vote and a long ass story about it now. I’ve never been in a plane crash, although I’ve been on some planes that probably should have such as my first trip to Pakistan when I looked out my window seat overtop one of the wings and there was so much duct tape along a seam where two different parts of the aluminum wing I about fainted. I’m talking so much duct tape that the only reason you’d use that much is because you legitimately thought that would hold things together a bit longer. But I have covered two major airline disasters and float cushions and the bright yellow life preservers demonstrate how to inflate blowing up in a calm manner where, how do I phrase it…not helpful to a single person on either flight. Now, here is my disclaimer…while documenting an air disaster makes me knowledgeable, I am not an expert and in the event you find yourself in a commercial airliner plummeting to the ground you should do exactly as directed. However, you may also want to call you spouse and apologies for all the shit you did that they didn’t know about, totally make out with the person most closest to you (and is willing), kick the shit out of the chair in front of you for all the times some asshole put his seat all the way back giving you less space than the casket you’re going to be in soon. Run around screaming all the shit you’ve been terrified to tell people your entire life. Ring the call button above you over and over all the way down. Fart and then tell everyone you did it rather then trying to win a fucking Golden Globe award in your act to pretend it must have been someone else. Scribble your phone number down and give it to that person you kept trying not to get caught staring at in the boarding area. Put all the shit they made put under the seat in front in the fucking isle. Don’t wear your seat belt. Open up the luggage compartment without giving two shits if something falls out. Go to the galley and eat all that over priced processed food they sell you. Don’t turn your free headset back in. I could keep going, but just do some shit you think you should do because the odds are super seriously not in your favor. And hey, if the pilot pulls it out of a nose dive at the last second and you make it – it’ll probably be the most ‘alive’ you’ve ever felt, you’re never going to see any of those people again anyway, and when the video of you running naked through the plane with two middle fingers in the air goes viral spin into a talk show or something. At the end of the day, if you make it out, no one in their right mind will blame you for whatever you did because falling from 30,000 feet in a tin can is not natural and we would have done the same shit as you, if not worse.

So, the cabin crew is giving this safety talk and I’m not listening and as the doors are about to close when there is a commotion at the cabin door and three mid-20 somethings come crashing in. Not with guns or anything, they were just late making the connection. They sat down across the aisle from me and it wasn’t too much sleuthing to know they were drunk or clearly on the path to it. The flight took off and as soon as the drink cart came around they were back on the road to drunkville. Naturally, a conversation was struck up between us and they shared how they all worked together at a travel agency in Miami, FL and they got some type of travel package that allowed them to fly to Budapest get a free mud bath go to sleep then catch a super early flight back the next day for like $50 per person. By next day, they meant tomorrow. I thought that was super bad ass. They asked me where I was going and I shared that I was a journalist headed to Sarajevo (I figured I should start rehearsing my part so I was on point when I met the Serbs). They thought what I was doing was super bad ass and asked me where I was doing the rest of the day and where I was staying. I told them I had to leave so quick I hadn’t had time to book a hotel or plan my day when I landed. They immediately insisted I come with them as they already had arrangements for the night. I slowed-played their offer for all of about 30 seconds and I joined them for a drink or several.

At some point the plane landed and the Budapest Party was ON! First stop, mud baths! Next stop a disco. The next several stops I have absolutely no idea. The next thing I remember is a straw broom hitting me in the face over and over. I was able to open one eye ball just barely and a plump old woman with super plump ankles. I was on the floor of someplace and it was both excruciating hot shit it was so bright out. I wanted to speak, but my throat was too dry to get a single word out. The old woman wouldn’t stop smacking me with her broom. “You go now! You go now! You go now” is all she kept saying as the broom hit me over and over about the face and head. With all the power I could muster I tilted my head off the floor and looked for my friends – there were nowhere to be found. I had no idea where I was, how I got there, or where my stuff was. All my clothes were on and in a sudden panic I checked to see if I still had my secret money belt with my soon to be worthless travels checks, passport and cash – they were there. Then I panicked about my sweet Nike hiking boots – I scanned the room and they were nowhere to be found. “SHIT! They stole my boots! I’m an idiot! What was I thinking?!” was all I kept saying to myself. I’m sure if my throat hadn’t felt like desert and my mouth so chalky you could have used it to write on a blackboard, I would have shouted it…very quietly. Oh, my head. It was pounding. I looked around the room a second time, maybe I missed the shoes with my one open eye on the first sweep. I looked down and they were still on my feet! “Oh, thank you Jesus!” I horsed out. The old lady had slowed the pace of the broom strikes as I think I was tiring her out. I dragged myself on to my knees, and eventually with the help of a couple walls staggered to my feet. Where is all my shit I thought. The lady was now hitting me in the butt with her broom like I was some bad dog so I slowly walked out of the room I was in and into a small living room where an equally as old man sat in his chair with a wife beater on watching his tv on extra loud. “Fuck, just get me out of here,” I kept repeating. With the old lady behind me directing my every move with her broom strikes I saw the front door to this unknown apartment I found myself in. There by the door were my pack and camera bag. I heaved them up onto my shoulders and then immediately started to fall forward, my hands landing on my knees and keeping me from hitting the floor. I immediately started dry heaving and the old lady began shouting at me in Hungarian I think. She most definitely did not want me throwing up on her floor. She opened the door in front of me and then used her big butt to push me out of her apartment. The door slammed shut behind me. I stayed bent over for what seemed like an eternity trying to remember that amazing plan I had come up with weeks earlier. ‘Okay, get on the plane. Fly to JFK. Fly to Frankfurt. Fly to Budapest. Meet young people on the flight and…ugh, that was not in my plan Thomas!‘ The things I could remember about the day before caused me to start dry heaving again. Back to Frankfurt…”Frankfurt to Budapest. Overnight in Budapest. Go to the train station to catch the train to Belgrade.” Bam! There it was, the next thing I needed to do was get to the train station, but where is that? How do I get there? Where the fuck am I right now? I stood up as much as I could and began trying to find my way out of the building. I found some stairs and headed down.

When I got to the front doors the world outside looked like way more than I could handle in my condition. It was bright out and so, so hot. There were cars and bicycles moving and honking, people were in the hustle and bustle of city life and I was not prepared to join them. I finally mustered enough energy and by “energy” I mean courage and I pushed the doors open to face my reality. Somewhere in this city there is a train to Belgrade with my name on it. Fuck it, let’s go find it!

Did the Hungarian cab driver find me or did I find him? I do not know. But I was in a cab trying to figure out how to communicate to this guy that I needed to go to the train station where the train to Belgrade would be leaving from. The cabi pulls away from the curb and I start trying to tell him where I need to go; “I need to go to the el Train’o Station’o,” why I was putting the letter ‘O’ at the end of words I have no idea. As if the letter ‘O’ added to the ass end of an English word somehow makes it a universally recognized communicable language. Frustrated, I unzip my pants in a rather aggressive manner. The Hungarian Cabi begins looking at me in the rearview mirror strangely at first and then kind of anxious like. I’m looking down at my zipper and then back at him try to communicate that I’m going to give him something that will make this conversation way more simpler. My zipper is caught so I’m pulling on it trying to force it to unzip – I should know that never works with caught zippers, you have to go back up with them, then whatever is catching usually is freed, then you go back down with them, but I’m in no condition to think about the fucking science of zippers right now. I glance back at the cabi who is now looking over his shoulder at me, then my zipper, then back at me. I can see he is anxious…to get me to my destination of course….so I start repeating, “hold on, I got this, one second, almost there.” The cabi is now looking out the window, back to the rearview mirror, cranks his neck looks at me, then down to my zipper, then back outside the car and then out of nowhere he starts yelling “NO!” Then, as if getting the first “no” out of his mouth emboldens him, he starts saying it over and over each time he is getting more and more stern. “NO, NO, NO!” I’m hungover or still drunk – I’m not sure which. It’s blazing hot out, I’m sweating like a polar bear in the desert, my best move to this point has been making up my own language by adding the letter ‘O’ to the end of every other word – me speak’o my own’o made-up language’o and that’s clearly not working, so I’m really not paying attention to this guy because I’m 100% confident that what’s in my pants is going solve this whole thing. I undo my pants button and the cabi is still screaming “NO, NO, NO! and right then he slams on the brakes bringing his car to a dead stop. I all but come out of the back seat and am now laying half in the front and half in the back of his car. “YOU NO SHOW ME!” He was screaming at me now and I couldn’t be more than a foot or two from him. Shocked at how I had just been propelled into the front seat of a Hungarian taxi, my pants finally unzipped, but I’m still not putting together the whole, “NO SHOW ME!” thing he’s screaming.

The back of the front passenger seat had collapsed forward when I was thrown into it – I wasn’t sure if that was the direction it was designed to go or if I just broke dude’s car, but I was laying face down only a few inches from the glove box. I propped myself up onto my right elbow looking at the driver with a very distinct “WTF?” expression on my face. With my zipper finally unzipped, I undo the button of my pants and flop my secret money belt out. It goes around your waste and under your pants, and at least for me, it is carrying my passport, cash, travelers checks AND my fucking train ticket! I figured if I could get my train ticket/documents out he could look at the information and know where the fuck to drive without incident and yet here we are…I pulled out the train ticket/information and handed it to him. He took it slowly as if it was dirty, I’m cursing him under my breath as I flip onto my back to zip myself up and button my pants. He’s looking at me as though I’m from another planet – no, bro I’m from San Francisco! All he can do at the moment, despite being at a complete standstill by what in all accounts appears to be a fairly busy street, is watch me try to get decent. Despite the fact that he is now holding the exact piece of information required to get me to my destination – a piece of information mind you I had fought very hard to retrieve, he just sits there with his mouth hanging open. That’s when it hit me, “ohhhh, you thought I was going to get something else out, didn’t you?” I say. I looked down at my now zipped and buttoned up pants, then back at him, then began saying “money in belt’o – train ticket. You see? Train’o ticket’o,” pointing to the train ticket/paperwork he was now holding as if it was someone else’s dirty sock. Then we both looked at each other and burst out laughing at the entire event that had just unfolded between us. The cabi can’t stop laughing, now almost crying in hysterics. While I’m starting to feel like I’m going to barf after his version of a Hungarian Disney ride slamming me into the front seat of his car, I’m still laughing at how stupid this all just was. If there is one thing I’ve come to learn in all my travels is that laughter and smiles translate in any language. Heck, you don’t even need to add an “O” at the end.

The entire rest of the drive to the train station the taxi driver was in some level of hysterics about our incident. While I see the humor in it all, my state of physical not-so-well being and where I’m ultimately trying to get to, war, leaves me with the very uncomfortable thought, ‘how in the hell am I going to survive in a war zone? I can barely survive one night in Budapest and a ride to the train station.’ I didn’t linger on it, ‘just stick with The Plan and everything will work out,’ is what I keep telling myself.

Still laughing, at times gulping in big deep breaths trying to catch his own, the cabi kept repeating/reenacting our slight misunderstanding minutes earlier. How he appeared to think I was going to do something weird, even by American standards, in the back seat of his cab. He would take his hands off the steering wheel to pretend to unzip his pants (that was clearly him playing my part), followed by him pretending to slam on his brakes by stomping one of his feet hard on the floorboard while half shouting “no show me, no show me,” and then the hands were back off the steering wheel as he made another two-handed gestures that seemed to demonstrate the part where I go flying into the front seat and practically on my face into the footwell beneath the glove box. All of this included different levels of howling, tears, and laughter. It was some version of this the entire rest of the drive.

He pulled up out front of a large building that was busy with busses and taxis coming and going. People racing up the stairs into the train station looking anxious and people slowly wandering down the stairs coming out of the train station looking joyful and carefree. I all but fell out of the backseat, got my bags out of the trunk, paid the man and began heading up the stairs, not before a big slap on the back, more laughter, some pointing at me, laughing and wiping tears away from his now red cheeks as the cab driver made his way around the drivers side of the car and back in. I climbed the stairs looking forward to the opportunity to find a quiet place tucked away somewhere to lay down and nap. Surely there would be a piece of soft carpet somewhere quiet I could claim for a few hours of recovery sleep, right? This place looks like a pretty modern country so far. They’ve got to have both carpet and silence in the same place, surely they do….don’t they?

As I entered the train station I marveled at the enormous walls stretching skyward to the ceiling. Lines of people were queued up to purchase train tickets at the ticket windows to the left. The architecture was clearly from the Renaissance period…I’m totally fucking with you right now. I wouldn’t know architecture, it’s period, or if architecture and renaissance even go together. But the point I’m trying to make is it was old looking and beautiful and I appreciated it.

Budapest Keleti station. The facade includes statues of statues of James Watt and George Stephenson! Courtesy of ©Chris Deuchars.

I followed straight ahead as it seemed to be where everyone was naturally being funneled, assuming you didn’t need a ticket. Deeper into the station I went and eventually came out into this large open space that had several lanes of train tracks. The ceiling arched over the tracks and a long centered section of glass allowed for natural light to fall on the coming and goings beneath. The other end of the building was simply open as it is where the trains came in and where the trains came out. No tunnels or the like, just tracks that went from uncovered to covered. As far as finding a piece of soft carpet and a quiet corner to begin my recovery, I could find neither. If it existed I couldn’t find it. I could not even find quiet. It was loud, like deaf people could have heard shit, loud. Every 30 seconds or so this electronic bell type sound would go off followed by an announcement of an update on a train’s arrival or departure and the platform number it was on. I don’t remember them being spoken in English, but what else could they be saying so frequently. I dragged myself around the station looking for carpet and quiet and then resigned myself that those two things had not reached this country yet. I found my way to where I thought my train would be leaving in a few hours. I set my pack down on the grey, dusty concrete and then laid myself down using my bag for a pillow. I knew I would never be able to fall asleep with all this noise and I wou…

…I awoke to someone gently shaking my shoulder, “sir, sir” is this your train?” I opened my eyes, blinking to clear my vision. “Sir, is this your train?” It was a man in a flat grey onesie zip up. He had a broom and dustpan – the kind with the long handle so you don’t have to actually bend over. “Does this one go to Belgrade?” I asked. He nodded yes, and I quickly leapt to my feet, swung my pack up off the ground, over my shoulder and rushed to the stairs leading onto the first train car nearest me. It wasn’t more than 10-yards from where the man had woken me to the steps into the train car, but within those 10 or so yards a whole lot of thoughts, feelings, and emotions went off inside of me. A burst of adrenaline hit me and I was ready to take the world on once again. No fears or doubts about what I was doing, where I was going, how I was going to get there, or why I was doing any of it. I was about to step aboard the train to Belgrade and I would surely be on my way to war in the next 24-hours or so. Before hitting the train steps I had glanced around to notice the platform for this train was pretty empty. A quick observation that brought me relief. I didn’t want to have to worry about finding a seat or some whack job trying to steal my stuff as I slept aboard the train. While I was shocked at how I fell asleep on the concrete with announcement after announcement being shouted every 30-seconds in some foreign language I could not understand, I knew that I would be even better off sleeping in a comfy train compartment, the rhythm of the steel wheels moving fast through the countryside, a sweet Summer breeze blowing in through the train window…

A Hungarian Train waiting to depart Budapest’s Keleti station. (Unknown)

I had some pretty high hopes, desires and expectations headed aboard my train to Belgrade and I didn’t need a bunch of Summer time, immature, trust-fund hippies getting in the way damnit! None of that looked to be of concern as my feet hit the train stairs and then I opened the door to the train car.

“What the fuck?!” People everywhere! Sitting, standing, laying down and that was just in the single walkway up the left side of the train car. As I pushed by, climbed over, ducked left and dodged right – hippie trust-funder after hippie trust-funder after hippie trust-funder I was trying to understand how so many had already gotten on the train ahead of me? Maybe they came in on the train and just never left? Hell, I don’t know how they all got here, but I know this walkway is so packed it surely is against some kind of government regulation. I mean if there is an emergency and you had to get off this train in a hurry, it was going to require some Roman Gladiator shit to get out alive. The level at which this was crowded was off the charts. Each train car had maybe four or five rooms on the right side of the train. Each room had a door that closed with curtains to keep the privacy of anyone fortunate enough to have a seat inside. Each room had a bench seat that faced each other that could fit at least three, maybe four, non-American butts. If you were born with an American butt there are only about two of those to a bench seat. Why only two for American butts? Let’s not pretend here…everyone knows Americans are just “bigger boned” people on the whole. If you’re not tracking with me, Americans are fatter than most everyone else in the Galaxy and so they have bigger butts on average. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, just that it’s a big thing. Regardless the rooms on this train car are packed, the walkway is packed and the smell is some insane blend of Woodstock 1969 (wasn’t there but safe bet deodorant was NOT considered an ‘essential item’ when packing), a boys locker room, and a port-a-potty.

This is not the train I traveled on from Budapest to Belgrade, but when I walked into the first train car it sure as shit felt this crowded. (Pinterest – Unknown)

So I did what any sane person would do, I went to the next train car, surely that would be different. It was not. So I went to the next one. Same. I went to the next one, also packed. And to the next one, and the next one, and the next one and now I’m thinking, “pretty soon I’m going to be trying to convince the conductor to let me drive the train.” And the next one, holy shit every train car is packed with a bunch of degenerates that look like…well, just like me. Hairs all one length Eddie Vedder (Pear Jam – Google it, then listen to it and then thank me and you’re welcome). They all have packs like I do, I wonder if they all have fake press badges like I do and are going to thumb rides with Serbian Military like I am? I keep going and then finally! I step into yet another train car and…it is empty! Thank you Jesus! The left-side walkway is wide open, not a vagrant insight. And it doesn’t smell like the only port-a-potty at Summer chili cook-off in East Texas. I peer into the first train cabin and there are pleasant people of different ages who look like a family headed on vacation, this one feels like it could be too wholesome for this cowboy so I smile and wave and move to the next. I peer in and several men who look like they do business stuff are talking, this one feels like it could be a rather boring time for this wild child, so I smile and wave and move to the next one. I peer into this one and there in the corner up against the windows facing out sits elderly woman all by herself – she is a very elegant little old lady. She is thin, almost frail looking, she is dressed modestly in nice old people clothes. She senses something and looks back towards me and gives me a big warm smile that makes me feel both welcomed and safe all at once. Yes, this is the one for me. I slid the train cabin door open and stepped inside…

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