Note: The narrator is a South Korean soldier who has just returned from the war in Vietnam by ship and is waiting on the dock to be transported home by train. At the urging of a young sergeant who once served in his platoon, the two men decide to sneak out for a night on the town.
“Please, can I have a look, Commander?”
“You said you’d brought back something special.”
I pulled the clear plastic pouch out of my shirt pocket. I removed the two hook-shaped objects from the pouch, thin strips of leather sporting thick, bristly hair. I held out one of them for the sergeant to see, stroking the stiff ruff with my finger.
“Take it. A homecoming souvenir.”
The sergeant placed it in his palm, scrutinizing it, and then chuckled. “This is amazing.”
He looped the coil around his pointer finger, and laughed louder. “So if you put this on your thing, you can make women go mad with pleasure, right?”
He kept grinning, as he brought the fine bristles to the tip of his nose and rubbed them against it.
“This is American-made, isn’t it? Do you think they really cut out a camel’s eye socket?”
“No, this one’s a fake. I bet they chopped off a dog’s tail and then sliced it up into thin strips.”
“Hmm, this is something the Yankees thought up, isn’t it?”
“They’re the ones who spread it around, but this is a local imitation.”
“Kinda tacky for a keepsake.”
The sergeant carefully put his odd gift between the pages of his pocket address book. He kept prompting me to drink, but I didn’t want any more. I already had a splitting headache, and a profusion of sweat covered the nape of my neck. The bar reeked of beef innards grilling at the tables. A little boy approached us. He was so small that his chin only came up to the spout of the yellow wine kettle on our table. He started right in, pestering us to buy chewing gum, but we, lost in our own thoughts, were annoyed. The sergeant rapped the boy on the head with his knuckles and shoved him away with a merciless push on his chest. “I’m sick and tired of kids.”
“Shoot! You don’t wanna buy, fine, but what was that for?”
The boy stood his ground, his chest puffed up and legs wide. When the sergeant reached for him, the child ran from our table, nearly in tears.
“You little bastard, I’ll show you what you’ve got coming!” The sergeant, outraged, was about to bolt after the boy.
I grabbed him by the throat and lashed out, “Are you out of your mind?”
When I tightened my grip and shook him wildly, the sergeant seemed confused.
“What are you doing to me, Commander?”
Regretting that I had lost control of myself, I let go of his shirt front, balled up in a twist inside my fist. The sergeant sat quiet, his gloomy face sagging. I filled his empty cup with booze.
“People don’t change very much. You just think they do.”
The sergeant’s eyes followed the peddler boy as he weaved his way through the tables on his way to the door.
“The lengths people go to, to eke out a living. What’s the use of trying so hard? Big or small, all of them . . . they don’t even look human to me.” He tossed down his drink and glared at everyone around him, his face fierce with a scowl. “That includes me.”
“You have nothing once they discharge you from the army,” I said, “Everything you experienced. Good for nothing.”
As I spoke, I grew increasingly aware of the military uniforms on our backs. The saying, “There are a few soldiers among us,” struck home. Instead of hating the organization I’d joined or harboring hostility toward the people who didn’t belong to it, I seemed to be equally ashamed of both. I used to believe that military honor was all about soldiers risking their lives for the just causes pursued by the state. But upon my return from the battlefield, setting foot in my homeland, I didn’t feel the slightest bit of pride. I suddenly found myself wondering if the state’s wishes are always valid. I felt as if I were an intruder on these streets, dragged here against my will. I was reminded of my first day of leave in that foreign city, where I had felt exactly this way. The din of the civilians chattering in the bar sounded foreign to my ears.
I heard the sergeant say, “Coming home doesn’t seem real.”
“Don’t expect too much. We should be thankful that we returned safe and sound.”
“I’m not whining because I’ve come back empty-handed, Commander. When I’m discharged, I’m going back home and the place will be just as poor as I left it.”
“I know what you mean. I think of all our soldier days we were treated best over there. . . . For one thing, we had full bellies.”
“We sure were treated well.”
“The only problem was we couldn’t hold our heads high.”
“The guys who joined the army ahead of us were right. They said we’d have it rough as soon as we set foot back in our fatherland.”
“The whole situation was awkward for us over there.”
“We weren’t welcome,” the sergeant said. “Did you get out much, for rest and recreation?”
“Once. But I returned to the barracks after my first night. To be honest, I was . . . ashamed to hang around downtown.”
“These kids, they mocked me.”
“Yeah. That happened to me, too. I got so fed up with the brats I ran into around the operations area. Terribly unruly.”
“What about before? Did you like children?”
“I don’t even know how I felt about kids before. Can’t remember.”
The sergeant stood up and shook his head as if he were irritated. His shoulders slumped, he staggered among the tables as he tried to get out.
It had been my first day of leave in that foreign city. I’d ambled along the road that circled the harbor. I had my picture taken in front of the US Navy Command’s beautiful marble building, dubbed the White Elephant, and watched old men pedaling rickshaws and young women in elegant long dresses scooting by on motorcycles. A German hospital ship had docked and nurses were distributing food served on paper plates that bore the Red Cross mark to the skimpily clad children gathering on the pier. A small group of boys, who looked about ten years old, cautiously approached and crouched down low to study me, the foreign soldier. I handed each of them a nickel, but they didn’t budge. If my recollection is correct, the biggest of them threw a sly glance at me, and then began to punch his fist into the palm of his other hand, nodding his head slightly. Yes, that’s what he did. The other boys snickered. I understood the message behind the repeated pounding of fist against palm, and I shook my head. They flashed a few porn photos at me, and finally held out condoms and a few plastic pouches. They pressed these objects on me, saying, “nakta nukkal, nakta nukkal” in nearly perfect Korean. As many as three times that day alone, I encountered boys offering the same products, clearly enunciating the word-camel eye. This time, when the passersby stopped in their tracks to watch and sneer, I slipped the stuff into my pockets in the confusion of the moment. That was how I ended up buying them. The kids retreated to the sidewalk across the street, and right away they threw lewd gestures my way, some hanging their arms in front of their noses and swinging them, and others rapping their foreheads with their fists. They giggled and jabbered among themselves for a long time. All I could catch was Ttaihan, Ttaihan. Korea. At first, I didn’t realize they were making fun of me. Buying that stuff against my will left an odd, sour taste in my mouth, and I found it disgusting that the object was called by the Korean word for “camel eye.” After walking all over town, I went to a bus stop on Le Loi Street, a makeshift wooden structure, to wait for an allied forces’ bus that would take me to the Korean Army officers’ retreat. The bus stop was a simple shelter from the relentless rays of the sun, a roof held up by four pillars, with a bench placed at each corner. As soon as I sat down, a black soldier entered and sat across from me, acknowledging me with a slight nod. He was carrying a bundle of comic books he must have just bought. He opened them one at a time, captivated. Several young girls, children really, who went around town selling wood-carved trinkets and dolls to foreigners, barged into the bus station. They chattered, shoving their wooden trays at us, but we simply shook our heads, our faces blank. Probably only to rest their legs, the girls sat down near us, and talked in loud voices. One of them picked up a comic book from the pile next to the black soldier, then another flipped through the stack. The soldier lifted his head, snatched up the comic books, rolled them and slapped the girls on their heads. He spewed a stream of curse words their way. The girls rushed out in exaggerated alarm, but returned immediately. They dangled from the pillars or paraded around, poking fun. Speaking in broken English, they pointed at us. “Like your papa, like your papa.” One of them pinched her arm and brought her fingers to her mouth, pretending to eat flesh. “Eat, good, good.” The black soldier glared, his arms folded across his chest. All of them pretended they were chewing, their closed mouths moving as if they were really eating something. “How many you eat? Two, five, ten?” They held up ten fingers. The girls pointed to me. “Two people like papa. Eat. Yum, yum.” “No sugar. I give sugar.” They pretended to press a morsel into sugar. Then gesturing as if they’d pulled off their arms, noses, and ears, they all stuck their hands in our faces. Caught off guard, I jumped back. Their eyes, fingertips, and chatter filled my head, and I felt as if it would burst any minute. By then, I was already half out of my mind. “Baby, yum, yum. Baby, yum, yum.” The black soldier said, “Lieutenant, if we were just five miles from here, we wouldn’t let the likes of them get away with this,” and jumped to his feet to chase them out into the street. The girls scattered in all directions. He set his sight on the child who had been most persistent in mocking us and ran after her at full speed. Soon, he had her by the nape of her neck. He slapped her on the cheek, again and again. Her wooden tray fell to the ground, tossing her wares all over the street. A big crowd of people gathered in a flash, shouting furiously. A policeman rushed over. An M-2 Carbine rifle hung from his waist, the muzzle pointing downward. Perhaps he thought that of the two of us, I would be easier to address. “What’s the problem?” “The children made fun of this soldier.” “Did he hit her?” Panting, the soldier dragged the girl by the nape of her neck toward the policeman. The members of the crowd competed with each other to put in their two cents. They all pointed at the soldier while the policeman questioned the crying girl. She replied and all of her friends joined in the rapid stream of words. The soldier said, “They stole my comics. They made fun of us.” The policeman said, “She says it’s joke. Take your hand off her.” The soldier released her. The policeman said, “Bad to beat children. Give 10 dollars.” He held out his palm. The soldier was started, his eyes wide with anger. “Money, what do you mean money?” “Her things all broken. Give 10 dollars.” “No way. She dropped that stuff on the street.” “If not give money, give your I.D.” “What are you?” “The National Police.” “We are Allied Forces.” “No matter. Give money. If not give money, I report to your high people.” I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I pulled out 10 dollars in military scrip and offered it to him. The policeman’s face reddened, and he burst out in anger. “Who are you? American broke that thing. We don’t need Korean’s money.” The soldier, outraged, yelled as well. “You stinking Oriental! Useless stinking gooks. Gooks! We fight in this filthy place for you. We get hurt. We die.” A pale young man stepped out of the crowd, his eyes burning into the black soldier, “You are not here for us. You came to make your government look good, the government your brothers hate.” Then he pointed at me, “And you, you came here to build his government up with your bodies. I feel sorry for both of you. We don’t want you here, so go back to your pathetic homelands. We can live on bananas and mangos alone. We won’t die of starvation, and we won’t die from bombs. Get out of here! Leave my country!” The soldier shut his mouth, overwhelmed by the young man’s attitude. The crowd approached closer, all chiming in. Right then, the bus arrived. We backed away from the crowd, and scrambled aboard the bus. It was empty, but we sat far apart and tried not to look each other in the eye. The crowd did not disperse until the bus had moved far from the stop. That night at the retreat, I couldn’t sleep a wink. In my ears, the regular sound of smacking tongues in the children’s watering mouths grew louder and louder. It seemed like the sergeant had been gone a long time, but he still wasn’t back. Suddenly people rushed to the door of the bar. A crowd was gathering outside. My gut told me something was wrong, so I followed the crowd. As I had feared, the sergeant was already in the thick of it. He had blocked the path in front of the bar, and was picking a fight with anyone and everyone, coming or going.
One of the passersby tossed out a dismissive remark. “Give me a break. Who wasn’t in the army at one time or another? What’s this bullshit for?”
“I guess he didn’t get beaten up enough. Discipline must be slipping in the army these days.”
“You’re in the wrong place, buddy. Take your problem somewhere else, go to the authorities.”
The sergeant, staggering now, slowly took off his shirt and hurled it to the ground. “You bastards, you got an axe to grind? You want a piece of me? You clueless civilian bastards! I’ll slice up any of you.” He grabbed a soju bottle, smashed it against the doorframe of the bar, and began to brandish it. Spectators scurried off in all directions.
“Hey, are you drunk? Give that to me. Let go, now!” Dodging the sharp shards from his bottle, I looked for a chance to overpower him.
He was hostile, even with me. “No. Don’t come closer. I will slice up all of you. Fuck. Who cares if the most powerful guy in the world shows up here?”
“What’s with this shit in front of civilians? Do you want to get yourself thrown in the brig?”
“Huh! For what? All I managed to bring back is a box of C-Ration.”
The sergeant’s drunken rant grew louder, and more people were gathering around us. While his attention was elsewhere, I charged him from behind, held his two arms and twisted them, crossing his wrists.
The sound of an approaching siren filled the alley. I knocked the sergeant off balance by hooking my leg around his and pushed him to the ground. He raged on, kicking and flailing on the muddy ground. Restraining him with my body, I waited.
“Make both of them stand up!” barked the head of the military police patrol team, who sat atop the white jeep with emergency lights flashing. Two military policemen, fiber helmets pressed down low over their foreheads, clutched the backs of our shirts and yanked the two of us up, grumbling. Noticing my rank insignia, they saluted half-heartedly. They gave the sergeant a few kicks as he struggled to break loose.
“Officer, are you this man’s commanding officer?”
“We belong to the same homecoming unit.”
“This bastard is dead drunk. He’s got a full belly, that’s the problem. This is an issue of military honor. An officer drinking with a soldier, encouraging him to wreak havoc. . . .”
“Hey, cut us some slack. We’ve been away for a year,” I said.
They whisked the sergeant away to the white jeep and then asked that I show my I.D. I gave them the Command’s certificate for Allied Forces, which bore typed information in English and Korean. The patrol chief, still sitting in the car, said, “Officer, do you realize that you’re AWOL? Considering your status as an officer, we will not take you in, but you have to sign this form admitting your action. We’ll refer the matter to your unit.”
“All right. I’ll take responsibility for the sergeant. Hand him over to me.”
Instead of the chief, one of the military policemen answered, “We’ll keep him in custody tonight, and then send him to the train early tomorrow morning. Please return to your unit right way. As you know, homecoming officers and men have no special privileges . . . .”
Several young men, who had stood around to watch, commented loudly.
“Guy like him deserves to get the daylights beaten out of him.”
“Starch him up stiff before letting him go.”
The white jeep raced away, the siren screaming again. The ravings of the sergeant, sitting between the military policemen, reached me. “How could you do this to me? How could you? What do you think I am?” The chaos around the bar died down and silence descended as the spectators dispersed and the drinkers returned to the bar. It was only then that I realized I was standing all alone. It wasn’t even 10 o’clock yet, and only a desolate unlit passenger train awaited me at the pier. I trudged in the direction of the main thoroughfare where the jeep had gone. A series of long foghorn blasts came from the outer port. I entered a bustling night market lined with carbide lamps, but the impression of eerie silence lingered, and I felt as if the entire street were rejecting me. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I was fiercely rejecting myself, the me who cut such a pathetic figure. I had applied for the cadet program, not out of any great ambition to climb the ladders and become a general one day-although there had been a number of corrupted young men who became soldiers during the Japanese colonial rule a few decades back, hoping to rise in the world-but because poverty forced me to give up on higher learning. At first I buckled down to military life, considering my duties an honor. I learned some essentials to laying out a solid foundation for a career soldier. By the time I was called up to the battlefield, it was dawning on me that my aptitudes were completely at odds with the military. I used to associate the personal honor and heroic sense of justice, which I had briefly harbored during the cadet training, to those of the state, in the grand scheme of things. But in the end I was merely someone who had lost combat readiness, as the military doctor had said. Apparently, my nerves had been frayed, not solely as a result of combat, but also out of the shock of my life in chaos. On the ship home, when I had been awakened by the sound of my mother tongue on the P.A. system, I ran to the deck and spotted the dark land mass across the sea, gradually growing lighter. I was gripped by a sense of hostility at that moment, but it was directed at none other than myself.
Under the neon lights in the town center, where the streets were lined with shops selling women’s clothing or electronic goods, I stopped and tried to catch a taxi. Behind me, reddish lights in a window display blinked off and on, endlessly, at regular intervals. Every time the lights went out, my distorted body, a monstrous giant, loomed in the darkened windows. Then the red lights flashed, like an explosion, and I saw numerous thighs soaring overhead. There were armless bodies, net-shaped necks holding snakes, red, yellow and silver, handless wrists raised into empty space, lower bodies in nothing but underwear, the upper bodies lopped off. Fire burning. Flames leaping. A rotting water buffalo, bloated, the size of a house. Giant shadow of swarming flies, like palm fronds blocking the sun. The radio says, “Cook it up. Cook it all up.” Pillars of flame soar in the middle of dense forests, sending smoke over the prairie for days. At any time, asleep or awake, white smoke billows in the sky. Instinctively, I backed away from the fire. The lights went out instantly, as if they were part of a stage set. I was standing in front of a lingerie store.