…was my first day in Korea. Twenty years ago, today, I stood in formation for 3 or 4 hours outside the transfer offices of the 2nd Infantry Division at Camp Casey, Dongducheon, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea. I was still in my dress uniform that I'd worn for the MAC flight over, and I was freezing my ass off.
I was a Specialist (E4) in the US Army. A week before, I had completed training as a Heavy Wheel Vehicle Mechanic and Vehicle Recovery Specialist at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Rather than going off to Kuwait, as so many of y fellow trainees had been doing over the previous months, I got to take a week of leave, seeing my dad, step-mother and siblings in California, and now I was being stationed in South Korea.
I had joined the Army because I was depressed. Seems like a crazy idea, but it was working out for me, weirdly enough. At least, at that point. I was very amazed that I had not only managed to complete basic training, but had gone on to graduate from advanced training at the top of my class. I had gone from being a 140 lb weakling nerd to being in the best physical shape I'd ever been in my life.
Arriving in Korea was the next step in that adventure. My first impressions were lasting ones: a disorganized place that nevertheless managed to get things done. The US Army in Korea seemed to be just as chaotic, vaguely corrupt, and disorganized, as the society which hosted it. I've since developed the sociological theory that there is a causality there, and that it goes in an unprecedented direction: much of the character of modern, crazy South Korea is, in fact, a direct legacy of the US Army's seminal role in the forging of the nation. It explains so many things that blaming Confucius really fails to do.
The MAC flight had been mind-blowingly unpleasant. MAC means Military Airlift Command – essentially, a charter civilian flight for the purposes of transporting military personnel. I had left my dad in San Francisco on a civilian, ticket flight, and caught my assigned MAC flight at LAX. The flight had then proceeded to stop at both Anchorage and Narita, Japan, before finally arriving at Osan air base. I'm not actually certain it was Osan air base – it may have been Gimpo airport (Incheon didn't exist yet, as an international airport). I think it was Osan mainly based on the fact that the bus ride to TDC (US Army acronym-slang for Dongducheon) was at least 3 hours. If the arrival had been at Gimpo, it should have only been maybe an hour or two.
The bus finally entered the gates at Camp Casey at around 3 AM. And we ended up standing in formation, in the freezing cold wind and snow of Korea in late December, until the first light of dawn. Perhaps they were trying to acclimatize us newbies to just how damn cold it can get in Korea – most US soldiers coming from balmy places like South Carolina or Texas. Personally, I just think they were being disorganized. I was exposed to plenty more of that, over the following year.
Finally, they let us go into the barracks. They were very crowded – bunk beds, barely 2 feet apart, in rows in a quonset hut. I had a Sony Walkman (yes, a cassette player – it was 1990), and I had 4 tapes: Guns n Roses Appetite for Destruction, Nik Kershaw The Riddle, Kate Bush Hounds of Love, Peter Gabriel So. That was my soundtrack, for my first months in Korea. I remember the barracks being overheated, crowded, miserable. I remember standing in offices waiting for paper work. I had the lasting impression that the 2nd ID didn't know what to do with me.
In the end, I ended up with 296th Support Battalion, at Camp Edwards, Paju. Which is why, even now, I refer to Paju as my Korean "home town." Paju is the northwesternmost county against the DMZ in Gyeonggi Province, in the far north-west suburbs of Seoul. And I loved the fact that when I eventually came back to Korea in 2007 to work as an English teacher, my job was in Ilsan, only 7 km down the highway from Paju. One October day, a few years ago, I actually walked from my apartment to my old Army base – now abandoned and overgrown with weeds.
I grew to really, really hate the Army. When I was offered an "early out" at the end of my year (the US Army was downsizing in the post-first-Gulf-War, post-Cold War era), I grabbed it and got the hell out. But I developed and enduring love for the physical beauty of South Korea, and the seeds of my love-hate relationship with the culture and fascination with the language were planted. I have deeply embedded memories of the fields and hills of Paju, which often provoke an undesired nostalgia – like remembering a home town that hosted a particularly unpleasant upbringing.
There were good times – the long, rainy summer during which I had a "work detail" that involved me spending a lot of time with Korean civilians, off base, were perhaps the best. Stopping at roadside bunsik joints, eating cheese ramyeon. Zigzagging all over the pre-expressway highways of northern Gyeonggi Province, dangerously tailgating "kimchi rockets" – 2-wheeled tractors hooked up to trailers overloaded wtih cardboard or farm produce.
Rural Jeollanam, nowadays, where I am now, reminds me a lot of what Paju was like, back then. Paju has been radically altered by subsequent development and urbanization – and so, except for the physical familiarity of the hills and roads, it doesn't really resemble my memories that much. But everyday, here in Yeonggwang, some hillside vista will flash me back to the smell of gunpowder at the firing range at Camp Howze, or the icy winter marches through the pine forests bordering the DMZ, or the chilly spring afternoons spent using the winches on my "big green tow truck" to extract a Humvee mired in some annoyed farmer's rice paddy.