Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Chapter 10. Mr. Professor

The University of Maryland had an extension school at Camp Casey which offered the soldiers some very nice courses. Fred Yamada, a few other guys, and I took a class in beginning Korean. After all, we were living in the country. It would be helpful to know something of the language. The class was surprisingly small. Most of the troops apparently found the study of Korean unimportant, unnecessary, or too intimidating. Mr. Kim, the teacher, taught English to children at the local elementary school during the day, and supplemented his income with night courses to us in Korean. He was a kind man who courageously tried to teach us the fundamentals of the real Korean language, which was quite different than the pidgin of the street that the locals and the G.I.s used for communication. During the course of the semester, the size of the class dwindled down to Fred, another guy, and me. As for continuing into the second semester, the three of us, the last of the scholars, decided that it was hopeless to expect that we would really master the language during the rest of our one year. Anyway, it took too much time away from the after supper activities at the officers' club, like drinking beer and singing "Stewball."
The head of the extension school was a short stocky man who looked very academic. He usually wore a tweedy jacket and bow tie. He lived down the hall from me in the B.O.Q. (Bachelor Officers Quarters). I don't remember his name, but we used to call him Mr. Professor. You couldn't miss him, darting around the post on his motor cycle wearing his motor cycle helmet, his tweedy jacket flowing behind him. Every Friday, he would drive down to Seoul. He had a house there and a girlfriend who lived in it. His was a strange story, strange to the outside world, although as time passed stories like his seemed to become less strange to me. Before World War II, he had majored in languages in college. His love was the study of languages and different cultures. He had always dreamed of traveling. He longed to sample foreign tastes, aromas, sounds, sights and any other stimulations his senses could encounter in foreign lands. To that end he became as fluent as possible in as many languages as possible. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the army and was made an intelligence officer because of his language abilities. One of his assignments took him to German occupied Warsaw where he befriended a Polish family that had become wealthy by siding with the Nazis. He pretended to be a rich German war profiteer who was not in the army because of a bad left leg and good connections. He was able to pull it off by speaking a perfectly accented fluent German and some broken Polish, and always walking with a limp. The family took him into their home and were delighted when he took an interest in their teenage daughter. They figured that the Germans would remain the winners and this would help cement their position with the winning side. They allowed him, in fact encouraged him, to sleep in her bed. After a brief courtship, they were married. He was twenty seven years old and she was fourteen. He remained in Warsaw until a few days before the Russians arrived when he and his teenage wife slipped through the lines to the Russian side. It was a surprise to the wife when she found out that her German profiteer husband was really an American spy with no limp. She accepted it. She grew up in those times when nothing was sincere, and all that mattered was survival at anyone's expense. She had never known anything else. The rest of the family was never heard from again. After the war, the couple went back to Warsaw to look for them but found nothing. Some people thought they were killed by their neighbors. Some thought they were taken off by the Russians, but no one really knew with any certainty.
After the war, Mr. Professor went to graduate school at the University of Maryland and then ultimately became a teacher there. The couple settled into a small comfortable home in a suburb of Washington, D.C. But after a number of years, the urge to travel overtook him again. A ten year stretch of American suburban life was all he could take before becoming restless. When the Korean War ended, an opportunity to teach at the university's extension at Camp Casey in Korea appeared. He grabbed it, and off he went leaving his wife in Maryland with their small daughter. They would see him once a year when he would return to spend Christmas with them.
When Mr. Professor arrived in Korea, he found an impoverished country just beginning to pick up the pieces of a society smashed by years of war. Many people would look at grinding poverty and all the ills that follow it, crime, filth, delapidation, lack of basic facilities, and run away. Others see in it opportunity. They thrive on it. An average man among suppressed people becomes an exceptional man, a superman. One could get by on a college teacher's salary in the States, but in Korea in those days an American with any income was a tycoon. As for the locals, poverty, of course could have an opposite effect. When the stomach calls out for food and there is none, the unthinkable becomes thinkable. That was the case with a woman and her daughter whom Mr. Professor encountered standing together and crying in front of the Lone Star Bar on a narrow crowded street in Seoul one evening. The woman looked very old, hunched over with wrinkled, weather beaten skin and greying hair. Her traditional Korean short jacket and full skirt were frayed and had lost their original whiteness. The daughter looked like a little girl, a ragamuffin with an angelic face. Actually, the woman was not as old as she looked. She was in her forties. And the daughter was not quite as young as she appeared. She was a teenager.
Although Mr. Professor had only recently arrived in the country, he already knew enough Korean to converse reasonably well and used his newly acquired language skills to try to comfort the woman and her daughter. The woman told him that she was a widow. Her husband had been a soldier in the South Korean Army during the war and had been killed, leaving her with five children and no means of support. She had left her village and come to the city in hope of finding work, but there was little to find. The proprietor of the Lone Star Bar had seen the daughter in the street, admired her beauty, saw her potential, and offered the mother a small sum of money to have her daughter as a bar girl. It was a deal too difficult to accept because it meant the unthinkable, selling her daughter into a life of sin. On the other hand it seemed impossible to refuse. It would mean one less mouth to feed and money to buy food for the other four. And so, the two were standing in front of the Lone Star Bar, saying goodbye, as the mother was about to sell her child for survival.
But Mr. Professor had an alternate plan. The beautiful daughter would come to live with him, and he would give the mother a small stipend each month which would allow her and her other four children to live comfortably. In other times, selling her daughter to an American would not have set well, but given the alternative, it was a last minute miracle.
And so, Mr. Professor rented two adjacent houses in Yong Dong Po, a suburb of Seoul, one for him and his fourteen year old mistress, Lee, and the other for his "in-laws." During the week he lived in a room in the bachelor officers quarters at Camp Casey where he worked, and on Friday evenings he would drive his motorcycle down to Seoul to spend the weekends with Lee. Lee turned out to be not only beautiful but also intelligent. Mr. Professor saw to it that she had a proper education. He sent her to the best school he could find. She learned to speak English fluently, even mastering Mr. Professor's Maryland accent. Those were happy years for the two of them. They spent every weekend together, except for the two weeks around Christmas when he went to visit his Polish wife in the U.S. They would visit the palaces, museums, and gardens in Seoul. At times they would take week long trips to Cheggido Island, to Japan, to Hong Kong. She grew from a teenage waif into a beautiful educated young woman. And then she was ready for college. She wanted to study in America. Although Mr. Professor was sad to see her go, he knew it had to be. It was in her best interest. Her mother opposed it, but he encouraged it. He decided that she would study at his school, the University of Maryland, and so he sent her to live with his wife and daughter while she went to school. They accepted her, and the three of them got along well. Nothing was ever said. Outwardly, she was just an exchange student whom Mr. Professor sponsored because he was a friend of her family. I don't know if his wife and daughter ever actually knew what his relationship with her had been, but I suspect that deep down they really did know.
Meanwhile, back in Korea, Mr. Professor quickly became lonely without Lee. He tried to start up with her younger sister who was now in her teens, but that was too much for her mother to take. By this time she had saved up enough money by being creative with Mr. Professor's stipend to move out with her four children and go back to her home village. Mr. Professor never heard from them again. Lee finished college, went on to medical school, married one of her class mates, and became a pediatrician. She now lives with her husband in California. The last I heard about Mr. Professor, he had picked up another Korean teenager and was living with her on the weekends.

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