Between April and June, 1953 – even as “Peace” talks resumed at Panmunjom, - a lot of boys died in Korea as each side struggled to occupy and hold every last square yard of territory possible, the Chinese sending in thousands of additional troops to be slaughtered. The war would come to a close in two or three more weeks; but what did that matter? It was in May of that critical time when I arrived at a neighboring MASH field hospital near Uijongbu and the MLR (main line of resistance,) to give blood and assistance to a world in chaos. (I have shared some of this story before but the reason for revisiting it will become clear in a moment)
Plasma supplies had been exhausted, so we were resorting to direct person-to-person transfusion at the time, making my O Positive blood type especially welcome. The idea was to “extend the apparent length of stay so no one would notice we were giving more than one pint. I was lying just uphill in the triage area from the white-faced young soldier to whom I was connected by a thin tube. My limited field of vision as I lay there took in the view of another American “kid” being held in the arms of a weeping buddy. His friend was singing a favorite love song to him; ‘til I waltz again with you! I watched as the singing stopped, and a kind and sympathetic Medic lifted the burden. It was the week I marked my 20th birthday; the week I learned something about love
As our bus full of white-haired veterans headed north toward the DMZ 56 years later, through a green and lovely land of tall buildings and 21st century opulence, I was surrounded by members of the former 213th Field Artillery Battalion, a storied Utah Guard outfit whose generous members had invited me to join them on this journey – even going so far as to honor me with membership in their association in a ceremony on their bus. They might have been excused for not knowing how I felt as we now passed through valleys in whose napalm-scarred wreckage and old fighting holes I had spent a year of my life on a somewhat different mission.
A few miles off to the east – I knew - would rise a tall peak known locally as Kookla Bong. For a few years it was known to some of us as Radar Mountain, and for 8 – 14 hours a day it was “home”.
Now two groups of grizzled Veterans waited to enter a two-story building for a special gathering; our 30 from Utah, and a somewhat-larger contingent from Oregon who had arrived the evening before, and whom we had just met while sharing a long dining table for breakfast at the Seoul Sofatel.
For some reason, two of us ended up at a small, tight and narrow stairway at one end of the building rather than the broad accommodating set to the south. Recognizing this, I began to hold back in case we were not choosing the better way. Just then – from behind the mostly- closed door I heard the terrible combination of sounds made by a large and crazily-articulated body falling and hitting every step and corner on the way down. The sounds were so horrendous that I KNEW what I was going to find when I opened that door. My timing was perfect. I clearly saw the light go out behind his eyes and his 80-year-old earth life depart his body.
This was NOT supposed to happen – not in the year-of-our-Lord- 2009-. And NOT in front of Al Cooper – just marking his 76th birthday THAT WEEK. I hadn’t even learned my Oregonian friend’s name before he was gone!