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The Absent Uncle Bud

September 5, 2015
This photograph, taken by an unknown person, shows my uncle Carl --he was born in 1923, so perhaps 1932--in Kalispell.

This photograph, taken by an unknown person, shows my uncle Carl –he was born in 1923, so perhaps 1932–in Kalispell.

Private First Class Carl Ralph Bonde Jr, died Christmas Eve, 1944, along with 763 of his fellow Americans when a U-boat torpedo sunk the Belgian troop ship, the SS Leopoldville in the English Channel. Bonde, or “Bud,” as his mother and sisters called him, was just 21.
How many times have I tried to say that in order to tell about Bud, my only maternal uncle?
I never even met Bud. It’s hard to say when I first became aware that he ever existed. Could have been something I overheard at my grandparents’ house when they played bridge with my mother and her sisters. In those days the grownups (but not grandma) smoked heavily and drank whiskey when they played bridge. All of these adults, with the possible exception of my grandpa, were college educated and absolutely none was overly sentimental. That is, as long as you don’t count being bitterly angry and chronically depressed as being sentimental. They were Norwegians and they did not use euphemisms for death. People died. They did not pass away. Bud’s photograph probably hung on a wall somewhere at our grandparents’ house in Kalispell, but no one told about him unless we young kids asked. Bud’s presence was inextricably part of his parents’ Victorian house. Are you ready for this? It and a garage stood alone on top of a hill on the outskirts of Kalispell, Montana. Like the vampire castle in Transylvania. This is so corny I am ashamed to say it. I have to say that I don’t think the place was considered to be valuable real estate when they bought it. The house was probably 50 years old and the indoor plumbing consisted of one short water line. Now that I think about it, I don’t know where their water came from. I do remember that the water heater was electric and stood in grandma’s rectangular kitchen on the side near the clothes washer. Once we heard the cat yowling and grandpa stopped the washing machine, opened the door, and gingerly pulled some sopping clothes from the tub. No cat. Somehow, the cat had gotten into the machine enclosure where the motor was. I don’t know why the cat was there, perhaps grandpa had pulled off a panel and replaced it.
Our grandparents’ attracted all my cousins each summer. Grandma baked the usual pies and rolls until they were nearly black. Grandpa smoked and spit and puffed through pursed lips. He kept his liquor down at the barn. He gave us money. However, the house itself sucked us in because of its rundown majesty and, at the bottom of the hill, its creek—Ashley Creek—and the woods across the bridge. Grandpa had five acres with outbuildings: a root cellar, chicken coop, storage shed (that none of us ever entered), barn and a long skinny garage. I’ll get back to the storage shed and chicken coop later.

My Uncle's friend, Bill Moomey, was delighted to see this photo of his platoon sergeant, Irvin Weaver, of the weapons platoon, Company E, 262nd Infantry Regiment, and his friend Carl Bonde.

My Uncle’s friend, Bill Moomey, was delighted to see this photo of his platoon sergeant, Irvin Weaver, of the weapons platoon, Company E, 262nd Infantry Regiment, and his friend Carl Bonde.

The pig wire fence around their acreage had huge fat spiders that would give you the willies whenever you tried to climb over or through. There were places, like near the chicken coop, where the fence had a hole to crawl through and meet a spider. Grandpa and grandma had garter snakes, sometimes hundreds of them dripping off a rock retaining wall. Their place had apple trees that grandpa painted the trunks with whitewash to keep the ants off. Grandpa said the lime was one of the powders he and I would need to make our own wet cement. Otherwise we would need some cement and sand. And water, too. We never made cement.
We cousins played outdoors and indoors and we often found evidence that Uncle Bud had been there. There were fishing poles, and lures with treble hooks on shelves above the workbench in the garage. The garage always smelled of gas and oil. It was long and skinny with four windows at the back end, all on the south side, none on the end. The door on the west end was hard to open, so it generally stayed open. (I don’t have to remember the garage so carefully because I found a photograph of it, taken from the vicinity of the barn at the bottom of the hill.)
We cousins figured the adults were hiding something. Of course we were right. Adults are always hiding something. Should I start in telling how I took a tape measure to the interior walls of the Kalispell house to locate the hidden rooms where they kept the corpse? Otherwise, what happened to Bud? The ceilings were so high, perhaps 10 feet. In the hallway were built in closets and cabinets up close to the ceiling. This house was no bungalow, but a big, square wooden frame house that seemed to center around the wood furnace with gravity flow air heating. When grandpa had the fire going good in the winter the house smelled of pine wood smoke and I could huddle over one of the silent grates with warmth drifting up and play with my toys and grandma’s cat. She named it “Ting Ting,” or some such nonsense. Everyone, even she, called it “Kitty.” Kitty was a great companion for me.
My mother told me about her little brother Buddy whenever we sat on our couch in Missoula to turn the stiff black pages through her photo album. I was not old enough to read, but she showed me pictures of Bud as a five-year-old dressed in some sort of two-piece bathing suit with stripes that made him look silly like a little convict. He was outdoors in glaring sunlight and had an umbrella and a sly grin. The picture was taken at one of the houses his folks rented in town before they got the big place on the hill. Kalispell gets especially hot in the summer and Bud was being squirted with a hose. He looked bright and cheerful, almost maniacal! My mother’s reaction to seeing her little brother’s photograph added to my impression of profound loss because I could see my mother’s grief through her stoicism. My mother dearly loved Bud and she was my best source of information about him.
The striking thing about the photographs of Bud was their paucity. All were on just the one page. There was the picture of the happy five-year-old next to a teenager smoking a cigarette; then he was pictured in an Army uniform in several more. At last one showed him with a hunting rifle. It was snowy. After that, no other pictures. My mother made no secret that he was soldier who died.

Journalism Associate Professor Robert Powers Struckman was 47 when he died of a brain tumor.

Journalism Associate Professor Robert Powers Struckman was 47 when he died of a brain tumor.

My own childhood calamity had come in 1953 when I was four when my father died of brain cancer. I remember crying in my bed nights the way children do. My mother had me say ritual prayers and we talked about my father’s death (he died, but his spirit lives on). This segued to talking about Bud’s death (a dead soldier who was such a good private that he was private first class). My grandma often referred to empty bottles as “dead soldiers” with no irony at all.

Someone snapped this photograph when Carl was on leave, before entering infantry training in Arkansas.

Someone snapped this photograph when Carl was on leave, before entering infantry training in Arkansas.

I think just about every child in the early 1950s played “army.” My friends and I played army in our back yards and alleys and basements often. Even the older kids let us play army because we could be the Germans. Many neighbors had dads and uncles in the war. That distinction gave them authority to direct play. For my part I told them about Uncle Bud, and even though I didn’t have much information about him, I got to join in the play with the character “Uncle Bud.” He was a tough army man, or something. It was okay to just make up the rest of the heroic story, as long as the good guys beat the Germans. The neighbor boys had dads who survived the war and even if the dads didn’t have much to say about their experiences, they invariably had guns or other gear—souvenirs tucked away in cabinets or drawers somewhere. We boys sometimes made the rounds on the weekdays when the adult men were at work. I only had photographs of Bud. (“See? He is marching with a hunting rifle!”) My dead Dad (yes, that’s how I referred to him in elementary school when speaking with friends) had not been a soldier, nor had his father. His grandfather, George Struckman, had been a soldier for the North in the Civil War. My mother kept the civil war pistol hidden during my army-playing years. It turned out to be excellent for playing cowboy once I had found out where she kept it hidden up in the closet.
Bud’s absence made a sort of hole in the fabric of reality, especially when we cousins stayed at our grandparents’ in Kalispell. We kept finding stuff of his that we couldn’t explain. In the garage we found boxes of large bullets that did not appear to fit our grandpa’s rifle. We had a ritual of two steps: declare them our property (done) and take them apart by closing the projectile end into the vise and simply breaking it free of the brass casing. Done. Oh, I almost forgot the third and best step of all: lay the casing with gunpowder onto the oil-soaked wood of the garage floorboard, make the powder spill out perhaps an inch out, and light the powder with a match! The powder would burn with a white-hot flare, hesitate a moment while it burned into the brass, then … POP! The primer within the brass would explode.
At first just my cousin Mike Judd and I did this. Many times. Then we invited Mike’s brother Carl, two years older than we. He liked burning the bullet too, although he was chicken to try it until we showed him how. Then we invited David, the next oldest. He also liked it. Then we invited the four oldest: Tom, Dick, Blaine, and Carol. By this time the adults found out what we were doing and we got a stern warning to stay the hell away from the bullets. Grandpa was too wheezy to get after us, so the duty usually fell to Corinne, our eldest and most authoritative aunt. The consequence of doing dangerous “dumb stunts” was never a spanking, just a few words of warning followed by a declaration of how we frightened them. All this while Bud’s presence was … not there. And yet he seemed to have recently been there the way my mother could tell that I had been recently watching television when I was supposed to be home from school sick in bed, pretending to be asleep. “Still warm,” she said, placing her hand on the set. I was not only pretending to sleep, but the civil war pistol was under the covers with me. In pieces, of course.
Our basement in Missoula smelled strongly of gasoline because of the motor scooter I took apart. The scooter came from Kalispell, from Ted, the kid who lived across the road from my grandparents.’ Ted’s dad had been a soldier in WW II and Ted’s dad was so frightening that none of us dared to speak to him. Ted did all the talking (out of his dad’s hearing, of course). According to Ted, all motors worked because of mysterious things called “coils.” This seemed patently false to me. I never repeated this nonsense to anyone else, especially not my grandpa.
Grandpa spent much of his days in his reclining chair because he had a hard time catching his breath from emphysema. This made him ideal for any sort of game that didn’t require him to move. He also had a tobacco can about three-fourths full of pennies. I was not aware of the second world war until I found steel/zinc pennies in amongst the copper. The 1943 pennies were minted from steel because the government needed the copper for ammunition for World War II, grandpa told me. I also found a book about the army. The wall in the sitting room had a floor to ceiling built-in bookcase that ran clear across the wall from room corner to doorway. The ceiling was really high, all lath and plaster, so the uppermost shelves were nearly inaccessible. Well, inaccessible when an adult was in the room. When I was alone I could climb up there like a monkey, of course, and I often did. That’s how I found the book about “Infantry Tactics and Training.” Not only did the book once belong to Buddy, but also Buddy built the bookshelves. My grandfather had unknowingly increased my knowledge several times over about Bud. And there was a photograph in a desk drawer in the parlor, over by the piano. It had been folded, but an aunt, probably, told us that Bud was a member of whatever Army unit that was. “Where is he?” we asked. We searched the faces until we found one that someone had circled with a pencil. That was him! The pencil made a sort of dent in the glossy surface of the photograph, so you had to sort of hold it to see how the light reflected. “That’s Buddy,” went the word as it spread through all of us cousins
I am tempted to declare that Bud’s bedroom upstairs was kept intact, exactly the way it had been the day he left for war. Unfortunately, my grandparents had a chimney fire and the room was damaged by smoke and water. In fact, one winter I helped a mason clean up mortar he dropped on the floor when he was making chimney repairs. Perhaps that’s why I hounded my grandpa to help me mix up a batch of wet cement. I overheard my grandparents talk about how grandpa’s Norwegian friend noticed the fire when he was coming to visit them. For some reason, grandma seemed to resent the friend who saved their home. Was the problem that he and grandpa spoke Norwegian and she did not? Did she really want her house to burn down? I doubt if she did. In fact, she and grandpa remodeled a sunroom on the southwest corner of their house. Now I wonder if they used the US government insurance money from Bud’s death?
Nothing about this story is simple or easy. Bud’s absence, like his presence, was ethereal, hard to grasp. We did have pictures of him. We did have the things he owned as a boy. Why couldn’t we meet him? Why couldn’t we go hunting and fishing with him? I got involved with Bud more recently during the past 11 years. I didn’t even realize how much his person meant to me until I found myself on the front porch of a house that had been built on the site of Bud’s childhood home trying to explain to a freckled frightened looking 12-year-old why I wanted to get some dirt from his driveway.
I tried to tell him in as few words as I could that my uncle grew up where he lived and he died on Christmas in 1944 in the English Channel and I wanted to get some dirt and put it in the water there. For him. I started to cry. I hadn’t rehearsed my speech for the lad, or even thought how I was going to ask. The boy looked sort of shocked.
“Sure, mister, go ahead and help yourself,” he said.

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One Comment
  1. Quite a story.

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