Apologies to Ayn Rand

Most of you know that Ayn Rand was a novelist of economic fiction, with such impact from her book Atlas Shrugged that some 50-year-old politicians today are still under her spell. She came from a capitalist family which escaped Soviet Russia. Her heroes make the world happen and are only burdened by governments and have total disdain for the assorted hangers on — who turn out to be most of us. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Senator was named so by his Ayn-Rand-devotee father and congressman, Ron. Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, claims to have most of his moral direction in politics from Ayn Rand. The Tea Party phenomenon, which tried to diminish government at every turn, had many Randians.

It is better to run smack into Ayn Rand when you have almost nothing, because if you have some money, or some measure of success, she will convince you that you deserve it. If you have next-to-nothing, then eventually, even if you get something, you will probably realize it did not all come from you, and that you were lucky to scrape a few crumbs off the general common wealth and — try all your life to grab a few more crumbs off that wagon. I had worked as a carpenter for two summers in high school, and I thought I was a model for Ayn Rand, a maker, a paragon of personal responsibility, and a disdainer of all takers.

I wandered into the University of Washington a few years after Sputnik, and Universities were tightening up on their admissions. With the great public push to beat the Russians came the realization that we needed to generate more educated people…fast. On Orientation day, the speaker said to look to the right and left, and two of these students, perhaps you, would not receive a degree. I said goodbye to those on my right and left, and they did not take it well. I was sure that was what Ayn Rand would do.

The death of my father in WWII should have given me some room-and-board money under the GI Bill. However, I had just read Ayn Rand’s  Atlas Shrugged and I would be damned if I would go to school on blood money. My mother was beside herself. My adopted family could not pay for my education, but she thought the government ought to, and my naïve but cold-eyed refusal made her go through all the possible arguments. My father was not here to put me through school, but he would have used this GI Bill, so now they offered it to me. Nevertheless my distraught mother was not as convincing as Ayn Rand. I would be cool and make it myself with no help. While some of the money I’d made carpentering was still around, I studied and got a 3.5 and lived in the student dorm. Then the money ran out next semester. I got jobs dishwashing, and being a houseboy in a sorority, and being an afternoon counselor for YMCA kids. These jobs each made a pittance, and the time for study – let alone any fun – tightened up a lot. I got an old bicycle to go between classes and jobs, but before long, the bicycle broke.

I started to play soccer for little other reason than it was played by people my size, which was average. The local industrial league teams could always use a fresh body and sometimes I played two 90-minute games in an afternoon at the pitch (the surface of which was partly made of broken Coke bottles) near Green Lake. The next year the U. of Washington started a team, but I was not remotely good enough alongside the Europeans there who were off season from ski scholarships – truly fine athletes. They did allow me to turn out with them and that was exceptional training, keeping up with those who had played the game at a high level, sometimes semi-pro level, all their lives. Gradually I learned to control the ball, trapping it from the air with a soft foot and then snapping a relevant pass to someone. By my junior year, I did make the University of Washington team, for one reason: I was an American who could keep up.

The University decided that the soccer talent from overseas was far above what they could find in Americans from Seattle, so they made a rule that two players on the team had to be American citizens. Actually, that made it pretty competitive, to be one of the two players. When I made the team in my Junior year, a tuition scholarship came with it. Ayn Rand would probably approve of that, but my grades were dragging and I was living down behind some old lady’s furnace for $10 a month, and showering within a curtain hung over the laundry room drain. I had started in Journalism and found I could get away with more as an English major, so I learned to read Ford Maddox Ford fast between jobs. All this being poor and pleasing Ayn Rand was starting to annoy me, and no one I knew could understand the connection anyway, so that helped me rethink the whole proposition and take the GI Bill money in my Junior year.

Did I feel I had failed Ayn Rand? No way. Instead I felt liberated, free to take the money granted me for an education from my father who, after all, died for his country. Turns out the money kept coming. Before I turned 21, I’d had also  rejected the money from my mother on my father’s $10,000 life military life insurance money, and now it reverted to my possession. I had not accepted it – until now. Now they were handing me $10,000 (probably worth $100,000 now) to spend on what I wanted. Well, first of all was a Porsche. An old Porsche (granted) but a 1953 Porsche shipped from Germany by a servicemen who now needed the money. I rode a cold train cross country and got it for $5000 in Bayonne, New Jersey.

What a deal. Me, 21 years old with a Porsche. I also got a Guild guitar, which makes fine music to this day. What a day that was! To put everything you ever wanted – granted a low bar – into one package, and buy it!  I drove the Porsche cross country and it took curves like it was on a rail and for some reason in Montana the engine caught fire, but it was air-cooled and somehow cured itself enough for me to make it to Seattle. This was such a formative moment that I have never lusted for those things I cannot buy.( I could even take girls on a dates that weren’t Dutch.) At least once in my life I could have all of the tangible objects of my desire – because my list then was so short.

Parallel to all this, the military had ever been marching in the background. The first year I was in ROTC like every student in land grant colleges in 1960. The idiot student leaders in charge at 7:00 am marched us through muddy grass and into the sides of buildings. The prize was to be an Air Force officer. The ROTC building burned down that year, very probably by accident, and I turned in my Cadet Uniform thinking all records had been destroyed. Home free…but not. They came back when I was a junior and said they had found the records and I would not graduate unless I completed the loathsome ROTC. I fixed them, however. I had a plan: The war could not last much longer and I could drop out and be in the Reserves. I went into the Marine Platoon Leader’s course that summer, which shielded me from everything…except the Drill Instructors.

These Marine Drill Instructors hated college boys. Many of them had studied civilian subjects while in the Marines and some even had Master’s degrees as well as karate black belts, but they all hated college boys. Their sole purpose was to cause as many college boys to drop out of the Platoon Leaders program as humanly possible. Their dropout record at the time was likely comparable to the SEALS, about 60% for Marine Officers. But their soft side was that they admired physical prowess. Not my long suit, but….

Luckily, during the previous Spring Semester I was given the opportunity to pedal pedicabs at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. Members of the soccer team were given jobs peddling pedicabs all over the World’s Fair Grounds, as tours and also as taxis. We were the real workers. The members of the UW football team were given menial jobs like measuring the length of the grass on the walkways. Pansies.

However, the pedicabs were not made for heavy duty usage. Most of them broke down, and we did not complain, because the company was paying us $2 an hour, just to sit with the broken down machine until some mechanic could come around and haul it back to the main garage. $2 for baby sitting was not bad at the time. But it could not – and did not – last. They took the pedicabs out of operation and we were without a job. They gave me a position running electric cars with 8 people in them, because I knew the grounds, etc. I actually knew the grounds so well, that I would give some preference in my tour spiel to food vendors who would give me a free meal when I got off. This angered the vendors I had not included, who got to my boss, who seemed glad to fire me as an example to the rest.

“Say,” I asked, as I was dismissed. “What are you doing with the pedicabs?”

“Nothing,” he said. “We’re not going to start the operation up again, if that’s what you mean.”

“Not exactly,” said, with this germ of entrepreneurship exploding behind my eyes. “I thought if I rented one some day, for about $10, I’d see what I could make off it. Better than no income at all for you.”

He chewed on that a minute, and then nodded. “But no advertising…That’s trouble for you.”

So the next day I got the best-maintained pedicab of many in the garage and took it out for a whirl. 10 feet onto the grounds someone stopped me and asked if I gave tours. I said yes, $10 a person for a 20 minute tour of the grounds. $20 and twenty minutes later I had a thriving business going. I was the only pedicab on the World’s Fair grounds! People with tired legs were ready to jump in the seat, when I let the last load out. I worked 16 hours that day and made over $400 with the tips the late night drunks gave me just to get them to an entrance with a cab.

In just a few days of this, I had expenses for the school year. Kodak had me hold a camera while sitting on the pedicab seat and the photo became a national print ad which was actually up in New York’ Grand Central Station for a while. A friend there called me to say he had seen it. This was success! There were only two problems: how to keep my earnings a secret, and how to keep my legs from knotting up. Since I was renting the cabs for $10 a day, it was no one’s business how much I made, so I lied with abandon. “How’s it going,” the pedicab supervisor said when he saw me re-infusing my cells with a milkshake. “Not great” I said. “Some days it’s going to be tough even to make the ten dollars, but I hope some weekend days will work.”

“You’re not thinking of quitting are you?” He was worried about losing this income, but also wondering if he could put other drivers on.

“I’ll see how it works for a few more days. Sure isn’t as good as the $2 a hour I could depend on.”

“Well that’s business.” He said. Such a ruse… and it lasted me about 3 weeks. I moaned what a mistake this was to everyone I knew there. I groaned when I passed the supervisor, as if I was getting a hernia. I really made a lot of money those days.

The other problem, legs cramping, definitely impacted how much income I could produce in a $10 day. Luckily there was a “club” on the grounds with a masseur. In midafternoon, for $5 he would massage my legs for about half an hour, and I was good to go until closing at midnight.

This windfall could have lasted longer but some poor soul the supervisor wanted to befriend with a temporary assignment, paid the $10 and started making $50 a day almost doing nothing. He rushed back to the supervisor before I could intercept him and thanked him profusely for such a great deal. My days were obviously numbered.

Luckily, I had made a bundle by then and I had to report to the Marines for 6 weeks anyway. They were as vicious as advertised. People who giggled in ranks the first night were lifted two feet in the air by the drill instructors boot, and thereafter did not even smirk in the darkness. But then there was the fitness. Ordinarily fit college boys, some who had played sport, were ground into the dirt of the Quantico hills by endless running, much of it in heat conditions considered dangerous. I saw a few thrown in an ice bath to get their temperature down. These were the weaklings. The rest of us kept running. And climbing. And learning to use the toilets for all functions in the one minute they gave us. (Some of us started smoking as a rapid laxative. A little-known medicinal value rarely touted in cigarette ads.)

I was not great at the drilling, often turning the wrong directions. And I was not great at the tactics we were supposed to study at night after running all day. My book scores were a compendium of guesses, and barely passing at that. There was every reason they should drop me out of the program, except for two: (1) They wanted people to drop out as their own decision, that they could not take this kind of life any more. (2) After all my peddling and grunting and pulling on the handlebars getting 700 lbs of passengers up the hills at the World’s Fair, I scored number 2 in the whole physical testing in that class, behind some guy who they said might make the Olympics in the Decathlon. So, unlike anyone before or since, the Marines liked me for my body.

There is more to this Marine story, which I thought would end when the Vietnam war ended. Except it didn’t end, not quite soon enough for me, nor for several others exponentially more unlucky than I was.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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