Sunday, April 20, 2008


Before I left for Korea, I had a feeling of apprehension, the first time so far from home in a strange land. And it's true, my first impressions of Korea were very much like looking at a picture in National Geographic. There were some places in the hills where I could really imagine Ghengis Khan riding across the horizon. But, strangely enough, when it came time to go home, I felt the same apprehension. Home was in a way now the unknown. I had not become a Korean. I had simply spent a year living in one of a group of little pieces of America scattered in many foreign countries. But it wasn't exactly the America from which I had come. It was an isolated island containing detached souls, detached in space, in time, in emotion, and in a sense of reality or a lack of that sense. I feared that perhaps I had changed so much that I could no longer attach myself to the real world in which I had once lived.
Also I wondered if home had changed. It had been a historical year from autumn of 1964 to autumn 1965. The Gulf of Tonken incident had occurred followed by the big build up of the army in Vietnam with a full scale war. In Korea it was just games, but I read in the Stars and Stripes (the military newspaper) about the war and about the protests at home. When I come home in my uniform will people stare at me? I thought to myself, "Why do you look at me that way? I wasn't in Vietnam? I was in Korea where there is no war. I'm a doctor. I was a preventive medicine officer over there. I inspected kitchens and toilets and visited venereal disease clinics in order to keep our soldiers, your sons and brothers, from getting sick. Well at least we did a good job with the toilets and kitchens. I never touched a gun the whole time I was there, not even on field maneuvers. The only gunshot wounds I ever saw were a guard who shot himself in the foot when he was placing a bullet in his rifle because he thought he heard a thief coming through the fence to steal an auto part from the motor pool and a lonely, depressed sergeant who shot himself in the head the day before Christmas."
I took the circuit around Southeast Asia on the way home. It was with mixed feelings. On the one hand I felt that I had to do it. Here I was on the other side of the world with leave time accumulated. I'd probably never get back again, so how could I miss the opportunity? Later, I would never forgive myself. On the other hand, it was a period of limbo. Leaving Korea was the end of a segment of my life. Coming home was not going to be just a return but rather the beginning of a new part of my life. Besides, sight seeing alone just isn't as much fun as with someone else, and I was anxious to see my family.
After spending one last night at the Green Door, I went off to Kimpo Airfield for the MATS flight to Japan. The lady at the Green Door offered to accompany me to the airport, but I declined. Somehow being sent off by the Green Door lady at the beginning of my trip and being picked up by my parents at the other end seemed inappropriate. Real life was beginning to set in.
I took a bus from the military air base in Japan to the civilian airport where I consulted a travel agent who booked me on a series of flights around Southeast Asia. I only spent a few days in each place. I wanted to see them, but I also wanted to go home. The first stop was Hong Kong. I saw all the regular sights like Tiger Balm Garden, the night clubs, and a hover craft ride across to Macau. There was a gambling casino on the boat, and there were Chinese ladies in fur coats hovered over the gambling tables who reminded me of fur coated ladies I had seen a decade earlier on a trip to Las Vegas with my family. I guess in those days fur coats were considered a sign of wealth and were worn even in hot weather. I had a suit made in Hong Kong. It was cheap compared to the U.S., but actually I had a suit made for me in a shop in Tongduchon in Korea that was half the price and lasted twice as long. The next stop was Bangkok, canals, glittery temples, spicy food, silk that didn't seem silky, a nice place to visit.
By the time I arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I had seen a lot of interesting stuff, but I was thoroughly lonely. The airport was a modern marble or marble-like building. On the way into the city, the cab passed the civic center with very impressive modern buildings, then the downtown area, and then to a shabby street where the taxi abruptly stopped in front of my hotel. I had asked for second class hotels in order to save money. It had worked out OK in Bangkok where the hotel was simple but clean and comfortable, but not here. The lobby was dingy. There were large ceiling fans slowly turning. It looked like the setting for a B class 1940s movie. I expected to see Humphrey Bogart sitting with Peter Lorrie and Sidney Greenstreet in the corner. I asked the clerk at the desk, "You have air conditioning?"
"No. But we have a hotel next door which does."
"Let me stay there."
The hotel next door had an air conditioned room but was otherwise worse than the first. It was dingy, dirty, and had cockroaches in the bathroom. By now it had started to rain, so I decided to spend the night. The hotel clerk offered to obtain female companionship for me, "You want woman? Malay woman most beautiful. I bring room." But I declined. Early in the morning, I moved to a simple but clean and comfortable hotel located in the railroad station.
That day I decided to take a city tour. I was sitting in the tour bus when three young Americans joined the tour. One was a blond fellow with blue eyes. Another was a blue eyed blond girl. The third was a tall black girl with a plain face but a rather shapely figure. By listening to their conversation, I ascertained that the two blonds were boyfriend and girlfriend, and the black girl was a friend of the blond girl. Also, it turned out that the fellow was an army lieutenant stationed in Korea and the two girls worked in the Army Special Services canteen in the very same Camp Casey from which I had just come.
Aha! My opportunity. Camp Casey would be my entree to the conversation and then to snare the black girl away from her friends. The conversation went well, but when I asked her to dinner, she said she had made plans with her friends, but I was welcome to join them. They were going to have dinner at their hotel and then go to the Saturday Night Sunday Market. Not exactly what I had in mind, but then again it was really what I did want, namely companionship.
After dinner while the lieutenant and I were relieving ourselves in the men's room, the girls were invited to a party by two Indian guys in the lobby who thought the girls were alone. When the lieutenant and I arrived in the lobby, the Indians realized that the situation was not exactly what they had in mind, but being polite they nonetheless invited us all to the party. The girls and I were enthusiastic about going to a local party with local people, but the lieutenant had some reservations. Anyway we all piled into the Indians' small car and off we went jammed together.
It was a great party. The location was a dimly lit courtyard. A record player provided the music. There were guys in turbans and girls in saris dancing the jitterbug and the twist. The two girls and I were enthralled by the whole event, but after about half an hour, the lieutenant suggested that we had better leave or we would miss the Saturday Night Sunday Market. Actually, the real reason for his suggestion was that he noticed some of the Indians looking hungrily at the shapely black girl. I don't know if his caution was warranted or not. Maybe he was misreading it. Anyway, the Indians who brought us to the party graciously drove us over to the Saturday Night Sunday Market, dropped us off, and returned to their party. We walked around the market for a while. It was a big flea market but nothing unusual.
The evening ended innocently. The taxi dropped the three of them off at their hotel and then continued on to mine. We were making the circuit in opposite directions. The next morning, they were off to Bangkok and I to Singapore. I have never seen them since then and do not remember their names, but for that one day they were my close friends.
Singapore reminded me of Hong Kong, Chinese people, British influence, modern tall buildings, commercial. It was once part of Malaysia, but apparently Malaysia kicked it out of their country because the majority of Singaporeans are Chinese, and the majority of Malaysians are Malay. The Malays did it to reduce the influence of the more middle class and wealthy Chinese in their country. It's an old story, the plight of middle class ethnic minorities around the world throughout history. Actually, Malaysia's novel approach was more benign than most.
The next stop on my itinerary was Manila, but in the airport when it was time to leave, a voice on the loud speaker announced that the flight was now boarding for Saigon and Manila. Saigon? That's in Vietnam! The travel agent in Tokyo didn't say anything about Saigon. Don't they know there is a war going on there? Well too late now. The plane's boarding.
I was only in Vietnam about one hour. Looking out the window as the plane landed, one could see tents, tanks, big guns, all kinds of military things all over the place. As we filed out across the runway to the terminal, we were greeted by a pretty little ground hostess in a traditional tight brightly colored Vietnamese dress and a big burly sun tanned U.S. marine with a helmet and a sub-machine gun. In the terminal, there were the usual amenities for tourists like us, a gift shop and a coffee shop. Also there were armed guards all over the place. When we boarded the plane again we added a group of U.S. soldiers going home after the completion of their year over there. They were a boisterous group, shouting, joking, deliriously happy to return alive. There was a lady correspondent with them, a tall bony angular woman wearing jungle fatigues and a big cowboy hat. She was joking, shouting, and drinking with the soldiers like one of the boys, but she looked like the toughest one in the group.
Manila and Taipei were nice, but I really didn't fully appreciate them because by this time I was anxious to get home. I am told that I seemed different when I first arrived home, more stiff and military, but the next day I was back to being my old self. I never noticed the difference. I spent the rest of my army tour at Fort Sheridan outside Chicago. It was in beautiful location on Lake Michigan with old trees and old buildings, a quiet place, but close enough to go home on weekends. Fishberg visited once on his way home to New York. My mother remarked that he seemed like a nice young man. He was.

So this ends my book, Memories of My Year in Korea. I hope you enjoyed it. It was a collection of fictional stories based on events that I heard about and in some cases experienced. I hope you enjoyed it.

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