Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Chapter 2: Mr. Kim and the Filtration Plant




My closest friend and co-worker during my year in Korea was a lieutenant named Fred Yamada. He was from Honolulu, a civil engineer in the real world and a sanitary engineer in the army, having completed his crash course. Unlike me, he found toilets and septic tanks understandable and interesting.
One day early on, Fred said to me, "Doc, you haven't been to the filtration plant."
"The filtration plant? Oh, I guess I haven't. Am I supposed to?"
"Well, I'm supposed to inspect it, and you're my boss. So you're supposed to supervise me."
"When should we go?"
"How about now?"
"O.K. Why not?"
First we stopped to say hello to Colonel Wilson. Fred explained to me that when you inspect, you always see the officer in charge first and on down the line so as not to slight anyone. Colonel Wilson was the District Engineer. That made him commander of the filtration plant, although when it came to matters of plumbing and such, he was as ignorant as I. That wouldn't have been so terrible if he hadn't allowed it to bother him. But he lacked that quality of leadership that allows one to deal with one's ignorance constructively.
The colonel greeted me warmly and explained how he didn't mind when inspectors came around because, "In spite of having to deal with non-military personnel and slope labor, I run a tight ship and have nothing to hide." Then he told me that he liked me. He then started telling me about some guy by the name of Harry Cohen who owned a shoe store in his home town and how Harry was a good friend of his. He also imparted that after his rotation back to the States next year, he would only have one year to retirement.
In front of the filtration plant was a huge sign that read, "This plant is built and maintained by the Trans-Pacific Architectural Corporation for the U.S. Army" and contained a large corporate symbol (like some medieval coat of arms) which was a fire breathing dragon with TPAC tattooed on its right paw and the American flag on its left. TPAC was an American private company that had a contract to build and maintain various facilities for the Army. Its job was to please numerous Colonel Wilsons in various facilities in the Far East. The managers were Americans, and the workers were Koreans.
A phenomenon I have observed on a number of occasions is that when private enterprise works for the government, it undergoes a metamorphosis. In its effort to please the government, it becomes more government-like than the government itself. This was characteristic of the upper echelons of TPAC, although not of Mr. Smith, the manager of our filtration plant, or Mr. Kim, his assistant and chemist. Mr. Smith was a tall bald man in a wrinkled short sleeve shirt and baggy slacks, pleasant and business-like (no chit-chat). He was like many talented Americans working in far away places. One wonders why they are there, away from family and familiar surroundings. Are there no jobs at home? Yes, but these are often people with a handicap, either real or imagined. Smith's handicap was alcoholism. Alcohol had destroyed his American family and his American job. But out here, TPAC was lucky to get an American with his abilities, drunk or sober.
Mr. Smith first gave us a briefing in his office, describing the plant with charts and graphs. All I remember were pipes going this way and that. Then there was a tour (more pipes, tubes, and pools of water). At the end, he wished me a good year in Korea, invited me to visit the plant as often as I pleased, and left Mr. Kim with us so that Fred could do his thing with his check list. Fred went from gauge to gauge marking down numbers, followed by Mr. Kim and a band of Korean workers. Suddenly Fred pointed out something on the gauge to Mr. Kim who slurped a Korean slurp of emotion and barked orders to the men who jabbered back and forth and then turned dials until whatever was wrong was back to right. Later Fred told me the problem had been minimal, but "its always good to shake up the troops."
I heard little about the water plant through the autumn. The problem began on a particularly cold night in January when Mr. Smith went on one of his monthly drunken weekends. Not to say that he didn't drink in between, but by the end of the month his unhappiness reached a crescendo and required an intense blow off. On this occasion he got into a fist fight with an equally inebriated young soldier in a bar in Ui Jong Bu. The soldier ended up in the MASH with a broken jaw, and Mr. Smith was locked in the Ui Jong Bu jail with a black eye. Colonel Wilson received a call about three o'clock in the morning to come and get him. Not only was the colonel awakened in the middle of a frigid night, but he was treated to an hour of Smith's alcohol perfumed insults on the way back to the post in a drafty jeep sliding around on an icy road. The next day Smith was fired and went south to Pusan to live with an old girl friend.
That week there was a great flap at the TPAC office in Seoul with phone calls to and from the home office in San Francisco, inter-office memos, hand wringing, and arm-pit sweating as a great effort was mounted to find Mr. Smith's replacement. Actually things at the water plant were handled very well by Mr. Kim and his crew with Fred making his regular checks. But the situation did not please Colonel Wilson. He was beholden to a Korean who knew infinitely more about water purification than he, supported by "that Jap young lieutenant". He also wasn't overly thrilled with "that Jew doctor."
So TPAC had to produce a Caucasian American filtration plant manager quickly in order to maintain their contract and their collective sanity. Who happened to be available at the time was a recently retired tank officer by the name of Frost. He knew anything you might want to know about tanks and nothing about water filtration, but he breathed, walked, talked, and therefore could wear the hat. Frost was a pleasant man. His presence satisfied Colonel Wilson and allowed Mr. Kim to do his work. He spent most of his time at the officers club of the Fighting Bulls tank battalion where the bar has a foot rail made of tank treads, and one can discuss old tank battles over a stein of beer with people who can truly appreciate such stories.
During that period, I had occasion to see Mr. Kim a few times, but one meeting was particularly enlightening. I had accompanied Fred on a routine inspection. Afterward the three of us sat down in Kim's small cluttered office for some conversation over tea. I asked Mr. Kim at which university had he studied chemistry, and he responded, "I have never studied in university. My training is all on the job from Mr. Smith. Also I read many books, whatever I can find. You know, my position here is very difficult. I am not American. So I have no authority. But some day I will go to U.S. to study at an American university. I will tell them I only go to study, then return to Korea. But I will never come back."
The winter ended. Spring came. There was a little flap when our drinking water turned brown. At dinner in the Officer's Mess, some lieutenant would invariably hold up a glass of murky water to my nose to complain, "Doc, you expect us to drink this shit? What are you doing about it?" But after a few days, Fred and Kim solved the mystery and corrected it. It seems our water intake was downstream of Tongduchon. As Fred explained it to me, some stuff was deposited into the water as it passed through the Vill. The water then passed through our filters and after that reacted with our chemicals to make a sterile but brown colored precipitate. Fred and Kim solved the problem by reversing things, chemicals first and then filter.
Fred rotated back to the States the end of May. His replacement was due at some time in the future. Two days later it began to rain, and it just kept raining on and on. Two weeks into the rainy season, one of Mr. Kim's associates came into my office dripping water and handed me an envelope, saying, "Letter from Mr. Kim. You read." The letter said that the rain had brought new problems requiring decisions outside Mr. Kim's minimal authority. With Lieutenant Yamada gone, Kim had no one to turn to. Mr. Frost found his job more and more incomprehensible and responded by spending more time with the Fighting Bulls. Colonel Wilson, under pressure from General Fritz, the Division Commander, would rant about "firing everyone and making a fresh start," but fear of the consequences kept him from carrying out his threat.
Kim had heard through the grape-vine that Mr. Smith would be willing to come back if invited and that he would be in the area ostensibly to visit old friends, but Kim knew that actually he was looking for his old job. A clandestine meeting was arranged at the PX cafeteria. Over milk shakes and coffee, Mr. Kim, Mr. Smith, and I plotted our strategy. We would go over Colonel Wilson's head through my boss, Major Fratelli the Division Surgeon, to his boss Colonel Mc Hugh the G2, to his boss, General Fritz.
The next morning, I presented the story to Mike Fratelli, emphasizing the potential health danger, and how if anything happened it would be our medical rear ends that would be fried. Mike, a general surgeon by training (nothing to do with Division Surgeon) and therefore a man of action, immediately led me over to the G2 building (quonset hut) where he demanded an immediate audience with Colonel Mc Hugh. We then presented our case.
Mc Hugh said, "You know, Mike, your young doctors are inexperienced. They aren't army. It took me seven years to reach captain, and that's pretty good, but they step right in. You're asking me to talk down another colonel, a regular army man with a lot of history under his belt. I'd have to have a better reason to do that. And the General doesn't like bickering among his men."
"Look George," Mike called Mc Hugh by his first name, "If there's an epidemic of cholera or some other exotic crud because of the water, it'll be our asses, especially yours because I've informed you."
Nonetheless, Mc Hugh had to consider the matter. A few days later, Fratelli told me between cusswords that the "dumb ass" McHugh was too "chicken" to confront Wilson and "too dumb" to understand the problem, and "that's what happens when dumb ass lay people tell doctors what to do, and that dumb ass Mc Hugh is my superior and told me to forget it, and as your superior I'm telling you to forget it, and this is the Army, damn it!"
The word filtered down from me through Kim to Smith who then left for the city to take up residence with a new lady friend in Yong Dong Po. Within a few days, the status of things changed drastically. In the morning, I crossed the bridge that connected my BOQ (bachelor officers' quarters) from our office. Ordinarily it crossed over a small stream in a narrow crevice far below the bridge, often barely a trickle, but now it was a wide deep swift gurgling river, sweeping down the hillside and lapping at the bridge. Later that morning the sound of rain on the roof of our quonset hut office changed from ping, ping, ping to whoosh. Looking out the window, it seemed a solid mass of water was crashing down on the already drowning earth. I looked back at the bridge but did not see it. "I usually can see the bridge from this window. No? Yes? Yes, the bridge is gone. It's really gone."
By afternoon when the rain let up somewhat, we were in the middle of a flood, a real natural disaster. When I was a kid, I thought of floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and that sort of thing as episodes in the movies, dangerous, perhaps fatal, but clean. Actually a flood is mud, filth, motionless toilets, dry faucets, dark nights, silent telephones, and warm refrigerators.
The first two nights were flashlights and groping around. The Engineer Corps (soldiers as opposed to the District Engineers who were civilians contracting with the Army) came out quickly, efficiently put up new bridges, and started the electricity. But the water was slower. For a month one flushed by pouring a barrel of water down the toilet, and bathing meant finding a far away obscure place called the shower point, so instead one smelled bad most of the time.
It was necessary to make the water drinkable once it started coming out of the taps again. Mr. Kim had a plan which Fratelli and I only half understood but proposed to Colonel Mc Hugh. By now Mc Hugh was under pressure from the General to "do something about the water." The next day Colonel Wilson was out looking for Mr. Smith, and after much pleading over a crackling telephone line, he induced Smith to leave Yong Dong Po and return to his former position.
Gradually things returned to normal, lights and refrigeration, water from the tap, and the most blessed of all, flushing toilets. Colonel Wilson finished out his tour grumbling about "the drunk and his Gooks and the Kike doctor who took their part against us." Mercifully, Fred Yamada's replacement arrived, a young lieutenant from Ohio, a nice guy, well versed in sewage and stuff like that. His name escapes me. The rains were followed by a hot, humid summer, the air strongly perfumed with fermented cabbage called kimchi from the Vill and the feces that fertilized the rice fields.

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