Tuoi Yungbauer escaped Saigon days before the city fell to the North Vietnamese army in 1975. A year later, she got a job at the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant at Northern Lights Boulevard and C Street.
She still works there.
I went to meet Yungbauer because I had never heard of anyone working 41 years at a fast-food counter. But instead of getting a story about an oddity, I learned about strength, perseverance and the promise of America.
Yungbauer can't help smiling. I watched at the end of a long shift as she greeted each customer with wide-eyed excitement. Her co-workers said she fires them up too.
She has followers. Marianne Tolentino said she has been buying chicken from Yungbauer for decades. Yungbauer makes the most of Tolentino's 15-minute meal break by having the food ready when she arrives.
Yungbauer met everyone the same way, the office workers and the destitute. When a woman dumped a pile of change on the counter, Yungbauer counted it to figure out what it would buy. Her Vietnamese accent mixed with many other accents. KFC in Midtown is as diverse as Anchorage.
The city wasn't nearly so diverse when Yungbauer arrived in her early 20s, speaking a little English she had picked up on the streets of Saigon.
The American who sponsored her departure from Vietnam worked for the military here. When she joined him, the city's cold and the emptiness amazed her— where were all the people?
And the peace.
Yungbauer had seen war horrors. Terrible dreams haunted her for five years after she arrived in Alaska.
Her relationship didn't last. But after she was alone, she never wanted to leave the safety here.
The chicken restaurant was also an ice cream shop when she started. The office building, bank and phone store on the opposite corners didn't exist yet. Northern Lights Boulevard was two-lane.
KFC had table service. Yungbauer became a popular waitress for her energy and cheerfulness, as an Anchorage Daily News article noted 17 years ago, although she didn't always get orders right.
At first the restaurant didn't want to hire her because she was too short. She is 4 feet, 8 inches tall.
Yungbauer couldn't find clothes. Children's sizes fit her height but wouldn't go around her chest. So she learned to sew. That helped save money too.
"At first you don't look very good, and then you learn how," she said. "That's my adventure, right there."
Yungbauer bought a house in the 1980s, after the economy crashed and empty homes dotted Anchorage.
She had saved $20,000 from 10 years of fast-food wages. So she bought a $20,000 house. (Her pay started at $3.65 an hour; now she makes $10.50.)
But at first she couldn't live in her cottage in Mountain View. The inside was wrecked, without insulation, needing a complete remodel.
Yungbauer borrowed a book about framing, drywall and roofing. She bought lumber one piece at a time and brought it home on her bicycle.
She figured out, with her small size, how to get heavy sheets of drywall to the ceiling. She textured it with a rainbow pattern.
"I climb up to the roof, and I'm scared," she laughed.
In 1990, she met Albert Yungbauer, who was working as a cook at KFC after getting out of the Army. They married and he went to work on the house too.
Today it is a tidy cottage with oak floors, full of Vietnamese art in carved display cases. Tuoi and Albert live with a big dog and an old cat. They own the house free and clear.
But even without housing costs, they survive on her wages only by thrift. (Albert has worked various physical jobs but now is disabled by a bad back.)
Tuoi bought a 20-year-old Pontiac because Anchorage's bus system didn't run during some of her work hours. She paid $200 for the car and loves it.
She eats rice and homegrown vegetables. She still sews clothes. She has gone back to Vietnam for dental work and an eye operation to save money.
But she said her Social Security retirement benefits will be too low to pay for even her frugal lifestyle — just $800 a month, after insurance.
"I maybe have to keep working until I can't work anymore," she said.
Yungbauer had a stroke three years ago that put her in the hospital for several days and out of work on physical therapy for two months. She still has trouble with one leg.
Her insurance would pay only 80 percent of the $28,000 hospital bill. She paid as much of the balance as she could, and Providence Alaska Medical Center helped her with the rest.
But while she and Albert don't have enough money to do anything for fun, they are fun. They laugh and tease. Albert has red hair, and Tuoi calls him "the volcano."
Anchorage is home now. She became an American citizen in 1978. When she goes back to Vietnam, people tell her she speaks the language with an American accent.
She said most people in Anchorage are friendly, but she sometimes runs into bigots.
"They say, 'Why don't you go back home?' And I say, 'Hey, wait a minute, I didn't ask you for anything. I worked for my money,' " she said.
I told her that story made me angry. She said, "I think they're very insecure for themselves."
I grew up in Anchorage with every advantage. America gave me incredible opportunities and asked for next to nothing in return.
Tuoi Yungbauer is an American hero. She did the impossible — making a life on little more than minimum wage — and holds up her citizenship certificate with beaming pride.
"I saw people dead, dying there, and shooting, in Saigon," she said. "I left. All I had was $40 in my pocket. I didn't know what I was doing."
Today, she makes it the same way she did then.
"You're fighting for your life," she said. "That why you work."
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