Spring 1970

pastedGraphic.png This Chinese character, (commonly used in written Korean), means springtime.

Giles Ryan
© Copyright 2024 by Giles Ryan

Photo by Setayesh Yousefnia on Unsplash
Photo by Setayesh Yousefnia on Unsplash
I wrote the piece below when our younger son was in Afghanistan, and he asked me to share stories about what I was doing when I was in my early twenties, around his same age then. He was a Marine Corps intelligence officer, while my time as a school teacher was very different.

In the spring of 1970 when I had not been long in Korea, I had a sudden and unexpected reminder of America, and in the process saw a startling kind of strength and endurance.

In those years I was a teacher at a middle school in Chunchŏn, in Kangwŏn Province, northeast of Seoul. It was a mountainous area with rivers and lakes created by the dam projects built after the war. The war was, of course, a recent memory and the scars of the conflict were still in evidence. Indeed, the DMZ was not far off and there was still intermittent fighting in those years, with raids across the border and on the coastlines. Just north of the town there were missile sites on a few scattered elevations but most of the mountaintops were unchanged from countless centuries and offered a strenuous but pleasant day trip outing for enthusiastic mountain climbers, which included some of the other teachers at our school.

But before I came to Korea this would not have included me. In my college years I had never looked for any more exercise than would have come my way in the course of a part-time job, so it was disconcerting when I realized that I had fallen into a company of Spartans. I was undoubtedly the least fit person among the teachers, to say nothing of the boys, who were all born tough. All the teachers had done their three years duty in the Korean Army and all the boys would face the same ordeal. The teachers had survived this rite of passage and the boys were determined to meet the same test. In those years the Korean government did not make public the number of young men who did not survive basic training.

A school colleague, Ahn Chang-jun, (or, I should say, Ahn- sŏnsaeng using the term of address that showed respect for teachers in Korea – one never addressed anyone with a given name), suggested one day that we meet the next Sunday morning and take a bus out to the countryside and climb a mountain. He promised fair weather and a wonderful view. With some anxiety I accepted, not knowing how arduous the trip would be.

We rode a country bus northwest of the city, less than an hour from town, (we could hardly have gone farther without running into military checkpoints), and got off on a narrow country road with nothing around us but the Soyang River on one side and a steep mountain on the other, Ahn-sonsaeng was clearly delighted to have arrived wherever we were and he beckoned me to follow him.

The trail was a rocky path taken by climbers like us and also by people with another purpose, for mid-way up the mountain there was a small structure which was home to a few monks. It was certainly not large enough to be a temple, and in time I would learn the distinction in the names of these places; the great Korean Buddhist temples all had the suffix –sa while these small but sometimes equally distinguished places had the suffix –am, which I came to think of as hermitage since they often housed only a few people living in quiet contemplation.

But Ahn-sŏnsaeng hardly noticed the place and had probably seen many like it. We stopped for only the briefest moment to drink from the well and then pressed on up the path. I was having a very hard time keeping up. I confess that in those years I carried too much weight and made this worse by smoking. I had just turned twenty-one but had already accomplished much in the way of ruining my health and it was showing, as I gasped for breath and had to stop and sit on a rock. Ahn- sŏnsaeng noticed this and came back to join me, diplomatically suggesting we both could use a rest. This part of the path was shaded by trees, which blocked the view of the valley below but gave refreshing shade from the sun on a very warm spring day.

Perhaps to prolong our rest I asked about his life before he came to Chunchŏn. By odd happenstance he was actually newer at the school than I, having joined us a few weeks after my arrival. He had recently graduated from Yŏnsei University with a degree in Korean literature. Like many young men he had done his military service between his sophomore and junior years of college. He had also recently married and had a baby son. His English was far better than my Korean but he encouraged me, was eager to help me learn and clearly found my questions entertaining since they frequently made him consider aspects of his own language that he had always taken for granted. For example, I knew I was not supposed to speak with the same verb endings that I heard the boys use when shouting to each other on the playground, but it challenged him to explain why this was so. With his help I eventually came to have some understanding of the bewildering spectrum from formality to intimacy in daily speech, and the hazards of verbal etiquette, (and despaired of mastering it.) Nouns, too, offered pitfalls, so that asking a child’s age was quite different from asking the same question of one’s apparent contemporary, and different again from asking the question of one’s elder.

As we spoke of this and that we saw an old woman go up the path, balancing a large, heavy bucket on her head. Like most country women she wore the long chima skirt that tied above the breast-line and the short chogori jacket. Despite what appeared to be a heavy load she climbed the path at a brisk – shall I say? - Spartan pace.

What is she carrying?” I asked.

He thought for a moment, found the right word and said, “Refreshments.”

Really? What kind of refreshments?

He smiled and said, “We will learn when we get to the top. I believe she will be waiting for us.”

I knew I was being ever so slightly teased and must rise to the challenge. But as we continued the climb I realized that my determination was not quite adequate to the task and we still had to pause now and then before we reached the summit.

Once we arrived I was physically exhausted but exhilarated by what I saw. It was the clearest spring day and I could see for many, many miles around. There was the Soyang River winding through the long valley below and all of Chunchŏn and the lake north of the city, and stretching far away straight north were other mountain peaks leading one by one like stepping stones to the DMZ and North Korea.

After some time catching my breath and taking it all in I said, “Ahn-sŏnsaeng, this is wonderful!” I felt I couldn’t thank him enough for sharing this with me and patiently coaxing me up the long climb for this splendid reward.

He smiled and said, “You must be thirsty.” And he went over to the old woman who had, of course, reached the top before us and was sitting beside her bucket, which was covered with a wet towel. He spoke to her for a moment, then she reached deep inside and gave him something which I couldn’t quite see. He walked over and handed me – unbelievable! – a frosty can of Budweiser beer! I was stunned by this miracle.

This isn’t possible – where did this come from?”

From your country, I believe,” he answered with a big grin. “The American Army shares with us.”  Of course, I knew the Korean economy included a lively black market in goods that found their way out of the US Army’s supply system, (they  shared a great deal more than they wished), but the efficiency and reach of this system had just been demonstrated in a startling way.

After sitting on the ground and sipping our beers and enjoying the view, I bought the second round. Other climbers had now arrived and the old woman was doing a brisk trade. She soon ran out and, picking up her bucket, returned down the path. Ahn-sŏnsaeng told me that on a good weekend with excellent weather and many people making the climb, she might make three trips from the market in town and up the mountain. The example of her strength and stamina gave me much to think about.

We stayed a while longer, enjoying the bright sun, the magnificent view and the unintended but nonetheless generous bounty of the American Army. Later we slowly made our way down the mountain and took the little country bus back to town, where I insisted he be my guest for dinner, an inadequate return for such a memorable day.

There were many such outings in the following years, sometimes with Ahn- sŏnsaeng and sometimes with other teachers who wanted to show me their favorite places. I believe they saw me as a guest who had come to share their life with them for a time and they wanted me to see the things that gave them pleasure. None of us was rich in any material way but we gained a great wealth of shared experience and learned from each other, although I’ll always believe I got the better part of the trade. I was very young, had little experience of life and was very far from home. When I look back after all these years and recall how these good people were so wonderfully kind to me, I know I could never thank them enough.

April 23, 2010

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