Monday, November 21, 2005

The Colonel

It wasn't even 4 p.m. and the day had already been exciting and eventful. Even with all the anxiety, Steve and I were having a blast. We looked forward to the rest of our bus ride, a time we assumed would be filled with tranquil reflection on the day and what we wanted to accomplish before it was over.

Just out of town, the bus stopped to pick up some passengers. I thought I saw a flash of white hair shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight as the passengers boarded the bus. Sure enough, it was bill Shorey, my pastor, followed close behind by Col. Bill Rieger.

Steve and I had staggered our seating (as if it wasn't obvious that we were together) for comfort and cover. When the Bill's made their entrance, we did just as we had rehearsed in Thailand, exchanging greetings in loud, clear voices, trading handshakes as though this we were meeting for the first time by coincidence.

Bill settled into the seat next to mine, and after a little more show, we began to quietly discuss the day's events. Bill revealed that he and Rieger had encountered PSB landcruisers on more than one occasion, and I told him about all the trouble we had catching our connecting buses.

It was a relief to see familiar faces, and we began to talk and laugh. Before too long, Shorey and I had to curtail our conversations to avoid giving off the vibe that we had come to China together.

Just then, the bus came to a halt. We heard stern voices outside bounce from one side of the bus to the other. Out the window, I caught a glimpse of what looked like the shiny black stock and barrel of some sort of automatic weapon. After further observation, I surmised that we had been stopped at a checkpoint, and I hoped this obstacle wasn't somehow linked to the questionable activities of the Bill's back in the villages.

Both of the officers looked young. I guessed that they were no older than me, but even so, they looked stern in those green uniforms, like they were not to be messed with.

The officer who stopped the bus boarded it, glaring at all the passengers as he asked for identification. His buddy stood watch outside, brandishing his machine gun. I wondered if he was trained to use it, or if it was just for intimidation. I didn't want to find out.

As the first officer inched closer to us through the crowded aisle, my anxiety started to build. Then Rieger, who was sitting in front of us, spoke up in a calm voice without looking back.

"I'll handle this. Don't give him anything yet," he said.

Shorey and I sat there dumbfounded as Rieger fumble through his bag. In a few seconds, he pulled out a paper copy of his passport. He was giving us commentary the whole time. I was tempted to laugh, but I kept my cool.

"Okay," Rieger said, "I'm handing this to him upside-down. Let's see if he turns it over."

Now, that's what training does for you, I thought. If the officer doesn't turn it over, it's obvious that he can't read anything it says.

The officer got frustrated with Rieger's antics. When Rieger handed him the passport, he didn't turn it over. We relaxed a little. If the guy couldn't even read English, he really had no grounds to do anything to us. Plus, if he asked us to come with him, we could play dumb, like we didn't understand anything he was saying.

"This guy doesn't know what the heck he's looking at," Rieger continued calmly, never challenging the man in uniform.

Soon, like a bear that had lost its appetite for American flesh, the officer turned and walked out of the bus, motioning to the driver that he was okay to continue.

As we began moving, the tension level in the bus was still high, like everyone was having a contest to see who could hold their breath the longest. Shorey and I both patted Rieger on the back, commending him for his quick thinking. Then we sat back in our seat and let out relieved sighs. After a few minutes of silently processing what happened, Bill looked over to me quizzically.

"Did that guy outside have a machine gun?!" he asked loudly.

"I think so, pastor," I said, "I think so."

We laughed together and rode a wave of adrenaline back to the city. In this situation, we were glad to have the Colonel on our side.

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