The Fellowship of The ROK
(Republic of Korea)
Everything I have related, serves to introduce The Fellowship of the ROK (Republic of Korea). All army related issues serve as backdrop to this close look at our barracks culture. In trying to convert impressions to memories, and memories to words, I have not distinguished between Ascom and Yongsan, unless it was relevant to an anecdote. Ascom was the base where everyone entered South Korea, and went through the screening process. From here, each went on to fill one of 50,000 available slots. Some of those slots were in Ascom itself. Yongsan was the name of the base in Seoul, where the 199th Personnel Service Company moved in December, 1972.
In this narrative I place more value on feelings and emotions, than I do on facts. Facts imply some sort of structure, or framework, and what I'm talking about belongs to the soul, the life force, the essence of being. Not until you have looked ahead to the unthinkable, and recognized it as your path for the next two years, as unwilling as you might be, can you completely absorb the enormity of the concept of Fellowship.
Barracks, we called hooches, a derivative of the Japanese uchi, house. The Fellowship referred to a group of twenty or so men, who rotated through South Korea over the eighteen months from January of 1972, through December, 1973. We congregated in one central hooch, but different members of the Fellowship, lived in any one of several different barracks which housed the on-post members of the 199th. There were a half-dozen of us at the core of the Fellowship. We shared a multi-stranded, hemp-strength chain, and saw it burgeon through shared experiences. This is our story.
Many of us in the hooch were draftees, ripped out of the mosaic of our respective existences, by an arbitrary force that was not supposed to distinguish between rich and poor, educated and unschooled. Well, I never met a rich G.I. And, as far as school went, mostly there were those whose educational background was limited to high school level, or below, and those who were college graduates. There were some like me, who had a year and a half under my belt, but lost my school deferment, through a technicality.
There were many types of GI's, but one principle generally applied: if a guy liked to imbibe in the atmosphere of the nightclub, the army could accommodate him. After being assigned permanent duty in South Korea, night-clubbers had it great. They could take advantage of the ridiculously cheap booze on post, that was such an integral part of every army base, or patronize the clubs in the ville. These bars and cafes, with their accompanying business girls, were a constant attraction. When the nightclubbers did stay on post, they drank a lot of beer, avoided reefer, listened to a lot of country music, and played cards, mostly Spit, Oh Hell and Poker.
The rest of us generally chose to hang out in the hooch (Korean War era Quonset huts) at night. We also drank beer, but there the similarities ended. We embraced reefer, listened to anything but country music, and played Spades, Hearts, Pinochle and Poker. We listened to David Crosby & Graham Nash; we listened to Country Joe McDonald, The Eagles, and the The Flying Burrito Brothers. Additionally John Prine, Cat Stevens, Boz Scaggs, David Bromberg, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Santana, George Harrison and a host of other contemporary musicians entertained us. The Beachboys, not necessarily artists which would have fit into our framework with their earlier music, blindsided me especially, with their emotionally charged, poignant examination of Northern California culture, and they weren't singing about surfing.
We listened to the rednecks blast their country music when they came back just under the midnight curfew, hootin' and hollerin'. One of them would always make his way down the length of the hooch to our spot, using each of the lockers on the way to steady himself.
“Are you hippies gonna shtay up all night?” he'd slur.
One of us would venture, “Probably. Can you check back in fifteen minutes?”
Eventually, they would give it up. That drunk was right to a certain extent. Lots of folks then thought if you smoked reefer, you were a hippie. What they didn't realize was that a lot of guys smoked it to simply achieve the same effect as alcohol, with none of the painful reminders the next morning that you had over-indulged. I never over-indulged in reefer. If I had a drug problem, it was only that I couldn't get enough. What the reefer we smoked lacked in quality, it made up for in quantity and price. We bought it for ten bucks a pound, and housed it in a metal can with a “Keep on Truckin” sticker on its side. We kept one industrious stoner (Oxymoron Hall of Fame candidate) busy with his fingers, rolling an unending stream of bombers, which traveled the perimeter of the group in an ongoing effort to dull the effects of 7,000 miles' distance. We would start to drift back into the hooch after chow was over, to read The Stars and Stripes, write letters and sip Hamms beer, until after the rednecks had all trooped noisily off to the White Rose for another night of revelry.
Then we would gather together, one by one, as our letters concluded, or we tired of the army dogma, available daily in the SAS. I have no sense of the chronological order of things. I'd like to know the in-country entry dates of both Blue and Addis; of course, I should have everyone's release date memorized, and I don't. The specifics are irrelevant to me, and therefore to this narrative. For each of us, our entry date into the army (January tenth, for me) remains a Day of Infamy, and our release date (October 13), Cinco de Mayo. Though there was no official party on the actual calendar day, I routinely acknowledged that release date on the side board of the classroom, all of the years I was teaching.
There are countless comparisons that you can present to the members of the Fellowship of the Rock: Peace Corps people formed tight bonds; successful athletic teams function as a unit; and coworkers battling common work-related issues all have a sense of togetherness, a sense of unity. None, however, include that essential element of free will. If you participate in any activity, from which you can withdraw, at any time, unlike the military, then it's like comparing kiwi fruit and mangoes.
Here's what I'm talking about. When Tim Carroll first came into Korea, he was at the end of a series of events, that began with the expectation that he would follow in his father's military boot steps, and proceeded through his basic training and AIT. Stepping off the plane and onto the icy surface of the tarmac in Ascom, Korea, he could feel the wind penetrating the material of his dress greens. He had his orders and his personal gear, and he knew that his duffel bag would soon come tumbling down the ramp. That was as much as he knew. Tumbling accurately described his feelings as he latched onto his gear dejectedly.
Most guys are overwhelmed initially. To the newcomer, all Koreans look alike; later, that changes, but not until after the period of adjustment. Being in such a contrasting environment from home, produces an emotional shock that takes from thirty seconds, to a week, to longer, to adapt to. Some end up in Never-Never land.
I don't know, precisely where Tim was at in this process, but I do know where he was at in our hooch, for the first couple of days after he came in. He was curled up on his bunk, in the fetal position, sans blanket, with his eyes squinched shut. According to the hooch attendants, he was gone all day, and when he came back, he simply came in and crashed. We all saw him as we cruised in and out of the hooch. He had replaced that fellow from Chicago, the one who worked in the motor pool. The company clerk had told me that all he knew was that the newbie was from Southern California. I didn't need to know that, to take a personal interest in the blond rookie lying on the cot, but it helped. I'd welcome a fellow SoCal brother with open arms.
By the third night of this, as we sprawled out in Miller's space, we started to hash it over.
I started out, “Number ten action with the newbie. I know I had a rough time when I came in-country, but at least I was out in the ville my second night getting wasted. Then I was so sick, it didn't seem any different from being hung over at home. This crashed out business, before the party has even begun, is bogus.”
Addis handed the jay to Blue, and said, “No shit. That dude looks like he's been having at the Oscar.” Oscar was a strawberry flavored, carbonated beverage, known for its high alcohol content.
Steve Addis, a Southerner who hailed from West Virginia, was easygoing and generous to a fault. He and Mahlon Blue were my introduction into the Southern culture. Of course, I had met other guys from the South; John Schexnader was from Baton Rouge and Rich Wilson was from Tennessee, but they were rowdy, enjoyed ville life, and held the traditional views when it came to rehashing the Civil War.
“No way,” replied Blue. “If he'd been drinking O, he'd be bouncing off the lockers-that stuff's laced with meth-amphetamines.”
Blue, of course, had his guitar resting lightly on his lap; when he didn't, it was because he was eating or sleeping. Born in Louisiana, his drawl was soft and warm, and his John Lennon spectacles always made it seem that he was laughing inwardly, at some joke that we were all welcome to share with him. All we had to do was join him on the Group W Bench, and let the good times roll; this we accomplished by twisting up a doobie or six. He was the same height as me, which was nice, after having to always look up at either Addis or Carroll. He wore a blue work shirt, when he wasn't in fatigues, and he wasn't in fatigues any more than he had to be.
Addis agreed. “True. No. This rookie hasn't been partying-he's bummed. Don't you remember when that head case came through last summer, and he just never even gave it a shot? That's what's goin' down here.”
“I don't know for sure, but I do know I saw him with O'Rourke, down at the motor pool. They had a deuce and a half filled with desks and file cabinets from the Barn. They were on their way to Seoul.” This came from Orr. Cliff Orr was from Colorado Springs, and was another musician. Orr was such a relaxed guy; he hated the army as much as any of us, but I always thought he did the best job channeling his frustration into his music. All of the guys who played instruments, and worked with music, did a lot of channeling, but Cliff seemed to extract the most from the process.
“Of course,” I exclaimed “They got him lumping our stuff to Seoul. Maybe we could bribe him into going via the ville, and losing a few file cabinets.”
“Great,” retorted Miller. “Then we'd have to start from scratch with toxon work just to replace what got lost. I don't need more work. Take another hit to clear up your thinking.”
Jimmy Miller was from upper New York State. His East Coast accent was flavored with a hint of Southern drawl, a result of the many hours he spent jamming in music sessions, with Addis and Blue. I always credit Jimmy with bringing John Prine's Illegal Smile into the hooch. Prine's music is excellent, and we identified with his lyrics. Miller looks taller than I remember in the Ascom Yearbook group shot, but that's probably because we spent so much time, sprawled out together in his spot. Jimmy was always working on his chords. He could tune out both 80 watt Sansui speakers on the ninth level, if by chance we were trying to get Johnny Winter music loud enough to hear down at the PX. He'd be sitting there, trying to concentrate, but he wouldn't get up. If he could have managed the big chair, he could have claimed it for the night. Unfortunately, the sagging nature of the seat, tended to put a crick in his neck that made it hard to stay on track with his guitar for any length of time.
The move they referred to was the 199th Personnel Service Company's relocation, from Ascom to Yongsan in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. This was complicated by the need to transfer the contents of the Barn, the dual gymnasium-sized building in which we worked. We'd heard countless reasons for the move, from centralizing records to the Brass's need for a more brisk night life. I personally thought that the rumor circulating about the general with the wild daughter, was the most valid. It demonstrated what happens when power and ego hold hands. After all, the same mentality which requires uniformed personnel to salute a car with a general's star on it, would guide a talking star in relocating us, to ensure his daughter's safety. Relocating the 199th was not going to have any effect on the daughter, but no one even bothered trying to tell him that.
“So they got the new guy working in the quartermaster's room. That's actually good-it'll help keep his mind off of Korea,” remarked Addis.
“Hey, it's going to take more than hauling desks and file cabinets to take his mind off of Korea,” I said.
“You think we ought to go down and say anyang-hasha-meeka to our new partner? Drag him down here and jam him in the lift-off?” asked Orr. Practical Cliff. No better way to lift his spirits, than to plant him in the empty floor locker, shut the door (there was an element of trust involved) and bombard the air vents at the base of the locker with blasts of reefer smoke. Sixty seconds in the locker produced a bleary eyed, grinning caricature of the guy who had entered a minute before. Instant lift-off.
“Now you're talking number hanna, GI. If he still wants to sleep after that, then I guess we'll have to let him,” Blue stated, but you could tell he didn't believe that that would be the case.
We tip-toed down the hooch to where the new guy lay. He wasn't moving, but at least he was on his left side, so the his face was toward us. I had a big fat bomber in one hand and a long hollow bamboo tube in the other, about thirty-six inches long. I took a monumental pull on the jay, extended the other end of the bamboo tube about four inches from the new guy's face and then slowly exhaled a cumulus cloud of smoke, which gently enveloped his head. We waited expectantly for the light to go on in his eyes.
His forehead wrinkled, his nose twitched, and his eyes bolted open. When he saw our circle of faces, he sat up as though he were spring-loaded. “What are you doing?” Someone was home.
Since we were all doubled over laughing, I gasped, “Laughing at you.”
He stared at us for a minute, kind of shook his head as if trying to get a handle on he scene, and then took a deep breath. If you think we were laughing before, you should have seen us now. I grabbed Carroll, for that's who it was, Tim Carroll, by his left shoulder, fatigue jacket strap, and Blue grabbed his right shoulder. Together we escorted him down to our spot, honoring him by giving him the big chair, the rickety armchair that we dragged down from the end of the hooch every night. Whoever got there first sat in it, until one second after he got up. Then it was someone else's turn. Right now it was Tim's.
When Carroll joined our circle, I was delighted. I took one look at that tall (taller than me) blondie, and said, “That's a Southern California boy if I ever saw one.” San Bernardino, to be exact. Back in the World, I'd swung close to Tim's on two consecutive, post New Years Day trips, out to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. San Bernardino was a gateway through the San Gabriel Mountains, to Vegas. The only other guy I ever met from California, as unusual as it seems, was a fellow from Sacramento, who was the biggest jerk west of the Rockies. I hated to think that he came from my state.
Carroll was definitely awake. He was beaming, though his eyes had begun to water, just a little. His hands were splayed out in front of him on the tattered arms of the big chair. The candle had been temporarily set aside in the interests of general hooch safety, but we quickly restored it. The candle was our trademark; it indicated that the Fellowship was in attendance. Addis had selected Prine. “You may see me tonight with an illegal smile,” reflected our feelings, and “it don't cost very much, but it lasts a long while...” was accurate.
“How're yer doing? Nice of us to join you.” I sat on his left, on the vacant cot, and indicated tonight's selection in the locker shelf, still cold from the day room machine.
“No, Dude, the pleasure is all yours,” Carroll responded, never blinking those squinty eyes, but there was a question there, trying to get out. Who wanted to ask the wrong question in a new hooch? Miller laughed, and Blue dropped the roach at the same time, so I got distracted.
“ What'll it be, Hamms or Hamms?”
Again, no delay. “The Hamms on the left. Thanks, Bro.” Tim was starting to settle in.
I grabbed it for him. As someone snorted, I thought, “Hey, It's a California thing. Get over it.”
On the stereo we were on to “Spanish Pipedream.” As we listened to the lines about moving to the country and building a home, it stirred me again, as it did every time. That theme appeared in countless letters, exchanged amongst my siblings and me.
Carroll was everything that a home-grown, laid back, authentic California dude was supposed to be. When I look at the picture I have of the two of us standing in front of the CID Headquarters in Yongsan, right down the block from our hooch, what I see is this impish expression, not unlike Eddie Haskell from Leave it to Beaver, saying, “Criminal Investigative Department? We're lucky to have this fine institution located so conveniently near our own home. It makes ME feel safe.” Of course he's holding a cigarette that looks suspiciously like something that was hand-rolled out of the stash in the hooch, but it's impossible to say for sure.
Tonight, I played the host. “Moving file cabinets sounds like neck strain to me. Do you know yet where you're assigned? You got to get off that detail. Tell those knuckle brains that we need you in the Barn, yesterday. Tell them to talk to Kuhn. We'll let Kuhn know that you can type sixty words a minute.”
Tim looked sideways at me. “Moi? Only with one arm tied behind my back.”
I grinned and said, “You mean you can't? Type sixty words? You're useless. Forget what I said about the Barn.”
He said, “Fine. Just so's you know, I can also roll a bomber with one hand tied behind my back.”
“I'd pay to see that,” I responded, pulling twenty wan out of my pocket, the equivalent of a nickel.
“Oh, you could never smoke it. I'd need two hands for that. I just figured that, if I could type sixty words a minute, I could also roll a joint with one hand.”
Mahlon's glasses were laughing again. Mahlon Masling Blue represented the classic Southerner, with an easygoing manner and an infectious smile. His softly-textured, sandy-colored hair was always tousled, suggesting that he had recently been taking a little snooze, but he could hang with the best of them when it came to greeting the early morning light on a Saturday morning, as we realized that we'd made it through another Friday night in the Land of the Morning Calm. Another day to be scratched off the calendar. The Land of the Morning Calm would be a poetic description of Korea. We constantly saw it on army related material in dealing with in-country issues.
Mahlon was slow to anger, and his music always seemed to reflect that inner peace; he was very laid back. He played his music and sang, and no one is surprised that he ended up writing and singing some intensely powerful music. Blue always could sing the Blues.
Now he joined in. “Seriously, man. Kuhn could get you into the Barn. Then you wouldn't be eating deuce dust in that big truck of yours.”
“You're on target with the dust. But the old guy who's with me, is the only reason up till now, that I'm still sane. You saw me...” Tim stopped talking.
I reasoned with him by saying, “Yesterday, that old guy was all you had. Today, you have brothers. Try eating typewriter ribbon dust for a change.”
I paused a minute. Addis spoke up. “Hey, watch the speaker. Is nothing sacred?” He pointed at one of his Sansui speakers, which currently featured a Hamms beer sitting on it.
I laughed, and sputtered out, “Come on, Steve. Get serious. If I visited your place ten years from now, I'd find your kids playing Hide and Seek, crawling in and out the shells of your speakers. Your woman'd be over at the sink, trying to wash last night's dishes, and she'd step on one of the kids' six-sided Jacks pieces with her bare foot. You'd worry for a second there, because she's preggers again, but she'd recover, and it would all be good. She'd be the only reason the household was still afloat; she'd keep the bank at bay.”
There was general laughter at the image, and all Addis could do is respond with feigned malevolence, and a deprecating shrug of his shoulders.
“That's OK for you, Kay Sikea. You'll get yours. You'll have to sell your stereo six months back in the World to support your surfing habit. What woman would ever let you near enough to even dream about knocking her up?” Calling someone a “dog face” in Korean, was about as violent as Steve ever got. Addis was known to cuss occasionally, but it was more likely to be with you and not at you. As in, we would cuss out the duty roster, the weather or Korea in general. We found creative ways to enhance the effect of our somewhat punch-less supply of reefer. Of course, it was harder for Addis to cram himself inside the locker for a shotgun blast of smoke, because he was so tall, but determination is a wonderful quality, and he persevered.
Carroll sat there taking it all in. In that C.I.D. picture he's a full head taller than me, but much of that is posture. He was taller than me for certain, and just as jazzed to meet a fellow Californian as I was. Let's face it, ours is the greatest state in the Union, and the best place on the planet to raise kids. The typical college campus reflects our diverse culture. Northern Cali kids learn from an early age to respect and appreciate cultural diversity. Besides the well-publicized self-esteem lessons, California also provides classroom activities for inclusion of all kids and for recognition of the importance of diversity within our classrooms and culture. It's part of the curriculum. Different is good. Tim and I let Korea and its inhabitants know what California was all about. We were happy to serve as ambassadors from Cali.
Blue tried one more time. “Can we focus here? One more take? Listen, you know how it is around here. If we don't jump on this thing, they'll send Carroll off to the motor pool, and then he'll be scraping rust off of jeeps for the next thirteen months.” He was talking about one of the worst work details we had ever been on, just to show us that we were still in the army. It reminded me of the work details we went on during zero week of basic training. We'd lugged gravel; we'd cut and removed underbrush; we'd cleaned the visiting general's route of litter; and yes, we got well acquainted with every toilet, latrine floor and sink within a six block radius of our barracks.
Mahlon was the greatest of motivators; he's still the only guy on the planet who has ever been able to extract anything other than a rusty sounding croak from this old cowboy. The nights we spent working on a single song brought that out. When I listen to that cassette, the one with “Rosa's Cantina” on it, I hear a group of guys putting their souls into an effort to combat that irrepressible homesickness that pervaded every square inch of our existence.
Everyone agreed with Blue. “Focus. That's the name of that tune, Ollie. Who's doing what?” I asked the question, because I didn't want this conversation to end up like the one where we were going to go to Inchon, and pitch a tent on the sand and...it never happened. It had been just another pipe dream.
Orr was the organizer. “O'Neill, you talk to Kuhn; he likes you 'cause you always keep your desk clean. We know that you just keep everything jammed in your empty typewriter shelf, but he doesn't. Tell him STRATCOM is being added to the 199th, and that we need one more redeployment clerk; by the time he finds out that that's wrong, we will have had time to type out a fake set of orders telling us to have done that in the first place. Have him write up a quick memo, that we can hand-carry to Battalion. By then, Tim, you will be in PMD, and not in the motor pool. You can still bend elbows with O'Rourke down at the Rod and Gun.”
Carroll arched his eyebrows. “Rod and Gun? Yeah, I've been there. Is that the in-place to go?'
Orr answered, “Only if you're a lifer. They like happy hour prices, a dime a drink. Course, it's only twenty-five cents normally, which ain't exactly going to break the bank.”
“Besides,” I chimed in. “If they get lit up too early, they'll suffer in the long run. Best to keep an even pace, since the “long run” always has to include the next morning.”
Miller looked up from his guitar, “We call the R & G, the Rag.” He strummed his guitar for emphasis.
Steve jumped in, saying, “I'll go to Battalion,” (where all incoming personnel decisions were made) “and hand-deliver the memo that says we need Tim in PMD.” Personnel Management Department handled redeployment, and all aspects of getting This Man's Army where it needed to be, when it needed to be there, including going home.. “I'll take Miller, but we we'll staple his mouth shut before we get there.”
Before Jimmy could land a retort, Mahlon raised a hand, an endless well of patience, aided greatly by an endless tin of reefer. “Gentlemen.” He waited. Through the smoky air, Carroll was grinning like an organ monkey. “Why are you guys doing all this for me? You don't even know me.”
I just looked over at him and said, “We found out all we needed to know, back there when you were crashed on your bunk. Mellow out.”
Miller deflected the focus of the talk. “Shorttime's goin' to Lee House tonight. Been talking about it for a week now.” Lee House was a house of ill repute.
Orr added, “He's been talking about it since the first night he got in-country.” None of us had been to Lee House, only Shorttime. That figured. But just because some guys like to jump out of perfectly good helicopters, does not mean that it's for everyone. As far as what went on there, I'll just say that there was an element of mystique involved, and seemed to be quite memorable, but I can't speak from experience. I don't need to experience jumping out of a helicopter, to know to avoid it.
Carroll spoke up. “Besides, going back to what we were saying before, I don't need to drink beer with O'Rourk any more. I can bend elbows here with you guys.” He brought the freshly rolled fattie to his lips, took a substantial hit, and cocked his head at us. His left hand held the joint, his right arm was bending rhythmically at the elbow, simulating the exact thing that his left hand was doing. Art imitating life.
“I'd rather be here bullshitting with you guys. What do you talk about?”
Mahlon spoke first, though everyone thought the same thing. “Being back in the World. Eating at Mama Dips”
Miller added, “Round-eyes.” GI's routinely referred to American women as round-eyes.
Orr spoke up. “Colorado snow.”
My turn. “Bob's Big Boy. I used to order a double cheese burger, fries, BLTA, salad, and a coke. Then I would talk my girl into having the waitress put the salad and sandwich in front of her, so I wouldn't look like the porker that I obviously was, because all she'd order would be tea.”
Now Carroll gave us his view. “In-N-Out.” That's all he said and I leaped into the air, pumping my fist. “Francisquito Ave, Arrow Highway, and don't forget the one out in Claremont.”
Carroll explained. “The best cheeseburgers west of the Rockies.” That was for Cliff.
Carroll's plaid shirt in that picture in front of C.I.D. reflected his San Bernardino roots, but his neatly combed hair, meticulously parted in the center, and framing his forehead, oh so symmetrically, screamed out California Cool. This dude turned out to be so chill, we hung close just to catch any excess breeze that might penetrate the thick Korean humidity. He was cool and collected, and his appreciation for music complemented our already talented ensemble, because he brought another guitar into the mix. Music was a large part of our lives, and everyone who could, bought sophisticated Sansui and Pioneer sound systems that played music at the decibel it was designed to be listened at. We always seemed to have the music angle covered.
We'd have to choose one song to work with, and that proved to be occasionally difficult. We never went with the norm. We'd choose a song with dual harmonies, and multiple instruments. And we'd spend all night working on it, so that we could record it on our reel to reels. I tried recording those songs onto cassettes to send home, and I did do a few, but after hearing how they sounded on the good equipment, the other fell short.
“In-N-Out. It's the secret sauce,” I continued. “We used to go there at one-thirty in the morning, after being at a kegger all night. We were so lucky that the Claremont cops were too busy stuffing burgers in their faces, to pay attention to our questionable driving abilities.”
Tim snorted. “Their secret sauce is about as secret as adding Thousand Island dressing.”
“Oh, whatever, Dude. Try putting Thousand Island dressing on a home-made burger, and then tell me it's an In-N-Out burger,” I challenged him.
“Well, try scoring an In-N-Out burger here, after finishing up a twenty-four hour stint in the Barn, and then you'll know how the rest of us feel,” said Miller, and everyone nodded.
“Is the duty bad over here?” Carroll asked.
Addis answered, “Well, there are some things that are toxon good, like no KP, and you don't have to scrub hooch floors, or polish your boots and brass. Korean nationals do all of that stuff.”
“Nice,” Tim said. “What about this twenty-four hour duty in the Barn?”
“Well,” responded Blue, “The Barn's a pain, cause you can't sleep, and you have to listen for the slicky boys, but it's not bad duty. You usually get caught up on your filing, or whatever you do, and you get a chance to write letters home. O'Neill knows all about that. He's the champion letter writer.”
“Well, you guys sit around and bitch about no mail, but then you don't write any home, so...” my voice trailed off.
“Yeah, but you're writing the great American novel, only you're doing it via letters,” aid Orr. Cliff had beautiful penmanship. I'd seen him writing, and compared to his, my handwriting was chicken scratching.
“So duty in the Barn is it?” Carroll inquired.
I almost choked on my Hamms. “Company driver,” I gasped out.
Blue took it up. “Yeah, you have to be careful what you sign up for, though I don't know how you'd go about being careful.”
I had recovered from my bout with Hamms. “I signed up for company driver, because there were a bunch of guys on the roster. In the beginning it was great, I only had duty once during the week, and once on the weekend, the first six weeks I was here. I was thinking I was pretty smart. Then guys started to rotate back to the World, and I got the shaft. We lost seven off of the roster in September and October alone. Now I have duty every two weeks during the week, and one weekend day a month. It's a rip-off.'
“Quit your whining,” said Miller, if you weren't on that roster, you'd be on the CQ driver list.”
“I am.” I spoke simply enough, but there was a lot of unhappiness in my words. “It's like anything else, if everyone gets shafted, then I don't care, but it's when guys get singled out that I get annoyed.”
Miller came back at me. “When you had to do that QRF thing last summer, I thought you were going to go nuts.”
I turned to Tim. “There's no way to get around it. You got to pull a bunch of duty, but at least you usually get a chance to get comp time, so if you have to stay up all night in the Barn, you get the next day off.”
Carroll asked, “How come we don't have to do our boots and stuff?” He gestured around at the hooch. Addis replied. “We have the Hooch boys. Except, they're not boys. Mr. Lee is a grandpa, only it's hard to tell. Anyway, it costs ten bucks a month, and you pay them a ten dollar tip, and all of your stuff gets squared away. They even starch your fatigues.”
“They do our laundry too?” Tim's eyes were sparkling.
“Hell yes,” said Miller. “It's like having your old lady over here.”
Orr looked at him quickly. “Really?”
That one word made everyone laugh. Miller flipped us the twig, making the gesture so casually, one got the impression that he'd had a lot of practice, not that New Yorkers are known for their rudeness.
Tim went on. “Now that we're at it, what else do I need to know?”
“I guess that depends on what your itinerary is,” I said. “Are you going to be out in the ville every night?”
Tim looked quizzically at me. “What's Deville?”
I laughed. “No, the ville. Out in the clubs just off post. Out to The White Rose. Course you'd have to share it with the rednecks.”
“I think you got that backwards,” said Blue. “But you'll figure it out, as soon as those business girls see fresh meat on the market.”
“Or you'll end up like Shorttime.” This came from Addis, who went on. “Well, not end up like him. It's just that Curtis got a taste for Korean night life, which doesn't include coming back to the hooch at night, if you get my meaning.”
Tim said, “I get it, but do I want to? What are the business girls like? And why does it stink so bad when you leave the post and drive down that road with all the bars and cafes?”
“Three provocative questions, good sir. I'll take the first one. Do you want get his meaning? I think it depends on whether or not you want to leave here with all of your accessories intact. Those business girls are pretty scary. There, I addressed your second question too. Unless, of course, someone has something to add.” No one did, or if he did, he kept it to himself.
Blue shook his head. “How would you know the business girls are scary? You're a cherry boy.”
In any group of guys, there exists the need to establish who the hunters are, and who the gatherers are. Curtis was a hunter, only the prey was not running, and the catch was none too satisfying. I was a gatherer; I gathered my wits together, and confined my activities to the hooch, for the most part.
Out loud I said, “I'm a cherry boy because the business girls are so scary.”
“BS,” said Blue. “You're a cherry boy because you got that peach...” He indicated the wall, and even though we were in Miller's space, he meant that I had a picture of my girl on the wall in my space. Actually, I had a collage of photos and other visuals on my wall, including the cover of my favorite album, The Who's Who's Next. [Our military anthem, Won't Get Fooled Again, was on this classic]. To Tim, he said, “Mostly everyone books out to the ville five out of seven nights for the first month in-country, or until you get bored. It doesn't take long for that, and to get real tired of the rednecks.”
Now Miller got into the act. “The stink is raw sewage. This ain't America. It's a third world country, and there's only one World anyway. Most of Korea has no sewage system, except outhouses out back. The honey wagon comes through every so often to suck it all up, but that smell will get to you, if you're downwind. They say you get used to it, but I'm not sure I'd want to.”
Addis interrupted. “Hey, Blue, tell Carroll about your first night in-country.”
Blue was all about it. “My first night?” He was playing for time, while the joint got passed to him for a little inspiration. We'd heard this before, but it got so much better with each retelling.
“My first night in country...” He paused, reflecting back on such an inauspicious occasion, and went on, “I'd just left the mess hall, and so I wasn't feeling all that good, and I was stumbling around in the dark, cause it was January and I was freezing. I'd run across this guy from basic, and he was going to set me up in his hooch.”
I stopped him. “How come you weren't feeling good after you left the chow hall?”
He ignored me, refusing to dignify such a stupid question with a response.
“So we knock on the door, and I'm thinking, what's up with that? The door opens and we are hurriedly admitted because they are chasing a rat around the hooch, jumping over bunks, and knocking lockers over. Real pandemonium. They would corner the rat and place a box with holes punched in it over him. Then they would shotgun through the holes until they thought the rat was sufficiently %#*@^, and then they would release him for laughs. Then the chase was on again.”
Now it was Tim. “Wait, what's a shotgun, again?”
We were hysterical. “That was you before without the locker. Didn't we mention it was a shotgun? The first time we did it, we had an M-16, and we would put the barrel in our mouth, and blow vast amounts into the bottom of a locker, while someone is stuffed inside. Pure bliss.”
Blue went on. “I remember being given a couple of shotgun blasts myself, and ended up sitting on a bunk with a guitar, and playing Susie Q for what seemed like a week, while the rat ran around at my feet.” That image sure came to mind readily enough. “I'd occasionally have to move so that they could corner the rat again. That was my glimpse into what twenty months in Korea had in store.”
I said to Carroll. “You, on the other hand, get to come in-country at the same time as the 199th is moving, speaking of pandemonium.”
Addis spoke up, “Yeah, but it will be going from the country to the city. All good, except for all of the loose Brass rolling around.”
“Well, even that can be kind of fun, if you do it right.” I paused for a minute to let Carroll think about the concept of having to continuously salute officers, as fun.
“The last time a bunch of us went to Yongsan on the bus, we went to the mess hall just when it was lunch time when all of those...never mind...when all of the officers were heading there too. We strung ourselves out, single file, about a dozen paces apart, so that every time we encountered one of those clowns, we each had to salute once, but he had to salute each one of us, individually. I was the first, which was good, cause I only use my poker face when it comes to winning money, so I couldn't keep a straight face. It was like seeing a pin-ball machine, the way his hand was swiveling back and forth. I thought he was going to poke his eye there by the fifth or sixth of us.” We loved any opportunity to make fun of officers. I heard a non-com once say to a recruit, “Don't call me Sir; I work for a living.”
Carroll was taking it all in. Now, as he sat trying to sort everything out, he asked, “So what is it I need to know to survive over here? What is it that you haven't told me?”
Blue nodded appreciatively. “That's what I think I like about you, Carroll. You're always thinking.”
Addis followed up with, “I think what Tim needs to know about is this,” and he pointed to a 199th patch on a fatigue shirt that was jammed between the bunk and the wall.
“Ah, the old 199th Personnel power trip, as opposed to a personal power trip. See, Carroll, it's like this. No one looks crooked at the 199th, no one.”
Miller pounced. “Take your pick. We handle your records, we cut orders for any kind of movement within country, and we cut orders for you to go home. Everybody has to go through us to get out, and let me tell you one thing, we understand that. Everyone wants to go back to the World. Even dudes who marry one of the yobosayos-that's any Korean chick-still want to get the flock back to the World.”
Tim asked, “So the 199er is a nice fit, huh? You guys are setting me up in the right spot? I'm going to owe you.”
“No problem,” said Orr. “We'll get our money's worth out of you. You said you played a guitar?”
“I didn't, but I do.”
“Yeah, well, that makes as much sense as Korea,” I muttered.
“I meant that I didn't say anything about playing a guitar, but I do. I just need to get one. Mine's in my bedroom at my parents' house. I wasn't about to trust the army to make sure it got here in one piece.”
Addis gave instructions. “You're just going to have to brave that stench out in the ville. I'll take you out after work, and we'll go to Mr. Kwan's shop. He sells guitars that are made by a guy who lives right around here. He'll even do custom jobs if you're willing to pay. But to buy something he has on hand is filthy cheap. Whatever you paid back in the World, you'll pay half over here.”
Miller added, “Yeah, you pay to play here, but you don't pay much. That's cause you pay through the wazoo for everything else.”
“Hey, what time is it, anyway? I'm hungry as a moe-foe. Is it too late for chogi boy?” I mused.
“It's ram-yan time, you mean. For such a little guy, O'Neill's got a lot of his mind focused a lot on his belly. It'll catch up to him one of these days, especially if he ever hooks up with a gal who can cook. She'll have to be cooking round the clock to keep him fed, and his belly will look like Fat Albert's, over at the mess hall.” Addis laughed at his own wit.
“Yeah, well the same back at you, kay sikea. Besides, earlier you were sure that I'd never be able to land a woman, so eat a root.”
“Hey, spreak Engrish. Carroll ain't gonna know what your talkin' about,” Blue spoke mildly, but his point was well made.”
Carroll was all about it. “Start with moe-foe.”
I looked around. “What, you really don't speak English? Try saying futher mucker really fast over and over, as in, Hey, you, futher mucker, about ten times. Eventually, if you speed it up, it comes out, moe foe.”
“Tasty little morsel that comes in a package. It's like skinny spaghetti, with this spicy sauce that comes in a little foil package. It's a nice late night snack for most of us. O'Neill needs about five of them, but he usually has a stove to himself, so for a hundred wan, he can have a feast.”
“That expensive, huh? A buck?” Carroll didn't seem impressed.
I chortled. “No, that's the beauty. A hundred wan is a quarter. Just because I am a growing boy, and need as much sustenance as Ichabod over here,” gesturing at the lanky Addis, “doesn't mean I need five of them. Four is generally quite adequate, thank you veddy much.” As funny as it sounds, this was the precursor to today's popular snack, never having been seen or tasted by any of us in the hooch, prior to encountering it here.
The stoves I referred to were the four oil-burning space heaters that were placed evenly in the hundred-foot-long Quonset huts. They kept the place warm, if you kept them supplied with oil, and during the day, that was not an issue, because the hooch attendants took care of it. At night, it was a different story, and we had to feed them all oil, or it got awfully cold. They were convenient for heating up soup, ram-yan, coffee, or the very popular hot cocoa mixes, that you only had to add hot water to. Mama used to send Eric and me lots of these in our care packages.
“And I don't even know what that last thing was,” said Tim. “Someone help me out. Who was it too late for?”
I saw the light. “Chogi boy. That's what we call the Korean kid who'll bicycle anything you want from anywhere on post for cheap enough to keep him hustling. He thinks twenty wan for a tip is a fortune, and when a nickel floats your boat to that extent, you gotta like it. But it's also an on-post thing, so any Korean national had to be upso by ten, back in the ville. I think that ship sailed long ago,” glancing at my Timex.
“So the kid lives where the clubs and the business girls hang out, in the ville?” asked Carroll.
Orr responded, “No, the ville is anywhere off-post, at least here in Ascom. When we get to Yongsan, we'll be in the middle of a huge city, so it'll be different. I mean, there's still a ville; there's always gonna be a ville, if there's an army post.”
He had that right. I think another question Carroll could have asked, if he had known to, was how to gain admission into the Fellowship. Of course, at the time, we didn't know of its existence, or rather, we had yet to put it into words. The bond we formed, those of us in that inner circle, was unique. Siblings form bonds that are tight; I know because I have six brothers. However, the chain that those of us present, that night in the hooch forged, was as impervious to time, as that shared by my siblings and me. I know that for a fact. The support we supplied for each other, often came in unexpected and unplanned ways, but it was there, unconditionally, at any time.
My siblings and I used to have epic squabbles; we called them battles, but I now know they were squabbles. With so many players, there were many strange alliances, and common goals made for timely truces, to unite to accomplish a specific objective.
One Saturday morning, circa 1965, back in La Puente, Noel and I were going around in circles, to see which of us could antagonize the other more, thereby eventually drawing Mama into it. In the middle of the worst spat yet, the phone rang, and when Mama came back, she had a startling announcement.
“That was your Uncle Pat. He said he was taking Emily and the kids to go get dizzy at Disneyland, and there was room for two kids from our household if there were any who wanted to go. I told him there weren't any here, because I wouldn't dream of sending you two anywhere. You'd be a disgrace to my name.”
Our wails of dismay quickly brought that charade to a screeching halt. We knew she would NEVER have brought it up in the first place if it were just a dream. Noel and I locked eyes. He stuck out his hand. “Friend?”
I shook hands like a moe-foe, and we finished making the bed, cleaning the room, and we would have plowed the south forty for an opportunity to get dizzy at Disneyland.
In the hooch, we had all of that going, except that ninety-nine percent of the squabbles were of the totally manufactured variety, and never amounted to anything but attempts to ward off boredom. Using Korean dialogue was hugely popular for this purpose. If someone genuinely got angry at someone else, it was likely to be because of letting the stove go out on a frigid morning, when we were all hurting in our heads, and we had to go to work together. If a trip to the mess hall was also in store, that added to the intensity of the encounter. Or for a serious argument, maybe a close play at he plate, or more likely, a not-so-close play at the plate, that got called wrong.
We found, though. that no argument of this nature ever extended past a block of time in the office, where the pace was blindingly fast most days, with an occasional catatonic day or two tossed in for good measure. In the right season, a day such as that could inspire Sgt. Kuhn to spring us for an afternoon baseball game over at the field across from the cafeteria at Camp Coiner. That was very smart of old Kuhn, to get us playing ball together. Any coworkers, who could air it out on the diamond, had an exponentially better chance, of surviving the common variety office fray, than those who had not.
Of course, I see baseball as the panacea for most all conflict. Select fair teams, make sure everyone in the field has a mitt, and have at it. Oh, and supply neutral umpiring.
If the plan to lasso Tim hadn't worked, I wouldn't be writing these exact words. But Kuhn thought Tim was ideal, and so another member joined the Fellowship of the R.O.K. I have another photo of Carroll in ratty jeans and white tee, looking for all the world like he just cruised in from the beach. The only thing missing is his surfboard. It doesn't matter how close or far away San Bernardino was from Korea: everyone knows that if you live in California, you must surf. My guess would be that, in the ensuing years between then and now, if Carroll were going to have ridden any kind of board, it would have been a snow board and not a surf board, because he lives in the mountains, but it's all California good.