The right bus

In Pompeii we learned much about the past culture, the way of life, the people and their habitat. My wife, Marilyn, daughters, Rachel and Jenni, and I were delighted with the experience.

''Quite a day!'' we acknowledged.

But our best experience was yet to come - and in a totally unexpected manner.

A driver had gotten us from Pompeii to Herculano, another ancient city ravaged by the Vesuvian outpouring, and from there we boarded a bus to return us to the pensione, our little bed-and-breakfast room, across from the Naples railroad station.

My knowledge of the Italian language was nil. Rachel and Jenni had studied French but could not help in Naples. When we dined we picked items from the menu that, in their spelling, gave us clues - and we had survived satisfactorily.

But after a garbled discussion I could only hope that the bus driver's route would take us to the vicinity of the station. The ride would be three or four miles. We stood in the back absorbed in the loud, sometimes shrill conversations - were they arguments? - of the local people of all ages packed on the old city bus.

We entered Naples, drove through many streets. Time passed. Nothing whatsoever resembled the vicinity we had come to know.

''I think we're lost,'' Marilyn said.

''We've sure been on this bus a long time,'' said one of the daughters.

I agreed. Where were we headed? Perhaps on through Naples, perhaps to some far-off village. Perhaps to some isolated industrial part of town. I only knew that the area we were in now bore no relationship to that railway station area.

But how to get help? ''Be careful - especially in Italy!'' we had been warned many times. ''Don't let anybody know you're just tourists!''

''English?'' I asked several standing near us. Blank stares.

What could be worse? The only Italian word I could think of was the name of the train station where we arrived on our Eurailpass the previous day. Mustering up nerve again, I interrupted some frenzied conversation next to us and asked, ''Central Stazione?''

That did it. Several young fellows stared at me. Then they turned, started talking among themselves. At first I thought they were ignoring my plea - but slowly, dramatically, the mass of bus riders became involved in the plight of the bewildered American tourists.

Really involved! We could catch certain key words passing along the car. Riders began looking wildly out the windows. People turned around in their seats , waved their arms, pointed, gestured.

''They're talking about us.'' Marilyn was in awe.

Even the driver got into the act. Here was an entire busload, shouting by now , trying to solve our dilemma. How to get to the station.

Then, suddenly, the bus swerved as it stopped. Brakes squealed. We were still in the line of traffic, but everyone in the bus was pointing to the curb area behind us. The driver shouted something, and people at our side began pushing us. The doors opened.

''It must be something back there,'' said one of our girls. In any event, we had no choice, we were being shoved right out - we had to leave quickly! But it was a loving push all the way. And as we reached the street, we noticed another bus pulling to a stop, where all the people had been pointing. Above the windshield were emblazoned these words: ''Stazione Centrale. ''

''It's the one we need!''

What a split-second maneuver! Our driver had gone out of his way to get near this particular stop - not one on his route - knowing that a ''Stazione'' bus was due. And the crowd made sure we didn't miss it.

We jumped on the other bus just as it was ready to pull away; moments later we exited at Stazione Centrale, our room just a block away.

I've seen pictures friends have shown from their trips abroad, the landscapes , the wonders of nature. And I've seen the professional documentaries which close with dramatic panoramas. But none can surpass our final scene for that day.

As the four of us boarded the right bus, we heard much noise. We turned to see our earlier bus, jammed with passengers who had helped us, now at the windows, shouting farewells of happiness, the horn blowing a goodwill sound of its own. We shall not forget those smiling faces, all those arms waving goodbyes.

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