“PARTING IS SUCH SWEET SORROW – THE GREY DOG” By Tony Casson

‘My’ bus finally rolled into the station and those holding tickets were all standing in line, waiting to board. I was not the only one who had been anticipating an earlier departure. The bus seemed larger from the outside than I had remembered, but once on board I became aware that what I was seeing was an optical illusion. While the exterior graphics package was a newer, updated version from the one I remembered, the interior actually seemed smaller than I recalled from times past. This, too, may have been an illusion, but the feeling of closeness on a full ‘Grey Dog’ indicates otherwise, and this ‘Dog’ was full of ‘fleas’!

None of that mattered however, as the predominant thought in my mind was that we were finally underway and I was going to be moving farther and farther from Oakdale with each passing minute. The entire undertaking was accompanied by a numbness of my senses that would prove to be a prelude to the numbness my rear-end would experience as the hours wore on. Still, as the ‘Grey Dog’ began its run towards Mobile, Alabama, I was acutely aware that the future had begun.

My traveling ‘companion’ for the first 8 hours or so was a short woman of Hispanic origin who was probably around 50. She did not speak English but required some assistance with her carryon luggage at each stop where we were required to leave the bus for 30 – 60 minutes. Those stops included Baton Rouge and New Orleans, with her final destination being Mobile. She was quiet, but pleasant, and offered me money for helping her. I declined, so she wrote her name and phone # on a piece of paper instead. As I had no phone, I had no number to give her, but I thanked her and did my best to explain. I made sure she got her bags from beneath the bus when she needed to do so and helped her get to a place where she could await those who were coming to pick her up in Mobile.

By the time we left Mobile, it was dark, and I was fortunate enough to be one of the first to board. I managed to get a window seat near the front of the bus. My next ‘companion’ was an attractive young woman named Mila (rhymes with vanilla). Most of the people who ride ‘The Dog’ look like people who ride ‘The Dog’.

Mila did not look like someone who rode ‘The Dog’. Before anyone asks, I cannot tell you what people who ride ‘The Dog’ should look like. You’d recognize them if you saw them.  I can only say that, as a rule, they don’t look like Mila.

There was also a young black couple on board who turned out to be a brother and sister who were traveling up into Georgia, and were changing buses in Atlanta. They had been on the bus since I first boarded it and were very well dressed, well mannered, and well spoken, and were traveling from one parent in the Houston area to visit the other parent in Columbia, Georgia. We exchanged pleasantries at each stop. Like Mila, they didn’t look like people who rode ‘The Dog’ regularly either. As it turned out, none of them had ever ridden a bus before, so if I am guilty of stereotyping, I guess I can at least say that I was good at it (hahaha).

Mila proved to be a very interesting young woman who was willing to spend time talking with an old man on a bus. When I asked where she was headed, she indicated she was traveling first to North Carolina to attend a wedding, then she was headed to Portland, Maine where she was going to intern for a state Senator. I told her about my connection to Maine (I was born there and had family there), and further discussion revealed that she had recently graduated from a Christian College in Pensacola. The course of the conversation ultimately revealed that she had been born in Romania and had been raised in Malaysia as a Muslim. She had converted to Christianity at 14, so I asked her about the difficulty that I assumed accompanied being a Christian in a predominately Muslim part of the world. Mila was very intelligent, open, and willing to talk about God, and was the perfect traveling companion (No offense to Olga, my little Hispanic friend).

I admit here that I mislead her about where I was headed and why. I was reluctant to tell her that I had just been released from prison. I did tell her I was headed to Washington, D.C. to live in a Mission, but I sort of led her to believe that I was going there to work, as opposed to going there to live until I could reassemble my much disassembled life. I did show her my copy of my book, “TODAY IS….A Gift From God” and I think she might have examined the back cover where I mentioned being incarcerated, but if she noticed, she didn’t say anything. More than likely it was simple politeness on her part.

Before I boarded my next bus, I saw her standing off to the side smoking a cigarette. I wrote down the address to these “Chronicles” and called her over. I gave it to her and asked her to check it out.

Perhaps she will even read these words. If she does, I hope she accepts my apology for any deception on my part. I was not intentionally trying to deceive for nefarious purposes, or out of any embarrassment or reluctance to discuss my experience and the reasons for the incarceration in the first place. In fact, had we had privacy, I probably would have told her as much as she wanted to hear, but the “Grey Dog” is not conducive to private conversations as we discovered by the interruptions into our conversation several times by a very colorful individual on his way to Washington as well. The conversation with Mila made the extreme tedium of the journey disappear. It was so nice to have pleasant, meaningful conversation with someone outside of the prison environment and I was glad to see I could still participate in such a ‘normal’ conversation.

As the night wore on, we both drifted off to sleep for a while. When we parted in the wee hours of the morning, I was sorry to see her go. We wished each other well, and I knew she would be difficult to ‘replace’ as a traveling partner. I was quickly proven right as my next ‘seatmate’ was a young man who chose headphones over conversation, which was fine, but it was also temporary as he was only next to me for a couple of stops. The crowd thinned out, and he would prove to be my last seatmate. As the morning dawned, I had a little more room to stretch out, and as we rolled into Charlotte, North Carolina the scenery had improved dramatically over Louisiana, Mississippi, and the southern part of Alabama that I could see before darkness had consumed the scenery.

Charlotte was home to my first really scrumptious ‘free world’ food. A black man who, by his girth looked like he really enjoyed food, recommended the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on Texas toast prepared in the little grill located in a corner of the bus station. Fresh, hot, and made to order, it was truly a thing of wonder. I love a good breakfast sandwich and this one was exceptional.

There still remained about 8-10 hours till we arrived in Richmond, Virginia, but the countryside was beautiful, the weather was gorgeous, and freedom was in the air!

I saw some lovely towns and cities throughout North Carolina and into Virginia. Since the bus was not an express, we sort of took the long way around, but in the end it was worth it.

The entire trip was about 32 hours, and by the time we rolled into Richmond at 7 PM the day after my release from Oakdale, the entirety of my derriere felt like it had been injected with Novocain. Those reading this may find that amusing, but I kid you not: My rear-end was numb, and it was a numbness that did not completely wear off for 3 days!

Seeing my sister in the bus depot in Richmond was one of the most welcome sights I have ever experienced. We hugged and left the station to the comfort of her Volvo crossover. We chatted for a few minutes as we left the city and headed north towards Lorton, where she lives, and then I used her cell phone to call Anthony, my son. To not have the call introduced by a mechanical voice saying, “This call is from Tony Casson, an inmate at a federal prison” was something I had anticipated for a long time. To not be reminded twice during the call that “This call is from a federal prison” was something I had also anticipated. And to not have the call terminated at the end of 15 minutes was priceless! We hung up when we were done talking and it was over 30 minutes before that occurred.

I missed my friends already, but I was thoroughly enjoying the stimulation of my senses by all of the different sights, sounds, and smells that accompany freedom.

There are not enough pages, nor am I in possession of enough talent, to ever adequately describe to you all that I thought about, saw, and felt during my first 36 hours of freedom. I can tell you this much, however: Whether or not that was my last run as a ‘flea’ on the “Grey Dog” or not, there will never be another bus ride which will mean as much to me as that one.

That ride carried me from the place God trained me to be for a little over four years, and delivered me to where He wanted me to be for the next phase of my life of service to Him. The unpleasantness of the physical discomfort of the trip itself is nothing when compared to the opportunities to serve God and glorify His name that I was being directed to.

Those left behind may think they are forgotten, but they are not. They are in my thoughts, my prayers and are a part of many discussions I have. God leads me and guides my steps as I work to help people around me now, but the men I left behind are an indelible part of who I am, how I think, and they will remain a part of my life.

I have written in the past in these “Chronicles” about the ability of our faith in God to allow us to be free no matter where we are, and those words still stand. For me, it was the “perfect prison experience”, and I had never been as free in my mind and my spirit as I was in Oakdale.

I carry that freedom with me into ‘the free world’ and I will use it to help me to fully appreciate the physical freedom of being on this side of the razor-wire. I will ask God on a daily basis to help me remember what Paul had to say about freedom in the Book of Galatians in the Holy Bible: “For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13 NLT)

This responsibility Paul speaks about, “to serve one another in love”, is something that can prevent most of the things which cause men and women to go to prison in the first place, from ever happening.

Think about that.

For now, I am ‘dog’ tired. God bless you all and may He keep you and your families safe. I will be writing more on my experiences as time goes on, but I need to get these articles done and posted.

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