‘I can’t feel anything. I can feel the blood, but I can’t feel the pain. Oh my god, am I paralyzed? Did it hit my spine? Don’t look. Don’t touch it. Fuck, you have to do something! You can’t bleed out under a bush in fucking Belgrade,’ my mind raced.
I dropped the knife I had been holding in the event someone attacked me. My grip is so tight around it that my hand strains to release it.
I slowly roll onto my back expecting the pain to start shooting through my body as if I’m being electrocuted. I slide my right hand down the right side of my abdomen. Then to the pelvis, just inside of my hip bone. Then ever so slowly I reach the top of my thigh and I stop. I don’t want to touch the hole in my leg. I just need to get a sense of where it is exactly. Shock must be setting in I think. I inch the very bottoms of my fingertips down farther – I’ve never been shot before so I have no idea what this is supposed to be or not be, but I’m anticipating the pain I’m about to feel when I locate the wound. I’m terrified of looking down at my leg – I’m afraid of what I might see. I tell myself I have to look – “no one is coming to save you, you have to save yourself Thomas. Fucking Look!” I can’t see anything, everything is so black. Is this what it’s like to die? You feel nothing, everything is black, you’re blind and you don’t feel pain anymore? My hand reached my leg and I can feel the blood. It’s soaked. It’s warm, but cooling. Fuck, I’m going into shock aren’t I? I have to see how bad this is. I slowly bring my hand up to my face, inches aways. Fuck I’m blind, I can’t see my hand. It’s dark, but I should be able to see my hand. Then it hits me, my eyes aren’t actually open. I open my eyes and let them adjust as I move my hand closer, then farther away from my face – everything is blurry from having my eyes shut so tightly. Finally my eyes adjust as much as they can. I move my hand farther away from my face. What the fuck!? I gently roll onto my side again and poke my hand and head out from the bushes I’m hiding in, to try and get more light on the situation – I’m confused and need to be sure I’m seeing what I’m seeing. My hand has some wet dirt sticking to it, but there’s no blood. What the fuck?! I look down at my legs still in the bushes and slowly drag myself out far enough so I can see the blood and wound. My pants are soaked, but is this blood!? I rub my hand firmly on my thigh and then bring back to my face again. This isn’t fucking blood!
I flop onto my back staring up at the night sky, “are you FUCKING kidding me right now?! I exclaim allowed. I lift my head up and do a half ab crunch to look down at my legs and then fall on to my back again. I haven’t been shot. I pissed my pants…
“There is no shock setting in, no wonder there’s no fucking pain, it’s not because I’m paralyzed. Holy shit! What the fuck is wrong with me? I’m not fucking dying in Belgrade tonight…at least not from the imaginary gunshot wound to my leg that smells like piss.”
As I lay there looking up at the night sky of Belgrade I can’t decide what I’m feeling more, relief or shame. I swear to myself no one will ever hear this story. “I pissed his pants, how fucking embarrassing is that?” I think. I’m a grown man for goodness sakes and here I’ve gone and pissed my pants. I start laughing. Laying on my back I start laughing. At first I’m afraid someone might hear me, but I can’t stop the rush of feelings and emotions and exhaustion overtaking me in that moment and as the ‘feels’ come crashing down onto me, I don’t even fucking care anymore. Go ahead evil world come get the 21-year-old laying in his own piss in the middle of the night laughing in what could only be considered hysterical. You want some of this world? Here I am, I’m all yours! My tears of laughter roll into tears of sadness. I want to be someone worth caring for. I want to be someone that people feel is special. All I really want is to be loved. I begin to sob. I bury my face into my filthy hands – I’m ashamed of myself for wanting to be loved so badly that I would go on this ridiculous adventure that appears to be failing at every turn. I feel weak and ashamed that I even need love?
I lay there crying until I crawled back into the bushes. I pulled my knees up to my chest and I lay there in the wet dirt, crying until I finally fell asleep.
It’s bright out when I open my eyes. I have no sense of time. I know I’m cold and…wet. I look out from the bushes wanting to be sure when I climb out I don’t scare some old man feeding fucking pigeons. I see no one and I come out from under the bushes. My pants are still wet of course and needless to say, I’m filthy covered in wet dirt – in some places more than others, but I’m not looking either my finest or my sanest. I drag my pack and camera bag out from their hiding spot and look around. It’s for sure still morning and early morning at that – the sky is filled with an array of beautiful colors and an early morning dew glistens off the wet grass. I see the bus stop I arrived at last night – everything looks so different from the way I saw and experienced it just a few hours before.
I’m starving and incredibly thirsty. I need to eat. I need to eat and I need money. I need a bank to cash some of my travelers checks. After I get some food and money I’ll figure something out in terms of getting myself cleaned up. I know that should probably be priority number one, but I’m just way too hungry and thirsty to care about that right now. I walk through the park, not very far before I come upon a well trafficked road. As I prepare to cross the street I turn back to look at the park while replaying last night in my mind. Last night this place was a black hell filled with monsters and demons and now, shit, it’s a pretty nice looking park.
I cross the street and there is someone with a street booth of some kind with odds and ends – I can’t tell if he’s actually open because he still looks like he’s setting up. He sees me and his expression conveys to me that I’m looking as fucked up as I feel. I pull out my damp $5 dollar bill and ask him for what looks like some fresh baked bread, a can of warm coke (he has neither water or anything that would keep a can of Coke cool, let alone cold), and I ask him how much for the tourist guide book he has out. He doesn’t speak english and I, as we all know by now don’t speak Serbo-Croation, but I get the bread, the warm coke and the map for a damp $5 bill.
With regards to warm Coke…How in the fuck people drink warm soda is a mystery to me. The concept of ice and keeping drinks cold can’t possibly be foreign to parts of the world that have been around for so long. Honestly, I just didn’t get it back then and I don’t get it now. That said, I’m without options so I’m not freaking out about the bread being cold or the Coke being warm.
I tuck my new Belgrade tour guide book into my pack – I decide that once I get a couple hundred dollars in travelers checks cashed, figure out where I can get rinsed off and change my clothes, I can pull the city guide book out and start figuring things out. However, first things first; stuff my face and find a bank. I try to ask my new buddy, Mr. Warm Coke man, if he knows where I can find a bank. We go back and forth for a few moments until he understands what I’m looking for. As soon as he understands what I need, he points behind me. I turn around and fuck me, there are a set stone steps leading to doors with worn brass handles – and its a bank. “Hey, maybe shit is starting to look up for me after all,” I think.
I walk up the couple steps and give a tug on the door handle. It’s locked – they’re not open yet. I sit on the stone steps and I eat bread and wash it down with thick gulps of warm liquid sugar. When I’m finished with both I lean back watching the people of Belgrade wake up and walk into their day-to-day lives. I think about how much this looks and feels just like where I live. People coming and going – to schools, to jobs, to their lovers. I don’t know what their day holds in store for them, but I imagine it’s not too unlike what people back home will be doing when they get up this morning. “I bet you we are more alike than we are different,” I think to myself. “The differences are easier to see or hear or smell or taste or feel, but I bet we all want the same basic things. A safe home, companionships, a job that allows us to provide for those we love. To raise our babies into infants, into children, into teens. To see them grow and go and grow some more. To see our children grow into their own world, so they can live and love like we got the chance to do. To see our children fight and strive to do it better for their children than we did it for them. I bet we all want to feel love and give love. Yeah, we’re from all different types of places, we have different shades of skin tone, and different types of faces. Yeah, our costumes are different, but underneath I bet we all want the same things. Who knows?” I think. I decide I’ll tuck that theory into my back pocket and as I navigate through my life I’ll observe whether it proves true or false.
It isn’t too much longer of me loitering on the front steps until I hear the clickety clack of bank doors being unlocked. I pick myself up off the steps, brush myself off as best as one can under my circumstances. Needless to say that in the case of my circumstances, brushing myself ain’t doing shit for either my appearance or odor.
I enter the bank and while I’d love to sit her and tell you about the high arched ceiling with a beautiful Fresca hand painted by Leonard de Vinci himself, and the beautiful marble flooring and the thousand year oak wood partitions between each bank tellers, the truth is I can’t recall shit about the inside of this bank other than what took place…or better yet, what didn’t take place.
Being the first customer of the day I stood back from the single teller, a young woman who was busy finishing up whatever last minute to-do’s a bank teller takes care of before inviting a customer forward. I wanted to use this time to get a Traveler check out of my money belt, but then I’m figuring if she looks up and I have my hands down my pants this could turn out worse than the taxi ride in Budapest. I decide I’ll wait until I step forward and then I can get my hands down there without ending up on an episode of Cops in Belgrade.
The young woman gently waved me forward. “Hello, good morning,” I quickly blurt out before I actually reach the standard Banking Customer Counter position. I was attempting to beat her quickly to the “Welcome” intro we are going to have to exchange. The reason being is to cue her into the fact that I’m a foreigner of the English speaking variety and therefore she is going to have to get her English on or find someone who does English, because I sure is shit don’t do the Serbo. She catches the cue and returns my preemptive strike with a warm “good morning sir,” in English. There’s a few other throw away words we exchange as we are preparing ourselves for the purpose of my visit. “Well, yes. I would like to cash $200 dollars worth of my Traveler Check please,” I say as I magically pull a $200 American Express Travelers check from my pants. She looks at it, spins it towards her so she can read it right-side up and in the sweetest little English is my second language voice says, “I’m sorry sir, we do not accept these.” I look down at my American Express Traveler Check to make sure I didn’t pull something else out of my pants by mistake. I spin it back towards me so I can be sure in my state of exhaustion I’ve not gotten something mixed up. I haven’t, that’s a $200 American Express Travelers Check. I look at her with a slight half smile as if I must have misunderstood her, “I’m sorry, I thought you just said you do not accept these…” I let my voice carry off as I’m waiting for her to blush slightly for her silly mistake, perhaps take one of her slender hands with nicely manicured nails and cover her eyes as she becomes embarrassed by how much she has let her English skills slip. “Yes, this is what I said, we no longer accept American traveler checks. I’m sorry sir, is there something else I can help you with today?” she says. I stand there dumbstruck. My jaw is open and I’m not blinking. “Sir?” She says, but I’m lost in thought trying not to freak THE fuck out…”Okay Thomas, no big deal. You’re probably just in a bank that doesn’t provide that service. Easy big guy, you just need to find a bank that does provide the service…that’s all, you got this buddy,” I’m full on pep-talking myself from losing my shit right now.
“Oh, ok. I got it. Your bank does not provide this service” I say. She smiles, “yes sir, you are correct.” In my mind the conversation between me and myself continues all in an attempt to keep me from going over the edge. “See Thomas, that’s all it was. Just find the bank that does cash travelers checks and you’re good to go.” I come back to reality and ask “Ok, no problem. Could you please tell me where I can find a bank that does cash travelers checks?” I ask nicely. “I’m afraid there are no banks in Belgrade or the country that will provide such a service,” she says. “I’m sorry, what?!” I belt out. “Yes, I’m sorry sir, but we do not accept American travelers checks anymore because your country has economic sanctions against our country. No one will accept or honor these checks,” she says as she glances over my shoulder. I turn to see what she is looking at, it’s a line of several people forming behind me. “I’m sorry sir, is there anything else I can help you with?” She asks. “Now just hold on a minute! If you or no one else accepts Travelers checkers then that means I have absolutely NO money,” I say. “I’m sorry sir, but there is nothing I can do about this.” I stand there looking at her – eyes and jaw wide. “Anything else?” she says for her third or fourth time. I hang my head, “no, that was it…” I mutter as I slide my worthless checks and two bags off to the right of the teller so I can put the checks away before I leave and find a tall bridge to throw myself off of.
To the side of the teller window I begin to take stock of my situation;
- I have no money.
- I’m exhausted.
- I smell…like pee.
- I’m still hungry.
Okay, what are my options;
I have a return train ticket back to Budapest. I can’t go back. I can’t go back home like this.
What else can I do? There must be something else I can…oh SHIT!, I know what I can do! Why didn’t I think of this sooner!
Can you say, “U.S. Embassy” MF! That’s it! These three words immediately paint the most vivid picture in my mind as I stand in an old ass bank building in Belgrade.
What I envision is a mash-up of a lifetime of every U.S. embassy scene in a movie or t.v. show I might have ever seen. And the image I have in my head in that moment is rather grand – this would be the difference maker I was in need of. I envisioned a beautiful old architectural style building with 10-foot high black iron fencing all the way around it. You could see the building from the street given its size and grandeur, but it was set way back in the center of what was several acres of open green grass. There are two tall and broad standing Marines serving as Centuries just outside the black cast-iron gate. Only Americans were allowed in. You’d have to show your passport of course to gain entry. A Marine you could not see as you approached would step out and order you to present your passport. He would turn sharply on his heels and disappear to run your passport through some high-tech, deep-state, CIA developed testing to ensure that your passport was the real thing and not a forgery. When he returned he would hand it back to me all the while looking mean as hell, but as you reach to take it back the hardness from his face fades out and a grin the size of Iowa fades in. He’ll tell me, “you’re all clear, sir. Come on in,” as he orders the gates opened. When I step in he slaps me on the back letting me know how nice it will be to have a new face around for a few days. He’ll personally escort me to the doors leading into the embassy, not something he normally would do, but it’s me and he’s really stoked I’ve shown up. As we walk up a path in between the PGA quality manicured grass and the cobblestone driveway leading to the large roundabout at the front of the embassy entrance stairs, the rock hard muscular marine informs me they have a room ready for just such a time as this. The room I imagine them leading me to is not a massive suit by any means, but it has its own bathroom with an endless supply of hot water for when I’m ready to soak in the large soaking. The bed is only a queen I figure, but the sheets are freshly cleaned and the pillows are soft as if I were laying my head on clouds made by God’s own hands. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner is at a set time I’m sure of it, but I’ll be free to go down to the kitchen and get a hot dog or popcorn or cold American beer whenever I want. This is no bullshit, the image I have in my fucking head when I think “U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.” In my mind’s eye, I can see it all and it looks really good so I head out of the worthless bank knowing that soon I will have all the food, drink, rest, and safety I’m so terribly craving.
While I had never traveled off the North American continent until this trip, I’m no dummy…I knew it would be wise to have the phone number and address of the U.S. Embassy for the countries you would be traveling to, however, as I dug into my pack to find the hardbound brown envelope I carried important stuff in, I realize I forgot them…I’m such a dummy! I walked back over to the street vendor man I had purchased the bread, tour guide, and warm coke from earlier and I started trying to ask him if he knew where the U.S. Embassy was. He’s sitting on a stool talking with another man who is leaning against what I can only assume is his car. The two are sipping coffee out of what looks to me as to be some extremely small coffee cups. They both smoke cigarettes and seem at first glance to know each other. I interrupt and ask the street vendor if he knows where the “U.S.
Embassy” might be. He looks confused, as does his friend, so I repeat it and then point to the bank building. I do this a couple of times and finally a lightbulb goes off for his friend and he says some words I don’t understand and then the street vendor guy understands – he nods his head now – he gets it. I have my map out and hand it to him. He points to a spot on the map that doesn’t look too far away…by map standards anyway.
I thank them both, fold up the map, and point down the street where I think is the road I start on. He nods his head yes and I lug my pack onto my shoulders and turn to start walking. As I do, the street vendor whistles to get my attention, which he does. When I turn around he waves me back and begins talking with his friend. When they finish their brief conversation, the other man quickly tips his Barbie Doll size coffee cup back and sets it down. He then waves for me to come around the back of the vendor’s shop where he opens the back door to his car. I walk around the back of the little shop of trinkets and start trying to let them both know I have no money to pay for this taxi ride. I start explaining I have no money, that I had spent my last $5 on “breakfast.” The vendor picks up what I’m saying, says something to his buddy with the car and the buddy says in very broken English, “no problem, no money, no problem – brothers, brothers,” as he points back and forth to him and the street vendor. I’m like, “oh, that’s cool. You guys are brothers, cool.” I have no idea why that fact is pertinent right now, them being brothers and all, but hey if them being brothers means I get a free ride to the U.S. Embassy then I’m totally cool with that.
As I flop down into the back of the car I’m taken aback by the two men’s act of kindness in giving me a ride – especially now that I’ve just learned that the U.S. has levied sanctions against their country.
I mean I’m no student of Foreign Policy, but I have to imagine that a small country being sanctioned by a behemoth of a nation as the U.S., these people are going to feel the hardship of that soon, if they haven’t already and yet here they are treating me as if I was their guest, I think. And maybe that’s just it, the two brothers somehow see me as a guest. Hmmm…chalk one up for my theory that people, regardless of external circumstances, can see each other for how we are alike rather than how we are different.
The vendor’s brother, who I have no doubt introduced himself to me, but I’m not sure which word was supposed to be his name and which word was just a plain old word he was using in a sentence. As he heads out into traffic I start to feel a sense of peace. A sense of peace for the kindness of strangers. Peace because I’m exhausted and I’m not hiking across the city lost in my inability to know which direction I’m going. Peace because a bed, hot bath, and hot meals await me. My sense of peace starts to build into genuine excitement the closer we get; “Hot Damn! Hello US Embassy! Daddies coming home!” I shout, the vendor jerks at my sudden outburst from the backseat. He spins his head to see what in the hell I’m screaming about. I just smile real big, “we good my brother, we all gooood.”
The car pulls off a busy street into what is essentially a Florida strip mall. If you’ve been to Florida then you know exactly what I’m talking about, if you’ve not please stop reading and go Google that shit before reading onwards…never mind I’ll save you the hassle by adding a picture of one of Florida’s 12.5 million strip malls (that’s not a real fact – I have no idea how many strip malls call Florida home – it’s probably way more than 12.5 MIL)
So he pulls into a place that looks just like that, a Florida strip mall. I figure he’s making sure he’s going the right way or a pit-stop to grab a six-pack of beer and a carton of smokes. Shoot, maybe babies momma told him not to come home without diapers. I have no idea, but I’m figuring he’s gotta do what all people do when they pull into a place that looks like Florida strip mall – buy lotto tickets, buy a money order, get shitty tattoo from a kid named Frankie – I could keep going…The vendor’s brother rolls to a stop and puts the car in park. I’m waiting for him to get out and handle whatever business he has here. He turns around to look at me. He smiles at me, I smile at him. He keeps smiling at me. I keep smiling at him. He’s looking at me. I’m looking at him. He gives me a little “hey, whats up?” head flick, so I give him one back. Finally he says, “you go.” I look out the car window, “no, man I’m good. I don’t have to go.” I’m telling you these Serbs are nice people – the dude thinks I need to use the bathroom. “I’ll go when I get to the embassy,” I tell him. He looks at me strangely. “You go. Embassy,” he points to a small business out front that looks like it could be out of business or a new tenant is just moving in and they’re doing a bunch of tenant improvements before the grand opening. Shit, he’s at the wrong place! “No, the BIG U.S. Embassy,” and yes, I’m making as big and sweeping arm movements as I can in the backseat of his car. He turns to look out the window, cranking his head to get a better view of the entire building. He turns back to me and points “U.S. Embassy. You go.”
“What the fuck?! Are you kidding me right now? Where are the Marines? Shit, where the fuck is the acres of property and the huge building where I’m going to sleep and eat and recover? Shit man, this can’t be it. Are you sure we’re in the right place?” A lot of words, thoughts, ideas, disappointments and expletives are flying out of my mouth as I try to get my head around my fantasy compared to life’s reality. What I’m seeing with my eyes doesn’t not on any level match what I had seen with my mind.
I step out of the car, my hands tightly squeezing the top of the car door trying to get some grasp on this turn of events, “What am I missing?” I ask myself…apparently I’m missing everything. I duck my head back into the car, “are you sure, man?” He nods yes. I pull my head out of the car and start muttering, “that’s it, I’m fucked. What the fuck am I supposed to do now? You have got to be fucking kidding me. Where is the big ass embassy you see in every fucking spy thriller ever made? Oh, let me guess, it’s on the back-lot of some Hollywood movie set in fucking Hollywood. Man, FUCK Hollywood this is some false fucking advertisement right here. Why don’t they ever show the shithole embassy like this one? This is such fucking bullshit right now. I smell like PISS for fucks sakes…” I’m having what my close friends and family affectionately call a “Tommy Moment.” A “Tommy Moment” is where I lose my SHIT and no one (including me) can do anything about it once I go off. I’ve learned how to read the warning signs so I have few and fewer of these as I grow more mature, but once I go off it’s just best to walk away and let it run its course. More often then not it leads to scars and broken bones…and a shit ton of regret. Oh, you’d like an example? Okay…
My wife Angela and I are newly engaged. I’m on staff at the Boston Globe newspaper in…Boston, MA of course and she comes out from Seattle to live with me. However, my plan is not to stay on staff, but to work with an agency out of New York or London or France and freelance covering wars, conflicts, and general world chaos. So my soon to be wife (we’ll call her Angie because that’s her name) and I decide that we’ll move back to her hometown in the Seattle area, get married there and then we’ll reevaluate where we should live based on my career. So we decide we will do a road across the country making stops in different cities/states to share the news with the people we love. We are on the last leg of our trip and it’s a stop in my hometown of Mill Valley, CA. We are going to go have a night out with my three high school best friends and I’m going to ask them to be the Best Men at my wedding. We hit the famed/infamous 2 a.m Club in Mill Valley – lots of crazy wild nights in that MF let me tell you.
We hit that spot up and I ask them to be the Best Men at my wedding and it’s all fun and games…and a good number of cocktails. For reasons I have no idea, we decided to head up to another known local bar in another town just a few miles away.
So we head there and we start rocking out to the jukebox, shooting pool and carrying on with drinks and stuff. It’s getting close to ending the night and three guys roll in and start playing on the pool table next to my soon to be wife, Angela and I. One of the guys asks if we want to play a game of doubles, two of them and Angie and I. We say sure and we start playing. Every time my soon to be wife leans over one guy in particular starts mouthing off to his buddies about my wife. I let him know how I feel about that and it would be in everyone’s best interest if he would refrain from doing that. Does he stop? Nope and suddenly I get triggered and here comes a “Tommy Moment!” I tell the piece of shit if another fucking word comes out of his mouth about my fiancee I’m going to kick his ass. At which he says, “you wanna take this outside?” And grinning from ear to ear I say, “yes, I really do.” So he and his buddies head for the door and I’m right behind this asshole and Angie and my three buddies are behind me. Now Angie has never seen a “Tommy Moment” before, in fact she knows nothing about said insanity as I failed to mention such an ugly thing while we courted. So Angie thinks she can talk me out of this fight that’s about to happen and my three buddies who I have known since I was in 8th grade are well aware of what is about to happen to this asshole and just stand back to watch the fireworks. As we are walking the doorway the asshole starts taking off his shirt…Let’s hit pause here so I can explain something: In my book, if some dude asks you if you want to take it outside, well then once both men are outside the fight is fucking on. I’m not going outside to talk about fighting, or do a bunch of pushing and shoving hoping someone will break things up before a punch gets thrown. I’m going outside to knock you the fuck out. If you want to talk, push, shove, dance or in this case taking your fucking clothes off you go right ahead, but in the mean time I’ve going to fight…Unpause: I’ve been in a good number of fights, I haven’t won them all I can assure you, but one thing I’ve learned from fighting is that I can take a punch. I’m not getting knocked out by no Average Joe and this guy is as AJ as they come. So he’s taking his shirt off and I pullback to throw a punch that I know sure as shit is going to set him on his ass and we can call this a night and as I go to throw it my soon to be wife in an attempt to try and stop me from fighting, steps in front of my fist. I just punched the woman I love and adore… in the fucking FACE!
When it happens, I’m like, “oh fuck!” The SOB I was about to blast and his two buddies are all but falling on the ground in hysterics. They are laughing their asses off. I’m standing there half wanting to help my wife up and half wanting to kill all three of these assholes. Seriously, at that moment I’m actually torn as to what I should do first. Clearly, I should be all about helping my lady and checking on her, but I’m insane when I get like this and hence I’m not making good choices right now. I finally decided to help my wife. By God’s good grace the punch didn’t hit her straight on, but glanced off her cheek. When I try to help her she is so pissed off at me that she storms away and yells, “I would rather go home with those assholes than you!”…ouch, that one cut deep.
Anyway, you get what I’m saying. “Tommy Moments” always end poorly for someone and that someone is usually me.
…I snatch my pack and my darling camera bag out of the backseat with great force. I walk in front of the car so he can’t drive off without running me over – I really don’t want to separate myself from the vendor’s brother because if he leaves and this turns out to be some type of mix-up, I’m going to be walking wherever the real U.S. Embassy is located. I stay in front of him while at the same time trying to get a more direct look at this place he’s brought me to. Finally, I just have to commit to walking inside this so-called “embassy” to figure out what it is or what it isn’t. I give the vendor’s brother him as friendly a smile and wave as I can muster and head to the doors.
The door is heavy when I pull it open and I notice that the glass isn’t actually glass. I tap it with one of my knuckles as if I’m knocking to get in. It looks and feels more like thick plastic than it does glass. Well, that seems like the type of thing you’d want if you put your “powerful” and “prestigious” embassy in a fucking Florida Strip Mall. If there was a locked door, or a security guard I don’t remember. Had there been a Marine or even someone actually from America anywhere I would have remembered that, but to the best I can recall, I just walked right the fuck in. When I enter there is a fairly long wait at a glass booth. Someone is looking at documents and answering questions, but it’s all being discussed in not English. I’m still confused. Everyone in front of me is not from America…well, I should say, that no one in front of me is acting American – you know, obnoxious, self-entitled, or rude because no one is raising hell because they are having to wait inline. If you have no idea what I’m talking about then it’s for one of two reasons; One, you’ve never traveled out of the United States (Canada or Cabo don’t count)and hence, you haven’t seen someone from America act like a complete asshole. Or number two, you HAVE traveled outside the United States and you’ve not seen an American act like an obnoxious ass and it’s because you’re actually the one behaving like a dick.
I eventually get to the window and the glass/plastic is as thick or thicker than the shit the door is made of. “Uh, hi.” I don’t even know what to say. “Uhm, I’m an American and I’m going to be going into the war and I thought I should tell someone,” I say but I’m thinking unless I find a fucking genie in a bottle who owes me three wishes I’m not going anywhere, but home. “Passport?” the woman behind the thick wall of glass or plastic asks for. I slip into a slot and she takes it. Reviews it, writes my name and passport number down on a sheet of binder paper and hands it back to me. “Thank you, have a nice day.” And that was it. I took my passport back and stood there dazed and confused. What the hell is happening to me? The woman calls “next?” Which she hadn’t done one single time before I got there. I still haven’t moved. I don’t know why I would really, I have no idea what my next move is supposed to be. I have no money. I know not a single person in the city and the one I do know, the old woman, I don’t actually know. I’m exhausted, dirty and no doubt smell like piss to some degree. “Sir, is there something else I can help you with?” I stare at her blankly, unsure what I can really ask her for that she could really provide me with. There is nothing left for me to do. I guess I lost.
Looking back at it all, I think this place was left to handle passport and visa shit, but as for an embassy, that shit was not open for business when I was there. I Google “US Embassy Belgrade” as I was writing this book and the Google Earth view shows a pretty expansive compound with what looks like a tennis and basketball courts. I can assure you, in the Summer of 1992 this was not what I experienced. However, when I think back to my initial vision of what the embassy would be to some degree, I wasn’t too far off. But like I said, the Google Earth version as seen today, was either shut down because of the sanctions and ultimately because America led the UN’s bombing campaign that would come a couple years later. Or the current set-up was not built yet – I have no idea. Regardless, the only play I have left right now is to catch a return train back to Budapest. That was all I could do. I got my map out, located the train station I had come in on the night before and started walking. To ensure I wasn’t going the wrong way, I stopped about every third person, showed them my map and that the train station was my destination. I got there without a wrong turn, thank God!
I stepped onto the Belgrade train fearing the worst. While the train platform was empty I had every fear that as I entered the train car it would be nightmarishly filled with throngs of stinky backpackers and I would be forced to sleep on my feet for some 12-14 hours back to Budapest. To my relief the train car was completely empty. Not a single person was in my train car. I chose the passenger cabin with the fewest seat stains and prepared myself for what I was hoping would be a long, long, long sleep. In the two days I had been in Europe I could not account for more than two or three hours of actual sleep. Having filled my body with alcohol on day one was just stupid. The best meal I had was the sandwich “Yvonne” had given me the evening before. Certainly that mornings breakfast of bread and a Coke was so not the Breakfast of Champions. I had little water so to say I was feeling dehydrated would be a complete understatement. The fear, anxiety and absolute terror of the night before and the train ride to Belgrade just yesterday had taken its toll. Add in that I hadn’t had a shower in as many days and now smelled like urine was the icing on the cake. I felt like a giant piece of shit.
Before the train began, I could no longer stand the smell of myself anymore. I pulled some clean clothes out of my pack, along with a small travel towel and travel soap and I made my way to the train bathroom. There I undressed and gave myself a bath as best I could standing in a train bathroom. With no care of the chilly water or the sloppy mess I was making on the floor I gave myself the bath of a lifetime or so it felt. Into some clean pants, socks, and a t-shirt I headed back to my cabin to do the one the last thing I had been so desperately wanting – some sleep. Once inside I dropped the window of the train car to its lowest setting. It was already feeling warm despite it still being early morning. I knew feeling the breeze on my sleeping body one we got moving would be heaven sent. From there I laid down taking up the entire bench seat with my head towards the door and facing the window. I knew it would only be a matter moments before I would be asleep, I liked the idea of falling asleep looking out and up into the blue sky. As I lay there, finally horizontal in a seemingly safe place, atop a softer than Belgrade park dirt, I struggled to weigh the feeling of being defeated to reach the war. My body felt as though it was bearing the brunt of the disappointment and shame that I felt for having not reached the dream I had set out to reach. The worst part was imagining how the conversations would go with family and friends when I returned and they asked how things had gone. I was already feeling the shame of those future conversations. Explaining how the stupid assumptions I had made before leaving sent the entire trip into chaos and that I was unable to make it happen. My insecurities around what family and friends would think was heavy all on it’s own. Once again Thomas has a hair brain idea that never comes together – poor Tom, they would think or say amongst themselves. I fucking hated the idea of it. I have to find a way to do this I thought to myself, but I was in know place to think about anything at that moment.
The train began to shake. Then rock. Then slowly the pull of the steel wheels began to turn. It feels like I’m being rocked like a baby by my mom I thought as my eyelids grew heavier and heavier. I was headed towards an afternoon of soft Summer sun dreams and I could not get arrive there fast enough. When I awoke many hours later, what I witnessed and experienced was beautiful and magical and unlike anything I have ever experienced before or after.
“Am I awake?”
“Am I dreaming?”
“Am I dead?”
It is as if I had awoken on a train traveling through heaven…
The train slowed. That’s what woke me. It was dark and felt very late, but I had no real idea what time it was. All I knew was that since leaving my home town of Mill Valley, California just north of San Francisco, I was exhausted.
“Yvonne” was awake. I don’t know if Belgrade was her home or if she was visiting friends or family – perhaps her kids, or her grandkids, or hell, maybe her kids, kids, kids…she could totally be a great-grandma! One thing was for sure, she was a great train partner! That was for damn sure.
When the train had initially slowed, I thought we’d be pulling into the station by now, but we were still a good 30-45 minutes away. I guess looking back the train moves slower when it enters a big city. But I’m not even sure Belgrade is a big city, is it? It sure felt like it was that night. I didn’t know it yet, but this night was going to be one of most scariest nights of my life. Only hours earlier just as the sun was setting I had thought that my arriving in Belgrade would be simple compared to everything else they day had dealt me, but as is my normal…I was SO way wrong about that.
Now that being in Belgrade for reals was no longer a thing off in the distance, but I was here, I started to get nervous. I pulled out a map to try and figure out exactly where the youth hostel was located in relationship to the train station, but I could neither find the train station nor the youth hostel on the map, which only made me more nervous, ‘shit if I can’t even find the train station I’m about to land in then how am I going to find the youth hostel? In the dark no less. Oh, right! I’m going to ask the cab driver – he’ll know,’ I thought to myself. With that I relaxed…but only for a moment. ‘What if something goes wrong and the youth hostel is full or something?’ I thought. Maybe I should see where “Yvonne” is staying – maybe I could stay with her for the night?
Out comes the Travel Book and I start trying to find words that help me, help her, invite me to stay wherever she is going to be staying tonight. I tried this word and that word and realized quickly that one of two things was happening…or maybe both. One, “Yvonne” was done trying to figure out what the hell I was trying to say. Or two, “Yvonne” knew EXACTLY what I was fishing for and there was no chance in HELL she was letting me into her house. I mean seriously, if you had lived through the days of Nazi Germany or some puppet government following the insanity of Nazi Germany – with whomever kicking in whoever door the damn well pleased – for whatever reasons they damn well liked, you probably have some reservations inviting the guy you’ve already watched your county’s soldiers pull of a fucking train. Yeah, I think it’s the second option. “Yvonne” knows what I’m shooting for and she just can’t go there. I can respect that I think to myself. But can I, is my respect for her history and how today may have been very triggering for her greater than my fear of landing in a foreign country in the middle of the night? Nope, I’m scared…I’m going to give this one more shot.
The train glides to a stop inside the station and it becomes clear we were for sure saying our goodbyes. I’m looking to find a place to take another shot at getting “Yvonne” to take me in, but I’m not seeing it – fuck, I’m going to have to shoot my shot even if it means having to force it. In a final ditch effort, as we stood outside on the train platform I did a ‘thing’…this thing I did, we’ve all done before somewhere with someone so you know what it is. It’s that ‘thing’ people do, husband/wife, two friends, two siblings…whatever the makeup is no matter – you just need at least two people. So the ‘thing’ is when two people are separated and too far apart to hear one another. So then one of you is like, oh, you want me to come over there, to you? You say it aloud and the other person can see your mouth moving, but you both know the other person can’t hear you, so as you’re saying the thing you know the other person can’t hear you’re also using arm and hand signals. One person points at themselves and then to you and then you’re like, ‘no, I’ll come to you,’ which you now say out loud knowing they can’t hear a fucking word you’r saying, so then you point at yourself and then point at them, and then they’re confused because you just repeated back to the them what they were saying to you in hand-signal speak so then they make their face all confused looking so they know that you know that they are totally fucking confused – are you going to them or are they going to you? And then you do the same thing and point to yourself (ME) then point to them (COME TO YOU), but then whoever is hand-talking takes the whole fucking thing off the rails because instead of just shutting their hands and arms the fuck up and wait for the other person to respond to you, you do the opposite hand signal and shrug your shoulders to try and let them know you’re not sure if they are coming to you or if you’re supposed to go to them, but when you do hand-say both options and now your wife, or girlfriend or partner becomes SUPER fucking confused and frustrated so she does a totally over dramatic shoulder shrug arms up, hands out and her heads cocked slightly sideways like a dog hearing low-pitch do whistle and in all in one motion she roles her eyes at you and clearly mouths “WHAT?” in the frustrated tone of voice she gets with you and the whole fucking ensemble sets you way the fuck off because it makes you feel like a totally fucking idiot and you don’t think you are, but somewhere in your formative years you’re mom or dad gave you that look enough times that it’s triggering and when your partner does that shit you bring it up to them, but you’re really shitty at doing that because you’re already triggered so whatever comes out of your mouth isn’t going to be or sound awesome because you’ve never dealt with the shit in your past so you say something like, “I’m not a fucking idiot!” and your partner is like, “woah, cowboy. I never said that.” and then now you’re really triggered because now they won’t even admit that they just called you that even though they actually didn’t so you cop a fucking bigger attitude about it and say some stupid shit like, “uh, yeah you did.” And then your partner is like, “uh, no I didn’t, but the tone she just said that in was really saying, ‘oh you wanna fucking go, okay, let’s do this shit! I don’t care if we’re in the maternity section at Nordstrom so then you being all kinds of triggered say some shit like “you just told me I’m a fucking idiot, you don’t remember that? It happened all of about 4 seconds ago.” But now you just fucked yourself because now you just talked down to her and she ain’t have’n that shit because she’s been dealing with that shit from either her mom or other men her whole fucking life and she is going to pick right fucking here, right fucking now to stand up for herself so she goes fucking OFF on you in Nordies and Nordie security rolls up on you and you’re like how the fuck did they get here so fast, but they were there the whole time and you just thought it was a couple of young dudes, not together, but both super into maternity clothes so you didn’t get the part that they’re plane clothes security and they saw this shit-show coming the moment she gave you that WTF face, shrugged her shoulders and put her hands up look that triggered you to begin with and now you’re getting escorted out of the store and your girl is inside with some other females who are trying to calm her down and then you’re outside the double-sided glass doors wondering when she is going to come out because you let her drive and you don’t have the keys so you’re waiting then you finally decide to walk back to the car, but the cars is gone and you just sit on the curb and wonder why you always pick the wrong women, but the truth is you’re actually a lot of the problem because you haven’t dealt with your own shit yet.
So to avoid all that from happening, when she makes the confused face look at you from across the divide you just fight your way over to her and figure that shit out before you end up in jail.
So that is what is happening between “Yvonne” and I – we’ve said our goodbyes and although walking in the same direction we become separated, walking on either side of the exiting train passengers. I catch her eye and start doing the hand motion thing where I point at myself and then at her which is my attempt to say,“OMG, you want me to come with you?” But “Yvonne” looks nothing other than confused. She slows down and appears to be trying to focus on my strange antics, I know this is my last shot and I do what I do best when foreign people don’t understand me, I “talk” slower and louder, but in this case there’s no actual sound so I repeat the same motions, but it sloooower and BIGGER! Again I point to myself (slowly, but with lots of BIG arm movement back towards myself) and wouldn’t you know it…she gives me the, “what?! Are you a fucking idiot” look and I give up. I give her a big smile and a wave, knowing I was fortunate to have met her and wanting to ensure her last visual memory of me is not where I am flailing about like a fish out of water on a fucking train platform.
It’s a rush of business out front of the train station. People are in the arms of waiting friends and family and others are rushing to get into double parked cars there to pick them up. In the scrum of it all I don’t see any obvious taxi cabs. I figure a few more minutes and things will have cleared up enough that I’ll be able to spot one. It’s obviously late, but how late I’m not sure. It doesn’t take too much longer and all that is left is a few stranglers and yet I still cannot locate anything resembling a taxi. The rush of people and noise is gone, the adrenaline that comes with the arrival of any trip has worn off and my hope of jumping into a taxi to my youth hostel straight away is dashed. “Okay, no big deal, I’ll grab a seat and wait for one to come by,” I think to myself. If there is one thing I’m notorious for (and I’m not, there are many dumb ass things I’m notorious for) it is this, sitting and waiting – If sitting and waiting were an Olympic event I would be a National Icon. I would have more gold medals than that Phelps swimmer guy. Shit as a kid, I would sit and wait for someone or something to happen for hours, most certainly way longer than I ever should have and the number of times I got in some form of trouble for it would be too many to count. Before I share just one example of my keen gift and ability to ‘sit and wait,’ I will share the secret. All you need to do is to convince yourself that whatever, whomever, you’re sitting and waiting for will happen or arrive any minute now. If you are really good at lying to yourself you too can be a jackass like me – enticing I know. You’re welcome.
One of my earlier ‘sitting and waiting’ moments comes when I am in elementary school. Perhaps at the age of 10. Yes, yes, there were surely others incidences prior to age 10, but in all of previous ones, this is likely in the top 5 or 10 of the “Wow, that’s really fucking dumb” catagory.
When I was a kid, I had to walk everywhere. No, my parents had driver’s licenses and yes, our family always had at least one car, but for reasons to this day I still do not understand, if I wanted to go somewhere I had to walk. Yes, it was a simpler time. Stories of children being taken and harmed as they’d walk somewhere were not usual occurrences so telling your child to walk everywhere didn’t earn you a visit from Child Protective Services as it might in today’s world. While I did not enjoy walking as a child, my choices were limited. The worst part of walking for me was the return trip home. Our family lived on a very long (by child’s leg standards), steep (AF) hill. Walking down it – no big deal, especially because of the gravitational pull – It almost felt like you were free falling all the way to the bottom of my street. Walking up the long steep beast day after day for some 10 or 11 years took grit, determination, rope, carbeniers, sherpas from Nepal, and tanks of oxygen stashed along the route. No joke, especially as a child when your stride didn’t take you as far or as fast as it does as an adult, it was a steep hill/mountain. I walked two miles round trip to and from Tam Valley Elementary School everyday for five years. Add in the drastic change in elevation the last .2 miles and I’m telling you it was a little kid ass-kicker.
So one day for no reason whatsoever, I walk home from school and when I reach the steepest portion, the last .2 mile leg of the climb, I get a brilliant idea. I decide instead of walking the last stretch of my own personal Bataan Death March,
I decide I will sit and wait at the bottom of my street until my dad drives along on his way home from work. I thought myself to be of a brilliant mind as I would enjoy the climb up Live Oak Drive on my ass in the white Toyota Corolla. So sit and wait, I did. Each time I would hear a car approaching I just knew it was my dad. When it wasn’t, rinse and repeat. Any minute now. Oh, here is…nope. Okay he’ll be the next care…nope. No worry, I know the next car to come around the corner will be good old dad…nope.
After four plus hours of waiting for a dad that should have been home two or three hours ago I finally got the idea I should probably walk the .2 miles to my house. Just kidding – I stayed right fucking there at the bottom of the hill waiting! Why? Because I KNOW the next car is going to be my dad. I know it!
Finally, a car comes…down my hill. Holy shit if it wasn’t my dad! He sees me in his headlights and slows to a stop. He slowly leans over to roll down the passenger side window, a freshly lit Marlboro cigarette dangles burning from his lips. Excited to finally see him, “Hey, Dad! What are you doing here? I was starting to get worried you weren’t coming home tonight.” His cigarette almost falls from his lips. “Son, where have you been?” He asks in that dad tone that lets me know I might have fucked something up, but it’s too soon to tell if or what that fuckup might be just yet. “I’ve been right here waiting for you to get home!” I answer in a more hesitant tone as I’m no longer sure this is going to be the reunification I had been expecting it to be. My dad takes a long drag off his cig and stares out the windshield. He holds the smoke in his longs and then lets the smoke out which draws out with it a long heavy sigh. He looks back over at me, “right here son?” He points towards where I’m standing. “You’ve been right here?” Yeah, I’m starting to think this is going to go poorly for me. “I swear dad. I’ve been right here the WHOLE time!” I accentuate the “whole time” because I think maybe he thinks I was somewhere I shouldn’t have been. I’m actually feeling a sudden sense of confidence knowing I must have some 100+ witnesses who could vouch for my alibi. Yeah, I didn’t actually know any of these potentially witnesses, but I knew I had some. “How long have you been RIGHT here son?” And now he’s the one accentuating his words. “Uh, I don’t know, but I came home right after school dad, I swear!” He turns back to face the windshield letting the back of his head rest against the seat. He lets out another long sigh and puts his hand on his forehead and rubs it as if something is there he needs to rub away. He takes another long pull off his cigarette. Without looking at me, “so what you’re telling me is…you’ve been right here at the bottom of the hill since 3:30 today?” He doesn’t wait for me to answer, “son do you know what time it is right now?” I try to determine if there is any way I can look at my wristwatch without him noticing. I’m pretty sure my dad is expecting me to know this answer, but he’s back to looking at me again so there is no way to peak the watch. “No dad,” I’m not 100% sure just yet, but I’m thinking I’m in deep shit. My dad looks directly at me, “son it is eight-fucking-o’clock at night!” And now I’m 1,000% sure I’m in deep shit. If there was ever a signal that you were in deep shit with dad it was when he started adding curse words in between regular words. Dad continued, “Please tell me why-in-the-fuck you’ve been down here for four and a half hours.” I look down at the ground hoping there might be a really good answer down there, but even if there was it wasn’t going to matter because it would have been too dark to actually see it. “I was waiting for you to get home so I could ride up the hill with you,” I said as sorrowfully as I possibly could. “You were waiting for me?” his voice drifts off. He seemed to be pondering that answer. A long few seconds went by and in a slightly softer tone dad said, “get in the car son.” I get in the front seat, pull my backpack onto my lap. Dad makes a u-turn and starts up the that stupid hill. Afraid to actually look at him, I keep my eyes down towards the floorboards of the car. “So, I guess you got off work early today?” I say sheepishly. “Yes son,” is all he says. I wait a few more moments, “I guess I’m on restriction again aren’t I?” I say softly. Dad sighs, “Yes son.”
So all and all, when it comes to sitting and waiting, I’ve got that down. But I’d like to think of myself as a man who learns from his mistakes, albeit slowly. And in this instance, I’m a ‘man of action’ and at some point (far less than four plus hours) I moved to Plan B! What exactly was Plan B? I didn’t know yet but I thought I should start by pulling the map out. First I needed to locate the train station I was at – Found it! Or I think I found it. Then I retrieve the address for the youth hostel and spend God knows how long trying to find the street that’s on – Found it! I think. Okay, I’m here and I’m pretty sure I need to get here! Not exactly sure how far that is, but I start walking that direction anyway. If I see a cab on the way I’ll flag’em down.
It’s dark, there are street lamps casting light down like you see in old black & white detective movies. It’s not hot, but it’s not cold either, but between my anxiety from being somewhere completely foreign in the middle of the night, during war-time no less, and lugging this pack on my back and this amazing camera bag (sarcasm) I’m breaking a sweat. I walk for probably 30-45 minutes. I’ve seen some people, but not the type of people you decide to ask for directions from this late at night. Most of them are on the other side of the street when they see me I try and make myself look bigger by straightening up real tall, bowing my arms out like I have too big of muscles to let my arms hang at my side and although I didn’t realize this for awhile, when I would bow my arms out wide I also started bowing my legs – kinda like a sumo wrestler would, but not as low to the ground…I guess more like a someone who just coming back from a really long ride on a horse, but they had never ridden a horse before so all that stuff down there hurts real bad. I think I was too busy wondering how those guys were going to kill me to realize I was walking like that, but no one was fucking with me so I just kept walking all weird when I saw people who scared me. Finally, I did see a man and a woman walking together AND on the same side of the street as me so I stopped walking like a fucking freak and as we were approaching each other I gave them one of those dainty half-waves – of the “Wave” family, it’s like the sissy boy of the family one – it’s totally non threatening. They stop and I show them my map. We walk a few steps forward to get under a street lamp and I show them the address in my youth hostel book and then I show them the map. I point to the location I found at the train station and point to it. He looks at the address, looks at the map, looks at where I said I was going, looks at the address, looks at the map, looks at where I said I was going and then points to a spot in the complete other direction…like back to the train station and keep going the other direction. “Are you fucking kidding me right now?!” I burst out – it literally just flew out of my mouth. I startled both of them and then immediately started apologizing. They could tell I was really frustrated. They pointed for me to come with them back the way I had just gone and immediately thought I was saved – these two kind and lovely people were going to take the young exhausted American into their home. They would offer me a cold glass of water, a bath perhaps and then tuck me in a bed with fresh sheets where they would let me sleep late into tomorrow afternoon. Nope…they took me to a bus stop.
Once I realized this was not ending in tall, cold, glass of water, a hot bath and bed sheets, but rather a bus stop, I pulled out my $5 dollar bill and tried to explain that I had only just arrived and had no local currency to even catch a bus. The man reached into his pocket and gave me some coins – no idea how many or how much, but I could only pray it was at the very least the exact change I was going to need. He motioned for me to take my map out and then made a hand motion signaling did I have something to write with. I set my pack down and started digging in one of the side pockets until I found a pen at which point I handed it to my late night guide. He drew a big dark circle around the location I had shown him the address for and then he seems to convey that I show that to the next bus driver that showed up. He and his lady friend waved goodbye and I sat down. I hear a car coming and I look towards it, but it’s not a car it’s a bus! Hell yes! The couple are down the street a bit, but as I stand up to make myself seen by the bus driver I notice the couple have seen the bus as well and are walking quickly back towards me.
The bus driver stops and opens the doors – the lights inside the bus come on and it’s empty inside. I pause to step into the bus because I’m sure that the couple are going to help me explain to the bus driver where I need to get off the bus to get to my destination. I’m correct, they reach me and the man steps onto the bus and begins to explain to the bus driver something in terms of my need to get to my destination. Then man spins back at me and holds his hand out. I reach into my pocket for the coins he gave me for the bus fair and he shakes his head no. He wants the map instead. I hand it to him and he and the bus driver look at what I can only assume is the circled spot where I’m trying to get to. The bus driver leans out from behind the helpful man I’ve met and gives me a strange look up and down. He leans forward to continue talking to the man helping me. The man helping me shrugs his shoulders at the bus driver, and then the bus driver leans back again and looks at me a second time. The helping man steps aside and waves me onto the bus. I step up and hold out my hand holding the coins, but the bus driver waves it away and it’s clear he’s not going to charge me for the ride. I hand the coins back to the man who gave them to me and say thank you a bunch of times, but have no idea he understands what I’m saying, but it’s clear he understands the gesture. He steps off the bus and as the doors close, he and his lady friend wave me goodbye. The lights in the bus go off as the bus driver pulls away from the curb. Shit was that more difficult than I wanted it to be, but in my mind this was the last hurdle to me getting into a soft bed and getting much needed sleep.
The bus travels a long double wide route and although he slows as other bus stops appear no one else is in need of a bus. I try to think of it as a chauffeured limo, just me and the bus driver. After about 15 minutes he pulls over to an empty bus stop. He opens the doors, the light in the bus comes back on and I squint looking at the bus driver for some type of sign that this is my stop. At this stage, it maybe obvious this is my stop, but I’m too tired to move unless I have to and I ain’t moving until this guy makes it very clear I’m here. He looks at me waiting for me to start getting up and getting out, but I don’t move, I just look at him. He finally, motions his hand out the door and now I stand up and put my pack on. I look around and don’t see anything resembling the entrance to a youth hostel. I look back at him, obviously with a confused look on my face and he points up ahead about 30 yards to a well lit street corner and then makes a motion to the right letting me know I should turn right when I get to the corner…at least that’s how I’m translating it. If I’m honest, at this point in the whole adventure I’m not loving it anymore. It has been one hell of a long day and I’m exhausted. The range of emotions I’ve experienced probably haven’t been this intense and this varied in a single day since towards the end of 8th grade when I went over to Tad Smith’s (so not his real name) house after school to eat cereal and watch cartoons and ended up in a bedroom with a girl having sex for the first time. Random flashback I know, but talk about a range of intense emotions in a relatively short period of time…it’s not too far off to the emotions of today; surprised, excited, confused, scared, euphoric, exhausted, hopeful, back to scared and excited…All I think to tell myself at this point is; “just get to the youth hostel. Just get to the youth hostel” that’s the only thing driving me to take another step forward. When I get to the youth hostel I can rest, shower, eat, rest more – The youth hostel has become my oasis in a very hot desert. “You’re almost there, keep going. Get there and you can collapse into bed for a couple days,” is the pep talk I keep telling myself, out loud at this point. While I had been hoping my private bus was a door-to-door service but I guess this is close enough and I step off the bus. The bus door closes behind me, the lights go out, and the bus driver pulls away.
At first I expected it to be deadly quiet. There is no person, car, or dog for that matter visible. However, while it’s quiet, to some degree, I can hear music – like really loud music, but not immediately around me and in the dark it’s hard to tell what direction it’s coming from exactly. I head towards the street the bus driver pointed me two just know that any minute I’m going to see a ghetto looking sigh that reads Youth Hostel with an arrow pointing me to my paradise for the night, but I see no signs reading “youth hostel” and I figure that’s not a big deal as I can barely read English let along this wacky language. As I drew nearer to the street corner it was clear I was also drawing nearer to the music. Lord please tell me this is not late night disco night at the youth hostel. When I make the turn to head down the street I pass a few buildings that I can’t tell if their actual home or places of business. I’m looking for the address at this point as I fear being in the wrong place again. I don’t see any number or numbers and letters. I continue walking assuming I’ll see the youth hostel, a sign for the youth hostel, or the address of the youth hostel – it’s late for sure so I’m not sure if it’s like a hotel in the U.S. where there’s always some strange bird working the over night shift and they’re usually in the back sleeping when you hit the small silver plated bell waking them up from a little sleep in the back room. I get to a place that is well lit – it’s a building off to my right and there is a bit of a slope coming off the street down a driveway of sorts. The driveway is both sloped and turns into a bow shape that looks to be a drop off spot to the front entrance of a fancy hotel. I stand at the top of the driveway looking down and see well dressed men with dark sunglasses on and fancy dress women walking in and out. Once again, I look for an address can find none and keep walking. Clearly this is where the music is coming from – its a club type music but not one I’ve ever heard before – it has a lot of deep base that repeats over and over again with sudden burst of other strange techno sounds fading in and out of the deep bass beat. I would later come to figure out that this was something I had never heard before that is actually referred to by the names Techno or House music. I continue walking until finally I find a building with an address – I’m confident it’s not the youth hostel because they’re nothing youth hostel about this place, but fuck it I found an address. I pull out my youth hostel guide book and compare the address I’m at to the address I’m trying to go to. Best as I can tell I’ve over shot the mark and gone past the youth hostel somehow. It doesn’t make anysene that I walked by it because I didn’t see a youth hostel or anything that looked like it could potentially be a youth hostel. Instead of going back towards the street corner I turned on which would seem to be the logical decision, I keep walking on to see what the next address is – maybe they do shit backwards here? I walk a few more blocks until I find another address it’s clear I’m headed in the wrong direction and I have to go back. Fuck me, I think. Can I lay down already. I slowly make my way back up the street looking even harder for an address I might have missed. I see no more addresses. I do walk by the clubby place this time I notice black Mercedes Benzes parker along the curb of the club that offers a red velvet looking carpet from the curb into the club the same types of people are outside of it laughing, smoking cigs and talking overly loud – aka they’re drunk. I reach the street corner and still nothing. Now I’m starting to get pissed where the fuck is this place. Once again, I turn around and head back the way I just came until I reach the club. At this point I decide I’m just going to go fucking ask someone.
As I walk down the scene in front of me becomes more and more peculiar. There are very fit men, with close shaved hair cuts, who wear black suits and white dress shirts standing out front of their very clean/waxed Mercedes. They hands are folded together in front of them and their heads are constantly on a swivel looking left, looking right, eyeballing anyone who comes out of the club. These guys look like fucking mobsters I think to myself. As I’m walking down the slopped sidewalk towards the entrance a fairly young man comes out with his shirt half-way unbuttoned like some Italian America guido and he has his arm around some very tall like young woman who is dressed to kill and looks to be the closest thing I’ve ever seen of a supermodel in real life. A black suit guy opens the back door to a black Mercedes with blackout tinted windows. He closes the door as the couple get in and then walks around the back of the car, practically looking in every direction all at once and then he steps into the drivers seat and pulls out and away. I’m not sure what this place is, but I’m in jeans, a super sweaty t-shirt, a large hiking pack, a shitty camera bag draped over me and it’s clear whatever this place is I am waaaaay underdressed.
I get some long hard stares from a few more of the black suit security, chauffeur, mobster types as I get to the entrance, but that can’t possibly think I’m a threat. An alien from space maybe, but a threat? No way. I enter into a large open lobby and see a desk with well dressed men standing behind it. They have name tags on so they look official enough to get directions from and I make my way there. As I approach an older man says something I don’t understand, but assume it’s a greeting. I say, “hello, I’m lost and really need some help.” The man realizes I don’t speak whatever language he’s speaking and asks me how can he help, but this time in English. “I’m looking for a youth hostel around here. Do you know where it is?” He looks at me strangely and the look tips me off to show him the address in my youth hostel guide book. “Yeah, you see? Here’s the address,” I say as I turn the guide book towards him and point to the address for the one single youth hostel in all of Belgrade. He leans over a bit to get a better look and when he reads it he has an even more puzzled look on his face. He look over to another gentleman who works there and calls him over. He says some shit I don’t understand to the new guy and the new guy leans over and looks at the address. The new guys says some shit to the first guy and I’m suddenly getting the feeling like their conversation is quickly turning into that old Abbot & Costello routine, “Who’s On First” (Google it – I’m sure that shits on YouTube). They both look at the address, say some more shit to each other, look at me a few times, say more shit to each other and then the first guy I spoke to says, “this is address in your book is for here.” I laugh because clearly they misunderstood me or something got lost in translation, “no, I’m looking for a youth hostel.” “yes, I understand, but the address here…” he points to the guide book, “…is this address to our hotel.” Shocked, I look around, at first I turn my head to get a better sense of where the fuck I’m at and as my head turns to the right my body keeps following and I make a complete 360 degree turn as I try to figure out how in the fuck this is a hotel. “This is a hotel?” I ask completely dumbfounded. “Yes, yes, this is a hotel,” he says. “Well where in the fuck is the youth hostel?” I’m seriously confused right now and have no more control for anything that is coming out of my mouth. “Uh, well, I guess our hotel is the youth hostel,” he says. I repeat his exact words back to him trying to understand the dynamics of this situation, this location and this conversation; “your hotel IS the fucking youth hostel?” I hang my head in complete exhaustion. “Okay well, here’s my youth hostel card, I’d like a room,” I say. “No problem, I will need your passport and a credit card,” he tells me. I give him both knowing full well that the credit card has absolutely zero money available on it. I brought it because I thought I should have a credit card, but why I think that I have no idea. He makes copies of my passport and returns it to me. What he does with the credit card I have no idea, but he gives me that back. “Given that this is my very first youth hostel experience and given it’s in a swank hotel I figure I should ask the cost for the night. “Excuse me, how much is my room for one night?” He tells me but it’s not in US dollars so I have no clue how much it is. “How much in US dollars?” I ask. “It will be $150 US dollars plus tax,” he says with a straight face. “I’m sorry sir, what the fuck did you just say?” To say I have ‘sticker shock’ would be an understatement. “Yes, it is $150 dollars, plus tax.” Again, total straight face. “Holy shit! Do I get a youth hostel discount? I mean you guys are listed in the youth hostel guide book here and youth hostels are supposed to be cheap,” I tell him. “Yes sir, that is the price with the youth hostel discount,” he answers. “Get the fuck out of here!” I’m talking to myself more than him right now. “And check out is at 9 AM,” he slips in real quick like. “Are you fucking kidding me?!” I blurt out. “I’m going to pay $150, plus tax and have to be out at 9 AM? What time is it right now,” I ask. “It’s 1 am sir,” he tells me after an exaggerated turn to look behind him at the very large round clock behind him that he clearly thinks I should have noticed by now. “Fuck, man I can’t afford that,” I say – again talking to myself as much as talking to him at this point. “I can’t fucking stay here,” I say and I turn around totally fucking defeated. Now what?
I exit the hotel, disco, mob spot, whatever the fuck this place is just wrecked. What the fuck am I going to do? There is no other youth hostel listed for Belgrade and even if there was it would probably turn out to be the fucking Ritz Carleton and cost me an arm and my first born son. This is bullshit I think. Why does a swank hotel list themselves in a European Youth Hostel guide book? Was this a fucking mistake, did the sales person who sells space in the guide book not realize he was signing up the Glam Hotel and not some gymnasium turned backpacker bunkhouse? Shit, what in the hell am I going to do? All I can think to do at this point is walk back to the bus stop – why? I have no idea – I guess because it’s my last point of reference. It’s also well lit and there was a bench seat maybe I could lay on that for the night? I mean it’s not like I’ve never slept outside before – did it all the time in high school – under cars no less. But halfway across the world, in a foreign country, a foreign country at war no less seemed way different and way scary. When I get back to the bus stop I sit down as I consider how safe I’m going to be in a well lit bus stop. Well lit is good I guess, but I’d be a lot safer if no one actually could see me. I look around and realize there is what looks like a large park across the street. I had been so focused on getting to the street corner that was supposed to lead me to my youth hostel oasis, that I hadn’t even noticed the large park that seemed to stretch forever or at least forever as much as I could see by a few lites standing over the paved path going through it. I hear some shouting from down the street and off in the distance I can see what appear to by men, young men, walking in my direction. Fuck this, I’m going to move into the park and see if I can find someplace to hide I decide. I put the pack back on my shoulders and hand carry the camera bag and I cross the street to the park in the shadowed sections the street lights aren’t fully able to light. I want to stick to the shadows and do my best to stay unseen from the group of men headed my way. In the park I cross the path and walk deeper into the park staying off the path because it is lit. I hear some more yelling, but this time it’s coming from in the park. Fuck, what the hell is going on? An hour ago there wasn’t a soul in sight and now it feels like Grand Central Station. I see a large bush just feet off the path and in front of me. It’s both wide and reasonably tall and I decide it’s big enough to conceal me and my pack. As I think I’ve shared, I’m no arborist so when it comes to flora and fauna – I’m not the guy you want trying to answer those Trivia questions. All I know is it’s close and wide. As I size it up in an attempt to figure out how best to conceal myself in it I realize given the situation it will work great as a nighttime hideout. There is a bit of a gap from the root of the bush to where it actually gets all leafy hence I can slide my pack under it and into the middle on one side and then I can slide under it and into the middle on the other side. I got both those things achieved quickly because I’m hearing more voices and while it could totally be my sleep deprivation making things up, I can for sure here loud voices belonging to men in and on the edges of the park. Once under I quietly unzip a side pocket in my pack and retrieve my Swiss Army Knife. I then undo the not so ‘big’ blade and grip it tight in my right hand. God help me if I have to stab someone to death. If I do, they are going to have to be really patient with me because it’s going to take some doing and a fair amount of time to actually kill someone with this knife with it’s very threatening 2-inch blade. Seriously, whomever tries to kill me is probably going to want to bring a cup of coffee and a good page-turner because this ain’t going down go down fast.
I hear someone! They’re close. Fuck did they see me? I can only see one direction down the path. There’s a light a short distance away and I don’t see anyone. They’re coming down the path behind me. My body tenses. Laying on my right side, my knees slightly bent to ensure I’m tucked into this bush tight. If he saw my slip in here I’m dead. The knife is in my right hand which is tucked under the weight of my body, pressed against the dirt. I’ll roll onto my back and stab upwards, it’s a terrible spot to fight from, but I can kick to try to keep him or them off me for at least a few seconds. Stab them first, if they reach down to grab me, stab them first wherever I can strike. The throat or the eye or mouth someplace their adrenaline can’t mask. Get ready. They stopped. Why’d they stop. Listen, listen harder! Where are they!?
Sprinting out of the darkness down the path ahead of me, not behind, come three men who flash through the light above the path and quickly fade into grey shadowy figures the farther from the light they get – the closer to me they become. They are running as fast as they can, but ducked down and not upright. Did I see pistols. What was in their hands. They don’t know I’m here, I can tell because they are looking off to their left towards the street and bus stop I had been at. A short burst of automatic rifle goes off. Then another. The three men reach the bush that has become my shitty hideout. Someone behind me shouts out and to my horror the three men turn towards me. Another burst of some type of machine gun goes off again and then again. WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING! I’m shaking, I can’t feel the ground anymore, I feel like my body is shutting off. I feel paralyzed, but I don’t dare move to find out. The men run past me, they are sprinting past me, they’re not ducking down anymore they are running for their lives. Another burst of gunfire. I can’t see it or them, the shooter or shooters and I jerk each time another burst is ripped off. It’s quiet, but I don’t trust it. It’s coming! Whatever monster is in this living nightmare it is coming for me. It’s here, behind me. It’s here now, I know it is. It’s going to grab me. Don’t move Thomas. Don’t move Thomas. Please don’t move Thomas. It’s going to drag you into the darkness if you move. Any second, it’s just waiting for you to breath. Don’t breathe Thomas, please don’t breath.
I can feel the warm blood on my leg. It’s soaking through my jeans…
Oh, my god! I’ve been shot.
People often ask me, “what’s your favorite photograph you’ve ever taken?” You’d think as often as I’m asked that I would have at the very least a go-to answer. I don’t. Is it the one from Kashmir? The one people always love and say it looks like a Caravaggio painting. Is it the one I shot in Rwanda that took 1st in one of the World Press Photos categories that one year? Or is it the one that took 3rd in World Press Photo that same year? Is it the one from Kosovo that took 3rd in one of World Press Photo categories a few years later? Is it one of the two that was part of the Pulitzer Prize entry for the Seattle Times coverage of WTO Riots back in 1999 – when we lost to the Rocky Mountain News’ coverage of the Columbine School Massacre (and deservedly so).
Is it one of those ones that I always like for its complexity, but everyone else misses it or doesn’t get it? Fuck man I do not know…until a few day ago that is. On Thursday, March 25th, 2021 at 8:16 AM my most favorite picture that I have ever taken, between June 1992 when I took my very first picture all the way to today, almost 29 years later to the month, was revealed to me.
While there is still much to share in the story of my faking my way into Sarajevo in 1992, then meeting the legendary photojournalist John Downing MBE, who took me under his wing in those war-torn streets. With whom I stood next to when I took my first picture – two orphan babies murdered by a sniper. I first want to share something powerful, beautiful, and transformative that has happened – an event that feels ordained by God or whatever you want to label it. It’s a story that has flipped my entire understanding and value of photography on its ass and revealed something of myself that at 50 I had never been aware of before.
We’re only in Chapter or Part…I have no idea anymore, but I’m about to drop a major spoiler alert. You can choose to not read further and wait for the book, movie, or board game to come out or you can choose to read on – your call.
SPOILER: I don’t die. Not in Sarajevo in 1992 and not when I returned during my college break in the Summer of 1993. I get out alive both times, but only by the skin of my teeth in ‘93 however.
When I did get out of Sarajevo in ‘92 war was the only place I wanted to be and photography was my passport back.
If you’ve read from the beginning you all know that I was in Jr. College when I had the “brilliant” idea to go see what war was all about for the first time. I’m not sure if everyone knows what a Jr. College is in America, but I’ll try to explain it to the best of my ability so we’re all on the same page. Jr. College is a cheaper way to take college level courses without a bunch of overpriced college education fanfair. It’s local to a county/city and the student body is made up of a wide variety of people. In my experience for example, I had classes with super smart high school kids that took college level courses prior to their high school graduation. I took classes with 20-somethings who didn’t have parents who could afford a four-year college so they took two years of JR. College classes to offset the cost of a 4-year university, then they would transfer to a larger, more prestigious institution to focus on their major studies and get their degree from that school. Then you had old people who were retired who liked being around young people and learning. They would pick and choose topics of interest to them in their later years to stay busy or before leaving to travel somewhere I would never want to go at age 21. Then there are the older women…at least one that I personally knew of; who never had to work a day in their life because they inherited a shit ton of money when they were young so they stayed busy by taking classes at the local Jr. College where it also just so happened to be prime pickins for attractive younger men (legal, but half their age legal) who they would invite over for “studying” wink, wink, nod, nod. Eventually one of two things happened; she either gets bored of all muscle, no mind college boy (her friend swung by where I worked to let me in on that) OR…the younger man comes to realize that what he thought was going to be his sugar momma is next level crazy and one night laying in her bed “he” tells her he’s going to go to Bosnia during Summer break and she tells him he’s “fucking stupid” and he gets up, gets dressed, and never speaks to her again…If I’m going to put it all out there I might as well explain how that car wreck of a relationship stopped rolling. Or, in JR. College you meet someone like me, someone who has no idea what they are going to do with their life and their parents aren’t financially able to burn $60-$100k to let little Johnny go figure his shit out at a four-year college he actually never had the grades to get into anyway. So there, that’s Jr. College in the America I grew up in.
It was in Jr. College I got the idea to go to Sarajevo during Summer Break of 1992. I came back with a dream of one day being John Downing MBE, a real photojournalist whose career spanned decades and whose impact was tangible. I enrolled in all the photo courses I could that Fall, but they were all ‘art photography classes’ – stoner hippie shit, but I take them because I don’t know shit about photography. I also don’t know shit about journalism, or photojournalism, or documentary photography, or fucking anything else. I know what I saw and experienced in the besieged city of Sarajevo with John Downing. And while I don’t know how to become that, I have a ferocious drive to figure it out. With a couple hippie art photo classes under my belt, along with some better camera gear, black & white film (not fucking slide film), I go back to Sarajevo during Summer Break of 1993. My goal obviously, is to try and become a war photographer. Why? That’s a complicated answer that probably is best summed up like this for now; Partly because I see a place where I think I can make a real difference in the world – war zones. Partly because I think if I’m a guy who can handle war shit then I’ll surely gain real, not manufactured self-confidence and stop being so scared and insecure inside. Partly because I’ve felt invisible my whole life. I’ve felt unloved and not wanted. I’ve felt unworthy of love. I’ve felt like I must be someone not good if my mother would leave me like she did and the loss of my mother is compounded by how the rest of my childhood played out. I want people, especially my dad, to be proud of me to see that I made something of my life. That I was something more than some guy who just flipped burgers, dug ditches, or pumped gas his whole life (not that any of those things in reality are bad, but when those were conveyed to me as my options if I didn’t get my shit together those jobs didn’t feel like winning to me). How bad did I want to find a purpose? How bad did I want self-confidence? How bad did I want to be loved and valued? Bad enough that I was willing to die for it if that’s what it took. I was that hurt, confused, and lost inside.
So when I returned to Sarajevo in 1993 I did so trying to make something of myself and the one thing I knew I could control was “looking the part” of a war/conflict photographer.
When I arrived I was much more clean-cut, clean shaven, cut hair – gone was the shoulder-length Eddie Vedder hair (I met Eddie many years later and shot an album cover for something he put out on his Fan Club – that was cool). I had better camera equipment; two decent cameras – Nikon FM2’s with MD 11 motor drives. A long 70-200mm zoom lens like John had…well, not exactly like John had. His was a top end Nikon lens with a 2.8 aperture likely purchased brand new from a Nikon certified dealer. Mine, well, an off-brand maker with a very limiting 5.6 aperture purchased from a pawnshop in Florida that likely got it from a certified dealer, but probably more like a dealer of drugs. The other lens on my other camera was a 35mm wide angle lens just like John had, but not really. For Christmas that year I had gotten a “pro” photo-vest, light brownish in color that you would see a lot of sideline photographers wearing at major sporting events. I wore either cargo shorts or khaki pants, but not jeans, I had real looking hiking boots, gone where the Nike hip-hop soldier boots I had worn the year before. When I returned to Sarajevo in 1993 I’m trying to establish myself as someone who is, or who is on his way, to becoming a war photographer.
And while I absolutely wanted to make pictures that were so compelling that they would instigate change in the world. That people on the outside of this conflict and they would demand that the evil and carnage happening here and elsewhere be stopped. Fuck, did I want to do that. I wanted there to be no more dead moms, grandmas, grandpas. No more dead sons and daughters and fathers. For fuck sakes how about we just stop killing all the innocent children and babies? Are we capable of just putting a fucking stop to that? Could we stop killing the children? Can we do just that at least that? Anyone?
I also want you to know that I wanted selfish recognition. I wanted to be published and win awards and have near-death stories to tell. I wanted these things because I thought they would cause people to think well of me. I wanted the fame and recognition so people would think I had become something special. That I was worth loving. I wanted to feel special. And yes, I wanted to think of myself as one bad motherfucker, rather than the scared little boy I had always felt inside. I wanted to feel my father’s pride. I want you to know these things impart because they’ve felt like secrets I no longer want to hide myself or the secrets that maybe everyone hides, fuck if I know. I also want you to know these things because I’m not any different than many of you are. If there is any small difference at all, maybe it’s that I wanted these things so badly I was willing to die trying to obtain them – the truth is I was starving for love.
As the Summer of ‘93 was getting closer and closer I was being diligent about my research and I had read the British were flying UN aid flights out of the northern Italian resort city of Ancona. When planning flights to leave San Francisco again, it turned out to be faster and cheaper to get to Ancona than into Sarajevo than it was to get to Zagreb, Croatia than into the besieged city. So I booked a flight to Rome, then a connecting flight to Ancona and my grand plan was to show up at whatever airport/airbase the British are operating out of, flash my fake shit, get on the plane, and somehow find a ride from the airport into Sarajevo, and we’d be all good in the hood. Except I run into one minor problem…
When I got to Ancona some weeks later I checked in with the officer overseeing logistics for flights going into Sarajevo from Ancona. I told the officer who I was and did so with the arrogance and confidence of someone who assumed himself to be a household fucking name. He looked at my credentials, told me they looked great, but he was going to need to see my UN Accredited Documents. The blank look on my face surly tipped him off to the fact that I had no idea what he was referring to so he kept talking, “you know the ones you need from the UN Press Office in Zagreb (Croatia unfortunately…a Zagreb in Italy would have been helpful). The British officer was nice enough about it, but not nice enough to ignore the fact that I didn’t have those docs and to go ahead and let me on a plane anyway. He hadn’t become an officer in the British air force by ignoring rules. I tried to save myself by casually letting him know that I had plans to pick up a new set of credentials from Mack Magnuson, my old buddy from 1992, at the UN HQ in Sarajevo. He said something to the extent of, ‘yeah, no. You can’t get on the plane unless you’re approved by the UN Press Office in Zagreb.’ And just like that I was fucked! I was going to lose at least a week, perhaps two, and a lot of money earmarked for staying in Sarajevo. I was now going to have to go from Ancona, Italy to Rome, Italy, over to Budapest, Hungary, then catch a train to Zagreb, Croatia. Then maybe or maybe not get the credential I needed to get on a flight that maybe or maybe not flying into Sarajevo based on how much shooting was happening that week. Versus, the British plane currently sitting on the tarmac 100 yards away from me right that moment being loaded up with pallet after pallet of aid and was scheduled to take off in about 30 minutes. Fuck! How do I get on the plane?
“Hey, I totally get it, you’re just doing your job. Any chance we could give the Zagreb office a call? I’m sure we can get this cleared up?” I asked. The officer obliged and we went into an office/break room for flight and ground crews. The officer picked up the phone, “yeah, this ‘Officer ‘Edward’ over in Ancona (I have no idea what his name is, but Edward sounds British enough). We have a journalist here with credentials and an expired UN Press Credential from last year. He’s looking to get on a flight into Sarajevo that’s about to leave. Can you clear him from here?” I stood just inside the office/break-room holding my breath. He paused, listening to the person on the other end and then covered the lower portion of the phone with his hand, “they have to get the officer in charge to see if we can approve it,” he half whispers to me. Right then a member of the ground crew pokes his head into the office, “we’ve got a problem with one of the blah blah blahs for this flight, what do you want us to do with it?” Officer ‘Edward’ looks at the phone, then at me, then at the ground crew guy. It’s obvious he’s unsure if he should just hang up or not. He looks back at me and hands me the phone.
“Someone will be back in a second, they need to sign off on this or you’ll need to get over there to get accredited,” he says to me as he rushes out of the office. “Yeah, okay, sure,” I say, but he’s already out of the room. I’m standing there all by myself, totally caught off guard so I hold the phone up to my ear and wait. Maybe another 30 seconds go by and then a voice speaks, “this is officer blah, blah, blah. Who am I speaking with?” Hello officer blah, blah, blah this is Thomas Hurst photojournalist with Tamalpais Publications in San Francisco, California,” I say in my most confident big guy voice. “Yes?” is all he says in response. So I start bullshiting my situation to him trying to prove that I’m both a legit journalist AND that this
call stems from a big misunderstanding that I’m sure can be resolved in some way that benefits me.
I give him both barrels, I was there last year, have my accreditation from last year, how me and Mack Magnuson go way back, that my newspaper travel agent made a stupid mistake – I’m laying it on thick and when I’ve finally pleaded my entire case I stop talking. I assume that given all the details I’ve just laid out for him, he is going to have to weigh it all out before rendering a decision in my favor. Not even close…officer blah, blah, blah doesn’t weigh shit and as soon he realizes I’m not going to keep talking he says. “Not going to happen. You need to come here to the UN Press Office in Zagreb if you want a seat on a UN flight into Sarajevo. No exceptions.” and he hangs the fuck up. Standing there in shock, I pull the phone away from my ear and just look into the receiver like, did he just say no and hang the fuck up on me? The more sensible part of my brain, the side I’m not known for listening to says, “oh, yeah he did!” And the inflated ego, prideful side of my brain, which I am way too in tuned with is like, “no fucking way he just hung up on me!”
WTF, I just gave Officer blah, blah, blah both barrels of bullshit and he took it and rammed it right back up my ass. The terrible thought of how much time, effort and money was going to be lost on this stupid mistake of mine and how it could all but ruin this trip for me started to become too much. Standing in the office, I hear footsteps coming. Without even a thought, I put the phone back to my ear as if someone is still on the other end of the line. Officer ‘Edward’ walks back in, I give him a little head nod to acknowledge his presence and then I turn slightly away from him and start talking into the phone…to a fucking dial tone. “Yes, no, I totally understand,” I say to no one whatsoever. “Yeah, this was totally our mistake. Absolutely, the newspaper should have handled this better. Oh yeah, the person who arranges our travel is going to get an earful. Yep. Ok. Hey, listen, we owe you guys big time, I mean it. You know what? I’m going to come back through Zagreb just so I can buy you a beer – no, no, a lot of beers. Thank you so much. Okay, not a problem. Nope, he just walked back in. Do you want to talk to him? No, okay. Not a problem I’ll let him know now. Hey and thanks again,” and I hang the fucking phone up, turn around to face Officer ‘Edward.’ “What’s the verdict?” the officer asks. I shrug, “put me on the flight,” is all I could get out of my mouth I was so fucking scared. “Okay, I’ll have one of the ground crew escort you out in a few minutes,” Officer ‘Edward’ says.
I sat there waiting to be escorted out to the cargo plane, shaking like a leaf, I could not believe what I had just done. I sat there hoping to God one officer didn’t call the other to verify anything. If they did I would not be getting on a UN flight anywhere for the duration of this war, that’s for damn sure. Once I had time to think it all through I realized I was going to be in some deep shit when it came time for me to fly out of Sarajevo. Sooner or later the Officer blah, blah, blah in Zagreb was going to see a flight manifest containing the names of journalists that were flown in and out of Sarajevo. When he sees mine with no accreditation number assigned to it he is going to call Ancona to ask why in the fuck was I allowed to board a flight. Fuck it I thought, that’s weeks away – I’ll deal with that shit when when I have to. “Who knows maybe he won’t notice,” I thought. I was wrong…oh, how he noticed.
I got on the plane in Ancona and landed in Sarajevo. The airport was busy with flights coming in and going out, trucks being loaded, ground crew everywhere. This place had been busy as hell now that the siege of Sarajevo was headed into its second year. The Serbs couldn’t take the city in that first year despite having far better armament. They just didn’t have the numbers, which were estimated to be around 14k men and that was not going to be enough to take Sarajevo. The Sarajevo Defense Force on the other hand, fuck, what they didn’t have in weapons they made up for in bodies. They had the numbers until the cows came home – they were estimated to be somewhere around 70,000 men and women. They didn’t have shit for weapons throughout much of the war, but they were never going to let their city fall to the monsters sitting on the ridge line shelling the shit out of civilian neighborhoods and sniping women and children. No fucking way was this city going to be taken by the Serbs. So the Serbs recognized that pretty early on and went with another option – starve the city residents to death or to defeat. No food or water in or out. No medicine, no fuel, no weapons. They would wait on the high-ground lobbying in shells indiscriminately and murdering innocent children using snipers who were intentionally targeting them. It was a heinous war and the UN, the US, and Europe let it drag on for four years. Even after it was made public that ethnic serbs were committing genocide, such as the massacre of Srebrenica three years into the war in 1995. Srebrenica, a UN controlled, UN declared, “Safe Haven” for Bosnian refugees. A city where the UN, the US, and Europe stood by as ethnic Serbs walked in and took over without a shot fired and began separating the men and boys from the women while UN soldiers sat in the safety of their headquarters within the city as Bosnian people begged for their protection. All the while Serbs outside the UN HQ raped women and girls and killed infant children. Not to mention the some 8,000-10,000 men and fighting age boys they bussed to different locations around the country and then executed, dumping their bodies into various mass graves.
When I arrived in Sarajevo I once again was too broke to stay at the Holiday Inn which had now been fully established as the world wide holdout for international journalists. Rather, I stayed with the family whose daughter had served as John Downing’s translator the previous Summer when I had first met John. I had been to her home with John several times in 1992. I had met her older sister, her mother who had such a warm smile – big and beautiful so kind. I also had met and knew her father. He was a very respectable, well dressed thin man who was as funny and kind as one could hope for under the circumstances. I figured not only would I save money, which allowed me to stay on my trip longer, but If I need translation I could just ask her. I had decided not to have her accompany me when I went out to shoot because I couldn’t afford to pay her and I would never forgive myself if anything happened to her. I knew she would fight me on it, but I refused to budge. Also, I thought it better that I was staying among the people of Sarajevo day in and day out. I would have the opportunity to get to know them and see them in ways I would never get to if I was at some hotel. No, if I’m living with them I have the chance to learn in ways that had to be better than waiting in the plush purple chairs in the Holiday Inn lobby, hoping someone who was someone would talk to me, let alone invite me to ride along with them. I knew how fortunate I was to have met John and for him to offer to let me shadow him the previous year and I was not counting on lightning striking twice in that regard.
So here I am trying to explain to you the why and how I came to find my most loved/favorite photograph I’ve ever taken, but here comes the point I need you to really understand. A year later, I might have looked somewhat like a photojournalist, but I still didn’t know shit about photojournalism. I had no idea about how to compose a picture, to anticipate moments, what a good or compelling situation looked like that made it worth shooting. The rules of thirds or techniques like panning, or quick-zoom. I didn’t know about lighting – what was good lighting, what was shit lighting. I didn’t know how to see the picture before you even raised the viewfinder to your face. I knew NOTHING. I knew how to put film in the camera, how to point my camera at people, put everyone in the center of the frame, wait until everyone was looking directly into the camera then take one MAYBE two pictures and then move on and do the exact same thing again. I didn’t think to get their names, or try and learn a little about who they were or what their story was. All I did for some 2 or 3 weeks was wake up, eat something that the family gave me, and go walk around the city taking pictures of anything, everything, and nothing. Point, shoot, advance film and then do it all over again. I did take pictures of people…I knew I was supposed to do that, but everyone is in the center of the frame looking into the camera. I did this day after day week after week. In the almost 20 years I was a professional photographer I never had a single image from 1992 or 1993 in my portfolio. By the standards of documentary photography, photojournalism, conflict photography – everything I shot was poor, maybe mediocre and unless my mom owned her own newspaper none of these pictures would be worth publishing.
If you know nothing about documentary photography, but want to learn how to, DON’T…
- Overshoot people looking into the camera.
- Overshoot people obviously striking a pose because they want to show off the best side of themselves to you.
- Overshoot kids because it’s way too easy and no one is going to see you as skilled in the art of documentary photography.
There are lots of others don’ts, but these are some pretty basic fundamentals you want to avoid. Did I avoid these when I’m in Sarajevo in 1993? Nope, I don’t even know that I shouldn’t avoid them. In fact, I think that is how it’s supposed to be done. You might be asking, I wonder which one of these three mistakes did Thomas make the most? The answer; ALL OF THEM. In just about every photo I took I had children, posing, and looking into the camera…over and over and over again. When I walked around the besieged city, I saw kids playing or hanging outside so I took their picture. If my goal was to make some images that I could build a portfolio with, or submit for possible publication, I had not one picture.
FAST FORWARD: In April 2020, I got a message from someone on Facebook named “Sniper Alley.” It was a FB page I had stumbled across a while ago and I followed it because Sniper Alley is directly related to the Siege of Sarajevo. It was a name given a deadly stretch of road back in 1992. The long stretch of road was exposed to Serb snipers and a lot of people got killed or maimed on it. So naturally, I was curious about the page. So when I get a message from them back in April of 2020, I’m surprised and curious so I respond. Me and some guy named Dzemil who runs the page start a conversation and he asks me if I’m the same person who knew John Downing etc. I confirm it’s me and he asks if I would want to submit some of my photographs to the page and be part of some project he oversees. I’m flattered to be asked and thought it was cool despite not truly understanding what the purpose of the project was, but I say sure, and like photographers often do, with the best of intentions, I tell him I’ll dig some pictures out and send them and never do. It turns out there somewhere in the attic, the majority of what I have are developed negs – I don’t have contact sheets and I don’t own a negative scanner and I’m not about to buy one. So it turns out that the chances of me sending this guy pictures is probably never going to happen.
FAST FORWARD AGAIN: In February 2021, I’m sitting in Kirkland, Washington drinking a coffee and I’m thumbing through pictures on my iPhone. It seems pointless really, but I start deleting pictures of shit on my phone I either know I will never need or want or pictures on my phone I know I have backed up on a hard drive somewhere. I came across a picture of my very first fake press pass, the one I made to get into Sarajevo 29 years ago. I had it in my phone for whatever reason, but I don’t need it in my phone I have a backup copy somewhere and I still have the actually press pass so I am about to delete the picture, but then I have the idea of posting it in this group called “OldSchoolCool” group on something I started looking at on my phone called Reddit. The only two things I look at on Reddit are this group, OldSchoolCool and some combat footage group. That’s it. I like the nostalgia of the oldschoolcool group because it’s shit I can relate to. I decided to post the fake press picture there before I delete it because the photo in the press badge was the one time in my life I had long hair. It was shoulder length and it was my attempt to fit within the Grunge scene back in 1991-92. I post the pick, putting giving context to the dumb press badge and it blows up – 30k upvotes, 1,500 comments, cross-shared to other groups where its getting another 2-3k in upvotes and hundred of more comments. People start asking me to share more about the press badge and my sneaking into Sarajevo so I answer a few questions tell a little snippet of the story and people keep wanting to hear more and more so suddenly I’m writing longer responses, then actually posts, then it becomes post that I have to label Part 6 or Part 11 and I just keep writing and people keep responding and then finally I’m fuck it I’m just going to write a book. As I start writing it with the intention of a published book, I figure I should go find the negatives in the attic because they’ll have some use now. I dig them out of the attic, by the negative scanner I was never going to buy and start scanning pictures. I find pictures I never even knew I had. Pictures of a young and brash Christiane Amanpour from his early days at CNN and famed New York Times’ journalist, John Burns. Whom I met over dinner one evening at the Holiday Inn in 1992. I would meet John again in Sarajevo in 1993 and then not again until the war in Iraq some 10 years later and I’ll be damned if he didn’t remember me from way back then. I also had a picture of the always memorable French journalist, Paul Marchand. Paul was someone you just couldn’t help watch and listen to. To this day, I’ve not met a crazier Frenchman. Paul was someone whose personality was larger than life. He was known for doing crazy shit like roping room, several floors up, down to the hotel lobby of the Holiday Inn using the mountaineering equipment he thought he should have with him. Or when he painted a bullseye on the car he drove around Sarajevo, not armored of course, just to antagonize Serb snipers that plagued the city. Or probably the most famous of all, when he wrote “Don’t waste your bullets, I’m immortal” on the side of that same car. While Paul was outlandish, he was dedicated to doing good journalism and doing it with the utmost respect for the people of Sarajevo and the conditions they suffered through for so many years.
Of all my images of remarkable journalist from Sarajevo I did not know I even possessed, was one single frame of very meaningful picture of someone I held in high regard, Kurt Schork. Kurt was an incredible war correspondent for Reuters whom I met during my first trip to Sarajevo in 1992. He and I worked together to help a man shot by a sniper as he made the long sprint across an open field to the backside of the Holiday Inn. My mentor, photographer John Downing immortalized that moment through his pictures of Kurt and I working to bandage the elderly man up so that he could be transported to the hospital.
Sadly, Kurt was killed, alongside Associated Press cameraman Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora of Spain, in an ambush in Sierra Leone in May of 2000. I had met and become friends with Miguel the year before covering the war in Kosovo in 1999. In different, but very special ways, both Kurt and Miguel were people who I deeply admired and wanted to emulate. Kurt for his ability to stay calm and collected under fire and for getting the story right and for Miguel’s Spanish free spirit. The two men could not appear to be more different and yet they shared in their dedication and passion to tell the story of others. Both men shared enormous, compassionate hearts for the people who’s stories they told. While I knew of Kurt’s love for Sarajevo and the people he spent so many years among as he covered the Bosnian War, it was only recently, in the writing of this book, that I came to understand how deeply he love Sarajevo and the people there. Following Kurt’s death, he had half of his ashes buried at “Groblje Lav” (The Lion Cemetery) in Sarajevo. They were buried next to the grave of Boško and Admira – a young couple, one a Bosnian and the other a Serb, who died together trying to escape the war and who were buried together after they were killed by a sniper. Kurt’s acclaimed story the two lovers can be read here.
The pictures are mostly pictures I shot strolling around Sarajevo as if I was on holiday. As I explained earlier, I mostly just shot pictures of children staring back at me. Which is what caused me to remember that guy from Sniper Alley on Facebook messenger so I sent him a message to provide me with an email address and that I would send him some of my pictures. I mean hell, I figure I might as well follow through on what I promised almost a year earlier.
It wasn’t long before Dzemil responded and along with an email address, he also sent me a link to the Sniper Alley website he runs. I checked it out and started to read a section called My Story and this is what I read;
“My name is Dzemil and I was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia in 1983
This is my story.
The story of growing up during war time.
I remember how life was, a simple, worriless and carefree adventure, it was as if nothing really mattered. My brother and I would walk to school and come back home, eat, go out, play and do the things every child does. Play till you collapse, sometimes skipping meals because of a child’s hyper-euphoric adrenalin rush. We didn’t want to miss anything. Being outside was our food, days were too short, endless happiness.
But in 1992 my childhood dramatically changed – the war started. My life and that of my family was suddenly interrupted, without any warning. One moment it was peace, the next, it was war. Life would never be the same again. Not that I knew that back then, maybe it was better I had lived in a child’s parallel universe. I wasn’t clueless, just a happy optimistic kid.
I was almost nine years old when the war started and about to finish year three of primary school. I remember celebrating my ninth birthday in a made-up bomb shelter with my family and my friends, all of us hiding from the shelling.
Even though there was a war on, for us kids, it was fun. We played, pretending to be soldiers, hiding in shelters, ducking down like we were on the frontline. It was entertaining because we didn’t have to go to school and we could play outdoors, unaware of the very real dangers all around us. We would often wake up to the sound of gunfire and explosions. What for others seemed chaotic and bizarre, for us it was normal. It was part of everyday life back then. I remember seeing the bright red search flares light up the sky before the firing would start. The flares would then fall to the ground by a small parachute. We would chase after the flares and play with the parachutes, free toys we thought, but we all knew what they used it for, its purpose was to expose and see who to kill next. When the war intensified, many families had already left Bosnia, neighbours and friends moved away – mine remained.
My father had joined the Bosnian army to defend our country from the Serbian aggressors. He was a proud man and considered it dishonorable to leave his motherland. My mother worked full time as a nurse in the local hospital throughout the war. Even though she saw people die every day, mortuary she would say – she never brought it home to us. I never felt the pain, depression or any kind of misery that she had witnessed in the hospital. I worked out that with my father’s army deployments and my mother’s night shifts, during three years of war they were away for one full year. My brother and I were home alone, most of the time. Upon hearing the warning sirens, we wouldn’t go to school, it would be too dangerous. But for us the sound of the sirens meant play time and we would rebel and not go to the shelter. Bizarrely, in the middle of a war zone we would go out and play, all day long. No homework, no parents to nag us, it was every child’s dream. That sounds crazy from today’s perspective, but as a child in 1995, even though there was a war only a stone’s throw from my home I felt liberated, happy and free.
Almost at the end of the war, in May 1995, during a truce between both sides, if something like that was possible in the minds of the beasts who tortured us for 3 years, my life changed forever. We were playing outdoors; my older brother was playing tennis and I was playing marbles with my gang. Suddenly a sniper started shooting at us. My brother was shot in his chest, he started walking towards home, holding his wound. He was the only one shot. Tallest amongst us, the oldest, in a couple of years time, a potential soldier. Kids screaming, crying, mother’s calling out names, total chaos. While he was trying to get home, still standing, his wound bleeding, I rushed to get help and tell my mother, who was making us lunch after her night shift in hospital. As she was trying to help him I grabbed blanket to wrap him, I phoned the ambulance and went out to witness what would be the last moments of my brother. He died on my mother’s lap while she tried her best to bring him back to life.
Those moments, that day, I will never forget. I remember our last meal, the last chocolate we shared and the clothes he was wearing, his watch stained with his blood. I took the watch for myself, wouldn’t wash it for days after that, still don’t know why. How come I remember breakfast from that day, how is that possible? So many details are in my head. He was killed from an infamous ‘Špicasta Stijena’. I was 12 and he was 16 the day he was killed. Since then I see life before and after his death while others see it before and after the war. 3rd of May 1995 is the date forever ingrained in my memory. It was the day my childhood ended. Truce they said, no such thing existed in the Serbian war manual.
Unfortunately, I do not have any photos growing up in Sarajevo during the war, as we didn’t have the means nor any of my family and that’s something that I think of all the time. It bothers me that I don’t have any school, birthday or family photos from that period. A single photo from that time would make my day. Looking at the kids growing up today with all the gadgets and possibilities, it feels as if I grew up in a large prison, I have memories and I can remember most of the things, they are so vivid, bad and good ones. We’ve all heard the line before, “If you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen.”
The only photo of myself I have is from my brother’s funeral which I don’t consider wartime. It doesn’t count. For me, the bloody war was finished the day he was killed. It must be something psychological, some kind of a blockade or denial.
Photos from before his funeral is what I need.
I would love to find photos of my brother, maybe his classmates or some friends have them and they are not even aware of it. I wonder how many unpublished photos there are.
I remember, when he was killed, we needed his photo for newspapers and funeral services. We had only photos from his early age and then my late father remembered that my brother received some scholarship and they had taken a photo of him. That’s the last photo we have of him, one of the most precious possessions we own.
There are other kids and families who have similar and maybe worse tragedies that happened to them. Perhaps someone else is looking for a photo or a person from those unfortunate times. There are many photographers who visited Bosnia during the war, maybe they have some unshared archive. Something that the world needs to see.
That’s one of the reasons we made this website.
The aim is to find, locate and archive photos taken in Sarajevo, Bosnia during the war from the period 1992 – 1996. This website will document the war from people like myself and my family who went through it. We would like to credit and acknowledge the brave and courageous photographers who lived it with us and bore witness to our suffering. Some of whom tragically lost their lives in the process. This website will honour those brave war photographers whose work allowed the world to see what was happening to us.
This is my way of finding out about other photographers from the album. I wonder if they are alive, covering other war zones, do they have more photos, do they have stories to share.
At least 6 of them were there.
Writing this wasn’t easy, it took me more than 20 years. Lots of stops and starts. I hope this will help me and help all other kids who lived through the war.
Our website is open to all, contact us, share your story, ask a question, and send us photos.
As much as it is my story it is more about all of us, children. It is about war photographers.
It is about my brother.
His name is Amel Hodzic, born 08.03.1979.
This year he would have been 40 years old.
He was attending ‘Arts High School’ in Sarajevo, he was Year 2 in 1995 when he was killed.
16 years and 55 days old.
Just in case someone who knew him is reading this.
Maybe somebody has his photo, a memory, a story to share with me.
When I read that and I was like holy shit! This is something is what Sniper Alley is about?! This is powerful – yeah, it’s a brother searching for a picture(s) of his murdered brother, but it’s so much more than even that, as if that wasn’t powerful enough. This is about remembering, educating, creating a historical record so that future generations can know what took place and find a different path so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
When I finally understood what the story and mission of Dzemils was I realized that it didn’t matter how visually compelling my images were or weren’t. It didn’t matter if they held to documentary traditions or styles. The only thing that mattered was any visual record of the people, the children, who I met during my time in Sarajevo. Shit, if anyone should have a picture of Dzemil’s brother you’d think it would be the guy who didn’t know how to do anything else but take pictures of kids posing and looking at me. Suddenly the pictures I spent years thinking were at best an example of what not to do when trying to become a war photographer, had more meaning, purpose and value than anything else I had ever shot.
I cranked the high-end film scanner I bought and began scanning anything even remotely relevant. I sent the first batch of pictures to Dzemil via email one night last week and then stayed up until 2 a.m. scanning more and more. In my gut I knew I had a picture of his brother. I had no idea who he was or what he looked like, but I knew I would be the one to have it. With only a few hours sleep, I emailed another batch of images to Dzemil. A few minutes later I get an email, the subject line read;
YOU FOUND HIM!!!
I can’t stop crying. I’m speechless.
You found the photo of my brother and me.
These emotions are not possible to explain.
I owe you so much!
Thanks a million.
Sending you photo of me and a group photo where my brother is (hi is the one in the middle in teal shirt, I am on the far right)
I just can’t believe all of this…
I’ve posted the picture I shot that has Dzemil and his brother here. His brother is in the center of the photograph wearing a teal colored shirt and Dzemil is the boy at the far right of the group. I had taken a picture of this group of kids in 1993 – a group of kids, posing, looking into the camera. And it is beyond a shadow of a doubt my favorite picture that I have ever taken.
When I read Dzemil’s email telling me I had a picture of him and his brother I began sobbing. As I sat there thinking through how this exact moment had come to be, I was astounded at all the elements that had to happen for Dzemil and I to be brought together. Looking at the image on my screen and thinking that for several years Dzemil had been searching and searching for a picture of his brother alive and here I sit with the image he so desperately wanted to have. When I thought about it even more, I realized that had I better understood documentary photography as I would come to after my time in Bosnia, I would have NEVER taken the picture that Dzemil and his brother were in. Once I had learned the difference between a good, publishable photograph and a ‘bad, don’t even bother taking it’ picture, I would have never taken this important photograph. I bet if you went through thousands of rolls of film from all the other wars and conflicts I would go on to photograph you’d be hard pressed to find anything remotely like the pictures I shot that Summer of ‘93. If I had known what it was to be a real documentary photographer in 1993 I would NEVER EVER EVER taken this picture. It was because I knew nothing that I made the picture and 29 years later two men on two different sides of the world are crying because of the power of a picture of a photograph I was given the honor and responsibility of taking. I am still sending Dzemil images of children and people I took pictures of that Summer. Despite having found what he was looking for, he knows there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of others who don’t have an image of their loved ones who would give anything to have just one single image. Suddenly I have come to see photography in an entirely new way. It has changed everything for me. I will share how another time.
If you want to help others become aware of Sniper Alley and it’s mission then go to their Facebook page and start following and sharing what they post – you can help by getting the word out to other people who may not have been photographers, but were there and took pictures – aid workers, military, NGO’s, contractors – they can all help and if they weren’t there maybe they know someone who was! Do this please!
Follow them on Instagram and Twitter , comment and share their posts. If they ever need financial support considering helping in that way – what Dzemil is doing with no funding is important to all of us.To contact Dzemil you can email firstname.lastname@example.org
When I entered the train cabin the elderly woman continued to smile and I continued to smile. Her smile was big, warm, and friendly and mine was well, big and goofy, but sincere. I stood there, just inside the door of the train cabin, my eyes locked on to the eyes of a little old Yugoslavian woman who at the time looked like she might have lived through both World Wars and a few Russian Czars in her time. Her smile was so comforting, like the smile of a dotting grandma – endless in its love for you. Endless in its understanding and acceptance of you. Endless in its thankfulness to be with you. Endless in the safety caring it fills you with. These were the rush of thoughts and feelings that rolled over me with each passing moment I stood there smiling back. I didn’t want to take my eyes off of hers as to do so risked losing the strange feelings flooding me. And then a thought came crashing into my mind…”are we having a fucking Smile war right, now?” Now, I can’t say how many Smile wars I had had up to this point. But I was no punk, I’d been in what military veterans call “The Shit” when it came to Smile wars. No doubt, you have been in a few too. You never see the Smile war coming, it just fucking happens and this shit can go down anywhere and Smile War Veterans know this. You could be at a stop light and glance over and BAM! A fucking Smile War is on with the driver of the car next to you. The lights turn green, cars start honking, everyone else in front has already accelerated away from the intersection, but not you and neither has ‘the other side.’ Someone has to lose. Someone will break contact, break the smile, break the connection and drive off or walk away, or glance down or up or to the side. The defeated will try to play it off as though they had no choice to break off their smiling. But we all have choices, you’re no victim, it’s your fucking smile you can use it or lose – that’s your decision. Don’t blame it on life circumstances or the actions of others around you or the 17 pissed off drivers behind you. A Smile war can pop-off at the park, in places of worship, in the waiting room before your yearly colonoscopy. Anywhere! You think I knew I was going to be in a Smile war in some European train with, of all people, an old frail looking woman who by all signs looks to have been born about the time of Jesus? No man, I never saw this coming and just like that I looked away…Damn you old Yugoslav woman!
I tossed my pack up on the metal rack above my bench and then locked my bag to one of the rack’s bars just in case the Smile Assassin made any attempts to run off with my things while I slept. The bag was only a touch shorter than her and surly was two times her body weight, but I refused to underestimate this woman any longer.
With my back to her, I gathered my composure so she could not have the satisfaction of seeing the crushing disappointment that comes with defeat and I turned around and sat down letting out a rather large sigh of relief. The bench was softly padded and between the apartment room floor I woke up on, then being thrown around in the backseat of a Hungarian taxi, only to be followed up by crashing out on the dusty concrete of an obnoxiously loud international train station, my seat in this train felt like I was resting on soft white puffy clouds. Looking out the window there wasn’t much to see as the train remained parked in the station for sometime. I took a mental inventory of my body given how only a few hours ago I was experiencing what would be the first of many European hangovers. I’ve had some doozies before, but they were American hangovers and those seemed to pale in comparison from the many I would have in countries like Rwanda, The Congo, Haiti, Northern Greece and Albania to name just a few. I’m not sure what these countries do with their booze that we Americans don’t, but you’d be wise to be careful. In that moment however, I felt like a million bucks when compared to how I was feeling earlier. I pulled out a map of Yugoslavia and a long outdated “Travel to Yugoslavia” tour book and began to read up on things. I didn’t have any idea what I should be looking for with the map or the book, but I thought looking like I was educating myself was a good look to have at that moment. I remember trying to figure out the distance between Belgrade, the Serbian capital and Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. It is measured in kilometers and I hadn’t a clue how to convert them into miles. The travel guide maps had a scale and I was able to figure it out to an approximation, but resented the fact that Europeans used a metric system rather than the easier American measurement system.
After what seemed like forever the train jerked slightly forward and the steel wheels began to slowly churn on the long metal rails that would carry me on my way to war. I had waited to stretch out on my bench seat concerned that like me, others would get on the train and find no place to sit or stand for that matter. I could only assume that someone else, faced with the problem I had been faced with when I boarded, would walk train car to train car until they found this same empty train car I had finally found, but no one did. What short-cited fools I thought. If they could have had the brilliant idea I had had they could have found a soft place to sit for what would end up being a 12-14 hour ride to Belgrade. Once again I felt pride in having found a solution to the issue of overcrowding. I thought I must either be brilliant or lucky and steeped in my youthful, ignorant pride, I settled on how brilliant I was. For the first 30-60 minutes the view outside our train window was of city dwellings tall buildings that looked like either business offices or apartment buildings. The buildings grew shorter and shorter until they became single family dwellings the farther we got from the more center of the city. Soon enough we would be in the countryside and there it would feel like I had traveled back to a time that felt more like the beginning of the century rather than the tailend of the one. Tall fields of soft yellow grass swayed in the breeze as we reached what appeared to be full speed. With no facts by which to decide, I determined that the fields of tall yellow must be wheat. A train passing through acre after acre of wheat seemed to be a nice portrait to paint in my mind then and now, so they were wheat fields as far as I’m concerned.
My elderly companion sat in silence reading a book. She had a large purse that was big enough to hold a small child and she would reach into it from time to time looking for one thing or another. Despite the warmth of a mid-afternoon June day the incoming breeze and the shade from the hot sun that the train car provided was enough to bring a bit of a chill if not properly dressed. The old woman removed a checkered hand-sewn blanket from her carry bag and laid it across her lap and pulled a thin wool button up sweater she had been already wearing a little tighter around her chest. I waved my hand ever so slightly to catch her attention and used hand signals and some abbreviated sentences to ask her if she would like me to close the windows. She shook her head no, waving her own hand slightly to convey that she was okay. Thinking she was lying just to be polite I stood up, pressed the window locks ever so slight and drew the window up until it locked into place. It was still open, enough to allow the air in the car to circulate, but not as much as it had been. I sat back down, looking at her to see if she approved. She smiled and her eyes conveyed to me her thankfulness. This act seemed to open the door to get to know each other.
“I am Thoooomas,” I said slowly and loudly pointing towards myself.
She pointed to herself and gave what I believed was her name which I have no idea what it was then or what it is now. I opened my Yugoslavia travel book and thumbed to the back of the book where there were several pages of English to Serbo-Croatian translations. You know, things like, ‘hello, where is the bathroom’ or ‘hello, I would like a drink of ________,’ or ‘how much is _____________.’ I tried to find words and phrases that were relevant to the moment, but no matter how hard I tried to pronounce the phrase or word I was trying to convey I absolutely butchered her language. At first she tried to understand what I was attempting to say. She would lean forward towards me as if I had not spoken loud enough – something I’m rarely accused of. When leaning forward didn’t help her she would stare directly at my mouth in an attempt to read my lips. Her eyes communicated her serious attempts to understand me. I would in turn review the phrase or word in the book and try to say it again even louder and slower.
“Hello, I am fi-ne, How. Are. You. Tooo-day?” I would say. This would be followed by a clear expression of confusion from her.
“HEL-LO. I AM FI-NE, HOOOOW. ARRRRE. YOUUUU. TOOOO-DAY?” I would try again. She was still confused.
God bless her for trying so hard and for so long. After five or six attempts at different words or phrases, the little old woman was beginning to lose her ability to keep a straight face. Whether it was the ever growing sound of my voice or the ever dramatic hand motions I had begun to implement in my attempts to communicate my point or idea, or it was the contortions my mouth lips and face were surly making as I tried to make my tongue formulate letters and words I had zero understanding of. She finally burst out laughing, embarrassed by her inability to contain her laughter she jerked back into her seat, breaking eye contact with me and throwing her gaze out the window of the train into nowhere. Her aged hand and knotted fingers flew to her mouth in a futile attempt to hold back the next outburst of laughter fighting to burst out as a shade of rouge swept across her pale skin tone. I sat up a bit trying to regain my composure as I emotionally moved from a place of strained, focused, effort to bewilderment, shock, and above all embarrassment. Being caught by surprise by this little old lady’s sudden burst of laughter I was unable to take my eyes off the woman. My mind was racing to determine what I had said that was so fucking funny. Did I mistakenly say ‘how are your hairy armpits today?’ What in the hell did I say that would warrant this embarrassment? The old woman broke her forced stare into nothingness glancing sideways at me to assess my reaction. Whatever look I had on my face, which surely was eyes wide, jaw dropped, caused her to burst out in laughter a second time through her clenched jaw and pursed lips and began with sputtering as her lips tried ever so fiercely to keep her childish laugh from escaping. The sound of her sputtering was enough to make her laugh even more hysterical as she surrendered to any idea of trying to hold back the tidal wave of lovable noise coming from deep within her. She threw both hands over her face, folded in half burying her face in her lap. Shock and embarrassment slipped away as I watched this little old lady totally lose control of herself and the warmth of happiness came over me. I began to smile slightly. My smile quickly turned to a large grin, the kind where your teeth show despite the deep insecurity you feel when you know you’re flashing a toothy grin. And then a chuckle came out of me. Then a childish chuckle as the whole scenes started to take hold in my mind. Then I laughed at the thought of what I must look and sound like sitting here trying to say something in a language I had no comprehension of. Then a deep laugh as this entire journey I was on came into view in my mind’s eye, “what in the world am I doing and whoever thought I would be here in this moment?” Then I burst out in laughter, which stood on the verge of hysterical laughing as tears began falling down my cheeks. She lifted her face up from her lap and looking at each other we both burst out in another round of ‘can barely-breath’ howling. For a moment I was no longer seeing a frail little old woman, but instead I was seeing back to when she was a young lady who knew it was not polite to laugh at strangers, but was incapable of stopping herself from doing so. She had once been a beautiful young woman and time and the hardship of life had taken its toll on her, but in this moment a side of her was revealed that she could not withhold. It was powerful and moving and special and I knew in that moment for however long this train ride was going to be, I had met someone special and we had become friends.
Sometime went, how much I’m unsure – I had lost track of time between attempts to try and speak a word or phrase or falling lost in daydreams as towns and fields sped past.
There was a knock at the train cabin door followed by it immediately swinging open. There stood a tall burly looking ticket taker. Standing at what had to be just under six feet tall and a solid 220 or more pounds the ticket-taker nearly had to turn sideways to come in. I was in awe for I had never seen a woman this big in real life. She wore a train uniform including a sharp uniform cap. With a leather strap across her chest the ended at a firm thick leather case. She gave me a suspicious once over before turning and speaking to my companion. The old woman reached into her large bag and drew her train ticket presenting to this Hungarian hulk of a woman who punched holes in it with something that simply looked like, well…a hole puncher. I began rummaging through my pockets in a bit of a panic as I couldn’t remember if I had stuffed my train ticket back down my pants in my albeit secretive as well as awkwardly accessible money belt. After the taxi incident the last thing I needed was a similar ‘train incident’ where by unzipping my pants gets me thrown through the relatively small window of a moving train.
By the grace of God my train ticket was in my back pocket. Unfolding it and handing it to the giant woman (think male Russian Olympic Deadlift Champion then when you have that image in your head me he a she and that’s who’s standing in front my arms crossed to taping). She looked at my ticket and immediately made the demand “Out!” pointing to the train car behind the one I was in – the one which I had to damn near bodysurf over to reach the nice empty comfy one I was now in. Assuming the ticket-taker must not be aware of the absolutely packed cattle car she was now demanding I go to, I thought I should try and fill her in; “Many, many people’o are packed too much in there’o,” adding hand signs to ensure she could understand this intel I was providing her. “You OUT!” she barked again. I really need to learn a language, people don’t understand the important shit I tell them, I thought to myself. “Unsafe’o back there’o – so many people’o,” I tried again. Her eyes nearly bulging out of her head, “you not pay! Out!” This time her demands were followed by a step towards me and for as big as she was and for as small as that train car was that single step put her directly over top of me. “Oh, okay,” I reached into my pocket and pulled out a $5 dollar bill, it was the last of my cash. I slowly lifted it up towards her as one does when giving a treat to a large dog showing lots of teeth. “NO! OUT!” She once again barked. I looked up at her with the biggest big brown puppy eyes I could muster and she pointed her arm sharply towards the train-car behind us. I began to stand up, shoulders sucken downward and the look of defeat smeared across my face. The Hungarian Hammer had to step back just so that when I stood up the top of my head didn’t hit the underside of her jaw. I turned to unlock my bag from the rack having the flash of an idea to pretend I had forgotten the combination, but I abandoned the idea just as quickly as I knew she would just chew the metal lock off and then I’d be without a lock. At this moment the old woman sitting in the car with me spoke. I turned to look over my shoulder and noticed the surprised look on the Hungarian Husky’s face. The old woman spoke a second time and while I didn’t know the language it sounded as if she had repeated herself. I turned fully around and my little frail friend motioned me to sit down which I did gladly. The frail woman once again reached into her large almost magic like bag given all different things she seemed to pull out of it and out came a long faded black leather wallet or I guess satchel or whatever the hell you call the thing that carries women’s money. She thumbed through notes of different denominations and handed a well selected choice of bills to the Hungarian Haymaker who in turn counted the bills, reached into her leather satchel to make change and then made a bunch of marks, stamps, and hole-punches on my ticket before all but throwing it back at me. The Hungarian Home Wrecker spun around sharply, turned a bit sideways to fit herself through the cabin door and then slammed it shut. My elderly friend and I sat quietly looking at each other and then I puffed my cheeks out and bulged my arms out to my sides and dipped my shoulders side to side to mimic the enormous woman storming off. Then we burst out in laughter. Rather than try to say it, I turned to the Serbo-Croatian section of my travel guide and circled the word “grateful” and then handed it to the elderly woman. She smiled, gave me a wink, and handed the book back to me.
It couldn’t have been too much longer after the unwelcome visitor had come and gone that I began to feel my eyelids becoming heavy. The warmth of the day, the cool breeze gently blowing in through the opening in the window and the immense range of emotions I had felt overtook my busy brain and I fell off to sleep.
How long I was out I do not know. While I couldn’t see the sun I could tell by the burning orange color out the window that it was low and it couldn’t be too much longer before it would be getting dark. I wasn’t entirely sure what woke me from the deep sleep I had been cozied up to, but I could tell the train was slowing down. Assuming we must be stopping in another small village I lowered the window and stuck my head out to get a better view. To my slight surprise there was no village. All I could see as the train grew slower and slower was a small building. Thinking nothing of it I sat back down and shrugged my shoulders to the woman across from me. She stood up and looked and then sat back down and reached into her large bag to withdraw her passport. She showed it to me letting me know that whatever this was I was going to need my passport, which I retrieved from inside my pants.
The train had long since come to a complete stop and we sat there doing nothing for what felt like an eternity. I had already gone to the bathroom twice, I had looked up the information on the youth hostel I would be staying at in Belgrade later that night. I had pulled out my trusty ‘press badge’ hoping I would need to flash it to someone for some reason. I had also rummaged through my pack to locate the hard brown envelope that carried my officially faked ‘letter of introduction’ written by “my managing editor” wink, wink. My hunch was this must be the border between Hungary and Serbia and that someone(s) was checking passports. Based on the number of vagrants I had waded through in the train cars behind me I figured we’d all be dead of old age or starvation by the time everyone’s passport was reviewed.
A while longer and then I could hear footsteps in the walkway of our train car and soon our door opened and there stood two men. One was heavy set and the other skinny as a rail – my first thought was the border checkpoint was being run by Laurel and Hardy (Google it). They took the elderly woman’s passport first. They looked at the picture inside of her passport and then at her, then back at the picture then back at her. They flipped through several of the pages looking for what I wasn’t sure and then simply handed it back to her. I handed them my passport and once again got the once over from head to toe. They took my blue bound book and seeing that it read “United States of America” on the front they both shot a look at one another. They opened it up and looked at the picture and at me, back to the photo then at me. I noticed then that they seemed to have stiffened up a bit. The suddenly stood straight up with less sloach in the appearance. They had walked in seemingly unfriendly, but now they were scowling as they compared the passport photo to the real version sitting before them. They flipped through the different pages just as they had done for the elderly lady. Then they spoke; “What is your reason for travel?” Their English wasn’t bad, I mean it wasn’t great, but it was far better than my Serbo-Croatian. “I’m a journalist,” I responded excitedly because FINALLY I got to say it to someone in some official capacity. I had been dying to start saying it – to start playing the part. “You’re a journalist?” the heavier set man asked. “Yes, I’m a journalist from America,” I said with a level of confidence that even caught me by surprise. “Why are you here?” He asked. “To tell people in America about your war,” I answered. With that the Serbian border guard tucked my passport into his shirt breast pocket and said, “You’re coming with me!” I shot a glance to my elderly friend half expecting her to say something, pull something out of her giant bag like a fucking cake and make this all go away, but she looked at me nervously. Seeing my confusion, she spoke up. I’m not sure what she said of course, but the skinnier border guard shot her a fierce glare and while nowhere near fluent in any language, what he did say sounded harsh, intimating and by her reaction was something like, ‘you shut the fuck up old woman!’ She sat back in her seat and looked down at the floor. I stood up ready to go with them. “Your bags?” one of them asked, pointing to my pack and my super not awesome camera bag. “Yes,” I said. “Bring them now!” said the heavier one. Well that order got me thinking, why in the world is this guy keeping my passport, pulling me off the fucking train and ordering me to bring my bags? I unlock my bag, sling it over one shoulder, then the other. I grab my camera bag and sling it over my head and across my chest and I follow the two men out into the train car walkway. With one in front of me and the other behind me they march to the steps leading off of the train. ‘This all seems a bit dramatic,’ I think to myself. ‘They probably do this to a bunch of people on the trains each time they come through to act cool or make a point to anyone who travels this route back and forth. You know they’re wanting to look tough or something. I bet there’s a ton of people outside the train getting the ‘business’ by a couple of border guards who when they enlisted had envisioned the Serbian version of Navy SEALs, but they were flunkies and got stuck with a shit border assignment for the duration of their enlistment and they’re trying to add some action to what is otherwise a really shitty job. Yeah, there are going to be 10 or 20 other passengers standing out here with their shit’…I stepped off the train swiveling my head left then right to see all the other poor bastards getting hauled out here. Nope…Just me.
As I follow behind one of the border guards, I feel something strange. I feel the sense that someone is watching me. I turn back towards the train and see the elderly woman half hanging out the window of our train car and she looks…well shit, she looks really fucking scared for some reason. The heavy set guard behind me pushes me forward, not expecting it I’m off balance and I stumble forward able to get my feet back under me so I don’t actually fall to the ground. As we are about to enter what I thought had been a small building when I had seen it while we were slowing to stop is now clearer to me and it is far more ‘military bunker’ than it is a ‘building.’ I glance back at the train one last time before stepping through the doorway and see not just the elderly woman, but lots of heads are now sticking out the train windows watching me being marched off. Once again, el Hefe shoves me from behind and I stumble forward, again I catch myself.
The bunker/building is dark. The outside was a darker shade of green, but inside it’s hard for my eyes to adjust but it looks like everything is simply grey concrete. There is a bit of a long hallway with what appear to be four rooms, two on each side each directly across from the other. I’m steered into the first room on the right. There is a light bulb hanging from the ceiling in the center of the room and a couple of chairs. No desk or table, just a couple old wooden chairs. They order me to drop my pack and my camera bag, which they are surly drooling over such a magnificent bag. They take both bags out of the room and I wonder why they would take them away. A range of summary thoughts run through my head. Everything from, ‘these guys clearly don’t realize I’m kinda a big deal’ to ‘how dare they, I’m an American, damn it!’ to Maybe they’ve never met a real life American and they want to ask me important life questions like why does Michael Jackson look so white now and why the fuck did Michael leave Belgrade off his World Tour starting later that month. Or perhaps they wanted to know how American could say “all men are created equal” and then not convict four white cops for beating the shit out of Rodney King? Or maybe they were curious to know my opinion about the UN embargo the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had just been slapped with and if President George Bush was going to return the nearly $200 million in assets he just seized from them.’ or ‘Maybe they’re going to beat my ass for a few hours before they force me to walk behind this shit hole of building and put a bullet in my brain.’ Needless to say my mind was racing from one scenario to another.
Laurel and Hardy had left the room and a younger looking soldier or border guard or whatever the fuck they were stood just inside the room holding a rifle and blocking the doorway. One of the two guards came back into the room and asked to see papers proving I was indeed a journalist. Ah, hah motherfuckers, I got you now! Yes! I was suddenly filled with a burst of adrenaline and the powerful feeling of confidence it can ignite in you. “Well, I’m glad you asked,” I said boldly. I stood up and withdrew my press credential and one of the letters of introductions Jim Reilly had created for me. “Got you now,” I thought. He took both from me and looked them over. First the press badge which he pulled into close to his face likely because of the dim lighting in the room. Then he stretched it out at arms length as if he had poor eyesight despite the fact that he didn’t wear glasses. Then he tried to pronounce the publication name on the press badge, “Tama…Tama-pee-is publications,” he stuttered then looking at me to clarify. “It’s Tamalpais Publications,” I repeat back to him. He shakes his head like he is a bit dizzy from trying to get that name out of his mouth. Side Note: Listen, if I had to do it all over again I would have gone with something easier to pronounce. The name Tamalpais doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue or command the level of respect that a more easily pronounced name might. Maybe Jim and I should have gone with the Marin County Herald or the San Francisco Times or just something way fucking easier than the local Miwok Indian Tribe’s name meaning “West Hill.” The number of times I had to repeat the name of my fake newspaper or the number of times it got misspelled on real press credentials is too numerous to count, but the fucking name was the fucking name and that’s all there was to it. “It’s pronounced Tam-al-pias,” I say again. He flips the press badge over to look at the back and then he tucks that into the same shirt pocket my passport is still sticking out of. Then he opens up my Letter of Introduction and I’m thinking BAM! That’s right, it’s a one-two punch of false credentials! Put that in your pipe and smoke it! I bet you didn’t see that coming Border Boy!” He doesn’t even attempt to read it. He folds it back up spins on his heels and walks out.
Sitting there for who knows how long – adrenaline has a funny way of messing up my ability to gauge lengths of time. I’m no neurosurgeon, as if you didn’t already put that together…so I don’t know if adrenaline messes up everyone’s ability to gauge lengths of time, but I know for me it fucks it up. So I’m sitting there long enough for the adrenaline to start wearing off and as it does so does my confidence and my brain jumps on a jet rocket headed to crazyville…“Can they arrest me? Who would even know? I guess a really nice old lady would, but what could she do? It’s not like she knows me or how to get in touch with my parents or my ‘editor’? How much longer are they really going to hold this train up? Shit, why not just let the train go and bury me in some shallow grave then just tell anyone who comes asking about it that I stayed the night, got on the next train the following day and they never saw me again. That’s what I’d do. How in the world am I going to get out of here. Even if I tricked the guy with the gun blocking the door it wasn’t like I’m fucking Chuck Norris – I can’t kill people just be hard-staring them. I’m not Rambo, I don’t have a giant fucking knife up my ass that I can just pull out and start jabbing and slashing with. I’ve got $5 dollars and a bunch of $50 dollar traveler checks which I’m guessing I could sign them over and buy my way out, but they probably don’t want to go wait in line at a bank to cash in a fist full of those. They probably hate waiting in bank lines as much as I do. I don’t have too many options other than winning them over with my winning personality. Personality game is strong with old women in train cars, but border guard soldier types, I’m sorry, but that shit is untested as of now. Okay, sit up tall, look them in the eyes when they come back, don’t act like a total scared pussy. Talk confidently. You’re an international journalist, tell them you’re expected to check in with your newspaper when you arrive in Belgrade. That if I don’t check in within an hour of my arrival my editor is to contact the US Consulate in Belgrade and a team of Special Forces badasses that I’m best friends with is going to come find me because I have a homing beacon implanted in my inner left thigh. Then pull my pants down and show them the scar I have from when I was a little kid and I pulled the hot clothes iron off the ironing table and it swung down and burnt the living shit out of me…ok, maybe the Special Forces, homing beacon in my thigh, is taking it a little too far – plus I don’t want to have to pull my pants down and give anyone of these lonely guards any exciting ideas.” Fuck I was starting to get scared.
Not long after I decided it would be best that whatever story I ended up telling didn’t have to include me pulling my pants down, a new face walked into the room. He told the gun guy to leave and he pulled a chair up across from me. In his hand he held my passport which I could see had the press badge and letter tucked into it. “Hello, Mr. Thomas” he said in an almost too friendly of a voice. “Please forgive us for asking you to come into the office,” he continued. I didn’t say shit, but in my head I was like, “okay, first off we clearly have two very different definitions of the word ‘asking’ because where I come from we call that shit kidnapping, not “asking.” Secondly, this ain’t no fucking office. If you haven’t noticed this is one step off the curb from being a fucking torture chamber, but please continue,” again, I’m thinking this because I’m not a total fucking idiot to actually say it. He continues speaking, “it looks like you are a journalist and you’ve come to document the conflict happening in our country, is this correct?” I nod, unsure what to say when. “Well, we hope you will tell this story in a fair way.” Again, I nod. “It is a dangerous thing you are planning to go do, no?” Still nodding. “Well, we hope you will find our people and country beautiful despite the circumstances that have been forced upon us.” Finally I eek a couple words out, “of course” is all I got and inside I’m giving myself a ton of shit for getting two fucking words out. “Well, it is nice to meet you. I see no other reason to delay you from your work. Have a nice day,” he says, handing me my passport and documents as he stands up. He extends his hand which I take, being sure to follow my Freshman football coach, Fred Mack’s advice/command to never shake another man’s hand like a wet noodle. I stand just after he does, look the gentleman in the eyes, shake his hand firmly, and take in a big breath through my nose so as not to look like I’m relieved in any way. He turns towards the doorway out of the room and I quickly shoot a glance downward to my crotch because I’m not sure if it’s sweat or pee running down my thigh…It’s sweat, shit I knew that. As I follow him out of the room, my pack and my camera bag are there. The pack looks like a bear mauled it and while the camera bag looks fine, a slight shock of disappointment shoots through me because they gave it back. Fuck I wish I had gotten a cooler looking camera bag.
I stuff the clothes that are dangling out of my pack back in and clip the top to ensure nothing falls out. I once again sling it over my shoulder, first the right and then the left. I again sling the camera bag over my head letting it dangle just about waist high. I unzip it to quickly inspect that everything including the 12 rolls of film I have are still there. And then I make my way out of the whatever we’re calling it – bunker, office, scary fucking building – and I make my way back to the train. As my eyes try to adjust to the brightness of the last of the sunlight I can make out lots and lots of heads sticking out the train car windows looking at me. As everything begins to adjust and come into focus I see people smiling and pulling their heads back into the train. I see my old friend who is smiling as well. She looks relieved which feels nice that someone you just met would care enough to feel concern for you. I get back into the train car, throw my bag onto the rack, skipping the locking it down part, and I fall back into my seat once again. I give my old lady friend a big smile and she does the same, and as our eyes catch I can see that hers are red and a bit puffy. Ever so slightly there are tears welling up for her. “Oh my gosh, we’re you that worried,” I say in a clearly surprised tone. “Listen, there is nothing to worry about, they just wanted to meet a real live American,” I tell her. She reaches into the we should obviously name, The Bag That Holds Everything, and pulls out a small white hanky to dab her eyes with. Still feeling embarrassed that anyone, let alone a sweet little old lady, would become emotional regarding my well being. I mean really what could she be all worked about. I mean we’re in Europe for God sakes what could possibly happen or go wrong being taken off a train in Europe. And then it hit me; Europe, Yugoslavia, trains, people being forced onto them. People being forced off of them. And a woman old enough to have experienced something in some way during the Holocaust which began around 1941 and continued until 1945. There was something about what had just happened to me that had clearly triggered something deep and scary in her. The train began its slow methodical slog to get back up to speed. I was now officially in Yugoslavia, headed to Serbia, and while we weren’t expected to arrive until late at night the first thing I would do after a good long sleep in the youth hostile was get myself to the US Consulate and let them know what I’m doing. At least they would know what to do if I went missing.
The sun had dropped just below the horizon and the sky was filled with beautiful colors. The little old lady once again reached into her bag of everything and out came two sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper – she offered me one and I quickly obliged. It could have been shit on a shingle as my dad liked to say and I would have gobbled it down. I was starving. The sandwich was amazing; it had thinly sliced salty meat that to my knowledge I had never tried. It included capers and sliced cucumbers on a small baguette that was perfectly baked – crispy, not hard, on the outside, and soft almost doughy on the inside. With a full belly and even fuller day behind me I dozed off to sleep again. The next hurdle was just a few hours away, but how hard could that be – get a taxi to an address, check-in, go to my room, lock-up my shit and fall asleep. Shit after a day that started with me waking up in some old lady’s apartment while she smacks me in the face with a broom, a jacked up taxi ride to the train station, dealing with the train ticket-taker aka; The Hungarian Growth Hormone, and then landing in the hands of a bunch of border bitches, what in the world could be easier than getting a room at a youth hostel? Honestly, the real question is how does getting a room in a youth hostel in Belgrade turn into me having to hide myself in a large bush as people run by firing automatic rifles and I stay at the ready to stab anyone who finds me? Yeah, thats the real question. That, and what in the FUCK am I doing here?
Sitting in the trauma clinic or center or place…where people who are really fucked up come, I stare at both doctors as they take another deep drag from their cigarettes. Both staring off in the same direction, but both are clearly in vastly different places. I wonder to myself how much lower they will let their cigarettes burn? They’re practically down to the filter. At first I thought it strange to let cigarettes burn so low, but I realize I have a ‘Land of Milk and Honey’ brain. My default is where everything is easily accessible and obtainable. I need to have a war brain. Here, it wasn’t like they were going to hang a sign on the clinic door that read “Gone for cigs, back in 5” and then stroll across the street to a convenience store for a couple packs of smokes and a diet Coke. Smoking it down to the nubby nub made total sense when you knew everything was or would run out.
As the afternoon turned into late afternoon and then closer to evening, a decision had to be made. I could sense something was on John’s mind, but he hadn’t expressed it yet and while I’m to this day a train wreck in a china shop when it comes to verbalizing things on my mind at any place or anytime in front of anybody, my intuition told me to leave it alone. While I now knew that John was an experienced man in the world of war, conflict and human tragedy, I could also see that John had not become indifferent or hardened by the tragedies he had covered in the past, prior to coming to Sarajevo. I didn’t need to ask John whether he had seen dead babies before, he had. I didn’t need to ask if he had seen mothers or grandmothers torn open before, he had. I didn’t need to ask John if had heard the panic and terror of loved ones who could only standby and watch when a friend or family member lay mortally wounded before, he had. I didn’t have to ask John if he had seen the frustration and anger that comes to the surface of trained professionals when they don’t have the tools they need to save lives before, he had. I didn’t have to ask John if witnessing what we had today would come back to him in his dreams, because they would.
As I watched two of the doctors play chess inside the trauma center, John edged up to me, “we’re going to spend the night here kid,” he said in a low voice. My eyes got big, I looked up at him with a large smile on my face. “I should have figured you’d like that idea,” he said shaking his head and walking away as if a normal person would have been shocked or unnerved by the idea of spending a candle-lit night with war doctors in a bullet pocked building waiting for the dead and dying to arrive. It sounds rather twisted and fucked up as I write it so I can only assume it will read twisted and fucked up as well, but even now I can feel a sense of excitement I felt in that moment. I didn’t want people to be hurt. That wasn’t anywhere close to why I felt excited. I felt excited because I was in the middle of a war and if I could do nothing to stop it at least I could do something to help. Even if that meant helping John in some way so that he could tell the story that people needed to be made aware of so that the war could come to an end. Maybe I could hold a flashlight while doctors treated someone, maybe I could make someone smile or laugh, I don’t know, but I want to do something and I wasn’t going to do anything for anyone back at the Holiday Inn.
Quietly, I repeated what John had told me, “we’re going to spend the night here kid.” I started racing through a mental checklist of the gear and supplies I had on hand for just such a night; Headlamp, emergency blanket (the thin silver one you see draped around marathon runners once they cross the finish line), power-bars or the like to stave off hunger, high-speed film for low, natural, lite pictures. A flash, flash cord, and spare AA batteries for when there was action happening and I needed pictures to be sharp. Plenty of bottled water, baby wipes for the inevitable ‘shit-in-the-woods’ moment that would for sure need to happen at some point. Hand sanitizer – can’t be haven poo-poo fingers on the camera. Latex gloves in case I’m thrown into a situation where I need to help rather than shoot pictures. My notebook and pen/pencil to make notes about what is on my rolls of film, getting people’s names when possible, or thoughts about what I’m witnessing. Okay, I think that about covers all the shit I did not have with me – sweet! In reality, I had whatever was on my body or around my neck when I left the Holiday Inn and that was it. I did have my trusted crappy camera bag which carried all of one roll of iso 100 slide film and a 70-200mm 5.6-8 zoom lens which might have well been a brick given it was heavy and of absolutely no use in the coming blackness of the night. I had no food, water or anything listed above. I had the kevlar vest loaned to me from a reluctant Hungarian TV reporter in Budapest (that story coming soon) and that was it. I didn’t even have my Mickey Mouse trucker hat because John gently shared with my that I look like a fucking idiot with it on. He also mentioned I should probably cut my hair and look the part of a real journalist rather than some hippy college kid from Northern California. Whoa John, not the hair baby, not the hair.
“You ready to earn your way kid?” John had taken to calling me “kid” which I liked because it made me think of all the cool movies where the old salty veteran refers to the young, handsome, overly talented, wisdom-less character in Hollywood movies “kid” – think Tom Cruise in Top Gun or some other movie that actually doesn’t include Tom Cruise. That’s what I had imagined in my head when John referred to me as “kid.” Excited John needed me for something, I puffed my chest out, chin high, looking him directly in his eyes, “whatever you need John,” I responded – my voice trying to sound more manly and confident than I really was.
“I need you to race to the car and grab me more film,” he explained. I was let down by the request. I mean how hard was it going to be to walk outside the front doors, put the key in the trunk lock, open the lid, pull film out, close lid, pull key out of lock, and walk back in? “Yeah, sure John,” I said, far less enthused once I knew what the ask was. John gave me a peculiar, half-cocked, eyebrows furrowed look. It’s the look someone gives you after you miss-hear something they said and you respond to what you think they said. Like when you’re in the check-out line at the grocery store and the clerk says ‘do you want a shag?’ and your mind takes off running trying to sort out exactly how to answer this totally random, inappropriate, but weirdly hot question. Your brain is replaying the strange question back and forth and isn’t sure how to answer it because while you were TOTALLY not expecting this topic to come up in the Walmart check-out line, if you’re really honest with yourself, you would actually like a shag. I mean not with the clerk, most certainly not with the clerk standing in front of you asking because she’s not really your…I don’t know, I mean maybe the clerk. Your mind is all over the place all at once. Your mind finally lands on an answer at least as far as the clerk is concerned, ‘okay, for sure it’s a no for the clerk…Your brain keeps trying to sort the mis-heard question; ‘I could totally go for a shag, but if not with the clerk who is offering, then who? Who do I want a shag from? Damn It! Why is this so hard to figure out? I mean at 21-years-old I should probably know the answer to this question…’sir, would you like a bag…for your groceries?’ Oh shit, you said BAG! Uhh, yes. I would like a bag. Please. I’m so sorry, I thought you said do I want a…yes, a bag. I would like a bag for my groceries please, thank you.’
John shrugged his shoulders and handed me the keys. I set my camera down on the chair I had been sitting in and walked out the front doors of the clinic to get John’s film.
The funny thing about being in a building during a war is you stop giving too much thought of being hurt or killed. You can hear shooting and explosions, some near some far, but unless windows break or the ground shakes you tend to feel pretty impervious to war shit. As the day had worn on and the Summer heat began to cool as the sun drifted lower and lower towards the horizon the intensity of gun fire had most certainly picked up both far and near.
The clinic sat inside what a field commander might consider a wall of defense. The wall was actually multiple apartment buildings that faced out to what was still considered Serb held territory. This early into the Siege of Sarajevo the battle lines were more lucid than ever. The snipers were in hillside homes across the way. Serbs, whether former military, police or militia were fewer in number, but were far better armed with bullets, bombs, rockets, heavy machine guns, tanks and artillery. While the early defenders of Sarajevo outnumbered the Serbs maybe as much as 5-1 they had far less weapons by which to break the Serb siege. I remember presuming that most of the shooting or explosions were incoming, not outgoing in those early days and it was clearly evident that the Defenders of Sarajevo were poorly equipped. Snipers and tanks, artillery, and mortars seemed to be the general makeup of what was killing people here.
All this being the case, as I walked out the front doors of the clinic I immediately felt a lot less safe and much more aware that not only had the tempo of war picked up considerably since our arrival earlier in the day, it was also a shit ton closer. The apartments across the street some 30-yards must be offering either great locations to shoot into or great locations to shoot out of and they were very clearly being targeted. “Shit, glad the car is right out here,” I remember thinking as I looked for it. Not to the left, not to the right, not parked out front. I turned back to John who was standing inside watching me, “Holy fuck John, someone stole our car!” I was mortified that this would happen to us, ok to John. Here we (him) are trying to tell the story of this horrible war and someone jacked our car (his car, but I really wanted it to be an ‘us’ thing). John looked at me as if I was the clerk asking him if he wanted a shag for his groceries. John walked towards me and stopped. With one hand he took hold of the top of my head and turned it to look back outside towards what I was considering the ‘scene of the crime.’ With his right hand he pointed towards something waaaay out in the distance. Starting at about his wrist and followed an invisible line that ran down to his pointer finger and then out into the empty parking area that would have served as visitor parking for what should still be a neighborhood medical clinic. Still not seeing what it was John was trying to point out to me, my eyes continued along the invisible line from John’s finger. Out farther, and farther, and a wee bit farther and there…Like way the fuck out there was a car and damn if it didn’t look exactly like our car (really John’s car). Shit! Someone has a car just like John’s car, fuck, what are the odds that two of the same exact looking cars would be in the same area…Oooooh, I looked back at John, eyes wide and jaw dropped. “That’s right, we parked way over there didn’t we?” I said to John rather sheepishly. He nodded, “you got this kid,” he said. Now at that moment I’m not sure if John was asking me a question, like “you got this kid?” Or if he was making a statement, “you got this kid.” as in a vote of confidence. I think he was asking me a question, but I didn’t want to let John down by telling him I was too scared to go. “Oh, yeah. I got this John. No problem” I said glancing around the streets and up at the apartments across the street. “You wait here, kid. I’ll go grab it.” he reached his hand out for the keys. I gripped the keys tightly and put them behind my back. “I got this John, no big deal it’s just right over there,” I said with more confidence in my voice than before.
There was no way I was not doing this for John. I wasn’t going to let him have the keys. I wasn’t going to let him steal back this opportunity to prove myself to him. “Yeah, I totally got this,” I repeated with more confidence, more for convincing myself than for convincing John. And with that, I took off in a dead sprint before John could refuse to let me go. I wasn’t leaving this decision up to him anymore. I wasn’t going to be a coward after all I had been through in my life and all I had been through to get to this moment. No way I was not doing this.
Listen it’s not that John couldn’t do this or that the hail of bullets and bombs outside were so intense that John would risk my life to save his own. No, that’s not John Downing MBE in any way, shape or form. John had made runs like this a million times in all the years he had been covering shit like this. No, I believe it was John remembering what it was like to be a young man trying to prove to yourself, even more than others that you could handle the task or assignment. It was John recognizing that there was something bigger happening inside of me – that there was something I was trying to learn about myself and John was providing me with the opportunity to learn that by doing or not doing it something so far out of my comfort zone. It was my choice, not John’s demand. Knowing John as I came to, John saw in me something that he had once experienced for himself. It was obvious that at one point in John’s life someone had taken him under their wing and he was now doing that for me. This is why he asked and when he saw the flash of fear on my face, rather than shame me, he offered me an easy out – he would go instead of me. I believe that is why John was an incredible mentor to so many throughout his career – he was attuned to who you were and what could be asked, suggested, or demanded from you and this would help push you to grow, learn, gain experience and confidence in yourself.
I was in good shape when I left for this trip so the run was not going to be hard – at this point in my life I could run 12-15 miles on the mountain trails I grew up with and then turn around and run a 6-minute mile an hour later. Running fast wasn’t my concern, keeping my legs attached to my body was. War running is a strange thing – it’s not like running on a mountain trail or a treadmill that’s for sure. Adrenaline floods your system, your mind is moving at warp speed and your legs, while they’re pumping like pistons, feel as though they’re pumping pistons in thick mud.
I can tell the car is getting closer, but I’m still not there. In my mind I imagine a hundred heads leaning into their rifles, their cheeks pressed hard against their wood rifle stocks. I imagine a hundred eyeballs looking down through their rifle scopes lining the crosshairs on to my chest and then sliding their rifles a little more to their right, the crosshairs staying level with the plane I’m traveling leading me just enough so that their bullet and my chest will come together at the right exact moment. I imagine their leathery war weary hands gripping the stock ever so tightly, pulling the rifle ever more tighter into their shoulder before taking a deep breath, holding it, and gently squeeeezing the trigger…I wonder as I sprint across the bullet and bombed scared pavement what it will feel like when the bullet cuts through my skin. What will it feel like when the piece of metal flattens out as it shatters my ribs and punctures my origins as it tumbles around the inside of my chest cavity. They say you never hear the bullet that kills you, but is that true? Or is it like the riddle; if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around does it make a sound? Has someone ever asked the soldier or gunshot victim if they heard the shot before they died? I wonder if I will be dead before I hit the concrete? I hope it does, I think to myself because falling on concrete hurts like hell. Your hands and knees get road rash and if you’ve ever hit your head on concrete and felt the hard thud of it you know how painful that feels. Why am I worried about falling down on concrete when what would be causing that to happen would be a piece of burning lead rummaging around in my chest or skull like grandma at a thrift store? In my mind’s eye there are a hundred eyeballs watching and waiting for me. In my mind, thoughts of what will happen when I’m shot – not if, when. The car is getting closer which is not the relief I thought it would be. The closer the car gets the closer to dying I feel is coming for me.
I reached the car, not thinking to glide into it, but more like run through it slamming into the back. The keys are in my hand, I’ve gripped them so tightly that I have to use my left hand to pry my fist open – the keys have left a red outline in the palm of my hand almost as if I’ve been brand. I got the key into the lock smoother than I expected. If there was anywhere I thought I would fumble it was the key-into-lock portion. The trunk opens and I quickly sift through the contents of it. I grab a pack of film, slam the lid shut and pull the keys out, spin around facing back to the clinic and kneel down onto one knee to catch my breath and gather my thoughts. I look up to my left where one of several apartments loom almost overtop of me. I was surprised as I see a group of children peering through and over the metal railings of an outside walkway down onto me. There is a carbon copy railed landing on each level of this apartment building and I look up and over the observing children and there leaning on another railing are three old ladies, a clothes drying line stretching from one walkway light to another walkway light. I look up from them and an old man with a funny hat on holds a tea cup and he draws it to his lips to take a sip. I look down from the building because I’m getting a kink in my neck having it cranked upwards for so long. There on the bottom floor at the once glass-paned entrance to the building is a mix of young men and women – they are smoking cigarettes and the young men wearing a variety of articles of army fatigues or blue police uniforms stand and sit with rifles pointed skyward or down towards the ground. It dawns on me that they’re waiting to see what if anything is going to happen to me on this little film escapade. It makes sense to me, that all be curious as to the outcome of this moment. It certainly would make me curious if I were in their shoes. Watching a strange Westerner with flowing shoulder-length hair, body armor draped over him, running around like a scared deer two or three months into their city being laid seized to…Yeah, I’d wanna see the outcome of that. God knows they can’t possibly have TV right now – so for a brief moment, I’m the live entertainment…and I totally see why.
From a kneeling position I take off back towards the clinic, but this time I decide I’m not going to run in a straight line as I did on the way out here. No, on the way back in I’m going to zig-zag my ass off. I go with this strategy for two reasons. First, I’m thinking if a sniper had seen me run out in a straight line then the zig-zag while making me slower, would perhaps confuse ‘Piper the Sniper’ up in them there hills. As well, if I do it right, it should make me that much harder a target to hit. That being said if a mortar dropped on the street, and there was plenty of that going on, I would be shredded whether I was zigging or zagging. The second reason for the ZZ approach was my thinking it made for better viewing from the remaining apartment dwellers standing out on the walkways watching me.
I zigged and zagged. Left then right, then left then right. Then it hit me! No, not a bullet or bomb, but the realization that I could not hear sound. I knew there was sound reverberating all around me, bullets being shot, explosions from bombs both near and far, I could see shaggy stray dogs barking and even a car drove past me and yet I could hear nothing. I could see everything with great precision, my senses felt off the charts, but I could not hear a sound. I would come to experience this same strange several more times throughout my career. It was always in intensely stressful moments like being directly next to a man who was stabbed in his stomach with a large kitchen knife in the streets of Haiti – his intestines slipping through the large gash in his skin dangling outside his body as men began clubbing him to the ground with sticks and then ending his life by smashing his skull in with a cinder block. Or the time in Rwanda when myself and a group of journalists, packed into a minivan were car-jacked by Congo rebels. What we thought would just be a quick robbery of some cash escalated to the point that a rebel in the van jammed his AK-47 into someones stomach and pulled the trigger, but the weapon jammed – they then ordered the van’s driver, a local man, to drive his van deep into the jungle. There are a few other intense situations which would one day come to be where I also stopped being able to hear voices, arguments, and screams.
I have no doubt that if we could go look at the replay of my zig-zag strategy back to the clinic it would look less like you were watching someone properly executing an evasive move deployed when under fire on the battlefield. No, I feel pretty confident it probably looked a lot more like something out of a ‘Mr. Bean Goes to War’ movie. I figure if anything I wasn’t being directly targeted or shot at because Serb Snipers were finding it too difficult to keep their rifles steady while laughing and peeing their pants in hysterics watching me jib and jab all the way back.
The last 5-10 yards I just sprinted for the safety of the clinic. John was outside watching me and as I came rushing back up to him I saw a large grin on his face, “well done, kid,” he said and patted me on the back. Winded I gave John a slight wave of my hand as I brushed past him on my way to sit back down in the reception area chairs. The two doctors glanced up from their chess match each giving me a flick of the head and a smile just to acknowledge I had come back into the room – I don’t honestly think they had any idea of the intense war moment I was coming down from. I also don’t think that the 90-second sprint/zig-zag thing would come anywhere close to their own ‘intense war moments’ scale, but that didn’t stop me from trying to draw some attention to myself in some dumb-ass way…
“Yeah, I just had to run to get some film for John, no big deal,” I not so casually say.
They both nod their heads at me and smile then look back down at the chess board.
I have no idea if these guys actually understand English, if they know John or care about John Downing MBE being a big deal, or that I ever left the building….but I keep talking.
“There was some shooting and stuff while I was running. I mean not at me directly, but like all around the area for sure. Something really bad could have happened out there, but I was doing this zig-zag move all the way back,” I’m using my right hand to make zig-zag moves back and forth as if I was showing the first signs of going into a seizure or something. “I’m really fast, I ran a 6-minute mile once…” I drift off as now they’re completely ignoring me. Not a glance up, not a smile or a nod. Nothing and I feel like an idiot – damn what is wrong with me I think as I replay everything I had just told them…or I guess everything I had just told no one given no one was listening. “I ran a 6-minute mile once,” I repeated to myself in a sarcastic demeaning voice as if my older sister Laurie was repeating it in her ‘make you little brother feel like a tard’ voice. I slumped back into the chair feeling dumb, hungry, and thirsty. The sweat I had manufactured running to and from the car and from all the adrenaline I was feeling started to feel cold as my body cooled down. The sun was lower in the sky and the shadows grew longer and longer. The shooting and bombing would ebb and flow – it would ease and then rage again, then ease, then rage. It was as if the war was breathing in slowly and exhaling with force.
As my stomach growled I wondered what my friends were doing back home. I wondered what it would be like to be with them and what it would be like if they were here with me. I wondered what I’d be doing if I hadn’t made it to Sarajevo. With a new perspective about the seriousness of war and those actioning it, I wondered if I would have been more scared when the Serb military pulled me and all my belongings off the train when we crossed into Serbia from Hungary. How the old lady I sat with on the train seemed terrified when they were marching me off to the small dark building by the train tracks.
I didn’t get it then, but I was starting to get it now…
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.
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.
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!
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!”
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…
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 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.
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…
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.
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…
It was late June and as evening began to ease in, my older sister Laurie and I sat atop a truck load of sand just outside the double-wide trailer we had only days before walked into. “Do you know what glass is made out of?” she asked gently. It was 1978 and just days before, my sister and I flew from where our dad lived in Mill Valley, California to where our mom lived in Sky Way, Washington. Our parents were divorced and the agreement was that my sister and I spent one year with dad and then one year with mom. June of ‘78 was the beginning of our year with mom.
Mom picked us up from the Seattle-Tacoma airport (we locals call it Sea-Tac) and I remember her long long hair, and a red or orange blouse with a pair of tight bell-bottom jeans. My mom was a petite woman – the coroner’s report lists her at at 5’5”, but to me, age seven, she was a GIANT among Lilliputians. She was my world. There was no one in my small world that made me feel more safe, more loved, more important, more accepted, more cared for, more seen than my mom. Was I a momma’s boy? You bet your ass I was. I LOVED MY MOM! And I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she loved me with almost all of her heart.
On the day my sister and I landed we climbed into mom’s red two-door rust bucket that was actually super cool because it had no front passenger seat and my sister and I could see the road through holes where bolts we’re surely intended to go. Laurie and I LOVED to drop shit down the hole onto the road – pennies, old french fries, straw wrappers, straws, ice from our fast food drinks, little shit the other sibling owned when we were fighting…If it could fit through that hole you could count it gone!
Not a long drive from the airport we pulled up in-front of a double-wide trailer we knew nothing about. Mom was known for making stops at stranger’s houses at weird times so it wasn’t a huge leap to assume mom was about to say, “I have to run inside, you two stay here and I’ll be right back.” However, this time she told us to grab our things and to come in with her. My sister and I shot each other “The Look” – if you have a sibling you might know “The Look.”
“The Look” can look like, well, just a look to anyone else, but siblings know that “The Look” really means; ‘did you know about this?’ ‘I did not know about this – swear.’ ‘Okay, well if you don’t know about this and I don’t know about this, then it’s safe to say there is some bullshit about to go down.’ That’s what “The Look” meant between my sister and me…and we were not wrong.
Our mom told us she had met this really nice man at work (she was a cocktail waitress at a tavern up the street from the double-wide) and we were going to be living with him from now on. I hated everything about this news and when I was introduced to her boyfriend, I hated it even more. There was however, one saving grace in this fucked up situation. Her boyfriend’s name was…wait for it…Dick!
Now lets understand something here – when you are 7-years-old and out of the heavens above falls a free, never ending pass, to use a “Bad Word” you run with that shit and you run with that shit HARD. I was just old enough to appreciate the word “dick” and it took me 1.2 seconds after our introduction to know that I was going to get to say “The D-Word,” without getting into trouble…A LOT, for the rest of their relationship, which with mom was never too long.
Man I was on him quick; “Hey dick!” – “whatcha you do’n dick” – “mom, I think dick is ugly” – ”You sure are hairy dick” – I just couldn’t think of phrases to add dick to fast enough. Looking back on it, my mom and dick had to know that my use of the word dick in every sentence was not well intentioned. But, when my mom talked to me about it, I was like, “but mom it’s his name. It’s not my fault his parents hate him.” So dick it was and as much as I could.
Surprises with mom were not surprising, random stops at people’s houses were not surprising, new boyfriends were not surprising, old boyfriends were not surprising, new place to live not surprising, new place to work not surprising. Not even the blowout argument happening that moment in the double-wide trailer between my mom and aptly named dick wasn’t surprising. So as usual, my sister took me outside rather than stay in the house during the blowout. We sat on a pile of sand and contemplated some deep things.
“I don’t know, what is glass made of?” I answered. “It’s made of sand,” my sister offered. I picked up a handful and let it run between my fingers wondering; if that were true, why isn’t it cutting the shit out of me right now?
The door to the trailer flew open and mom came storming out. It was hard to tell if she was angry, sad, or both. She looked at my sister and I and simply said, “I’ll be back in awhile.” This was…not surprising.
It was late when mom got home. I was in my pajamas sitting in front of the large tube tv watching reruns of some 1960’s show – Hogan’s Heroes or some shit and mom came through the door much more softly than when she went out. To say that I was thankful to see her is a drastic understatement. I always had anxiety when mom left us somewhere mainly because she didn’t always come back when she said she would. When she didn’t come back it meant having to sleep in our clothes on a dirty shag carpet floor or in some strange spare bedroom which often smelled like pee because a kid peed in it and no one at the house did anything about pee beds. Oftentimes my sister would lay in the wet spot so I didn’t have to – It was kinda like I had two moms, but I didn’t pick up on how unhealthy, unfair, and totally fucked-up that was for my sister until I was much older…like an adult older. So when mom walked back into the double-wide I felt the usual explosive joy, relief, and happiness as I always did when she returned from somewhere. My sister and dick were already in bed. My mom set her purse on the counter, turned off the tv, and walked me to my room. My sister Laurie and I shared a room with bunk beds – I was on the bottom and she was on the top. I remember my mom tucking me in that night and as all little kids do, I asked her to read me a book before I fell asleep. “I’m going to take a bath and when I get out I’ll come in and read you a book,” she said. Being. a parent now, I know that’s ‘parent speak’ for ‘I love you very much, but there’s no way I have the energy to read a book right now.’ My mom leaned down, kissed my forehead, turned out the light, and gently closed the door leaving it open just enough so the hall light could beam in. I didn’t like the dark and oftentimes I had to get up in the middle of the night to go pee. If I couldn’t see anything I would be too afraid to get out of bed and I would pee.
At some point in the night, I got up to do just that, go pee. Just outside our bedroom, to the left, was the main bathroom for the double-wide. The door was closed, but not locked so I opened the door and walked in. My mom was in the bathtub, her head leaning on her right shoulder and her eyes closed. I continued to look at her as I walked by her naked body, my eyes staying glued onto her eyes waiting for her to hear me and wake-up, she didn’t. I lifted the lid and went pee. When I was done I flushed the toilet and started walking back towards the door. Again, looking at her, wondering if she was going to hear me and wake up, but she didn’t. I stopped directly in front of her and whispered as loud as I could; “mom, mom, mom,” she didn’t answer. I walked out of the room, back to my bed and back to sleep.
It was still dark when I awoke, but I’m unsure of the time. The bedroom light is on and at the foot of my bunk I can see someone from ankles to mid chest standing where my sister Laurie slept on the top bunk. While I couldn’t see the person’s face I knew it was a tall skinny man. He wore blue pressed slacks and a blue suit jacket. Outside in the hallway I heard people talking as if there was a gathering of some kind. I swung my legs off the bed and set my feet on the floor. I leaned out from under the top bunk, peering upward at the stranger talking to my sister. He was holding a very large tape recorder with a microphone pointed towards her as he asked my sister questions. She was sitting up and looked frightened. I stood up slowly, trying not to be noticed for fear I’d be told to get back into bed. I walked to the bedroom door which was wide open and peered out. I looked left towards the bathroom. A very tall and wide uniformed police officer stood with his arms folded across his chest staring straight ahead. He noticed me out of the corner of his eye and looked down at me without expression. Then he looked back straight ahead. I looked to my right where the remainder of the shared living areas of the trailer was and across the kitchen. There I saw my mom’s boyfriend Dick seated in one of the dining room chairs with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He was crying, sobbing uncontrollably. Confused, I looked next to Dick and there sat my Grandpa Jim, my mom’s dad. He sat in a dining room chair also, hands on his lap with expressionless. I loved my Grandpa Jim and I raced past other police and people and climbed into grandpa’s lap. He pulled me up, wrapped his long arms around me and drew me into a long hug. It felt safe, I felt safe. I pulled back from Grandpa’s hug, looked around and then back at my grandpa directly in his eyes. “Where is my mom?” I asked. He sat silent looking down at me. “Is she okay?” I asked. He said nothing. “Is she dead?” I asked. Grandpa Jim nodded yes and I remember nothing more after that.
From the moment my mom died, I lived in a world of shame and guilt and doubt and questions. I was fucking angry – Why did I have to be the one to lose my mom? I got ripped off? People would say; “she’s in a better place now” – man, fuck you! I felt abandoned and unlovable. I felt like love was something you had to work and earn by being what everyone wanted you to be when they wanted you to be it. I grew up always waiting for the other shoe to drop – ‘yep, everything nice now, but any fucking second this shit is going to be gone.’ My relationship with women was continual, constant, and contentious. When I was dating one woman I was in an almost a constant state of anxiety for fear they would just up and leave without reason or understanding. When I was in a season of life where I dated many women, my soul was empty and lonely. I had so many unanswered questions because no one would ever tell me the truth about my mom’s death. Maybe it was because they didn’t want to know the truth themselves or maybe because they knew the truth and felt like they needed to protect me from it. I heard things like, “she fell asleep in the bathtub and drowned,” “she slipped and fell,” “her boyfriend Dick murdered her in a fight jealousy and rage,” and of course, I created my own narrative; mainly that we moved back to live with her and she had committed suicide. The worst of all was the guilt and shame I felt for having found her and that she might still be alive if I had just woken someone up and told them. I grew up with chaos raging both inside and out – unless you were close to me, you’d never know it, but I was an absolute storm inside.
I finally learned the real truth 22-years later. My mom was a drug addict. She shot PCP. The track marks on her arms and the drugs in her system told the story. That night, she got in a fight with her boyfriend and did what most all of us do when our emotions are heightened – we find a way to calm down, too numb, to forget. My mom went out and bought drugs and her body couldn’t handle it anymore and she died with her little girl and her baby boy sleeping just feet away. I loved my mom as any 7-year-old son does – she was my everything, but as I’ve looked back over my childhood it wasn’t hard to find the cause of my chaos. My greatest problem was I couldn’t find the antidote…until I landed in a far off country, in a dank basement, reeking of death, as bombs dropped and bullets popped, on a warm Summer day in June. Standing over little babies fresh to death, with my new found hero at my side. The steady sound of the shutter clicking, the film sliding, and not another noise could be heard. I found what I thought was peace. It was the calmest and clearest I had ever felt. I knew that this was my purpose on earth. Warm was the antidote I had been searching most my life for. It calmed me. It centered me. It put life in clear perspective. It gave me purpose and worth. It calmed the war inside of me like nothing else ever had.
John took his last few pictures of the orphans. I had long stopped taking pictures and just stood in the small room looking at the children and how much they looked as if they were just in a deep asleep. I watched John work. Moving himself this way and that trying to find the best angle for him. And then he was done. He gently nudged the door open, it hadn’t shut all the way, but had swung closer to shut than open. I followed each of John’s footsteps out as if we were slowly making our way through a minefield. We got over the bodies and back to where the tile was still barren of tragedy. The doctor at the end of the hall was still standing against the door, but had lit a cigarette. He looked at us and motioned for us to head back up the stairs which we did. First John, then me, then the good doctor.
I don’t remember if anything was said between the three of us at the top of the stairs or as we turned the corner back to the front of the Trauma Clinic. What I do remember is a car racing down the street and slamming on its brakes as it made a wild left turn from main street into the clinic parking area. Its tires screeched and smoked and you could see black skid marks behind it as it turned into the entrance gunning it the last 15 or 20 yards. The good doctor we were with recognized what this was as he had already seen it a hundred times before and he took off running. John bolted next on the heels of the doctor, raising his camera to his face in an instant. I would love to say I knew what the hell this was all about, but I was still struck by how the driver made that fucking turn into the clinic like that. I mean no shit, it was some Fast and Furious level driving. I then thought “well I guess I’m supposed to run right now.” so I started running also.
The car came to a screeching halt and the driver and a passenger jumped out screaming, sobbing, waving loudly. They are motioning to the back seat and John is shooting pictures of the scene as it unfolds in front of us. The good doctor is listening to the two men and then runs inside to prepare to treat whomever is in the backset. The passenger opens up the back seat and there is their older woman, their mother. She is groaning in pain but I still can’t see where she is hurt. The man on the passenger side grabs her ankles and begins to draw her out of the car. The other man, the driver, reaches in to grab her under her armpits awkwardly. As she clears the car and comes out, the side of her body spills open and shards of bloodied glass fall to the ground shattering. The sound is just as you would imagine – it is the sound when a busboy loses control of a large tray of wine glass and they spill crashing, shattering, on the hard concrete or tile floor. It is shocking to hear something like this at a restaurant, sudden and unexpected, it silences everyone for a split second. It is shocking to hear something like this now, it is sudden and unexpected, silencing everyone for just a split second. Out of the car, her head is turned away from me, but as the doors to the clinic open, with anxious doctors and nurses waiting inside to take over, the older woman’s head flops over and towards me. She has no face. Her lips are gone. Her teeth are knocked out, she has no nose. If there is skin still remaining you cannot tell.
John is still shooting, the motor-drive on his camera ripping off bursts of pictures. I’ve not yet raised my camera. Fuck, I’ve not yet processed the basement filled with bodies and the silver tin table with two dead babies on it. I’ve not processed my own mother’s death 14 June’s ago to the month as I stand there looking at their mother. The speed at which war can move is both painfully slow, and at times at a speed it could take you years to catch-up to. Many times it is both. This is what war is. This is just the beginning and I am hooked.
When I awoke on the floor of John’s room the next morning, he was already up with another pair of cargo pants on and sporting another long-sleeve button up shirt that looked as if it had just come from the dry cleaners. He was looking intently in the mirror as he took one final stroke of his razor across his cheek. He splashed a bit of water in his hands, then his face, and then a towel. Without missing a beat, he picked up a comb and began neatly combing his hair; which already looked very neatly combed. Without acknowledging my presence in any way, he began talking…
“You know you really do look like one of the bloody local militia fighters up the in the hills.”
Confused, I sat up and blurted, “Are you kidding, John?! You look like you’re going on a date this morning.”
John turned slightly from where he was facing, his head cocked in that way a dog does when they hear a high-pitched sound.
“I’m talking about YOU, idiot!” he replied.
“Ohhh, me! Okay, I look like a Bosnian fighter up in the hills, that makes way more sense now because I thought you were talking to yourself in the mirror, and I was like what is he talking about because you look super dapper right now and you smell really good too…”
John shot me a sharp glare in the mirror and I immediately shut my mouth. It’s the type of look I would get off of John from time to time, and while I’m not sure how it would translate in old British English, if I had to translate in American English, it would be a polite version of ‘please shut the fuck up now.’
I shut up, and John kept combing his hair. While I had no idea if I really looked like some local fighter in the hills of Sarajevo, I knew I wasn’t looking, or going to be looking, nearly as dapper as John. Shit, I was still in my clothes from the previous day. Not to mention my long, thick hair was a mess, and I hadn’t shaved in about a week because someone told me you don’t shave when you go on backpack trips around Europe…so I was like ‘okay, we’re not shaving!’
“You bring a razor with you?” asked John.
“No, I was told…” I stopped talking. I was starting to figure out less was more with John sometimes.
“Well, come over here and use this disposable I found in my kit. Here is some shaving soap. You need to clean up before breakfast.”
I picked up the plastic orange handled razor and was pretty sure this was going to hurt like hell. I had never heard of “shaving soap” before and figured it was some British creation that didn’t work, so it must have never made it ‘across the pond’ so to speak. I was no stranger to shaving – I felt like I’d been doing it since elementary school. I’ve got lots of good thick Greek blood in me and I grow lumberjack beards…
(I have no idea if that’s a Greek thing or not, but I’m pretty damn proud I’m Greek…and yes, I know “Hurst” isn’t Greek, it’s German or English, but that doesn’t sound nearly as badass sexy as “GREEK”. Plus, tell me another group of people known for being historically badass warriors, insanely good lovers and deep thinkers? Not to mention all that yummy goodness is all rolled up into a nice olive skin tone, with dark mysterious features. Okay, I’m sure there are other ethnicities that can claim stuff like that, but I’m writing this shit so it’s super badass to me)
…Okay, so I’m essentially holding my mom’s leg-shaving razor. I’ve got what looks like a used bar of cheap motel soap in my hand, and I’m staring at my thick facial hair knowing John’s not letting me out of the hotel looking as I do. As sure as shit, it takes me forever to shave to something deemed acceptable by John, and I have far too many pieces of toilet paper stuck to my face and neck. In summary, I most definitely did NOT look like a fighter in the hills anymore. What I now resembled was, honestly, I have no idea. Let us just say I was feeling far less “Greek” than I was when I woke up.
I changed into some pants, a t-shirt, my super badass Nike hiking boots and donned my exclusive Mickey Mouse trucker hat. It was clear that the morning’s lesson had a lot to do with what you wear, how you look and how people perceive you in war zones makes a difference. John knew this from his long history of covering war and conflict. John looked, walked, talked and shat ‘Back off, I’m a professional!’ If that was what made the difference between surviving or dying today, John was good to go! Me? I’m probably fucked: I look like a clown.
With John in the lead, we headed down the stairs of the Holiday Inn into the dining room. To my astonishment, there were white linen tables, cloth napkins, glasses already filled with water, bread rolls, butter… I knew I was at a Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, but this shit made me think I might be at a Holiday Inn in Sarasota. I was visibly impressed.
John led us past some other journalist types: Some NGO’s (look it up) and a couple of UN generals, or majors, were taking in some meat and cheese plates. John seemed to be looking for someone. He was, because someone caught his eye and he made a b-line to an older, more slender man with a notepad out. John introduced me, “Danny, this is Thomas. He’s a university student who I found wandering the halls yesterday.” He continued, “Thomas, this is Danny McGrory, he and I work together.” Right away, I felt like some childish jealous lover. As I reached out to shake Danny’s hand, inside I was like, ‘what the fuck John, you never told me there was someone ELSE?! Our entire relationship (which is at best 12 whole hours) is built on the shifting sands of your lies and secrets…I don’t even know who you are anymore.’ At the same exact moment I was feeling betrayed by the newfound idol, I could tell that the look on Danny’s face was not one of warmth and excitement, as he looked me up and down so many times that he almost didn’t land the handshake. I couldn’t tell if Danny was upset because he had hoped this would be the one trip where John didn’t bring a “stray in” off the streets and start feeding it. More than likely it was because he was savvy enough to know that everyone’s odds of being killed or maimed just went up by the addition of me. John, on the other hand, didn’t blink an eye about any of it.
I sat down with them at the table, taking in my first war-zone dining experience. People came and people went. People with different badges for different networks would slink into a far corner and whisper to each other about some shit and what to do in covering the war. It was obvious to me that everyone was trying to figure out what the competitor was doing that day. Everyone wanted an exclusive, but no one wanted to risk getting beat on that day’s story. So, there was a lot of, ‘what are you doing?’ ‘No, what are you doing?’, and after a while of playing that cheeky fucking game they would go over into a corner, or sit at a distant table, and begin playing ‘you show me yours, I’ll show you mine’! Whatever, it just always felt that journalists of any medium are either arrogant because their story beat someone else’s, or they are scared shitless because they don’t know if what they have is any good when weighed and measured against what the other channels, networks, publication has.
John broke into my silent observations with a smack on the table – SMACK! “Okay, let’s go!” I stood up as John did, but Danny stayed seated.
“I’m going to do a bit more writing this morning. Come back later and let me know if you find them,” he said.
I was stoked because I didn’t like the fact that he didn’t like me yet, and I’m pretty sure Danny was thinking maybe he should see if I survive Day 2 in Sarajevo before going outside of the hotel with me. I didn’t blame him then, and I most certainly don’t blame him now. The risk of having an unknown factor like me at this stage would be unnerving to me as well.
John and I headed to the car in the garage. “Where are we going?”, I asked.
“A bus carrying orphaned children was supposed to be allowed access out of the city yesterday. There was a temporary cease fire signed so the children could reach safety somewhere outside the city. But that didn’t happen – a sniper opened up on the bus and there are several dead children being kept somewhere in the city, and we have to find them.”
And that’s exactly what we did…
John threw his camera and the camera bag bulging with gear and film in the “boot” aka the trunk – shit, if John doesn’t look cool AF just doing that; popping the lid on the trunk, swinging his two beautiful Nikons and heaving this massive camera bag with different lenses of different focal lengths, back-up camera bodies in case one of his bad ‘mamajama’ cameras goes down, flashes, cords, batteries and more film for a day than I brought for the entire trip. He swings it off his shoulder just as he has a million other times. And I’m standing there, straight man-crushing my ass off.
You know that scene in RomComs we’ve all seen? You know. That scene where the total inept guy played by some actor chicks dream about because he’s funny AF, kinda ninja sexy – he’s not like George Clooney or Brad Pitt sexy, but he’s like a shy ‘neighbor boy’ who swam all through high school and college sexy? He’s the guy that does the same stupid shit us guys do, but everyone watching the movie thinks its sweet and adorable and his female counterpart is always super understanding and lets it slide because he’s just a goofball and she is so patient and understanding…but when we do that same shit in real life we know sure as hell it’s coming up in couples counselling Thursday after work? Yeah? Good.
So, think ‘that’ movie, envision ‘that’ guy, and then think about that stereotypical RomCom scene where ‘Studley’ looks up from his menu and lays eyes on the woman of his dreams for the very first time…you still with me? You know what I’m talking about here? If not, skip to the next paragraph. If you’re still tracking you’re kind of a bad ass right now…So, you know how the camera always cuts away from the male lead and goes to that ‘tall drink of water’ of a woman flipping her hair back, or coming out of the ocean or the backyard pool, or she’s gliding across the room headed towards her crazy girlfriends, but the scene is SUPER slowed down and it feels like it goes on forever. And then the camera quick-cuts back to lovable dork – his eyes have fallen out of his skull, his jaw is on the floor, the drink he was about to wash his meal down with spills all over his nice shirt…all that shit? Well, that’s the moment I’m having in a dirty dark Holiday Inn parking garage two stories underground in Sarajevo while a war rages up above.
John swings his bag off his shoulder, my whole world slows down in envy as it lands in the trunk of the car. Picture all that Hollywood glam shit, but it’s me, John, and a bag full of camera gear.
John puts his shit in the trunk and looks at me with his arm outstretched for my camera bag. Instead of doing all that super sexy professional war photographer shit he just did, I hand him my little green Walmart camcorder bag that I got on sale because the strap was missing and replaced with the one I found in my parents closet which subsequently broke on the flight from Germany to Budapest so I just carry the dumb bag like it’s my 5th-grade lunch pail…fucking sad, really. Anyway, John takes my discount bag, holds it up to examine it, shrugs his shoulders, sets it in the trunk next to his and shuts the lid on the trunk as I put my head down and start shuffling to the passenger side of the car feeling all this photo-gear envy and shame.
Up and out we go, John punching the gas hard as the car came out of the relative safety of the underground garage. As we came out into the open, I was half expecting one of the windows to be blown out from a bullet or a bomb. I’m feeling rather tense and thought John was too until he started sharing this really shitty story about a dear photographer friend of his named Tom Stoddart. As John told it, a few weeks back there was some very intense fighting happening in Sarajevo, and to avoid getting killed his friend had to climb over the parking garage wall. Because the drop from the top of the garage to the garage floor was so far, Tom had to hang by his fingertips. Eventually, either because someone is trying to shoot his fingertips off, or from complete exhaustion, or because he had no other choice, Tom drops down into the parking garage and he gets super broken (it takes a year for him to recover, but when he does he goes right back to doing amazing photography). John’s telling me this insane story and I’m so caught up in it that the anxiety that was starting to overwhelm me was gone, and I realize we’re halfway across the city already, heading to pick up John’s translator.
John pulls up to the front of the gate that leads to the house. The road winds upwards on a narrow street made of cobblestone that looks like it’s been around for 100 years. John beeps the horn and the translator came out looking like a million bucks.
It was crazy how dressed up women in Sarajevo were all the time – their hair was all done, their nails painted, nice shoes to handbag coordination. I just thought it was crazy because, well, they live in a war and I’m thinking they probably know that by now, soooo….in the history of ‘hall passes’ on dressing up every day to go find sticks for the fire or water for drinking, bathing, and flushing poop down your hole, maybe it’s cool if you throw on some comfy sweatpants, your ex-boyfriends Budweiser shirt, put your hair in a pony, grab a ball cap and call it good. But in Sarajevo, during a siege of their beloved city, where people get shot and blown up on the daily, that’s not how these women roll – ladies hit the sidewalk dressed to impress.
I get banished to the backseat so the translator can sit up front with John, and they start talking about what happened with the orphans the day before. The translator had already heard about it on the radio and knew John would want to try to find something to photograph. She had some idea in what part of the city the shooting had happened and that was enough for John; we were off.
John flipped a U-turn, hit the gas, and the back of the car started bucking like I was riding a bull in the back. I bounced upwards, crashing into the ceiling of the car and then back down again – I let out a groan as this happened two or three times in quick succession. John glanced back in the rear-view mirror, his eyes giving away a confused look as he had clearly never ridden in the backseat of this car and hence had absolutely no idea what had happened or why I would be groaning.
“I’m good, I’m good,” I quickly say. I don’t want John to think I can’t handle things in the backseat, but I also think it’s probably helpful if he knows the situation. “I think it’s the cobblestone streets, John.” John looks at me again in the rear-view mirror, his eyes telling me he’s still confused and that I, his trusted sidekick, should explain the situation as I’ve diagnosed it.
“Yeah, John, I’m thinking you should probably get the shocks in the back checked out. I’m thinking they’re either really worn or someone stole them and you don’t have any.” John rolled his eyes and shook his head as though he was trying to shake off a hangover before walking into work. But I’m not picking up that John either still has no idea what I’m talking about or more than likely he couldn’t care less about the shocks in the back where he NEVER sits. Do I shut up? Nah…
“It’s a fucking war zone, man, you should probably have some decent shocks, or shocks at all, right?” John is ignoring me now, I can tell.
As we sped through the streets the windows cracked letting in the smells of summertime war, the scent of the translator’s perfume started to blow gently in my face – it’s a respite from the heavy smoke of morning fires and burning trash. I started thinking about the whole ‘dressing up’ during war thing. From my backseat banishment, I lean forward and ask the translator why the women always dress up so much even though everything is a mess?
“It’s how we remind ourselves that we are still alive. It reminds us of when there was no war. When our lives were normal.” I slumped back into my seat; I felt kinda dumb because that makes total sense and wow is that super deep and heavy! They do it to remind themselves that they are alive, not dead: That they once lived normal lives, doing normal things. I stared out the window of the car, as bullet pocked buildings streaked past, and I just let all of that sink in.
We got to the part of the city where the translator told us to go. John wanted to find the bodies of the orphan children who were killed. John wanted people back in the UK to see the tragedy of this war, and today, there was no more devastating way to convey that than to let people wake up tomorrow with the bodies of two dead innocent children staring back at them.
We pulled over a few times to ask someone hanging out in a stairwell, or carrying jugs of water they had risked their life refilling. At one of our stops, the person we spoke to simply pointed to a build about 20 or 30 yards behind us. We got out of the car there and began walking towards a small one-story building with a little pick-up/drop-off spot out front. It was once a ‘neighborhood’ clinic, but now served as a trauma center. I guess the idea was that if anyone in the surrounding area was sick, hurt, or wounded you brought them here to be assessed, stabilized, and depending on their situation they were either treated and sent home, or stabilized before being raced at great risk across the city to Sarajevo’s main hospital. It seemed like the strategy helped keep people who didn’t really need to be at the main hospital from going their first and overwhelming the limited staff and resources that were available.
While I didn’t much care about where we parked the car at that moment, later that evening I sure as shit would. I was going to be cursing the decision to leave the car so far away while sprinting to and fro.
Once we were out of the car with our gear, we began walking towards the clinic. As we neared, a couple of people who looked like doctors and a couple of people who looked like they might be nurses, came out to greet/investigate us. John’s translator introduced us and explained that John and I were journalists (I wasn’t, but you get it) and that we’re looking to do a story about the orphans. The head guy, or the guy who acted like the head guy because he was older with glasses, did all the talking and whom everyone else stood behind. He nodded his head as though he understood what we were doing there. He gave John and I the once over…more than once… and he and the translator continued talking.
Now, if you’ve ever had a translator, and I’m sure some of you have, you know the whole experience is all kinds of awkward. Why? Because everyone else is working shit out, and you just stand there trying to look super intently at the people talking as if you are actually tracking the conversation, when the truth is you have absolutely no idea what’s being said…hence why you’re paying some else to do the talking. Now if you ever end up in one of these situations, here’s some basic moves;
1. The Smile: Use this when you think the conversations going good/in your favor – let them go first though, but don’t be too slow getting your smile up or you look really stupid.
2. The Furrowed Brow: Use this one when you think some serious shit is being explained.
3. The Look Away: This one is next level, but don’t overuse it or you look like you don’t care about whatever it is they’re saying. What you want to do for this is just look in a slightly different direction, maybe just over someone’s shoulder, and then act like something really interesting caught your eye.
I was actually already pretty good at these moves because I had taken four-years of Spanish in high school. Unfortunately, it was four years of Spanish 1. For the life of me, I just could NOT pass that class. You’d think I’d have been fluent in the language by the time I almost didn’t graduate. But I wasn’t. Instead I spent four years sitting in Ms. Meyers class listening to everyone else speak Spanish and I didn’t understand boo. For the first two years I couldn’t get much past “Hola, como estas, bien e tu.” It wasn’t that I was dumb, although I felt pretty dumb, it turned out I just wasn’t interested in Spanish or any other language because I had nothing going on in my life at that time where I could practically use it. Ms. Meyers was really great to me about it though. There I was, sitting in Freshman Spanish but now I’m a Senior, and rather than making me feel like shit, she told everyone I was her teacher’s aide – Thanks Ms. Meyers!
The point I’m trying to make is that while I might be crap at learning languages, I’m really good at standing there, picking up all the right cues, and making appropriate faces at the people I’m supposed to. So, while I don’t know a word of what’s being said right now…I kinda look like I do.
The translator and Doc are talking, then she says something and everyone gets real quiet and starts looking at the ground. I furrow my brow and look down at the ground as well. While I don’t know what’s been said, it’s obviously something heavy. I watch as the doctor gently slides one of his feet back and forth slowly overtop some loose gravel beneath him. Whatever she said or asked turned the mood dark. One of the nurses, a young lady probably in her mid to late 20’s with a soft shade of red lipstick, wiped away something on her face – I only caught her sudden movement and couldn’t see what it was. The doctor lifted his head, looked straight at John, and said “ok, I show you.”
The dead children were here. They had been brought to the clinic immediately after the sniper or snipers opened up on the bus full of children as they attempted to leave the city. Again, this was supposed to have all been agreed upon by both the Bosnians and the Serbs. The bus was set to leave the city on a particular day at a set time. It was to have free passage out so that the orphaned children could be taken to safety somewhere outside of the besieged city. Everything went as planned, until it didn’t. The bus was hit by snipers; children were hurt, and two little ones were killed. I don’t know if they were alive or dead when they arrived at the trauma center. I suppose it doesn’t really matter – they were both dead now. The medical team that received them upon arrival was the same medical team with us now, and naturally they were all traumatized and heartbroken over these deaths.
I would come to find out later that evening that it was not an issue of John and I being there to tell this story that had caused the long emotional delay when we all first met. Like most everyone else we met, people wanted us to document this tragedy. They knew that the stories we told to the outside world were their best shot of seeing this war end. The issue was that one of them, one of the medical team members, would have to take us down into the basement to direct us to where the children lay.
The doctor who was in charge led us around the side of the building and down a set of steep stairs. He opened the door below and used his thin white medical coat to cover his nose and mouth. He swung the door open and stood to the side to convey he would wait there at the door while we went in. The door opened into a hallway about six feet wide and about 40 feet long before it reached a left turn. The smell hit you first, it was the smell you only experience when you come upon something dead. At the end of the hallway we entered, you could see a person’s feet sticking out. John and I slowly entered in utter silence. Suddenly, I could hear nothing, none of the sounds emanating from a city at the center of a war – no bangs, no booms, no kids playing in the relative safety of an apartment building inner courtyard. No sounds of cars racing down streets, no sounds of tires screeching around corners, not my own steps walking on the white tiled floors – I could hear nothing. Yet at the same moment my awareness of everything around me became hyper focused, I noticed everything – where the feet were, where John was in relation to me, where the doctor stood at the entrance still holding the door open. How I was holding my dinky camera – any information that could be taken in, taken in and logged – stored away somewhere in my mind and ready for new information to be quickly interpreted. I’m honestly not sure how to explain it, but everything around me suddenly slowed down and I could see everything everywhere. My heart was racing, but I didn’t feel panicked. I felt in complete control of myself. I felt superhuman at that moment.
As we neared the next turn, I still couldn’t see the entire body. The rest of it was laid out in the next hallway, but I could see their shoes. I knew it was a man. He was wearing sport shoes, a brand logo I didn’t know. The shoes had once been a bright, crisp, probably almost a blind new white, but now they were scuffed, more dirt grey than white at all. The rubber soles were worn down. His feet were spread apart, like you would imagine someone’s feet would be if they were taking a peaceful nap in Central Park. As John and I reached the corner, John just an arm’s length before me, he looked down the next hallway and immediately shot a glance back to the door. The doctor was still standing there. I immediately paused and looked back at what John was looking at and the doctor waved at us to go on. As I turned the corner, standing directly next to John, I was in shock of what I saw – bodies down the entire hallway, it must have been 10 or 15 yards long and you could hardly see a single piece of tile on the floor. Some were covered with sheets from the hospital or blankets from home that they likely arrived at the center with. One after another, after another, after another some had to be laid half on top of other bodies. Some young, some old, some covered, some not, some with all their extremities and others whose arms, legs or faces had been blown off, blown apart or blown in. Blood lay in small pools coagulated, flies buzzed here and there. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I would have thought I would have been sick, thrown up, ran out, turned away, but I stood there and forced myself to take it all in: This was war. I can think of no words as I type this that can come close to properly describe the absolute horror that is the final result of war. I am without words.
Once again, we looked back towards the doctor – he motioned for us to go left around the corner, and then it looked as if he was telling us to turn left again. We did just that and nudged a door that was already slightly opened, and we stepped inside.
There they were. Two small children laying on a silver slab of cold metal. A single ray of light shown through a single small window towards the ceiling. John raised his camera and the sound of the shutter broke the silence these babies had been resting in. I lifted my camera, not knowing much more than how to put film in it and I too began taking my first ever pictures. At that moment, the camera pressed against my face, my finger adjusting the lens’ focus and pressing the shutter button and then winding another piece of raw film into place, I knew with the greatest sense of clarity that I would dedicate my life to showing others the horror I was now confronted with. It was not a want or desire. It was now a responsibility.
I decided to see what war was truly like. At 21 I made a fake press pass for a fake newspaper and pretended to be a real journalist. I was too dumb to understand the risks and too convincing to be denied…
What happened next? Well, it’s a crazy story, but the short version is this…
The French Foreign Legion were in control of the airport outside of Sarajevo and they told me if I didn’t find a way into the city by dark they would put me back on an aircraft back to Croatia.
I raced to the front of the airport knowing for sure that a CNN producer who had flown in with me must have a ride out of the airport and into the city. The bigger problem was would he give me a ride. His complete and total avoidance of me had made it pretty clear he wanted absolutely nothing to do with me.
As I barreled out into the sunlight I saw that indeed Mr. CNN had a car waiting for him. It was a beat-up, old, red, 2-door Yugo. As luck would have it, his driver saw me first and immediately shouted out, “would you like a ride?” I shouted “YES” and was almost at the car when the producer turned around to see who his driver was talking to. When he saw it was me he rolled his eyes and turned back around to finish stuffing his bags in the car.
I shoved my pack into the trunk and into the backseat I dove. The producer jumped in and the driver was in like a flash firing up our red stallion. We drove as fast as the little car would go. I have never gone so not fast in all my life. We ‘sped’ through Sniper Alley without incident, but it could have only been because Serb snipers were too busy aiming at the bicyclists who I was sure were going to start passing us.
I eventually wound up at the Holiday Inn in downtown Sarajevo. Half of the building was completely blown to shit but the backside wasn’t turned into rubble and glass so they were renting rooms out for $100 cash a night. It was where real journalists were staying.
So, having never been to a war, I had no idea it was a “cash” only environment. I had somewhere around $700 and the Holiday in was running at $100 a night…things didn’t feel very promising. I decided I would browse around the hotel to see if I could figure out a plan. No one was hanging out on the blown up side of the Holiday Inn, so I figured I’d scout out a room with perhaps less glass and rubble to sneak into later and I’d make that work as long as I could.
While I was scared out of my mind that I had actually made it, I was also as excited as hell that I did. I knew my buddies back home would never believe me, so I started looking for shit I could take back with me.
- I have a Yugoslav Army Titovka Ground troops cap that I found outside the Yugoslav Army Barracks that had been abandoned.
- I have a rather hefty 1984/85 Sarajevo Phone Book that I found inside a destroyed room of the Holiday Inn.
- I have jagged shards of mortar and artillery shrapnel that I found both inside and outside civilian homes.
- I have bullets that I found embedded into the wood studs in the walls of the destroyed rooms at the Holiday Inn.
…and it was right about that time when I had the thought, ‘huh, I wonder why there are bullets stuck in the walls?’ I turned around to see where they must have come from (other tall buildings, homes on hillsides, shit the tops of the ridges that overlooked the city for all I knew). It hadn’t yet dawn on me that the reason that side of the hotel was blown to shit was because it was the side that faced towards the Serb held part of the city and surrounding hills. From time to time Serb artillery, tanks, mortars, or snipers would shoot-up the place. Once I put the pieces together I thought it best if I stop strutting around the rooms like a fucking peacock. From that moment on I stayed lower so as not to get my head blown off.
I’m still plundering blown-up rooms for proof to my buddies back home that I had actually gotten into Sarajevo when I crawl out of one room and into another. With my head down checking the floor shards of broken glass I most assuredly did not want to cut myself on I almost bumped into an older guy and a young woman. I’m not sure who was more startled, them or me. They both looked at me as if I was from Mars. I am not sure why, I mean, I had hair all one length to my shoulders (grunge – it was a “thing” in ‘92), a trucker hat with Mickey Mouse on the front (because nothing says “professional” like a Mickey Mouse hat), a t-shirt totally pitted out, some cargo shorts and a pair of very hip looking Nike hiking boots with a purple swish (I saw a music video where Bell Biv DeVoe were sporting them and I just HAD to have them). He was dressed in khaki cargo pants and a button up shirt. He had two Nikon F4’s (which were super badass cameras in 1992). He was older and had a notepad in his back pocket, and Press badges around his neck. She was in blue jeans and a nice blouse. They had been laying on their stomachs at the edge of a shattered window. The young woman was from Sarajevo, spoke English, and was working as his translator. I would soon come to find out.
When I came up behind them all silent ninja style, they about jumped out of their skin. The photographer looked at me as if I was an asshole for crashing his party and pointed sharply towards the door, clearly telling me, without words, to get the fuck out!
I crawled back out to the hallway and he followed behind me. We both stood up out of sight of any curious snipers and standing in awkward silence he looked me up and down again, as if to be sure he was really seeing what he was really seeing. Then he spoke in one of those really awesome English (British) accents that even straight guys think is sexy, “Who the fuck are you?”
Standing in the hallway at the Holiday Inn outside this blown-up room we had just ‘met’ in, and this clearly professional looking journalist of some sort asks me who the fuck I am. I just start blurting the whole story out…this guy is clearly the real deal and I look like a shit-show…”
“I’m a college kid on Summer break and I wanted to see a real war so I made a fake press pass, borrowed a camera and got the UN to fly me in!” (I was 21, but books never came easy for me, so I was attending a junior college in the county I grew up in). This guy’s jaw was hanging wide open, and to the best of my recollection he said something in a real nice British type of way, ‘‘you’re a fucking idiot.”
At some point the guy introduced himself to me, his name was John Downing and he was the Head of Photography at a newspaper I’d never heard of called the Daily Express in London. All of that meant ‘jack shit’ to me then, but it turned out John was a legit Legend and a Big Fucking Deal – he’d been doing photography longer than I’d been alive. He’d been covering wars for forever, won awards all over the planet, fuck he was even made MBE (I have no idea what that means, but I thinks it’s noteworthy).
So, John is pacing in a bit of a circle in the hallway trying to figure shit out. The girl who translates for us is really cute so I’m doing this, ‘How you do’n’?’ bullshit because I’m dumb, and then John stops and looks me up and down AGAIN and says “I know serious journalists who’ve been in this business a long time and they can’t find a way into Sarajevo right now, and here some university kid from the States turns up.” I honestly couldn’t tell if John was talking to me, his translator, to the walls, or himself. And then John makes me a deal that would literally change the entire trajectory of my life…
It seemed like a pretty great deal I thought as John unpacked it. “I will let you go everywhere I go, you’ll stay right by my side on one condition…” said John. I was all fucking ears at whatever he was about to say was going a resounding affirmative from me! John could have said that his one condition was that I had to stand on my head and fart quarters and I would have asked him if he could break a $20! It did not matter what the next words out of his mouth were going to be, my answer would be, hell yes.
“…on one condition,” John continued, “you do exactly what I say at all times and you don’t do anything stupid to get us killed!” It sounded like two conditions to me, but I wasn’t arguing the fine print.
I agreed, respectfully repeating back to him, “I will do exactly what you say at all times and I will not do anything to get us killed.” I wanted John to know I had heard him loud and clear.
As I grew in my own right as a war photographer, I came to realize just how big a risk John took on that Summer day: It can be hard enough trying to keep yourself alive, and while you can trust other seasoned war correspondents you know, to take someone under your wing in the middle of a war zone who is young, dumb, green, and who has a propensity to let his imagination run away, was an enormous risk. I never understood completely why John took me under his wing, but I remember him sharing something about having met another young kid in a war zone once, and John may have taken him in also (which was a very John Downing thing to do – the man has a long history of helping young photographers who have some grit about them). But John seemed to have taken this kid he met in some other war zone and the kid ended up getting himself killed when he went out on his own one day without John. John didn’t want that to happen to me. I think John carried some guilt over that happening and when he met me he felt like it was partially his responsibility to keep me safe.
As I finished promising John that I would get no one killed, he said, “you got some real balls kid.” The truth was, I was just too stupid to know how serious things were, and were going to get.
Evening was coming on when John and I came to our arrangement. The young girl lived on the other side of the city from the Holiday Inn so John invited me to ride with them to drop her off at her parent’s home. I remember taking in two very distinct smells as we pulled out of the garage, sped through some side streets and along some smaller back streets that provided more building cover from snipers. As I would come to find out later, it was the smell of burning garbage and diesel fuel – these are the common smells of war zones and most all third world countries I would come to travel to.
While John drove, the fact that I had actually pulled this shit off, and that I was in a very dangerous place, began to set in. I was watching people gather behind the corners of buildings at each street corner trying to determine if now was the right or wrong time to make a sprint across the street and risk being killed by one of the many snipers terrorizing the city in this rather early point in the war. Later, the people of Sarajevo found resourceful ways at increasing their odds for survival when crossing streets; by hanging large pieces of material across the width of the entire street crossing made it more and more difficult for snipers and their lethal weapons to find their targets. At some street corners that were particularly busy crossing points for people and where snipers were known to have the most success in hunting and killing their prey, they stretched large empty shipping containers lengthwise end to end. In some areas, they had to also stack the containers one on top of the other because snipers were roosting in the taller buildings in the city.
In the days to come, John and I would venture to some of these same street corners trying to get from one place to the other. Regardless of large ‘curtains’ or makeshift metal walls, the mere crossing of streets in Sarajevo made you pee a little bit every time you took a run at it. The worst was when snipers would just shoot to shoot. Visible target or not, they knew these were high traffic areas. They would just pull the trigger to let loose the crack of their rifle, and to hear the boom of their round punching another hole in the container just to remind everyone that they were highly fucked and would be terrorized at the will and whim of another.It would only be a few hours before John and I would make a mad dash across a busy street, the explosion of a round ripping through metal would all but buckle my knees, and the part about a little pee…that’s a thing sometimes. Hey, this shit is scary.
We dropped off the young girl, said hello to her parents and met the older sister; shit we even had tea! The neighbors came over and we had more tea, then came all the neighborhood kids and they laughed and joked (surely about me as I looked a mess). Off in the distance, along the top of the hills looking down on the city, you could hear explosions and gunfire – ever reminding you that all was not right in the world. In fact, it was terrifying. You would hear mortars come into the city this way or that. People would drop to the ground having not yet grown accustomed to the sounds of war and having not yet lost their sensitivity to what was quickly becoming a part of what was now everyday life for them. I would return a year later and no one flinched: They had come to know what was going out, what was coming in, what was coming close, and what was coming in dangerously close.
As we had drunk so much sweet tea, I thought I was going to pee my pants (are you seeing a trend?). I knew the bathrooms didn’t work as I had picked that little piece of information up quickly, but as to where people actually went to the bathroom was beyond me, and I was too embarrassed to ask. It turned out, at this house, you went in a hole in the ground under the outside stairs leading to the front door. This also happened to be where we were all seated. I was glad I didn’t ask. Either way you cut it, that would have been really awkward; everyone leaves so Mickey Mouse American can stand there and pee in private, or what I feared even more back then, everyone would just continue hanging out laughing and smiling while I’m frozen, unable to make my business happen. Back in ’92 there weren’t blogs and shit to teach you about the little details. You just figured it out.
I watched John like a hawk. I still hadn’t realized someone could actually have a career that paid money for going to war zones and taking pictures, so I wasn’t watching him to learn f-stops and shutter speeds, I was watching to try and emulate him – tall, dashing, confident, ever present with the people, but always aware of his surroundings – who was coming, who was going, sensing the mood and energy of those around him. I didn’t know it on my first day with John, but he was already teaching me how to keep the odds in your favor as best as you can in an environment where you could be dead or maimed without ever hearing or seeing it coming. John always had his cameras at his side. I thought it was a bit much to have TWO Nikon F4’s; like what in the hell do you need two for? I would also come to learn why that was. I had a camera; it was an old Nikormat. Think of it like I had an old Volkswagen bug from 1972 and John had not one, but two Porsches. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had the Ferrari of cameras, I had never taken a picture before in my life. I didn’t bring the camera for photography, I brought it as a prop, you know to really sell the whole ‘I’m a professional journalist’ shtick! ‘See, look at me, I have a press badge AND a camera’. It would scream professional! Or so I thought.
As it began to turn into twilight, John and I jumped back into the car. Knowing I only had $200 in cash, John decided to sneak me into his room for the night. We had to be sly about it because it was rumored the hotel was being run by black-market mob types who didn’t take too kindly to freeloaders, or those that aided and abetted them. It wasn’t like we would run down to the Marriott if we got caught. After that night, I was able to convince a BBC TV crew with an armored vehicle parked in the Holiday Inn garage to let me sleep in the back of it; that way I was still with John and some place safe…kinda.
I couldn’t have realized it during the crazy drive back to the hotel, but if I thought this day was mind blowing, the next day was going to absolutely shatter the world as I knew it. Tomorrow would put me on a direct course to becoming a war photographer, no matter the stakes. Tomorrow, I would find myself, my purpose, my worth. I would for the first time taste a calm amidst chaos unlike anything I had ever experienced. Tomorrow would bring silence to my own internal chaos; a chaos that had been roaming my soul since that night, as a little boy, I found my mom dead in the bathtub from a drug overdose. Tomorrow, in the middle of Sarajevo on a hot summer day, in the basement of a makeshift morgue at John’s side, and with a single beam of light breaking into a dark room and onto the bodies of dead children, I would take my first ever photograph.