A Korean Soliloquy
Here's a platter of tidbits-n-snippets from the memory vault, scattershot-illustrating five years living in South Korea. Altogether they cover the time from Jan 1972 - Jan 1977, when I was a child aged 6-11. I've added, or will add, comments from siblings (beyond my own memories) as they have been or become available.
To frame the comments a bit, please note that we first lived in two neighborhoods near downtown Seoul, first in Ton(g?)-Bingo-Don(g?) for several months followed by Shin-Dang-Dong for over a year, before moving six miles outside the city. Our "suburban" years came next, spent at a housing compound with the charming name RGH (Rental Guaranteed Housing), a compound created for military families or military-related civilians' families (such as we were).
At first blush, moving to South Korea was a disaster to everyone in the family. We were pretty happy in Hawai'i Kai, just this side of Honolulu. Warmth, friends, a beautiful place - who could ask for anything more? Indeed, it would take a good amount of adjustment before the move could turn into a positive experience. It unquestionably would in the end, though, and in a big way.
It'd just take some time. First things first: we came to Korea in the dead of winter from Hawai'i. Talk about shock - a bigger jolt to the system could not be had! What a change, indeed, from flip flops to winter coats. Moreover, these initial weeks were particularly cold, not to mention lonely, in Ton Bingo Don. Compounding our misery from the chill, we'd never even fully unpack our stuff there, either.
In an odd - and exacerbating - example of this feeling early on, us kids were given lunch tins designed for sushi. There'd be no Snoopy or Scooby lunch pail boxes for a spell - who knew where they were in the hundreds of packing boxes - so these stainless steel kits were requisitioned to make do. Unfortunately, and particularly so in such a freezing place, they could not have been more symbolically sterile after the flowers of Hawai'i. Beyond that look and feel, too, they changed the taste of the food inside. Everything came out as something metallic and unappetizing. [per my sister Rebecca: ...and for those of us trying to fit in, the lunch boxes made us stand out even more!]
Meanwhile we thought - far more than previously - about things like robberies. This was probably due to a fear of the unknown more than anything else, but given the difference in standards of living between Koreans and Americans in those days, it wasn't without truth and warnings. With this in mind we immediately purchased a mean dog, a german shepherd, but even that wouldn't help the mentality: we were afraid of that barking beast, too!
Given all of the above, then, it shouldn't have been surprising when one or both of my oldest sisters made a show of trying to run away. That made for some conversation among the rest of us similarly-disatisfied siblings, anyway. I'm not sure if either hopeful drama queen even made it to the bottom of the hill, but it was a dramatic protest nonetheless.
Living in Korea within the military sphere had practical consequences to consider, too. For example, it always meant thinking in two currencies. As I recall, it seemed like the dollar wavered between 400 and 500 won over those years. It steadily increased against the local currency, making the purchase of goods in the Korean economy ever more attractive.
At the start, though, we didn't use real U.S. dollars for our U.S. economy (military base) purchases. We used a form of local federal scrip as currency instead. Apparently this wasn't a rare thing among international military installations, but none of us questioned why, regardless.
Physically, the bills themselves were rather small compared to U.S. dollar bills. The change, meanwhile, used the same coinage. It was never explained to us why this system was in place - I don't think we were all that curious, not exactly major consumers at such young ages - so we immediately adjusted to it.
It wouldn't last our entire five year stay, anyway. Indeed, the time eventually came when the scrip was ordered to change to real U.S. currency. Perhaps that happened in our third year there or so. In any event, this brought on a panic, one that reached a frenzy as the deadline loomed to make final exchanges of bills one to one.
Come the fatal day, things came to a head. Local Koreans were seen in the news, frantically heaving briefcases of bills over the bases' fences. They pleaded with anyone on the other side to do the exchange for them. With many military police (MPs, as we called them) looking on, it was doubtful they succeeded.
The problem was that the locals couldn't legally do the exchange themselves. The money was never to circulate out of the hands of U.S. citizens. That was the catch, and probably the entire point: it was an effective method for dealing with the black market. Meanwhile, for the servicemen and us civilians, I vaguely remember there being a limit as to how much cash could be exchanged per day or overall. We did so, and that was that - back to greenbacks.
For my part, an adolescent with limited access to cash, all this money stuff meant two things - regarding the American money, anyway. Coin collecting! Indeed, as an isolated backwater in the world of U.S. commerce, one could still find the random, rare coin in circulation. When I dialed into this fact properly, it seemed like the (coin) world was my oyster.
As a practical matter, after realizing this I then probably checked my change for the remainder of my time in Korea. Finding something interesting soon became far from an uncommon occurrence, but at times a daily one. This was an unbelievable boon for the coin collector that I was then.
Wheat cent pennies were the most vastly represented stock-in-trade, of course, representing the least valuable commodity. It was probably the least-scrutinized denomination for similar collectors, undoubtedly. But, out in the military boonies, anything was possible to find beyond them, too - buffalo nickels, roosevelt or even mercury dimes, etc. Silver half dollars and dollars were even shockingly possible. I squirreled them away.
Korean money (the "won"), meanwhile, had a certain funny money aspect to it. It DID have value... but it didn't seem that there were many places to spend it at times. That'd change as I aged, of course. Over time, thus, it'd most likely be spent at a toy stall. If nothing else, I had my priorities.
Far more notable to me was how the won bills usually smelled like food and sweat. Moreover, they were typically in tatters and stained. Evidently these pieces of paper had either seen many, many hands - or they were of exceptionally poor quality. I'd never differentiate between the two possibilities, but there WAS a very human story written on them between this foul-ish odor and rundown appearance. That registered completely. If I held one today, I'd surely still recognize that odd smell of garlic... and garbage.
Crime was an everyday fact of life in South Korea, but not one that preoccupied me or the family on any regular basis. The general thinking always focused on petty crime, anyway - what might get stolen next? Or, what should we do to keep this - or that - from getting stolen? To help our discovery, we'd find out the most obvious way: our family house was robbed - or almost robbed - a few times.
Perhaps coming from an idyllic place like Hawai'i ill-prepared us for this mentality. We weren't used to being in an environment where everything had to be locked down or put well out of reach. That this was necessary, though, would be immediately apparent from each of our three living spaces in Korea.
Although the memory of our first neighborhood - on a hill - escapes me somewhat, the second neighborhood - Shin Dang Dong - was a virtual community of high-walled houses. Each had heavy-duty spiked, or barbed, fences jabbing utmost into the air. "Keep out" they each said, even as a shacks littered the alleyways with people still living - squatting - in the pre-industrial age.
At our third home, in the residential community for military dependents (RGH), we actually had guards. They were housed in strategic guard shacks at several points of entry, complete with lifting gates. That they were separated by massive tracts of not-terribly-impressive wall probably belied their effectiveness.
None of these precautions mattered too much in the end. The temptation was assuredly too great; stories abounded with robberies beyond what we'd soon come to experience. In our case, anyway, leaving a handy ladder available in Shin Dang Dong must've been a boon to the robbers. After getting past the wall - no idea how, it WAS tall and formidable - the rest must've been cake. There certainly was no question of how, with the ladder left resting against the second story balcony. On that occasion went some appliances and jewelry, I believe.
This would be followed by another robbery at RGH, also with everyone in the house snoozing away. At least a T.V. set went on that occasion, something which didn't dawn on us right away in the morning (probably helped by television having little to do with our lives in Korea). One had to admire the daring and skill, sure, but it shook us up a bit to know that we had all been sleeping away when it happened.
[per my sister Rebecca: The next morning I recall seeing boot prints on the chests right inside the window. I pointed it out to the maids, and we then noticed items missing such as a TV set. We were shocked at the boldness of the burglars because we were sleeping right there in the room.]
Another robbery event was a mere attempt, the "funny" story as these things went. A robber tried climbing through the first-story window of the bedroom I shared with my three brothers. Specifically, the entry point was right by my older brother's bed (below my bunk). Seeing the entire thing in progress, Joe paused for a while in fright before eventually letting out a loud "MOM!" The thief high-tailed it into the night.
Another story, in Shin Dang Dong, was easily the most serious. My younger brothers John and Jack were almost kidnapped in the street before our house. Tempted with bottles of Coca-Cola offered from a passing car, they were close to actually getting in... and speeding off to god-knows-where.
Fortunately, our (live-in) Grandma had a sixth sense kind of occurrence about the same time. Hanging up some laundry on a balcony, it told her that something was wrong. Luckily, she obeyed this gut feeling. Running to the wall overlooking the street, she quickly saw what was in progress. She yelled down to the boys to come home, which they did, and the car zoomed off.
Continuing with the crime theme, an odder story came when younger brother Johnny and I were playing in the hills outside of RGH. This was always a favorite place to explore for us, a wonderland where one could as likely find a tunnel still existing from the Korean War... or an ancient artifact of some sort.
In this case, however, we stumbled upon something more contemporary. A gang of robbers was going over their loot in an ancient cemetary, pulling objects out of their sacks. Fortunately unnoticed, we hid beyond a tombstone and watched for a short while... before sneaking away, frightened that we would be caught watching.
On a more dramatic occasion, I stood watch as my elder siblings Rebecca and Joey once came back running from those same hills. Some local kids were chasing them with a scythe, probably more a scare attempt than anything serious. But who knew? Then, of course, we'd go back to these places the next day.
A final note is an observation, one that in retrospect doesn't make a great deal of sense. Perhaps it was by law - or far more likely by custom - but all cars in Korea were black. Some Americans had different colors on their cars, perhaps ignoring or being absolved of the above custom/law, but these were considered particularly theft-prone. It made for less than colorful streets, that was certain.
Truth be told, however, I never heard of any such car robberies. Our White Pontiac station wagon, one which we had brought over from Hawaii, was nonetheless duly painted black as a consequence. To this day that seems like it was an overkill. The logic of stealing the rare car of another color, and keeping it that way to maintain its intrinsic value, makes no sense. But that's how it was.
On the related note of cars, there were two types of cabs that roamed the streets. The expensive ones were large, yellow, and of American make, I believe. Accordingly, you could probably fit a refrigerator and a kitchen sink in them with room to spare. These were generally our first choice among cabs, but they had limited use I believe. I think their use was often necessarily related to the base they came out of.
On the flip side were their counterparts, smaller matchbox jobbies we called the kimchi cabs. It's probably worth noting that anything that seemed rinky-dink or shabby on the Korean economy had "kimchi" attached to its name. Anyway, ignoring racist overtones for the time being, it seemed like the kimchi cabs were always up to whatever task was handed them. They improbably could hold anything and everything - if just given enough time to work the puzzle out. They ALWAYS moved at breakneck, hair-raising speeds.
On the subject of accidents waiting to happen, the three-wheeled truck/service vehicle can't be forgotten. These were the ubiquitous mechanical beasts of burden with two wheels in back and one in front. Apparently they were used when it just wasn't physically possible to cram more goods on someone's back or on a wooden A-frame structure (a common, impressive sight) - also on someone's back. These miniature trucks, meanwhile, were not motorcycles converted for a larger payload. Such a distinction hardly mattered, though, as they still had a habit of tipping over. This was particularly so given the madman driving tendencies of South Koreans behind steering wheels.
Living in South Korea, one would expect the language barrier to be a big deal. It was, even as we promptly ignored its use - a rejection lamentable to the cultural detriment of all involved. Regardless, the Korean language itself was something of great pride to Koreans. Or, specifically, the written language Hangul was. In any event, with block-styled, rectilinear lettering, the Korean language was - naturally - ubiquitous. Right away it should be obvious even to the crudest dilettante that it looks considerably different from the more lyrically-shaped script of other Asian languages.
One could speculate endlessly why it looks so different, but what is not up for debate was that it was created from scratch back in the 15th century. That came under King Sejong, a hero to Koreans to this day. Its selling point was actually this very simplicity, a result of taking complicated Chinese lettering - which only a few understood - and making writing available beyond the privileged few. That was a forward-thinking tack to take back then, I'm sure all could agree. Unfortunately this expanded Korean-literate grouping wouldn't include us - we hadn't a clue where to even begin. More specifically, the only thing we could make out were the arabic numerals mixed into the writing. Those were used primarily for such things as telephone numbers, or so it seemed.
The above serves to highlight the sad reality that it seemed like learning the local language was an extremely low priority among the U.S. military. Their associated dependents would get no greater push, either. I didn't know anyone who was trying to learn it; it was never promoted in our family. Ironically, we likely had more German and Russian dictionaries than Korean ones, an odd circumstance which oddly served to sate my fathers' continuing dreams of finding the next Bobby Fischer who read chess books in their original language. I kid not.
Instead, naturally, we used the dictionaries to see if they had interesting words on occasion, a tool to aid in pronunciation only. More typically, we learned a grab-bag of swearwords and random things like "hurry!" (bali!) and "go!" (ca!) from the maids and chaffeur.
There was the odd phrase we'd pick up, sure, like the one that came from construction workers telling my sisters about how they shook their asses was appreciated. I can still recite that one to this day. We also learned how to count, putting us on a par with... a one-year-old. Not even. That was about all we could say, pathetically, although we each also learned how to write our name, the most meagre of caveats.
Oddly, one bit of language stuck with us in an everyday sense. We learned the Korean way of doing "rock, paper, scissors". In fact, when we needed a random choice to be made, it was the only system we used. We still used our hands to make out rocks, papers, and scissors, yes - you can't properly have rock, paper, scissors without that, by my thinking - but we'd only thrust them out after each of the following (phonetically spelled) phrases. Each line was said before the hand gesture, continuing to the next and even repeating as necessary:
Joan kahm ee shay
ahd ee goad ah say
sin sin ah boy
joan kahm ee shay
POLITICS... AND POSSIBLE WAR
Given the ages of us kids - or me, at least, ranging from six to eleven years of age over our stay - such things as politics and war seemed far away. Here we were living in South Korea, fer chrissake, and no one talked about Viet Nam among us kids. Like ever. In retrospect, most of the soldiers we met had probably spent time there. Similarly, we'd wonder: Watergate? That was just a funny word, one that appeared in the only paper we'd get - the military's Stars and Stripes - from time to time. You could have told me it was a dam in Brazil, for all I knew.
No, in South Korea there were only a few things to know, politically-speaking. The first was that the president of the country was a good guy. Actually, he was a dictator - though not necessarily the harshest of such. The vibrant democracy of today in South Korea? A very recent thing. Park Chung Hee was the strong man in our day, a suited president that I assumed that everyone adored. Even given his heavy-handedness, this was probably actually more true than not, both as time went on and the country's successes grew. (He'd still get assassinated only a few years after we left, to this day the most instrumental figure in South Korea's history.) [Rebecca: What about the fact that Korean men could not wear their hair long? I remembered seeing pictures (in Korean papers) of men they rounded up to get mandatory hair cuts.]
North Korea, however, apparently didn't like him too much. From the papers we well knew about the underground tunnels they dug from across the border. They'd use them to shuttle operatives who would try and overthrow the government on a seemingly regular basis. These were discovered and broadcast about from time to time. Still, on one occasion they managed to sneak in a of couple agents who took a potshot at him, killing his wife. That was a national tragedy, with a pronounced period of mourning and shock following it. Every student in our school was bused en masse to be taken to her gravesite to show our respects.
In retrospect, such an action by our school officials could be seen as odd, but there was no questioning it on the part of us schoolkids then. Thinking back now, I could understand a delegation of Americans paying respects, but carting everyone - including all of us schoolkids - over? Wasn't that something akin to the rallies north of the border, or (to exaggerate) the Nuremburg Rallies? In any event, we didn't think much of it at the time - just another field trip!
North Korea, of course, was the official Great Evil. That stood to be logical, what with their tunnels and assassination attempts. In 1976, though, things got a bit unhinged and really racheted up the rhetoric when a massacre was committed by the North. This occurred in the demilitarized zone, that area on the 38th parallel consisting of a couple miles' width to keep the two nations - still technically at war even in 2010 - apart. Apparently it was militarized to some extent, regardless: apple-picking soldiers, both South Koreans (nearly 20) and Americans (2), were killed and then hacked to pieces with machetes. This, understandably, caused an uproar.
For months the country was tense, everyone wondering if this meant that the war would reactivate itself. Seoul, it is worth noting, lies only some tens of miles from the border. The viciousness of the attack, combined with the short distance away from the DMZ, couldn't help but keep this in everyone's minds. [Rebecca: I remember that. Huge, double-bladed helicopters would fly overhead with tanks hanging from them. Pictures of the beheaded South Koreans could be found in the Korean newspapers, and air raid sirens could be heard all the time. We thought we might be sent back to the States since the two Koreas were very close to a conflict.]
Not that we didn't always think that war was close at hand. Huge concrete tank trap installations, found along all major roads and bridges, made this clear every day. Closer to home, my Dad's very job related to analyzing a potential war. Even I felt it acutely once, when I went to the forwardmost American camp, Camp Casey, to play chess at the demilitarized zone. In my eyes this seemed like a daring thing, the camp always being mentioned in the news for being so perilously close to the DMZ. Sure enough, the installations of war on that trip were seen especially close at hand and in greater number as we approached the border.
The other war, though, which wasn't so talked about, was the previous one, WWII. But it went back earlier with Japan, with the enmity actually lasting decades in the most direct sense. That was because Korea had been a forced colony from about 1910 to 1945, with abuses that still come out and into the papers to this day. Even in 2010 there never has been a sense that Japan did enough to close the issue satisfactorily. Back in the 1970s, though, it was far worse and nowhere near as old.
On a daily basis, looking or being Japanese was a very dirty thing, muttered under breath. North Korea was an immediate issue, in other words, but Japan was seen as THE long term problem. For my part, I was too young to fully grasp what this meant. However, with two younger brothers (adopted in S. Korea) - and with one who looked very Korean and the other quite Japanese by most accounts - it wasn't like the issue didn't exist.
The Korean-looking brother was treated much better by our maids, for example, just as I remember hearing comments among them (or locals) that the other "looked Japanese". This was not said with the least of a smile. (On a more personal note, these adoptions would become a lasting, contentious issue between my parents. That they had also adopted a teenager from Viet Nam previously, in addition to a sizeable birth-family of eventually-to-be nine, did little to help matters at the time.)
In 1970s South Korea, Japan was simply a dirty word. It was a perjorative that could be applied to many things far beyond any reason, particularly with Japan having abruptly lost control of the colony in 1945. With that in mind, things like jointly hosting the World Cup some years ago - as South Korea and Japan did in 2002 - can STILL hold great significance. The two peoples have looked across the sea at each other for a l-o-o-o-o-ng time.
THE KOREAN TOY SHOPS, STALLS, AND... RECESS!
One of the great things about living in Seoul was the odd trip where we actually got to freely wander about in the city. For example, the glory of the bazaar that was Itaewon was intoxicating. This was a traditional, market-styled shopping area in downtown Seoul, just outside of Yongsan Base (which sat on prime real estate itself as a result in part, a point in contention even as late as in 2010). It seemed like one could find everything there - somewhere. I - we - looked, believe me.
With only a half-dozen to a dozen years on me, though, it was the street toy stall that was invariably the best find. That wouldn't change over the five years, either. Fortunately they were easy to locate, what with the big nylon nets hanging outside of them. Each net would hold a specific type of item, but big rubber balls were the most popular and obvious content by far. I'd then poke around the shelves to look at the tops and the random novelty.
[Rebecca: Itaewon was also where we were first exposed to military nightlife. We were very aware that prostitutes lived in the houses in the back alleys. Remember the VD song?] For the record, I remember the song all too well, melody included (it showed on T.V. and played on the radio, too): The words "V... D... is for everybody, not just for the few..." started it off rather pointedly.
For my part, it was ONLY all about the toy stalls. V.D., and the seedy side of things in general, struck me as slightly obscure - or at least not interesting. (Girls would only become interesting near the time of our leaving, when I was 10 and 11.) Anyway, toy stalls were where I WANTED to go... when not being dragged around by my Mom. She was invariably interested in the myriad of OTHER stores, like the ones selling textiles on the very cheap. Itaewon was THE place to get jackets and shoes in particular, although anything from ceramics to furniture was available.
Outside of the toy stall, for instance, one could focus on things like... buying syringes. Yeah, we used syringes as squirt guns. [per sister Rebecca: We would also get the needles [that came with them], which we would toss because the water squirted sideways with the needle in the syringe.] There was quite an array of sizes, too, each delivering its signature blast with varying stealth. Perhaps more importantly, they were also much cheaper than buying a proper squirt gun. Everything was cheaper when bought on the Korean economy. It took no time to figure that out at all.
Of more lasting interest to me were over the years were the clay tops available in Itaewon and elsewhere. These had a steel-center spindle, with baked clay evenly surrounding it in a cone shape. To make one spin, you wound a string about it before giving it a whipping yank and release to spin the thing away. The competition was to keep your top spinning longest, a take-no-prisoners contest that absorbed many a recess. I remember doing quite well at this, probably the reason why I stayed with it so long.
Practically speaking, a top stayed good until the clay gradually chipped away too much. By then, too, the steel tip had became exceptionally dull. Playing on asphalt and concrete sped up the disintegration of the top magnificently, precisely the material of which every playground was made. When the top began to spin cockeyed, you bought another one. Then you'd choose between the two sizes wisely, what with the jumbo ones more prized but less spinworthy. This was a catch-22 of function and fashion if ever there was one, making a slight mystery of what appeal the jumbo one could have if winning was THE thing. And it was.
Beyond victory, the appeal was also about getting a ripping zip, that perfect drop of top onto pavement that lasted nigh on forever. It felt an art to do so properly. Plus, the joy of watching the tops of others die one by one could not be overstated. On the downside of all this, however, my brother John and I likely completely ruined the surface of our bedroom floor. It was composed of a kind of waxy-like surface, a covering for the traditionally heated floors in our (then RGH) house. Oops.
Keeping with the theme of Depression-era hobbies supplied by the toy stalls, marbles were also an obsession. There were cat's eyes, steelies (which actually came from pachinko gambling machines, with lettering sometimes stamped into them), clearies, and boulders. Clearies were the most rare and prized, while boulders were valued for their looks but not their use. Steelies were mercilessly effective, merely lacking in any flair whatsoever. We'd play these incessantly at school, and at home in the yard, too. With a flick of the finger you tried to hit your opponent's marble with your own, usually getting to capture it... for keeps. This could cause problems, of course.
Other than that, it seemed like recess at school - where we played marbles and tops just like at home - was an unending blend of playing 4-square with a big red rubber ball or the odd game of dodge ball. Otherwise we were only left with hitting the swing set as consolation. This latter pasttime would be the choice usually only if you couldn't get in on the games with the coveted big, red balls. Once resigned to the swings, however, I remember that my goal was always to go as high as possible. This was something which invariably meant a loss in tension (and the accompanying heart attack) when I topped out. Then I'd just go for the massive jump off onto the hard pavement. This was pre- wood and rubber chips being used in ANY playgrounds, so sometimes it hurt - or I got scuffed and literally injured. None of this was stuff a parent would ever want to see.
SHIN DANG DONG STREET LIFE
Shin Dang Dong was the first of the two residences where we took some root (the short spell at Ton Bingo Don would never rate as anything more than a time of transition). Thus it would be Shin Dang Dong that would form almost all of our first, real experiences with Korea - in some ways the most valuable. For, while our time later at RGH might've resembled small town life in the U.S. of A. circa the 1950s, our time in Shin Dang Dong was far more immersive. It was only living in Shin Dang Dong that instructed us that we were unquestionably in South Korea as an everyday realization. Being followed by packs of kids at times, each pointing a finger at us in amazement (probably on account of our bright blond hair) and yelling for others to come see, probably had a way of cementing that more than adequately.
Okay, we were in a very wealthy part of South Korea, and in the capital no less - fair's fair - but it was nonetheless still a local version of Korea. If anything made (burned, seared?) this point best, it had to be the horrendous smell of (what we called) the honey bucket truck. This liquid-tanker vehicle would come by on a somewhat regular basis (a week? a month?), rumbling down the alleys. If you didn't hear it, surely you'd smell it as warning. At first we'd peek to see what was going on, but later on we knew better: get inside! Outside, people would come running out with their open buckets filled with human waste.
The reason for this was simple - they had no plumbing! Indeed, an odder juxtaposition of wealth and poverty could not be had - especially as we had typical indoor plumbing and bathrooms as you'd find anywhere in the industrialized world then. These streets of wealth on which we lived, with each house barricaded from the rest of the world, did not escape the greater reality of the country: This two-pronged view to life was brought home on a daily basis, every time we entered and exited our gate.
It was frankly impossible to ignore the shacks littering the alleyways, even if we had tried. Each held a family inside, scraping by since Seoul immemorial, undoubtedly, while the rich houses next door would invariably have a car complete with an always-waiting chauffeur. If THAT contrast didn't serve to bring the point home sufficiently, the extreme poverty on display otherwise at all times - with beggars (usually horribly maimed or disabled) on the ground asking for alms - did.
Another place this difference in economics showed up was right inside the house. With a large family (at times with up to eleven children under one roof), and local labor incredibly cheap, we had a number of maids over the years to help out the family. This situation was probably as much a boon to us an odd cultural experience to them. [per my sister Mary: I remember always being carried on one of the maid's backs, and she used to love touching my hair - probably because it was blond.]
The maids, quite sensibly, also utilized the opportunity with efficiency. They had complete access to a kitchen and unused storage space (both of which we'd have also in RGH later). They'd used both when they bought brand new, large plastic garbage cans or massive clay pots. These would be used for storing kim chi under the house, or placed in the enclosed alleyspace behind the house. We certainly didn't utilize those areas otherwise.
Containers purchased, the maids would set aside a weekend each fall where they would go into production making their beloved (and national staple dish) kim chi. They'd make an ungodly amount, too - to last a year, I think - before ladling the result into and sealing the humongous jars or cans. Invariably at those times the house would reek of garlic, onion, cabbage and spices. (It was thus not for nothing that the Japanese called the Koreans (and not nicely) "Garlic Eaters".) Indeed, and probably to this day, if there was/is one smell to get used to in Korea (besides dried fish possibly), it'd be garlic mixed with onion.
Kim chi aside, the street immediately in front of our house was our obvious window to the immediate world. There we'd see merchants like the scissors guy, or other vendors, on a seemingly daily basis. To assist with their task they might be pulling along a cart straight out of the middle ages, too, with an ox or pony up front. In the case of the scissors man - the most notable, for some reason - he made a sound with an ancient and oversized (by current standards) pair of scissors as he cut the air. This was sufficient to let you know that he was coming by. Beyond scissors, of course, he was available to sharpen knives. But wait, there was more!: he also had many implements/tools hanging and swaying from his cart, all available for purchase. One couldn't possibly help but imagine that that very scene had been playing out for centuries all over the land.
Come summertime, badminton was all the rage in the alleys of Shin Dang Dong. It sometimes seemed like half the neighborhood was out there swatting the shuttlecock in front of our gate. Not for nothing, then, do Asian teams win this sport overwhelmingly in international competition. We'd enthusiastically join in too, of course, only making a match of it when playing between ourselves. [Rebecca: Dad also put up a basketball net up against our house in the alley. I remember the older boys playing all day and night; they were not nice to us young kids.]
Us kids, meanwhile, couldn't help but notice all the local children that'd walk by every day. Each wore a school uniform that looked like a little sailor suit. Maybe that's what it was that inspired our parents to enroll my younger brothers John and Jack into the local preschool as well - to get in on the look! For the rest of us, it was the indoor pool at their temporary school that was far more interesting. It was a dank and dirty place, true, but it was also a happy zoo of kids splashing around having fun. [Rebecca: an older Korean boy held my head under water and I almost drowned in that pool. I will never forget it.] Ah... kids!
Probably impossible to imagine these days, but one of the most exciting things about Shin Dang Dong was that us older kids were allowed out and beyond the area just in front of our house. We'd walk or bike down the various alleys, often headed to one landmark or another, but invariably it was the market stalls lining various commercial areas that called to us most loudly. There we'd find tons and tons of stalls with dried fish, as always, but there were an equal or greater number of stalls that would hold every imaginable type of cloth.
Ignoring such practical items entirely, though, we'd always be vastly more interested in the stalls that had the huge mesh nets stuffed with inflated balls inside. That was the unmistakable sign of the toy stall! It was only when we were not otherwise distracted with toys that we could move on to easily finding any conceivable (traditional) knickknack at the other stalls as well. Lacquered wood, ceramics, incense burners of polished stone, brass, etc. My Mom's type of loot, in other words.
Relatedly, pet stalls were always interesting. You could buy live quails, rabbits... and dogs, too. Some or most of these were probably intended as food (some were already dead - maybe a clue?), but we made pets of them instead. Even for such care - such as it was that we gave the poor mutts - we still managed to lose some of them. This was an ominous thing in Korea, where eating them was just as easy a habit as keeping them. On one weekend a year - but more likely done far more often - any dog caught roaming loose was fair game for the captor. We lost a few over the years, sadly, although none would make for a story as sad as that of our sometime handyman's: he unwittingly ate his once when times were tough in his family.
Keeping on the animal theme. a fair that came by on at least one occasion showed a somewhat "different" local view of animals. A five-legged cow, natural or not, intrigued many a local - and us. That was the show-stopper that all of us would remember distinctly. The fifth leg looked oddly dangling, sure, possibly just sewed on - but LOOK! You couldn't help it. Other freak show oddities were available to gawk at, too, both alive or in jars preserved for posterity... or, rather, for the few won it took for the right to view them. We dropped our jaws and slobbered in disbelief just as much as the persons standing next to us.
Another "landmark" of great intrigue to us kids in Shin Dang Dong technically didn't exist. That's because it was a massive hole in the street for dumping, located some alleys away from our house. Found on one of the exploratory missions by bike us kids were compelled to make, it was a mysterious pit right in the middle of the alley. It was also perhaps 12 feet deep and of 20'x20' in length and width - plenty big. It was a scary thought, thus, to contemplate falling in there. That apparently provided no qualms to repeatedly go down that alley and look at it. [Rebecca: I remember the rats in that hole and Korean boys chasing them down the street while throwing stones at them.]
[Rebecca: When we lived in Shin Dang Dong I used to visit a man with one leg who kept chickens and other animals in his yard. I also used to visit a little girl who lived behind the kiosk - her home was a series of large concrete "pipes". They used cloth to separate the pipes into rooms. Conversely, we also visited a boy who lived in one of the houses nearby - up the alley in the street behind us. He spoke English and had a lot of stuff to play with!
THE SHIN DANG DONG HOUSE
Speaking of freak shows - what was the lady thinking when she rented her house to our mob? THAT should have been the most obvious question for our entire time in Shin Dang Dong. Hadn't she any idea what nearly a dozen bratty American kids could do to her pristine piece of property? Sure it was a nice place at the outset, but by the time we were done with it my brother John had run through the front (glass) door and his rabbit (which we called a jackrabbit) had leaped two brutal stories down onto some concrete steps below. Those certainly were appropriate bellweathers. Bit there were other and more physically damaging events to the building, too - and the doomed bunny was just the tip of the menagerie that was housed there over a year or so. Plenty of other rabbits, at least a half-dozen dogs, and even a quail I remember caring for on the upstairs porch put in their time. Poor things
Then, beyond the yippy, hopping things, there was what we did to the yard. That we had one in the first place was an amazing thing in Seoul, a massive and congested city even then. It was undoubtedly a prized possession/aspect of the house - upon our arrival. Yes, various plants were lovingly wrapped in straw to protect them through the winter weather and such, all was kempt and orderly - including an inviting grass lawn to perhaps play on for some sweet children. Uh oh. Indeed. With our brood on board, the grass was made quick work of by the first summer. Soon only dirt remained - and I remember hearing that the owner cried when she saw it upon our moving out. By then I'm sure we couldn't be gone quick enough.
[Rebecca: We also had a white Eskimo dog [I believe she's referring to the nasty spitz - ed.] who would regularly jump from the balcony to the yard below. While it was only one level to the yard, it was two levels down to the front entrance of our gate. We also would climb and play on the roof of the house (I loved house roofs for some reason). The house was set up so that the living room was downstairs, along with the master bedroom and the maids' quarters and another bedroom where the babies would sleep; there was a family room upstairs where all the other bedrooms were. The driver had a room right off the garage. We would bathe the dogs in his bathroom (how rude of us)! There was an alley along the side of the house and the street in front. I remember the smell of the house, but cannot describe it. Since we lived off base, we did not take a bus to school, instead we were driven by a driver who would curse all the time in English so we all learned some very juicy words!]
THAT JUNKYARD SHANGRI-LA
After Shin Dang Dong we moved to the aforementioned RGH, a housing development under continual construction during our entire stay there. This, of course, meant construction supplies... available! Now one wouldn't typically think a bunch of raw material piles would have been so much fun - but the ones in RGH were. With the ongoing development to spur the need for them, a few RGH junkyards (what we called them, hardly the appropriate term) held all of the leftover construction materials. Paradise! Shangri-La!
No, us punk kids wouldn't have ANY trouble finding uses for the piles of rebar and metal containers. What perfect places to play games! They made for great fortresses, too, and hiding places. With rebar stacked vertically, looking like tepees as a result, we'd invariably find an opening that we would use to get inside and plot away. The guards stationed nearby would never tell us kids to scram, either. Who could blame them? In the wintertime they were likely loathe to leave the heat of their fuel-brick-warmed shacks for anything. Thus we were eternally at liberty to find new locales to imagine into something different. [Rebecca: We called the junk yard at the bottom of our hill "the bar" because it was full of bars (rebar?). The one next to our house had wood piled in the form of a tepee. We would go in the middle and play, sometimes with matches. We would also play hide and seek in that junkyard. There was a guard shack in the far corner of our property and there was a guard tower in the junk yard.]
Perhaps these junkyards served as inspiration, too, when us brothers dug a pit on an empty lot. We harbored grand plans to start an underground fortress. Until we got about a foot or so deep and the digging got a lot harder. Then it flooded, too... so we immediately changed gears, making ships to sail in it. When we bored of that... we set them on fire. Sigh. Unsurprisingly, that probably was what led to my setting model airplanes on fire and then throwing them down the hill to break into pieces. Sigh redux.
The most vigorous use of these depots and open spaces, however, came in the days spent riding our bikes into them. This mostly happened at the junkyard right next to our house, all too convenient in being located by the community center and main (only) commercial building. We wasted no time in establishing it as THE place where we'd always be in search of catching air on the dirt ramp we built. At times, even, a wheel would actually lift a few inches! Beyond that, we practiced skids like they were an Olympic sport, too. Any time a rubber mark was left on the ground, a heroic triumph resulted.
Those were the "practical" sides to all of our cycling about. Meanwhile we were all agreed that the banana seats on our bikes were the coolest things going. It seemed like we were always comparing the various merits of our oddly-shaped vehicles, an enduring legacy of the 70s perhaps as much as the denouement of the oversized car. One such bike my sister (and then I) owned was built something like a heavy tank, with curly-Q handlebars that made the least sense possible. With a tiny tire up front and a large one in the back, it was all about its Hells Angels look. It rode like an ocean liner, unwieldy, impractical, and... pretty cool.
WHERE IT ALL HAPPENED - THE BIG PARKING LOT!
Come summer, but also including any days which were deemed suitably reasonable, the big parking lot that crowned RGH's hilltop was where all the action was. It was for all the kids too young to think of drinking beer or smoking pot yet, anyway. For me specifically, the parking lot was where I'd remember blissful summers of kick-the-can, capture the flag, dodge ball, and the daring challenge of "red-rover, red-rover!" It seemed like one street game ended only for the next to begin, with every kid under the age of 13 or 14 involved.
Perhaps it need be noted that even a scrawny punk like me was invited to play, so inclusive was the camaraderie when any willing kid entered the lot. There wasn't any of the dawdling through the horror of a lineup to pick teams. Usually you just picked which side you were on and that was that. Balance came Darwin-like through the boredom of a lopsided contest. Most importantly, on these plentiful, magical days, the games just went on and on. They only typically came to an end when the yells - or in our case, the sounding of large brass gong - sounded for dinnertime. (Where the hell were we, anyway - Mayberry?) If there was still light afterward, we'd go out again, refueled and ready for more.
THE BIG BUILDING, WITH ITS COMMISSARY, PX, GIFT SHOPS, AND THIRD-FLOOR BALCONY
The huge parking lot, of course, existed at the pleasure of the big building next to it. This edifice was called... The Big Building. It had five floors which were really four - the fourth floor just happened to not exist. To understand why, think superstition - like with the number thirteen. Fourth floors apparently don't exist in most countries in East Asia for this reason. As kids we didn't question this. There simply was no fourth floor - end of story.
Anyway, for us kids it was the mini-PX, mini-commissary, and not-so-mini-gift shop found in the big building that made for a wonderland of sorts. In my case, it was all about the models in the gift shop I could someday build (almost always WWII-vintage military ships and planes, with the odd tank or jeep thrown in perhaps), comics in the PX to read (where I'd sit on the floor next to the rack, almost never buying any), and the commissary's snacks. With a small allowance, every penny I had found itself spent here.
On occasion there would be a passion around collecting something, too. In particular, I remember a series in 1976 of bicentennial 7-Up cans. With one for every state, we constantly monitored any deliveries to the store to get all fifty cans. The idea was to build a pyramid with them; This would form a Statue of Liberty, if I remember correctly. Otherwise the PX and commissary represented a supply of junk food to get my hands on that would never be found at home.
Beyond such "practical" matters, I also remember the gift shop having many souvenir items of Korean inspiration. Of most note were the many glass animals that all of us collected from time to time. My sisters were into buying those far more often, as well as the odd coin purse or fan. On the third floor, too, was found a wrap-around balcony. This was a boon for all of us kids, an opportune thing to use to peer over the 'hood and the aforementioned Big Parking Lot - and get frightened every time while looking down. I sure did.
Behind the big building was the community pool, a hug hit come summertime. In my case I couldn't swim - I had practically drowned at age four in Hawaii - so I had a love/hate relationship with the pool. More accurately, that'd properly be broken down as feeling mutually jealous/afraid of it at all times. I so wanted to swim, but I was frightened to death of any water I couldn't stand in. For all of the attraction of this amenity, meanwhile, it most notorious for a scandal: It was found out that the guards were bathing in it at night. That caused a temporary closing and cleaning... and a lot of gossip.
[Rebecca: I remember one summer (maybe the first one we had the pool open), that the community pool was not kept clean and the pool was literally green with algae. All the neighborhood kids continued to swim in it simply because it was a pool. Once the adults discovered how disgusting it was, it was emptied and cleaned; [it was] never to be green again. I remember playing "diving" games to fetch items at the bottom of the pool and having to scrape algae away to locate small items. YUCK!!! I also remember when one kid almost drowned because the Korean lifeguard could not swim. Someone rescued the kid (I think an American teenager swimming at the pool). After that we got new lifeguards who had to prove they could actually swim.]
[Rebecca: I also remember watching "movies" in the big building. The movies were typically educational in nature, but we all were excited and would go simply because it was a movie! I also had my first cigarette in the bathrooms of the big building because we could buy a pack of cigarettes in the restaurant on the 4th? ["5th"] Floor. I remember [brother] Joey writing a note and pretending to buy a pack of cigarettes for a Mr. Lee or something. I cannot recall why we all thought it was funny, but I remember laughing about it.] [One might not wonder long at why Rebecca was called Rebel by one and all... - ed.]
THE RGH HOUSE - INDOOR GAMES, HEATED FLOORS, AND AIR CONDITIONING
The house in RGH, perhaps due to such attractions as the junkyard and the big parking lot, was almost more notable for how often we WEREN'T in it. If the weather was at all permitting, we were outside in the yard or the junkyard, up at the big building or its parking lot, in the "blue house" next door (which served as a recreation center, coincidentally taking the same name as the presidential palace), or out somewhere in the hills over the wall on the other side of our house. The results likely showed on our coats and the knees of our pants, often patched in a hopeless battle with kids who refused to respect them.
Meanwhile, with such an outdoors-focused mentality - and this thing called the monsoon season which turned our yard into a floodzone - our yard took no time in becoming a trashed dirt lot. This did nothing to deter it as also being the place to play with whatever animals had managed to stay alive in our - such as it was - care. A couple of mongrel dogs managed to earn the title of family pets, but the turtles, rabbits, and mice - which took to eating their young, much to our dismay and disgust - not so much. As they say, you can take the kids out of Shin Dang Dong, but you can't...
[Rebecca: We had box hedges surrounding our yard like a fence. Many mornings we would find a spider (large brown ones) would build a web across the two hedges that bordered our walk way. We would sometimes forget to break the web and would walk right through it. I loved that we finally lived in an American community after those years living in the city.]
The interior of the house, of course, was the place to retreat when the weather took to being disagreeable. With the monsoons, a punishing winter, and exceedingly hot and humid summers, this didn't make for an insignificant amount of time. And, being in the pre-computer-and-other-such-distractions age - our T.V. consisted of only one black-and-white channel, of little interest to us kids outside of the odd rerun of Star Trek (for me, anyway) - we took to pursuits that might have pleased any parents. Parents in the early 20th - or 19th - century, anyway.
We played card and board games ad nauseum, mostly. Monopoly made for endless wars, Sorry and Life far less so, and Risk was at least equally competitive between my younger brothers and I. The card game canasta - and its variants samba and bolivia - were learned to the point of expertise. Other card games like king's corner, hearts, spades figured in there, too, as did the classic East Asian game Go plus both the western and Korean (like Chinese) forms of chess. (Playing those latter formed another story altogether, a misbegotten obsession of my father's in futile hope of a prodigy.)
Heated floors made this all a reasonable proposition in the winter time, certainly, but it was the A/C in the summertime that would make a greater impact mentally in the end. For, as the former existed as a necessity almost everywhere in the house, the A/C only was available in my parents' large bedroom. The beleaguered chamber would form a crowded sanctuary when the heat outside was beyond unreasonable, often hosting a motley crew of at least half a dozen of us playing cards on the floor as the younger kids looked on.
Come nighttime we would spread out our yos (spongy, foam cushions for sleeping) and continue playing away as long as we were allowed. Walking between these makeshift beds to get anywhere in the room was no picnic, of course, not with a dozen or so bodies strewn about. Between my parents' kingsized bed and all the - thoroughly used - floorspace, practically nothing was left over for such thing as a foot seeking placement. The one-room house in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory truly had nothing on this.
This memory still resounds, too. To this day, when I hear the similar, loud constant hum of an A/C motor, it takes me there. Perhaps this is an odd reminder of family and, ironically, warmth, but there you have it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this situation would repeat itself as a running theme on the sole overseas family vacation we'd, a two week "home leave" back to Hawai'i that included about a week in Japan in 1975.
As for the house's basement, something of a dank warehouse of moving boxes we'd never unpack in five years, THAT had no appeal whatsoever. Spotting a rat down there early on certainly helped not in the least, nor was the fact that you could barely move around for the cardboard walls that never-unpacked moving boxes made. Only my sister (then appropriately nicknamed Rebel) Rebecca would make a go of it, forming a club briefly down there with her friend Melissa. I think it was called the Red (Bloody) Spots or something. If only for the location of their headquarters, they'd never recruit beyond an initial two members. With my brother Joe and I as spies, however, one could say that interest from the outside equalled that which was found within their club.
[Rebecca: The washer and dryer were also in the basement. I remember the maids complaining about being shocked by the dryer because the floor was so damp. We used to climb up the rain spout and play on the roof. One day we tied our tae kwon do belts together to rappel down the side of the house. I went first and the belt ripped as soon as I put my full weight on it. A sprained ankle resulted.] [See what I mean? "Rebel". - ed.]
A more odd use of our house was for church services. This occurred for a while before the "blue house" next door was established for such use, along with the showing of movies, ping pong tables, and the odd event like the "Calvacade of Sports". That last concept was something like a decathlon, undoubtedly inspired by the '76 Olympics. My Dad could take credit or blame for that one, although credit really would be the right word - the trophies were coveted enough, and it made for a fun weekend.
Meanwhile, with my parents going through a wacky religious phase - think Catholicism gone on steroids - us kids had to endure part of the neighborhood dropping in on our home every Sunday for a good while. My elder brother and I were even "recruited" to be altar boys for a spell, something which we sullenly did, if perfunctorily. No, the priest DIDN'T ask for any special services; most of the time I remember being spent primarily not trying to look at my brother Joe. He, invariably, was looking for a way to make to me laugh aloud and get in trouble. Outside of that, all we knew was that we had to ring some tiny bells at times - or hold up a plate and/or napkin to catch peoples' dribble when they took communion. Mostly all of us kids couldn't wait for the service to end, certainly out of sheer boredom, but also because the close of a mass also meant one thing afterward: coffeecake!
On the flip side of the house's use for such services of a purportedly higher order, my parents' parties were something completely different. Invariably we'd find a soldier or two sleeping off hangovers in our living room the next morning, a suitable proof that a good time was had by at least a few if not many. Us kids, if not co-opted into serving roles DURING the party, would wander AFTERward amidst the wreckage. That was the perfect time for perhaps a sampling of the odd dish of sweets or nuts, oversights to being put away in the rush to crash that must have happened at the end of the affairs.
For all that post-party sniffing around, at least there'd be no repeat of when my little brother John got drunk. That happened from a healthy sip-sampling of leftover glasses of booze back in Hawai'i when he was still a toddler. He was curious to try all the reachable offerings while my parents said goodbye to their guests at the front door. Nowadays it's hard to imagine some - any - of this laissez faire stuff these days with my friends' and siblings' families, but in South Korea c1975 or so - NO problem!
JUST OUTSIDE OF RGH
The greatest magic of those days in RGH, however, lay just beyond the wall to one side of our house. This was the area outside of the compound - Korea! It might come as a surprise, though, that none of us probably ever physically hopped over that barrier - the flimsy guard shack at the corner, with its barricaded street entrance, made that unnecessary. Regardless, there did two worlds separate... completely. On the inside was an attempt at re-creating a small version of Anytown, U.S.A. Beyond was... Korea. For OUR family's kids, this wacky "Korea" place was a huge draw.
That probably had a lot to do with a lack of supervision, undoubtedly a casualty of a family of a dozen kids. At least the babies would make it! For us older kids - all bets were off. They were building a highway just beyond the wall, for one thing, a project that for the most part we didn't see in action. The rubble and results, however, were another thing. A hill had been sliced through just beyond the wall to allow the road to pass, providing plenty of fodder to muck with.
Indeed, there was no more alluring prospect than scaling the rough, vertical cut to gain access to the hill above. That would lead to even more hills beyond - the great mystery. To accomplish the journey, we'd carve steps and ledges into this "wall" with a fortress-building mentality, hacking into the clay/mud like a horde of unstoppable ants. Now, whether the wall was 10 or 30 feet tall I can't rightly remember, but I do know that we only climbed without a net. Somehow, no one ever fell.
That was a good thing, too, because on top of the "wall" was where the greater fun began. The HILLS! What was out there? Who knew? It didn't matter. We'd make enough forays to provide a detailed map over time - if anyone ever asked. They didn't, so we just kept poking our noses around, sometimes packing lunches for extended rambles. Of great interest, there was an ancient temple or two back there, plus at least a few tunnels left over from the war. We took no time in especially exploring the latter - expert spelunkers that we suddenly envisioned ourselves - securing flashlights from home and scaring away a bat or two in the pitch blackness.
For our efforts we'd reap a modest reward: of the forked main tunnel we went to, its left side was in good shape. Going to the right required some scrambling where it had begun falling down, but we'd squish ourselves through that as well. Here and there we'd find propaganda leaflets, adding to the sense of being in a forbidden area of sorts. But all good things had to come to an end, at least as far as the tunnels were concerned. When some teenagers were caught - or suspected of - smoking pot in them, well, that was it. One day we came home from school (or base) to the sound of dynamite. The MPs came out of the hills some time later. There went THAT fun.
But there was always more stuff to be found. For example, there was the ancient cemetary. Talk about spooky; some of the headstones were o-ld. This was the very boneyard where my brother and I stumbled on the robbers counting their loot. Things generally went far more benignly than that, though. For example, my older brother and I used the hills also for archery. Such as it was, anyway. We combined rubberbands to stretch over a pliable branch, then shot sharpened sticks over telephone wires when it became obvious we couldn't possibly hit a target. It never dawned on us that this might not qualify by most associations as the sport proper. Maybe if we set them on fire!
We didn't, but a far worse use of the hills came about in that direction. This was to be my habit of playing with fire, an altogether easy thing to do when no one was watching. No one ever was - how 'bout dat? Bored days of summer, and lots of tall dried grass - well, this couldn't of helped. Right. Anyway, for a time the growing number of fires I set were controllable, a good thing. Then two weren't - not so good. The first was snuffed out with my brother's help (see my pyro essay for details), the other got away from my control. That is, it did until the village below scrambled to put it out. That was really, really not good - and I did learn the lesson.
In any event, the best draw of all regarding the hills was the sense of exploration. With a number of bona fide finds under our belt, it always seemed like more would be on the way. Our discovery of a Korean military installation, thus, could only let it be called the "secret" base. That there, by necessity, was a road - or roads - to it from another direction never even entered our heads. We had found it via the hills; therefore, the only way the rest of the world would find it had to occur the same way. There is a lot to be said for the ignorance of kids. I mean, imagination! Yeah.
All the while, and concurrent to this re-envisioning of modern-day Colombuses, to the right of the hills from our house's perspective lay numerous rice paddies. They aligned themselves along our compound wall, and sat above the village that I almost annihilated. In the summertime, these soupy bogs were Ground Zero for bug - and especially frog - catching. For such endeavors we took to them in a frenzy at times, glass jars with perforated lids in hand. We scooped up water, or muddy slush, to root them out after a telltale jump. Or maybe we'd herd tadpoles to force the issue of frog captivity for later.
The farmers, miraculously, never complained of our intrusions that I remember. Perhaps they were just laughing: fields were for work. We wouldn't be chuckling in the end on many occasions either, though, not when we had to peel the numerous leeches off that came with the mission. They had fixed themselves like glue to our legs, inculcating previous memories of the bloody process of pulling them off. The dry bug-catching game, thus, only seemed to gain fervor as we tired of frogs and leeches in favor of grasshoppers and crickets.
That was summer's folly. Come winter, and located far to the other side of the compound, lay another treat. The rice paddies that led to the main road to Seoul were broader and flatter; they allowed for an extended skating rink when flooded and frozen. This was not a properly groomed rink, mind. Nature was left to the task for the most part - or the skaters' blades were. We'd put on our skates and pay our 10 won, then we'd take our chances. Thin ice was common, as were rough edges between paddies... and the random stalk of rice sticking up through the stuff. That could send any of us sprawling in an instant. Still, for all that, I don't remember anyone actually falling into the foot or so of depth that the ponds held. That didn't help from making it always feel like a very distinct possibility.
Fortunately, too, the ice ponds were an area where both Koreans and Americans were equals. At least us that was true for us kids - I don't recall many adults being around outside of the farmer who ran the thing. I do remember, however, the smell of that grease we'd put on our skate blades, and the smell of the hut, too. There'd always be a charcoal brick burning for heat, of course, but that smell wouldn't last too long in our noses. We were all about the ice.
Also in the direction of the main road, there was one notable building (outside of the nearby girls' school): the Tae Kwon Do competition hall. This was where kids would go for the right to earn their black belts. In our family's case, a couple of us would fight there for that honor. In retrospect - and even then - we would second guess if the awarding of such things was rigged for Americans. The difference in the quality of preparation between the Korean kids and the American ones was pretty evident.
[Rebecca: There also was a woman who lived right outside that gate in a cement tube. She had a baby. The baby did not wear a diaper, though: he just was unclothed on the bottom half of his body. She hung cloth on both ends of the tube to keep the wind out.]
ON BASE - MOVIETIME, A POOL, SHOPPING IN "AMERICA" AND AMERICAN RESTAURANTS, EVEN TAE KWON DO
On the other end of the spectrum was the main base in the area, Yongson. Located in the heart of Seoul, and right next to the freewheeling Itaewon market, Yongson was Main Street America as only the military could provide in its bland way. Think prefab, utilitarian buildings, and broad streets not found elsewhere in the city with such modest traffic. Regardless of such aesthetic horrors, though, this was where we went to school, did our main shopping (including groceries), and had our mainstream entertainment - such as it was. Food, bowling, a pool - who could ask for more?
Regarding food, for example, we had the local officer's and non-commisioned officer's clubs for restaurants. Although to us this was a treat to eat out, the reality was a sad affair that us kids were only somewhat aware of. We knew that the better place - Hartell House - had the better burgers, at least. The other place served a form of leather... or dog. We questioned it - and ate up regardless. Sunday brunch buffet at a Club, too, didn't compare to what our Mom made either, but it certainly made up for anything in sheer grease volume. In other words, we were thrilled.
The Base Exchange and the Commissary provided general merchandise and food just like what we could've bought at home - but without any competition. Nevertheless, they were generally not lacking outside of pastry fillings for our traditional (Slovak) kolachi - those would be mailed in from the States. Certain things were rationed, too, and each of us had to use ID cards to enter before we'd be allowed to buy only so much of those special goods. This didn't affect the kids at all, of course, but booze and cigarettes (and who knew what else) were the stock-in-trade for the black market.
Outside of the rare trip to the bowling alley, getting tae kwon do lessons after school, or using the swimming pool in the summer (a terrifying prospect to me, the almost-drowned non-swimmer, what with its HUGE deep end), going to base had one fantastic allure: MOVIES. Pre-cable, pre-DVD, pre-video, this was IT. We could see movies at the Hartell House on occasion, yes - a screening of Jaws, where I was absolutely terrified with more thoughts of horrific drownings, comes to mind - but for the most part it was the base theater where we went for flicks. There we could indulge in popcorn, soft drinks, candy and - by far the biggest draw - the big, BIG magical screen. Today I can still smell that place - and it was probably disgusting. We hadn't a clue, though, rancid popcorn being the least of our thoughts when we were so thrilled to be there.
This was also a time of pre-screening what movies a kid might see, too - apparently. Maybe this was just the early days of the ratings system and no parents paid it any mind. Outside of Jaws, thus, I also remember us kids being taken to more than an ample share of horror movies. One in particular, with a guy chasing a woman with a bloody axe, would give me nightmares for years. Ah, childhood!
Not for nothing, then, that it was on one occasion that, near or at the end of a movie, I just walked out of the theater. I caught a cab home to Shin Dang Dong some miles away off-base in the middle of the city, not telling anyone in the family beforehand. Evidently this did not go down well when everyone came home and found me there hanging out with the maids. To this day I have no idea why I did it - maybe it was the bloody axe. It WASN'T the popcorn.
Tae Kwon Do was a lighter affair. Or, rather, it was when we weren't accidently making contact. For some reason - I don't remember what got it started - all of us above a certain age were enrolled in this martial arts regimen. We'd memorize patterns of motion, the random stance to hold, an associated Korean word or two to yell out, then spar. Although a jabbing motion, using two fingers to poke out eyes, was memorable, it was definitely the sparring that took center stage in my mind. Frankly, I remember not wanting to engage very much - like at all. When you're built like a twig that a moderate wind could make short work of, sparring was the last thing you'd be thinking of. Believe me. Instead I'd only ever be thinking - and hard, at that - how do I get out of this?
Ah, base life. It had its moments. Still, and although I don't specifically remember at what point things changed over (but by the time we moved to RGH, another odd form of small town America in itself), the thrill was eventually gone. Most days, and virtually always on the bus to school from RGH, I'd daydream ever more as we approached the gate each morning. Invariably I made myself something akin to Superman, always taking to flying over the bus... before taking a detour and landing in Itaewon. Things were far more interesting on the real ground - however unfamiliar - outside of base.
THE LOOK ABOUT US - ARCHITECTURE AND THE COUNTRYSIDE
With the base's sorry look perhaps as foreshadowing, the rest of the country's architecture could be said to look... about as bad. Though hardly stalinist stuff, almost all buildings seemed to share one of two looks: tumbledown, or modern and blocky. In other words this was uniformly ugly stuff, the result of a modernization that was under way. It obviously had no eye to preserving much of the past, only looking to the future in the most functional way. It didn't matter where you were, either, in Downtown Seoul or at KIST (Korea Institure of Science and Technology) or Itaewon - yuck.
The 1972 flooding of the river Han, which flows through Seoul, was thus a fascinating thing. Nature retook sections of the city, with houses floating away and street signs submerging. Was this a divine interevention to the ugly construction? It seemed so, although for my part nothing could have been scarier to me than the thought of possibly drowning (nearly) again. Notice a recurring theme? Well, that's how it was. Anyway, even then - should I have done so - I would've hardly been able to imagine the place to look at all familiar in some tens of years later. Supposely South Korea has been the country that has indrustrialized the quickest in the history of the world. From the oxcarts and shacks I remember seeing then, alongside new skyscrapers - I'd buy that.
To be fair, SOME old stuff was still around. The original, main gates to the city of Seoul, for instance. There were also numerous temples and royal palaces about the area, popular field trip fodder at school. Although stylistic in a way that the rest of the country wasn't, even they would become tiringly the same to check out over time, however. I would more often look at the wooden benches inside these buildings and think, "The king slept on THAT?" And was buried in that unmarked mound? I couldn't possibly imagine what the peasants put up with. (To be fair, I am often equally bored looking at frontier log cabins in the U.S. Seen one...)
Musically, Korea was a backwater to what we considered interesting stuff to listen to. (Still is, along with the rest of East Asia.) Over the years there I'd thus find myself listening only along to the various popular albums of the day. These were offerings from the Beatles, CCR, Paul McCartney & Wings, John Lennon, Elton John, etc.. It was the same variety as what people in the U.S. were listening to, just that we probably got it six months later. Specifically, I pretty much listened to whatever my Mom or older sister put on their cassette players. Thus David Cassidy and Cher could be as equally heard.
As for getting your hands on the stuff, the albums could be bought in downtown Seoul. Sure, they were illegally pirated, were cheaply made, and had Korean writing all over them, but did we want to listen to Korean music? My answer then - and now - would be no. Such open-minded, cultural exchange in the eyes of kid still in the single digits of years simply didn't exist.
NOW, IT'S PERSONAL!!!
What follows for the next section of this document are memories more specific to me. Well, MORE so is what I mean. Thus, they aren't likely shared with my other siblings: the somewhat generic memoir ends. Now, its personal!
SLOW TIMES AT YONGSON LOW (AS OPPOSED TO RIDGEMONT HIGH - LET ME RUN WITH THIS, WON'T YA?)
While blessed with a pretty sharp memory in general, it seems like my days in school must have been far from memorable. In fact, only a handful of things stick out at all for each year beyond the usual reading, writing, and arithmetic. I easily recall that I was always a good student when it came to math - and eventually music, too. Equally, I know that I was only fair to middling on the other side of things, like reading and writing. The reading, at least, would pick up over time. It would eventually become as out-of-control by fourth or fifth grade as it currently is.
As the school years went, I arrived in South Korea in the middle of first grade. I remember a room with cubby holes and taking naps. And that was about it, outside of having a non-Japanese teacher for the first time (they were the norm in my Hawaiian elementary school). Second grade? That was only nominally more of note, apparently. Lessee: Ms. Committee, my second grade teacher, was black. That was different, evidently. My sole memory of her was that she once walked up to me and smacked my legs off my desk, where I had propped them up. I had been leaning back in my chair and daydreaming. I don't remember disliking her at all - but she certainly had more respect from me after that.
More interesting was that in 2nd and 3rd grade - I don't remember my 3rd grade teacher's name, although I want to say Hawthorne - we had a special area within the classroom. This was a rudimentary treehouse of all things, a loft place for reading and listening. You would climb up into its area and put a cassette tape into a player and read along. With this incredibly modern technology began a lifetime longing for books - possibly. The only other thing I remember from 3rd grade is that we moved rooms and that two kids - Billy and Jimmy - were my only friends. While Billy was an introvert bookworm like me, Jimmy was the only black kid in class. He was always saving my ass from other kids who wanted to beat the crap outta me. I remember, too, that he won all of the races and seemed a head taller than the rest of us punks. And that was third grade, all wrapped up in a tidy bow for the rest of my lifetime.
Ms. Wicks, my 4th grade teacher, was another story altogether. She would probably deserve a chapter in a teacher's what-not-to-do book, one reserved just for herself. Tough as nails, and looking like she could play football if only on attitude alone, she reminded us daily that she used to teach sailors on aircraft carriers. If that didn't do the trick, she was always good for violently shaking someone's binder until all loose or semi-loose sheets fell out of it. Once she even threw a chair, sent flying down one of the aisles of desks, and hitting me in the process. I knew better than to yip.
Regarding me, specifically, I remember her repeatedly chewing me out because I beat the two Korean kids in our class at Korean chess. This was something which they had brought in for show-and-tell, then was generally available after that. How were they to know that my Dad was obsessed with one of us kids becoming a chess prodigy, with me seeming to get the most focus?
On a brighter note, I felt like I must be some kinda hot shit when I was attempted to be put in the grade above a couple of times. This wasn't agreed to on either occasion by my Mom and Dad, but I did get to play in the junior high band in 4th-6th grades. I also did my math with the older classes, including Rebecca's (to her embarrassment). Considering what a loner I already was at the time, they nevertheless made the right choice in refusing the advancement. I was both afraid and intrigued of the prospect at the time, but would fully agree in retrospect. As it was, I was a month younger than the youngest otherwise possible student in the class. I had entered kindergarten by being born on the state of Hawaii's cutoff day (Dec 1), a month earlier than the Jan 1 used in other states then (and probably now).
THE EYES DIDN'T HAVE IT
A couple of memories about eyes stick out. The first is funny: my Dad had a wicked case of pink eye in Shin Dang Dong, but for some reason chose that as the time to give me a (bad) haircut. I actually never knew this at the time - that there was a hole in my hair in the back somewhere - but that probably was because I wasn't told and was given a hat to cover it up. Regardless, I reveled in the greek sailor's hat I wore for some time. Long after the hair had regrown enough - what would that have needed, a week or two? - I kept with the habit just because I liked it.
The second eye story kinda stunk... and still does: my friends and I spent one week during monsoon season throwing mud balls at each other. This was great, until I got hit in the eye. You woulda thought that we'd be safe since we weren't playing and poking with sticks, no? No. Thus started a week of repulsive mucus oozings, plus a patch over my eye that would've done a pirate proud. Of greater consequence, though, this event would be the most likely culprit for getting diagnosed with glaucoma in my late 20s. Given the extremely early onset, and the equally odd reality of it only being in one eye - the left one which had been hit with the mudball - it seems likely that the glaucoma was a result of that unfortunate incident so many years ago.
One Christmas each of us kids was given a large wooden box, a 2x2x1 (roughly) thing that we could put a padlock on. Our names were even sticker-stencilled on them in an old, English-y font. Now, this was curious - but it would soon be a treasured gift for all of us. By far, it represented privacy. How about that? Yes, indeed, privacy was something in short supply in a family of twelve, even if for my part it wasn't something I ever thought about. Now I did.
Over time, these boxes - treasure chests, really - would take on more significance. More personality, too, such as what came from the stickers we'd eventually put on them, or the paint jobs that we'd give them later. Maybe they even represented security for insecure kids in some way. That seems plausible, especially as they came to be the place where we each put our favorite things - then locked them up. Before these new, sizable vaults, some of us had had little metal, locking fileboxes for our treasures. Now there was this. Hell, we could put the old boxes inside for "extra" security, even. Sometimes we did - now absolute, these little Fort Knoxes!
What mattered most to us now obviously belonged in there. Each became for each of us a dubious stronghold, a redoubt. It probably even encouraged hoarding, if only as a side effect. It made for a decision process, too, the deciding of what was good enough to belong in there and what wasn't. For me, it was mostly the books, usually escapist Star Trek episode screenplays or the Earthsea Trilogy. The Dune and Tolkien series would come later. Models, marbles, clay tops... coins, stamps... albums. Even today I find it interesting to think how the contents - and my values - changed. Ultimately mine only came to house books, those magical tomes and the special worlds they contained.
The only thing I don't remember is what happened to the thing. And why or when it disappeared. I guess that'll be left to the shrinks.
INK, PENCILS, ART SUPPLIES
Another strong memory in Korea was shopping for art supplies... then using them. The art supply - or stationary - stores always seemed like holy lands. Their smell of ink, wood, and erasers was palpable. It was easy to spend hours thinking about what to buy, weighing the different merits. Ball point or fountain pen? Construction or origami paper? Colored pencil with more or less grease, smear. The possibilities were endless. They still are - but the fascination started here.
Perhaps the most shameful experience in Korea for me was how we treated Mr. Hong, our music teacher. In what could only harken thoughts of colonial relations, I cringe when I think of how I - and any others among us brats then - treated this leader of a Korean Army band. He was hired to give several of us kids instrument lessons, but we'd only reward his efforts with complaints to our parents. Those only came right after we sullenly went through the motions of learning from this poor man. To this day, especially in light of how I envision myself someday teaching kids trumpet perhaps, I am embarrassed.
In what could only possibly happen in the day of the Partridge Family being on T.V., we (actually!) OFTEN sang songs on the bus rides to school. This was done all the way from RGH to Yongson Base. To a parent, and there was often one onboard, this must have been just this side of summer camp hell EVERY DAY. But to us, it was fun. So, if just to spread the misery, below this paragraph is a link to a collection of the songs that we sang. I've rather liberally snagged bits and pieces on the net without any permission - bad, bad me. I'm kinda assuming this is all public territory by now - if it always hasn't been.
Songs from the schoolbus in S. Korea, if you dare.
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