Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Sign of those times

Marmot's Hole has posted this picture, taken back in the 1970s, I believe. I'd heard of such signs from a retired GI who spent several of his tours in Korea, including during the Vietnam War. He eventually retired in Korea, finished his college education, and took to teaching English.

He was an abrasive New Yorker who was also one of the most generous souls I've ever encountered in Seoul. He was the co-worker of a friend, which is how I got to know him, and I spent many a Sunday in the Embassy Club or Townhouse buffets, enjoying what was then the only Western-style breakfast available on a Sunday outside the deluxe (i.e., expensive) hotels.

Chris would share stories of USFK in the 1970s and 1980s. His even older buddy, Billy, who would sometimes join us, a real tough-talking big guy who later went to Hollywood and became a professional writer and amateur cokehead, would regale us with tales of the Korean War (he had been captured and was in a POW camp in North Korea, from which he managed to escape, though he was recaptured; he really hates North Koreans, by the way).

Chris talked about how American race riots spilled over into USFK and USFV (?) in the 1960s and 1970s. And he told us about signs like this one: right outside the main gate, a warning to the soldiers to "keep your dick in your pants," though few paid attention, he said.

Chris also told me of how the on-post barber shop (in Yongsan?) got, ahem, cleaned up, when an off-duty (and therefore out-of-uniform) chaplain went into get a haircut and ended up being offered some extra services. Ah, what heady times.

Billy told some stories about the war that would alternatingly shock you or make you weep. He was a tough mountain of a guy, but you could see sometimes he was trying to keep his eyes from welling up. We all saw "Saving Private Ryan" at the Balboni Theater, and he took off for the head as soon as the movie ended so we wouldn't see how affected he was by the film.

He liked telling them to me—even though he derided my Clinton-loving politics—and I was trying to get him to let me do a video interview with him, where he would just free-talk his way through the war, from where he was sent from Fukuoka ("Fuck you, okay?"), dropped into Taejŏn just as the North Koreans had left, and where the smell of the burning corpses of the people the Norks had mowed down were still wafting through the air, to his capture and then eventual release.

Sadly, though, he left before I had a chance to do that. Bad health. But I do remember some of his tales vividly. As an homage to him, I really ought to write them down the best I can.

But to this day, when I walk by the old Seoul Station building, where Billy had been involved in a firefight with Nork soldiers, I still notice where the erstwhile passenger depot was hit by bullets and later filled in. Thanks to Billy, when passing through my old neighborhood, where I lived in a house that was fifteen years old when the 6.25 War broke out, I picture waves of soldiers from different sides taking over the area at various times. Billy's unit was once bogged down in an on-going fight for the area of northern Huam-dong and the current location of the nearby Hilton Hotel.

I have nothing but respect for those who daily risked their lives in this way. I admire them, and wonder if it's something I would ever be capable of doing. I also value them for their stories of what life was like in another time.

I was in Korea as a teenager in the 1980s, and I have been living in Korea continuously since graduating from UCI in the 1990s. It's weird to think of it, but even though I'm just in my thirties, that sort of makes me an old-timer. I wonder if I have stories that are interesting to hear, even if they were mundane aspects of everyday life back then. I've smelled more than my share of tear gas. I've been scared out of my wits by the 1994 nuclear crisis. I rode out the economic crisis of 1997 and 1998, watching my meager life savings get slashed into half almost overnight. I remember the virtual lock-down of Yongsan and the rest of USFK in the days after 9/11.

I've seen this place change—socially, politically, physically, economically—so much it's virtually unrecognizable. Maybe I do need to write some of this stuff down.


  1. You ought to write it all down. Do you realize that next year (2007) will be the 20th anniversary already of the country's democratization!? My, how time flies. And how much the country has changed just in the last twenty years. In fact, it seems as if the longer time progresses, the faster things change. My completely subjective and ill-informed impression is that in social terms at least, South Korea has probably changed more in the last five years than in the preceding fifteen years.

    Anyhow, it's about time that someone could write a decent—and very long—history of South Korea, just covering events since the beginning of the Sixth Republic in 1987.

    Those do sound like some very interesting stories from those two guys, Chris and especially Billy. You're fortunate to have been able to meet such people, who've had such a wealth of experiences (both good and bad).

  2. And, the best part of stories from the old guys about Korea are that they are all true and only the ones they figured you would believe, as you find most folks just can't accept some of the stuff that went on back in the day.


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