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What I did during the Vietnam War

65 Ralston

Believe me, although I joined the marines in the fall of 1969, I’ll spoil the story right away.  The most important thing I did was . . . I guess I’d better leave that up to you, the reader.  What a tumultuous time for me and for the rest of the country.  I was 20 years old.

I’ve told my story many times, including once to some friends of my late uncle Carl Ralph Bonde, Jr., killed in World War II on Christmas Eve, 1944.  One of the elderly guys, a tall, lanky soldier like me, said I should have been decorated a hero.  Another, a Southern Gentleman, a retired heart surgeon, said I should have been shot.  Like that.  Kind of like my life has always gone.  Hard to know if any one episode constituted a win or a loss, even looking back over 40 or 50 years.

In 1969, during the months leading up to my marine corps enlistment, I quit college, broke up with a couple of girlfriends and hitchhiked north to work in Fairbanks, Alaska, for a carnival.  I thought I was lucky to get a job with the Golden Wheel Amusements.  Huh.  More like greasy wheel amusements.  The pay was $1.25/hour, so me and this other kid had to move steel carnival ride parts from the back of a truck three hours to earn enough money to buy a sandwich from a concession.  Steel parts, painted silver, caked with lots of grease.  The owner of the carnival company was from the deep south, and so were his permanent staff.  The ones I met were vocally racist.  They talked about murdering blacks if any tried to break into the carnival compound at night.  As far as I know, none did, but the carnival people bragged about carrying weapons.

One other young kid and I did unskilled labor, like I said, lugging steel carnival ride parts from the backs of trailers, then helping setting up the rides for the midway.  I don’t remember the kid’s name, but he had braces on his teeth and was from California.  We both worked for a 5-foot skinny southern guy, an ex-marine, named Benny.  In Fairbanks during July, the sky never quite goes dark, so we worked until Benny was too tired to keep awake.  Once there was a rainstorm and Benny and the kid and I sat in the cab of a semi to wait for it to quit.  We had been working a couple days without sleeping, so Benny nodded off.  You can bet the two of us caught some sleep too.

I had a rucksack with a sleeping bag, two pair underpants, a pair of jeans and a few shirts.  That’s when I discovered you didn’t have to launder your clothes to feel cleaner.  You wore a set until you couldn’t stand them, then changed into the other clothes that were once too filthy to wear, but now seemed a whole lot better than the ones you had on.  I did that day after day, sleeping in the cab of another carnival semi, washing up in a strangely deluxe public men’s room.  We both wore raggedy greasy coveralls we found in a pile in one of the semi trailers. Like the clothes in my rucksack, seemed there was always one set cleaner than the rest.

The California kid and I quit the carnival after about a week.  I had maybe $50 when we hitched rides south to Anchorage with some GIs from a nearby base.  I remember getting an earful of curses from the carnival owner when he paid us.  The guy had gotten into a dispute with the owner of the amusement park so he was packing up the rides and concessions and leaving early.  We wanted no part of that heavy work.  I suppose if they had offered to clean our filthy clothes. . . .


In search of Carl Ralph Bonde, Jr., MIA

Visiting the SS Leopoldville in 2007

leo 24 12 07 043

Penny and I had tickets to France in 2007 for Christmas.  I took a camera specifically to document our pilgrimage from Montana to the watery expanse out on the English Channel as close as possible to where Carl R. Bonde Jr. reportedly died.
We aimed to drop a few ounces of Montana soil into the water over the wreckage of the SS Leopoldville, his doomed troopship.
He was said to have died just five miles from France and his body is still there, as far as anyone knows.  Some of his buddies were on deck where they could see the lights of Cherbourg when the torpedo struck.

Oh, I thought about it a lot.  We both did, Penny and me.  We prepared and rehearsed several years for our ritual on the Channel Christmas Eve, 2007.  (Carl’s ship was hit by a torpedo Christmas Eve, 1944, about 6 pm.  The exact time has been stated to be 5:55)  My wife Penny and I ordered passports, of course, but we also had to get the dirt.  That was Penny’s idea, putting a bit of Carl’s home into the English Channel.

Not just get it, but get it in the right way from near a certain house in Kalispell, Montana, Carl’s home.  I think I already told about scooping up the dirt from a driveway on the edge of town on memorial day weekend.

Did I mention that I tore the hell out of my fingernail?  Well, I just had a torn nail.  Did I tell how we were in town decorating graves and our visit to Bud’s home to get dirt was our second try?  The first time no one was home to ask permission.  People do this sort of thing all the time, don’t they?  My impulse was to just get out of the car, get dirt, and leave.  But no, I had to actually ask permission.

May was warm in 2007 when we visited Kalispell.  Once we got the baggie with probably four ounces of dirt, gravel, pine needles and my fingernail—well I remembered to take along a plastic bag for the dirt, but it did not occur to me I might also need a tool of some sort to gather up the soil.

The question was:  how does someone transport a bag of soil to France?  I had asked that question of Bud’s Army buddies at the reunion the year before.  Army mortar man Maurice O’Donnell recommended putting it into a woman’s face powder container, or the like.

Instead, I practiced taking a dummy bag of dirt with me on the airplane when we flew to visit our son Todd and his family in Seattle.  Well, I even took the dirt from our yard, and it was very clay-ey and even heavier.  You know, a quart-sized zip-lock bag maybe one quarter filled with dirt, labeled and rolled up.  I managed to get the baggie to Seattle and back: once in our checked luggage; another time as a carry on.

Turns out taking the dirt to France were no big deal at all.  I just put it in my carry on suitcase. My guess is people do that sort of thing a lot.

Allan Andrade, an author and expert on the SS Leopoldville disaster, helped me connect via email with Bertrand Sciboz, a French treasure hunter.  I did attempt to phone Sciboz, but got an answering message in French that sounded like French jibberish.

By email, Bertrand told me to bring a thousand euros in cash for the trip.  Cash, to avoid paying a value added tax.  I got euros from the bank across the street from where I worked.  Of course I had to order them in, pay the exchange rate, plus a percentage fee.  I got five 200 euro notes, big, maybe 4 x 6 inches, colorful, and crisp.  I folded them and put them in my money pouch with the passport.  Later I got another couple hundred euros to pay for a wreath that I sort of got talked into getting because my Uncle’s body was among about 300 others that were not recovered from the wreckage.

With our computer, I studied maps and photographs of Cherbourg.  It sits on this prominent two-lobed peninsula on the Northwest corner of France, the Normandy coast, looking a little like a snail’s head with two eyeballs.  It is situated a little west of Utah and Omaha Beaches.

I learned about Cherbourg from Jacquin Sanders’ book,  A Night Before Christmas.  The US Army and Navy established forts and headquarters there after liberating France from the Germans.  The Google Earth pictures showed the huge breakwater and the port of Cherbourg.  Also, you could see the giant pier where ferries take people to England.

A hotel is located near the north end of the jutting land, the Hotel Mercure.  Our AAA travel agent arranged for our stay Christmas Eve and the night before.  She also arranged for a round trip train ride from Paris to Cherbourg.

Door-knocking for Democrats

Photo on 6-13-17 at 9.46 AM

July 29, 2018

Door-knock chronicle number three:  a roller-coaster of emotion. 

When I introduced P. and me as canvassing for the Montana Democratic Party, one woman said she wouldn’t say whether she was voting for Jon Tester, because it was nobody’s business.  I dutifully ticked the box, “refused.”

We ended up visiting 45 houses from the voter registration list, public information.

At another house we met the former Superintendent of School District Two who engaged with us for a good 15-20 minutes.  He said he had run in the primary for the state legislature against a young woman who “kicked my ass!”  He lives up on the rims where a large Jon Tester sign will be easy to see.

Across the street from the aforementioned educator was a man who said he had been in one of Tester’s political advertisements.  “Cost me my job,” he said.  He had been president of a small bank.  What does he do now?  He is retired, he said, and he now plays all the time.

Mostly people were kind to us, even if they said they were Republicans.  Several said they would vote for Tester even though they normally voted Republican.  In one case the man said he knew Tester personally.

Face of Mountain Trail


Gunther tuckered out after 7 mile hike.

July 27, 2018

P. and I got up at 5:30 to drink coffee, eat cereal with canned milk, then drive to Red Lodge, thence to the Sunlight Ranch on Meeteese Road.  Trailhead for Face of Mountain Trail No. 7.  We’d hiked the trail two other times, the first time with an organized Montana Wilderness Society group.  

Turns out the flora is natural and wild, I’d say.  Thanks to excellent land management practices by Sunlight, who provided a parking area and some signs out on some rolling prairie.  

We walked through sagebrush and grass for the first mile, or so, then up a gentle switchback system about 1000 feet higher.  P. said it is one of her ten favorite views in Montana.

Heathered Moss-colored paint



July 26, 2018

Thunderstorm last night, so of course I worried about my painting project.  Don’t want the rain to rinse away the paint.  These days I’ve been redoing the garage a shade of green called “Heathered Moss.”  

Somewhere someone is sitting in front of a keyboard inventing names for paint colors.  I imagine they have two columns of words and select one of each.  Monkeyed Sable, maybe, or perhaps Broadside Newsprint.  You know, random words.  Carpeted Doorway.  Oatmeal Sandstone.  “Don’t label that blue paint Carpeted Doorway, call it Robin Sapling.”

The particular green I’ve been using is that of our house’s HardiePlank siding so I wanted to paint the the garage to match.  Our garage is probably about 90 years old and some years ago I peeled off its brittle siding that contained asbestos.  Had to wear a special rubber mask, load the siding into heavy plastic bags, and send it to a designated place in the city-county landfill.  You know, pay a fee.  Beneath the siding was some dirty, badly checked, and peeled painted boards.  Yesterday while painting I found a fragment of the old asbestos siding.

This Spring I scraped, sanded, and washed the wooden siding.  I even bought a pressure washer that did a pretty good job of taking off old flaky paint and chewed up the wood.  Now I’m putting two coats of expensive paint and worrying it will rain.

“I’m not stupid. I’m voting for Tester.”




July 21, 2018

Door-knocking chronicle number two:  at least two professed Republicans who voted for Trump expressed remorse.  One of them repeated, “I’m a Republican, but I’m not stupid.  I’ll vote for Jon Tester.” [ Insert heart emoji.]  I recommend door knocking.  Sure, there are people who won’t open their door, instead shouting that they aren’t interested, but that is more than offset by folks like the garrulous gent, Joseph, who just wanted to shoot the breeze about politics in general and our Democracy in particular.  

We approached a house with a Marine Corps flag.  I knocked.  A woman who said she doesn’t do politics advised us that the people who lived there were strong Republicans and unlikely to vote for Jon Tester.  I asked her who was the Marine?  She said he wasn’t home, but he was a relative of hers. 

“I’m a Marine and I am voting for Tester,” I said.  “Tell him ‘Semper Fi’ for me!”  She warmed right up.  We ended up chatting with her for perhaps three or four more minutes as she told us how she was soon going to Denver to drive back to Great Falls with her blind grandson.

Like that.

Snowbird’s birthday today


July 19, 2018

You never know what kind of birthday celebration to expect when it comes to Eddie Alden.  Most of us play the roles of extras in the greater story of his life.

I (and I suspect I was not alone) started getting phone calls from him in June and the conversation started with him:  “Dan [pause] Dan [pause] my birthday is next month.” 

It hit me like that.  By golly, his birthday was next month.  Eddie (known by most people by the handle “Snowbird,”) has the charismatic knack of bringing together dozens of people to celebrate.  

Today was such a day.  I’ve had the pleasure of being Eddie’s friend for almost 30 years and his birthdays are interesting and educational.  Here’s what happened this year. 

Eddy phoned me after father’s day to ask when he could bring me a couple bottles of wine as a present.  He nearly always phones late in the day, like when I’m in bed.  Like about 7pm.  I’m retired and I like to — well, retire early.  “Call me tomorrow, only earlier,” I urged.

Ultimately Eddie came over when P. was out so I drank one of the bottles (a merlot — not bad!) while we reminisced.  Eddie doesn’t drink alcohol (or use drugs), so he drank a glass of lemonade before hoisting one of his trademark bladder buster Pepsi big gulps.  Eddie, self-employed as a bicycle rider about town, no doubt has inside knowledge of every men’s restroom in the downtown area.  I don’t know how many times he pees a day.  He is seldom seen without a huge container of soda.  I’m talking 48 ounces, but that was in the old days.  These days I doubt if his beverage container is more than 30 ounces.

Eddie’s visit with the two bottles of wine helped plan things out that culminated in events today.

Anyway, last Sunday he phoned to remind me of his impending birthday.  I asked him if he’d gotten ahold of mutual friend Tom.  (No, he didn’t have Tom’s number.)  I asked him what about his friends at the Billings Gazette.  “Yeah?” he said.  I never know what Eddie means when he says it that way.  I didn’t push the point.  I asked him if he had got ahold of my nephew Jon.  No, he hadn’t been able to reach Jon by phone.  But that is sort of Eddie’s way.  He seems sort of forlorn until the big day of his birthday, when wham-o!  The world joins together to wish him a swell birthday!

I asked him what he wanted for his birthday this time, and he replied, socks.  Well, I replied.  Call me early in the day and we’ll see about buying you some.  “Do you have a Shopko card?” he asked.  I answered in the negative.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to Shopko, wonderful store, I’m sure.  I haven’t been to lots of places built since the 1980s.

The next day he phoned me right after 6, but I’d just finished a glass of wine.  I explained that I wasn’t about to drive anywhere that late.  Would he kindly phone earlier in the day?

Last night he called after supper, but again, I’d drunk some wine.  He promised he’d come over today at 9am, before his noon party.  He explained that he hadn’t called earlier because he had a flat tire on his bike.  I asked him what he does for a flat, and he answered that he replaces the inner tube.  Eddie bicycles more than anyone else I’ve heard of, so I resolved then and there to replace the inner tubes whenever I get a flat.

At our house, in preparation for a new couch today, P. and I moved the old one to our back room, so I was taking a farewell nap when Eddie arrived at 10:30.  I quickly grabbed the keys and we headed for J.C. Penney.  Traffic was light.  Parking lot was nearly empty.  Eddie led me swiftly to the men’s sock department.

He searched among the products for a package of eight pairs of men’s size 12 white socks.  I got antsy waiting as he carefully examined each display.  Then he hurried to find a clerk, a young woman, who told him (I heard her!) that they didn’t stock any but packages of 6 pairs.  I thought that she was kind when she offered to special order packages of 8.  Just then another clerk approached me and asked if I needed help in the sock department.  I referred him to Eddie.  He also said the packages of 8 didn’t exist.  Soon, Eddie and I were alone again, amidst the socks.  I offered to purchase two packages of six before a display caught my eye.  “Two pair free, with a pack of 6,” it read.  I showed Eddie.  “Look!  1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8!” I counted the pairs.  Eddie grew more animated.  “You’ll buy me two of these?” he asked.  “Yes,” I replied, affecting weariness.

At the checkout the clerk applied several kinds of discounts, and the 16 pair of premium gold-toe white socks cost a mere $21!  I was elated.  I thought of my own sock supply before deciding I didn’t need to also buy any.  I am still considering returning there.

Eddie and I went to the Golden Corral cafe.  On the way he phoned someone at the Gazette to ask them to meet us and to see if Tom could also be invited.  He left a message for Jon.

Soon Eddie and I were eating lunch with two professional, highly trained, newspaper professionals.  They probed Eddie with wonderful questions that elicited colorful and memorable replies.  I’m being serious here.  At one point Eddie removed a stocking cap from his pocket that held a 3-inch stack of gift and a debit card.  Very impressive.

The waiters at the Golden C. sang a rousing birthday song for our hero before we departed.  Eddie was headed to the Wells Fargo bank for a birthday party.  On the way Eddie received a call on his cell from a baker who wanted Eddie to pay $19 for a birthday cake he ordered.