ACID SPLASHES STERLING
My brother Sterling was in the seventh grade and I was in the sixth grade in Pusan, Korea at the time this happened. When we were not traveling with a parent in our car, we rode on buses to get to wherever we were going.
Many merchants took their wares to market on carts, bicycles, motorcycles, and trucks. But, if they did not have one of these modes of transportation, they would often take their merchandise to market by bus.
One day, our bus stopped to pick up passengers at a busy marketplace. An old man got on and started to tug and lift on a giant earthenware pot, trying to get it up into the bus. No one was helping him so Sterling got up from the back of the bus and went to the front to help the old man lift the crock.
Sterling did not have any sense of danger about helping the poor old man. The most likely product in the pot was food, probably Kimchee. Korean Kimchee is cabbage pickled with salt, red pepper, garlic, and other spices. Koreans put this into a giant pot and buried it underground for a season until it fermented a little and had a bite to it. They ate Kimchee with their rice every meal.
When Sterling got to the front and was just about to bend down to help, the old man lost his grip and the pot shattered in the door well. A liquid splashed out and splattered all over the front of the bus. Sterling reflexively jumped back to avoid the splash but some of it got onto his clothes. It was sulfuric acid and instantly burned holes in his clothes and started to burn his skin.
The driver was blocked from being spattered because the old man was between him and the crock. The old man got the toxic battery acid all over him and started screaming in agony. He ran out of the bus and half a block down to where there was a giant open sewer ditch and jumped into the sewage water.
We looked on in horror as the poor old man writhed in pain, rolling around in the water. The bus driver just closed the bus door and drove off. He didn't get out to help. He didn't get out and find a phone to call for help. He didn't ask any of the passengers if they were alright. As the acid pealed paint, burned holes in the seats, and started instantly corroding the metal floorboards, the driver just drove off.
At the next stop, the driver got some water from a vendor and washed down the door well, flushing away whatever he could. He then got back in the driver's seat and continued driving on the bus route. Sterling and I got off at our stop and then the bus went on its merry way. We never found out any outcome or saw any news about that incident. The picture of that man screaming and running toward the ditch is seared into my mind. I will never forget that.
AVRIL LEGG AND THE DEAD DOG
During my second grade through fourth grade of elementary school, I attended a very small school consisting of kids from about six or seven missionary families in Pusan, Korea. Some of the wives of the missionaries taught us in a cinder block building on the outer area of land belonging to the Gospel Hospital and Koryu Theological Seminary complex.
My classmates were Merridee Harper and Judy Wright. My older brother Sterling’s classmates were Robert Wright and Avril Legg. Avril was the only one in our school that was not a missionary kid. She was the daughter of a civilian contractor in Korea working for an oil company called Kosco.
Avril was a stuck up little rich kid who acted like she was too good for us. None of us liked her, but she got under the skin of my big brother Sterling more than anyone else. In fact she got him really aggravated once by spraying him full in the face with a shaken bottle of cold soda, in the dead of winter.
As she ran down the hall, squealing with devilish delight, he grabbed a hand splitting maul from the woodpile and threw it at her.
Time....stood....still!! From Sterling’s perspective, the short handled maul arched toward her in slow motion, flipping end over end. It just cleared her shoulder, shattered a large office window....and landed at the feet of....the principal....his mother!
Sterling got a severe beating with a switch from the principal....his mother, and then got beaten again with a leather belt on the bare behind from Dad when he got home.
As much as Avril acted like she was better than us all, eventually she needed some kind of validation from her classmates and decided she wanted to be included in some of the recess activities with us.
There was a large corrugated drainage pipe that funneled excess rainwater from our playground area to a ditch down the steep hill. Sterling, Robert, and I used to climb down into the pipe, crouch down, duck walk to the downward drop off, and then hunker on a short board and clatter down the hill (almost 200 feet) inside the pipe to the ditch below where you could climb out of the pipe.
Avril wanted to play with us but we discouraged her every time in a particularly mean way. Sterling told her that there was a lion in the drain pipe and it hated Catholics. He would yell, "Catholics", down into the entrance to the drain and one of us hiding inside would roar like a lion. The large pipe amplified the sound and Avril, out of fear, would give up trying to play with us.
One day, after a particularly bad rain, Sterling discovered that there was a bloated dead dog stuck half-way down, trapped in a tangle of sticks and detritus blocking the drain pipe. There was no stopping, and he plowed into the mess full tilt. We had to throw a rope down to haul him out. There was no climbing out of the silt covered pipe....it was too steep and slick.
Later, during lunch break, blithely unaware of the situation, Avril asked if she could play with us and slide down the pipe like we did. She was very happy when we finally acquiesced. We pretended to reluctantly let her play with us.
She gleefully got into the pipe and slid down the dark pipe. Three long seconds later, we heard a 'splush' as she slid into the bloated dog. Then came the most blood curdling screams we had ever heard.
We yelled down, “Oh did you find a dead dog?” More screams reverberated up the drainage pipe.
“And I think there are some snakes and rats drowned in that mess too!” The fearful wailing started in earnest.
She was a shaking, scared, muddy, stinky mess, when we finally hauled her to the surface.
We three boys had the laugh of a lifetime. Yes, we all got whipped. Yes, she hated us even more after that. But, it was worth it.
"We were kids....she was an unmitigated brat and the "Catholic" thing was not theological harassment....it was a child-like way of taking pot-shots at somebody "riding way too high in the saddle", with a pronounced air of entitlement and unearned exceptionalism; refusing to be part of a small community of children...I feel absolutely no guilt. "
"If I remember correctly, we wore GI caps with a firm bill. We needed to have a miner's light, so we stuck lighted candles onto the bills of the caps and wore these into the tunnel. I remember that following this incident, her parents came to our house and shamed me about my treatment of Avril. I have often wondered about her and have wished that I could apologize to her. "
STERLING STRIPS CORPSE’S ARM WHILE CAMPING
One summer, my older brother, Sterling, and I went camping by the ocean out past Song Do Beach in Pusan, Korea. Several neighborhood Korean friends went with us. I was about 12 at the time and, with the help of Sterling, had talked my parents into letting us camp out on a little rocky peninsula without any adult supervision. After all, we were growing up and had to learn to fend for ourselves. In fact, that is what we did.
We took some rice, a cooking pot, and some hot pepper sauce. We set up a lean-to with a poncho on the rocky shore right next to the ocean, making sure it was above the high tide mark.
All of us kids dove off of the sharp coral studded rocks and brought up clams, oysters, sea urchins, and sea slugs to eat raw and prove our manhood. Sterling dove down and pulled a baby octopus out from a crevice. We chopped it up, dipped it in hot sauce, and ate it raw. The only thing we cooked was the rice.
We were having the time of our lives until, in the middle of the night, it began to rain. I mean it poured down rain, and we were all soaked and cold. As the morning dawned and we saw that it was not going to let up, we all swallowed our pride and decided to go home.
We gathered our stuff and headed up the embankment to the one lane gravel road. As we walked up the road, it was so cloudy and pouring rain so hard that we could hardly see a few yards in front of us or hear anything but the pounding rain.
Suddenly, an advancing large truck loomed mere feet in front of us. My Korean friends and I dove off the road down the embankment to our right, but Sterling scrambled up the steep embankment to the left, grabbing at scrub brush, exposed tree roots, and anything else he could grab onto to get away from the vehicle that almost hit us.
That is when Sterling lost his grip and slid back down the embankment, because one of the “roots” he grabbed sloughed off its spongy, gelatinous covering into his hand. The truck had passed by safely by then, but when Sterling looked down at what was in his hand and up to where it came from, his face changed to an expression of sheer horror and disgust.
The dead flesh in his hand had come off of the rotting arm of a corpse that had been partially exposed by the torrential rain. There in front of him on the muddy bank was a bony arm and hand sticking out of the eroded earth.
The hill above us, we discovered, was a gravesite where people were buried under mounds of earth, as is the Korean custom.
Well, that camping trip gave the rest of us kids a great story to tell and retell to our friends for years to come. Sterling, in contrast, had the curse of having the gruesome experience and the putrid smell of the rotting flesh relived in his nightmares for some time to come.
DEAD BABY IN THE DITCH
My older brother Sterling saw a dead baby in the ditch below our house one day. We had to walk or drive along the side of this big open ditch every day to go anywhere since our house was up the hill. We played tag, cops and robbers, and many other outside games along the road next to this ditch with our Korean buddies.
Sterling ran to the police station down the hill about a half mile away to fetch the police. When they came back with him, the two policemen told Sterling to climb down into the ditch to investigate. In the picture below, you can see how deep the ditch is below where my sister Gwendolyn (we called her Wendy back then) is standing.
When Sterling got down into the ten foot deep ditch, the policemen told him to throw the baby up onto the road.
Sterling reluctantly but dutifully picked up the baby and threw it up out of the ditch at their feet. The two policemen looked at the baby, and then looked at each other as if to say, "Yeah, that's a dead baby." Then one of them kicked the baby back down into the ditch. It landed in the sewer splashing Sterling all over with raw sewage.
That was the extent of their investigation. They really didn't want anything to do with it. What could they do? Let the next rain wash the baby away. The two policemen went on their way without even a "thank you" or other acknowledgement to Sterling.
That incident was the focus of the dinner conversation that evening when Dad got home. It sort of spoiled Mom and Dad's appetite, but Sterling and I ate heartily after a long day of hard playing and great adventures.
THE PIG’S REVENGE
The missionaries got together in Pusan and started a school for the kids. Some of the parents were the teachers. When I was in the third grade, we went to school on the hill above Song-do Beach in a small building on the outer edge of the grounds of the Christian seminary where my father taught.
We children loved to have adventures during recess or lunch break. I remember once when my older brother Sterling tried to ride a bull that was grazing on the hill above our school. He got thrown and slid all the way down the hill on his butt. The friction from sliding ignited the toy pistol caps that he had in his pocket and burned his butt leaving a large hole in his pants.
During recess one day, Sterling, Robert Wright, and I went up the hill a ways and came upon a pig pen much like the one shown in the picture. We tended to wander about the countryside wherever we pleased with no consequences from the teachers as long as we were back in class when the second bell rang at the end of recess or the end of lunch.
Sterling and Robert began to mercilessly tease the pig in the pen. Every time they prodded the poor pig with a stick and it would squeal, they would laugh gleefully. The pen was too small for the pig to get away from both of them. If the pig retreated to one side of the pen away from Sterling, then Robert would prod him from that side.
Well, it came to a point where the pig had had enough. When Robert jabbed it one more time and roared in derisive laughter, the pig snorted and shot a large bugger out of its snout, over the fence, and right into Robert’s open mouth. Robert gagged, coughed vigorously, and then vomited. That is when I began to laugh so uncontrollably that I was rolling around on the ground. I would swear to this day that the pig appeared to have a big self-satisfied grin on its face.
This incident taught me at an early age that the “gross-out defense” used by the pig could be adapted by me in the streets around my neighborhood. We were different from the other kids because we were not oriental. The Korean bullies would pick on us at times. Shoe shine boys, hoodlums, beggars, and other ornery kids would call me “Kaw-jeng-ee” which meant big nose. They called me round eye. They called me Yankee. The called me “Me-gook-nawm” which was a derogatory term for Americans. Then they would physically push us around and try to intimidate us.
Now generally, the Koreans really liked Americans. We had just saved their country from annihilation from the Communist Chinese and North Koreans. Most Korean kids were friendly and treated us with extreme curiosity, following us everywhere and staring at us all the time yelling, “Hello, OK”. They had learned those words from the soldiers. If I was waiting at a bus stop, I drew a host of kids, and adults, that would stand in a circle around me and just stare. So, most of the time, I never felt seriously threatened. But, the bullies I encountered were just older kids that were just entertaining themselves at my expense because I was different. It is the same story the world around.
This is when I learned that the gross-out defense came in handy since I was younger, smaller, and usually outnumbered. There was a lot of excrement on the ground almost everywhere I went - cow pies, horse dung, and my favorite, dog poop. After a day in the sun, the dog poop would have a nice dry crust on the outside but was still soft and really ripe smelling on the underside. When I was accosted, I found that if I picked up the poop and threw it at them, I could completely scatter my attackers and make my getaway. The word got around after awhile so that all I had to do was to reach for the ground and bullies would scatter.
On my eighth birthday, our Korean maid gave me a switchblade and I carried that with me all the time. Fortunately, I never had to get past merely brandishing the knife to defend myself. I don’t know what I would have done if someone called my bluff. I don’t know if I would have actually cut somebody unless I was really in fear of severe bodily injury from an assailant.
At age eleven, I started leaning Judo. Over the years of my life, I eventually got black belts in Judo, Dang Soo Do karate, Hapkido, JuJitsu, Chinese Kenpo, and Japanese Shotokan. Learning the martial arts gave me the ability to defend myself. The more I learned and the more confident I became, I no longer had to defend myself. The confidence that I exuded kept others from messing with me in most situations.
THE TWO ROOSTERS
Armed robbery was highly unusual in post war Korea, but not unheard of. Burglary was common but burglars feared for their lives and any discovery would send them fleeing in fear. If someone caught them, the whole neighborhood would come out and beat them senseless. I saw that happen more than once and the collared criminals were glad to see the police arrive to rescue them.
We had been burglarized several times before, but what happened one Sunday evening at our house was totally unexpected.
Three other missionary families were guests for dinner at our house. After dinner and a short worship service, everyone was sitting around the dining room table socializing. I went to my room to read some comic books.
Sometime later I thought I heard a loud rooster crow. Then there was a lot of commotion so I went out of my room to investigate. That is when I found out about all the excitement I had missed.
Two armed intruders had managed to get over our eight foot high cinder block wall that had shards of glass embedded in it and barbed wire on top and come into the house. One man put a knife to my father's throat and asked for all the money, jewelry, and valuables. With foolish hubris, my father told him "No!" several times. The other man put a gun to his temple and repeated their demands.
My father finally relented, and while the man with the knife stood guard by the dining room door, the man with the gun went around and collected everyone’s rings, watches, pens, necklaces, money, and other valuables. The men lost everything they had to the intruders, but the women were smarter than that. As soon as the two armed men came into the room, the women all secretly slipped their wedding rings off and tucked them away under their belts. The women also slipped their watches and bracelets up their arms under the sleeves of their sweaters.
My brother Sterling, who was about eight years old at the time, had sat down in my baby sister's high chair after dinner. He was just goofing around because of boredom and locked himself in the chair just to see if he could. When the robbers came in, he tried to surreptitiously unlock the tray on the chair so he could get loose.
The man with the gun noticed the movement out of the corner of his eyes. He swung all the way around and pointed the gun at Sterling's face from just feet away. Sterling froze and his face flushed red and hot with his heart pounding.
My mother got up and started edging her way toward the door while this was going on. The man at the door stuck his knife out toward her and told her to sit down, but she bravely, or foolishly one might argue, called his bluff and pushed on past him. When she got outside, she screamed bloody murder. That was the “rooster” that I had heard while reading in my bedroom.
The robbers took what they had gotten from the men and fled out of the house toward the gate with my brave brother in pursuit. Sterling grabbed the first thing he saw, which was a rubber shoe in the foyer, and slung it at the fleeing felons. He hit one of the men in the back with the shoe as he was exiting the yard through the gate.
My brother continued to chase them down the hill yelling, “Catch the robbers!” Normally, neighborhood men would have heard the cry and tackled the running men. Then, the whole neighborhood would have come out and beat the burglar up without mercy until the perpetrator was actually happy to see the police arrive and arrest him. But, the robbers were running down the hill yelling, ”Catch the robbers!” The neighbors were fooled into thinking that these fleeing men were actually chasing robbers running ahead of them. Nobody was ever arrested and no valuables were ever recovered.
After the commotion died down, that is when I experienced the second ‘rooster’. I had to listen for days to my brother, strutting around like a cock rooster, retelling over and over again the story of how he hit the robber with a rubber shoe. I still hear him crowing about it at every family reunion. Well, it is a good story, after all!
The stutter of automatic weapons fire set the hairs on the back of his neck into the night breeze.
The boy hunkered down behind the sandbags and groped for his binoculars on the roof of the villa.
Shadowy figures ran at a crouch toward his position.
He didn’t bother to wake the other guard, in a fitful sleep under the influence of some high-grade heroin.
The boy grasped the cool aluminum cylinder tube of the flare and hit the end with his open palm.
Flames spat in the dark and arched across the street above the compound of Vietnamese troops.
The parachute of the flare caught in the branches of the large tree in the center of the compound.
Blood coursed in his temples and his face felt hot.
The Viet Cong didn’t kill anyone that night. But part of the boy died, and rotted in his brain.
SMACK BEAN HARD AND THE BLUEBERRY PIE
Once upon a time, some years before Annie was even a glimmer in either of her yet-to-be parents’ eyes, a funny thing happened that might have been a hint of the genetic code she was to inherit.
Annie was to become a non-conventional problem solver. Unlike her father, she was far more creative, with more style, panache and daring in her problem solving. But, that’s the makings of other stories.
SMACS were inductees into the Officer Candidate training regiment: something considered lower than pond scum. “Smack beans” derived their name from their shaved heads which looked like lima beans and the five paragraph field order which any upperclassman or Tactical Officer could demand, at any time, be recited in a “parade ground voice” (bellow) by the hapless “smack bean”.
ADMINISTRATION AND LOGISTICS, SIR!
Annie’s Dad to-be had already been to Vietnam twice and was now back in the States training as a combat engineering officer candidate. He was one of only two Vietnam vets in the class...both a bit wiser and far less “terrified” by the brutal regimen which washed-out over 66% of the class within six months.
In the first month and a half, her father had lost over 22 pounds and countless hours of sleep. Many others ended up in hospital wards with malnutrition, injuries and exhaustion. The Army tried to extend a standard West Point “hell week” into six months...and did a very effective job at it.
Somewhere during the sixth week, the desserts which the “smacks” had only dared smell on their plates...(“eyeballing” brought on an immediate, punishing series of highly stressful exercise routines)...were served by the designated “smack” of the day. The upperclassmen announced with great sneering fanfare that the candidates would be allowed to “eat dessert today”.
Blueberry pie! The “weapon of attack” was stipulated to be a toothpick and the time limit for “mission accomplishment” was fifteen seconds.
While others prodded and poked, helplessly trying to impale just one gooey blueberry, Annie’s father picked up the plate, wedge end of the pie to his mouth, jammed the toothpick into the crusty end of the slice and shoved the entire piece into his mouth.
Livid, screaming, roaring...spitting mad: a hornet’s nest of upperclassmen and Tactical Officers swarmed around the miscreant, now rigidly braced at attention, desperately holding back a self-satisfied smile. Blueberry sauce dribbling from the corner of pursed lips...pie yet unswallowed.
DROP! AND DON’T STOP!...ON YOUR BELLY, ON YOUR BACK, ON YOUR FEET, DROP! PUSH-EM OUT! Time slowed to a blur as exhaustion brought him to the point of collapse. The rest of the “smack beans” had long since left the chow hall...with mixed feelings.
Unable to move any more, he lay for a split second, anticipating the next barked command: DYING COCKROACH! AND THE SOONER YOU “DIE”, THE LONGER YOU’LL SPEND CLEANING TOILETS WITH A TOOTHBRUSH!
The session ended, sometime later, as the “hornet swarm” left him on the floor, totally spent. The senior Tactical Officer’s parting shot through a suppressed grin was “Good initiative, Hard, poor judgment”.
That mantra was to repeat itself many times in the ensuing months. It became obvious that innate “initiative” was highly valued by the officer training cadre, and “judgment”...well...”judgment” was a very ephemeral thing, subject to the whims of those making the call.
So it was, that many years later, when Annie announced that she was going to Poland and the Czech Republic in a few days (shortly after her mother’s death) that her Dad’s silent reaction included, “good initiative” and “it’s not for me to say ‘poor judgment’. She is being held in the hollow of His hand”.
I love you Annie.
(This story happened in June of 1968 during officers candidate school training at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.)