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What I did during the Vietnam War

September 29, 2018

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. . . .


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