Thursday, December 3, 2009

Dawn's Early Light

I wish I knew how it works. I was looking out my bedroom window, listening to our 4 dogs barking in the pen, letting me know it was time to bring them inside and feed them things--biscuits, puperoni, apples, tea, cheese, celery, cashews--when I was filled with a vivid memory from 38 years ago. Vivid. Maybe it was the fact that I had trouble sleeping last night and lay awake as the room filled with that eerie, blue/gray light of dawn. Maybe.

   38 years ago I was sleeping in a small room in the Bachelor Officers' Quarters on Camp Ames in South Korea. Ames is a tiny outpost in the mountains about 7 miles outside Taegu. Camp Ames contained nuclear weapons and I was the Security Operations Officer. 24 years old. 2nd Lieutenant. There must be some mistake, I kept thinking. You expect me to keep nuclear weapons safe from angry South Korean farmers who want to steal a nuke and throw it across No Man's Land into the North? Or maybe some serious terrorists who would love to nuke a city in Korea for their vision of the future? You've got the wrong guy, sir. Nope. I was it.
   So, 38 years ago the phone rings in my cubicle. It was still dark, so this couldn't possibly be good news. It wasn't. The voice on the other end--one of my MPs--told me that Sgt. Booze was headed toward the medical building and I should get over there fast. It didn't look good.
   It wasn't good. When I got to the operating room Sgt. Booze was laying on one of those stainless-steel trolleys where they put dead bodies. He was unconscious. His 'girlfriend' lay on another trolley nearby, but no one paid her much attention. She was a very small, thin Korean woman who planned to live with Booze for the entirety of his 13-month tour. Then, with any luck, she'd find another soldier to live with. If not, she's pick up soldiers nightly in one of the numerous bars of Chong Dong-Ni, our village. Chong Dong-Ni contained bars, restaurants, tailor shops and about 300 working girls. These girls had absolutely no social standing in Korean culture. They were dead as far as honest, hardworking Koreans were concerned. The fact that some of them had been sold to the mama-san by desperate parents didn't seem to matter much. They were invisible outside Chong Dong-Ni. But here she lay, alongside Booze, in the Dawn's Early Light. The doctor, a good friend of mine who looked and lived  like a character from MASH, was working furiously on Booze. He told me what had happened.
   Booze lived off-base with his girl in her hut. The huts were heated by small charcoal heaters in the center of the hut. The charcoal pieces looked like larger versions of the stuff we'd light in the incense burners at Catholic mass when I was an altar boy. I always got a kick out of loading the stove in some girl's hut and thinking back to the days of serving 7 o'clock mass in the gray morning light. Anyway, sometimes the heaters leaked. Most of them leaked. Carbon Monoxide. Deadly. If you were small and thin you'd probably sleep very close to the heater and inhale much more CO. Also, if you were small it would take much less gas to kill you.
   The doctor finally revived Booze and I stopped composing that letter in my head to his mom. "Dear Mrs. Booze: I regret telling you that your son died last night serving his country in a far away place. He was a fine soldier." I'd had to write one letter already from Camp Ames the night I arrived. One of my guards shot and killed himself while walking perimeter with his guard dog. The dog wouldn't let anyone get to his handler's body and I was afriad we'd have to shoot the dog too. 
   Booze's girl never made it. She was dead on arrival. I remember looking at her terribly small, thin body laying on the cold steel gurney in that cold, gray light. No one to claim her or care for her.
   Booze was one of my favorite soldiers in Korea. He saved my life one night, so I was doubly happy to be part of the welcoming-back-to-consciousness party that dawn 38 years ago. One night I was in a bar, waiting for a certain girl to arrive. There were 2 other soldiers in the place. Ugly, redneck boys. And they were bullying one of the girls. I don't like ignorant folks. I don't like bullies. So, I stepped in. Big mistake. Huge mistake. They turned on me like angry rattlesnakes. I fished my wallet out and showed them my ID like Van Helsing holding up a Cross to a threatening vampire. I'm an OFFICER!! Of course, the boys had noticed that I was in my civvies...and anybody could get an officer's ID. They had backed me into a corner and I was making my peace with God when the door opened and Sgt Booze--all 6'3" of him, muscled and black (did I mention that Brother Booze was a Black man?), in his MP outfit with .45 pistol and night stick--entered the joint. Booze was a martial artist as well as being a fitness fanatic. And tonight Sgt Booze decided that he would take off his pistol belt and night stick. Yes, Brother Booze thought, tonight I want to use my hands and feet on these good old boys who are threatening my officer. He kicked and punched the 2 redneck gents for about 45 seconds. Both ended up laying against opposite walls on the floor where they were arrested and cuffed and taken to the jail facilities on base.
   Booze turned to me and said, "Sir, I think you should return to base."
   Roger that, Brother Booze.
   So, there you have it. Dawn's Early Light 38 years ago in the mountain village of Chong Dong-Ni--me and Brother Booze.
And a nameless, faceless, lifeless Korean woman.

1 comment:

  1. part two of that story always gave me goosebumps when you told it. it was one of my very favorites