Sunday, March 7, 2010
ECHOES FROM A LONG AGO ENCOUNTER
A scene photographed by Al Cooper during a recent visit to South Korea is reminiscent of the farm house in which he shared that unexpected meal nearly sixty years ago.
The village of Chi Hyang Ri was little more than a clutch of old-style, thatched buildings nestled among rice paddies just south of the 38th parallel in war-torn South Korea. The fighting had raged across the area in three campaigns, as that piece of farming country was occupied by succeeding sets of victors. Even as I arrived in-country in the Fall of 1952, the area was scarred by trenches and “fighting holes”, and pock-marked by craters in which live ordnance could be a hazard anywhere outside the barbed wire which circled our encampment. The village was occupied by a few hardy inhabitants, some of whom had fled from the north. They scraped what must have been a skimpy living from the rice harvest gleaned from paddies they worked hard to restore to a pre-war level.
The small unit of U.S. Air Force forward observers and close-air ground support controllers to which I was assigned carried out our mission mostly from a nearby mountain top named Kookla-bong, known to us merely as “Radar Hill”, several very long and dangerous miles north of the village next to which we had our living quarters. Our association with the local people, therefore, was very limited outside of the handful who worked for us as contract employees.
Returning to our tent area from a security inspection in the field one day, I was walking on a well-worn path which snaked its way between rice paddies and dwelling places when I met an elderly Korean gentleman. After exchanging bows and polite greetings, he motioned toward a thatched-roof building from which a thin ribbon of smoke and cooking smells escaped. I knew little Korean, but this native of the area knew enough English to make conversation possible. Motioning for me to follow, he led me to the small courtyard just off the path to introduce me to his wife, who bowed deeply, obviously honored that I should pause to visit them. With much pointing and smiling, they invited me to sit with them around a cooking fire and what was clearly their dinner. I tried to beg my leave, not wanting to intrude on the intimacy of their meal time, but I wished also not to disrespect such a sincere invitation.
The main dish was rice, with cooked soy beans. My clumsy attempts with chop sticks could not match the natural dexterity with which my hosts maneuvered the food from bowl to mouth. My obvious discomfort brought first smiles, then giggles from Mamma san. Rising to her feet and disappearing for a moment, she returned carrying a spoon which she generously handed to me. It was a very old, handmade utensil, carefully forged from brass and shaped by hand, probably by some long-ago craftsman, and it saved me from further embarrassment. The rest of the meal was marked mostly by the hard-to-hide pleasure my presence somehow brought to the residents of this humble, dirt-floored abode. For reasons I was too young and immature to appreciate at the time, sharing their meal with an American soldier who was a stranger to their beleaguered land represented for them a moment of honor. So much so that upon my departure, they forced me to take as a gift the ancient and valued spoon with which I had partaken of their own generous hospitality. I understood that this was the kind of gift one could not refuse without offense. And so over the years, I have kept the brass spoon in a box containing mementoes from my life, a repository I refer to as my “treasure chest”.
In connection with the Utah Veterans’ visit to South Korea in 2009, the story of the spoon became part of a film documentary produced by Korean National Television which has been shown widely across that country. That fact leads to the second part of this nearly sixty-year-old story.
Among those citizens of South Korea who watched the documentary was 28-year-old Kang Hur of Seoul, whose parents had lived through the war but who, himself, had been born long afterward. For Kang, the film brought about an awakening to the realization that he had become so comfortable with the freedom he inherited, that he had failed to experience the deep sense of gratitude which now overwhelmed him. For Kang, revisiting the history of United States intervention brought about an epiphany, and for some reason, he was especially touched by the story of the spoon. All of this is recorded in a letter he sent to me by way of Mrs. Sunny Lee, a Korean-American friend and neighbor, who had been the moving force behind both the Veterans’ Revisit and the documentary. With her own emotions impossible to hide, Sunny translated the touching letter for Shirley and me. The two-page letter itself is a thing of beauty, elegantly hand-printed with great precision in Korean characters. The letter had been attached to an attractive gift box, in which lay nestled an incredibly-beautiful matched pair of engraved, gold-plated Korean spoons and chop sticks.
The 2010 gift of sparkling gold has taken its place near my “treasure chest” and next to the 1952 gift of hammered brass. And Kang Hur’s heartfelt letter sings to me like an echo of that long-ago moment in time.