Back in Korea, at The Compound, at the aforementioned Enlistedmen’s Club, we had a PX. One of the few benefits of being in the Army are the PX’s. The military didn’t pay much – it probably still doesn’t – and one of the ways they make up for that is by giving us a place to buy stuff cheap. In our case, in Korea at The Compound, the big items were cheap beer and booze (I never saw any wine, but in those days I wasn’t looking for it). On a nice afternoon – maybe Sunday before our traditional steak barbecue – a nice way to pass the day was with an alfresco gathering. The dress rules in The Compound were pretty casual: on duty, we had to wear “appropriate ” uniforms – always fatigues for us – when off base we had to wear Olive Drab wool uniforms or khaki uniforms. Officially, we were never allowed to wear civilian clothing in Korea but, in The Compound, sometimes guys did and nobody seemed to care.
My home – my bunk – in The Compound, was next to the back door of the Radar and Fire Control Quonset Hut and, outside “my door”, just beyond the perimeter fence, was a Magpie – Pica pica I found out about 15 minutes ago – nest and its chattering seemed to be mocking me. It seemed to be saying You think the world is inside your fence; the world is really outside, here. And it was. A world that was very different from any I had seen before. While we weren’t – exactly – forbidden to go out into Korea, we certainly were not encouraged and it took me awhile to get there.
My first views were from the inside of the Courier truck on a trip to the Eighth Army Headquarters in Seoul. As an aside, one of my favorite stories is shown in the picture, below. Where we were , in rural Korea, there was no refrigeration and very few trucks (no private ones). Almost every family raised a pig or two and getting the pigs to market was a problem. If the pig was killed before being taken to market, it would start to go bad, in the heat, on the long trip, if it was put on the back of a bicycle, it would squirm too much. So the family would have a tearful going away party for the pig – who was almost a pet and part of the family – and then the drunk farmer would load the passed out pig on the back of his bicycle on take him – or her – to market. Seeing a drunk farmer weaving down the road with a passed out pig strapped to the back of a bike was a fairly common sight. End aside.
Finally, I started walking into – for me – this new World. Often talking somebody else into joining me, but sometimes going alone.
Korea, where we were, was poor. It was the first time I had left California, except for a day trip to Tijuana, and I pretty much thought poor was taking the bus (although I had done alot of hitchhiking during Highschool). This was real poor, dirt roads poor, garbage in the streets and shitting by the side of the road poor. I don’t remember what I expected except it wasn’t downtown Nam Yang above. For a long time my shock hid the reality that everybody was working, that all the kids were in school, that this was a country on the make.
Over time, I began to see the beauty of Korea, and the hard work.
At some point – and I don’t remember the circumstances at all – Terry Upman and I volunteered to guest teach a couple of English classes at the local school. I don’t remember being very good at it – although I do remember making the kids laugh – but it opened another gate and I was invited to dinner in Suwon with a couple of teachers.
I was starting to become an Asiaophile, but I never expected the change that Korea made. From impoverished, war-torn, country to one of the Four Asian Tigers with an average UN Human Development Index – a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living, and quality of life – that is higher than France or Italy. I didn’t expect this
to turn into this (not my pictures).
I didn’t expect Seoul’s South Gate to go from this
to this (not my picture).
But, maybe, my picture of South Gate in 1964 foreshadows the South Gate of today. In my picture are two buses that look sort of like a VW Micro-bus except that they are four wheel drive for the – then – dirt, and often very muddy, roads and they acted like communal taxis. The buses would hang around at a large parking lot, each bus going to a different, specific, place, when the bus was full of people going to the same place, it would take off. Because the buses were marked in Korean, it was hard to find the bus to Nam Yang, and they were not as comfortable as the Courier truck, I only took them once or twice. But I do remember thinking that they would be great in the US. Imagine how handy it would be to catch a direct bus from San Francisco to – say – Telegraph and University in Berkeley, or Portola Valley, or downtown Fairfield.
Looking at the buses in Seoul, was the first time I saw that the weak sauce of American superiority – in everything – often covers an inability to learn from others. Korea didn’t have that alleged advantage. The next time I saw it was in Japan, when I walked from a train platform directly onto the train without climbing stairs. I see it in subways in Hong Kong and high speed trains in Shanghai; all transportation solutions that would help the Bay Area and California. And it is not just in the public sector, I saw it the last time I got into a General Motors car and noticed the goofy power seat controls so much less intuitive than the seat controls in a Mercedes Benz that almost every European and Asian car has adopted.
Reviewing my slides from Korea has been quietly cathartic (to quote Malcolm Pearson). I am surprised at how much one year has informed my life.