As North Korea, and indeed the Korean peninsula makes the news again, I am recalling the period in my life when I studied the Korean language in Monterey, California, at the Army Language School, now called the Defense Language Institute.
How I came to study Korean is something of a story. I left college at the University of Texas and decided to enlist. I was subject to the draft but could have easily have used a college deferment. Nonetheless, I was bored and decided to try a stint in the Army, and chose the Army Security Agency as my chosen field of specialization. I took the language test and barely passed, which turns out was something of a blessing.
While I have always been a good student I think I struggled with the language test because its basis was Latin. I never took Latin in high school and I noticed that the students in my class, K-12-47, who placed high on the test were nearly always Catholic. I am not. Catholic students in those days had studied Latin and this contributed to their success in the test. However, they were often lousy in learning Korean.
Korea is a rather easy language to study and learn. It is strictly phonetic, in the sense that Hangul, or the Korean alphabet, was the first in the world, or so we were taught. Put simply, once the student learned the Korean alphabet, pronunciation was rather simple. The Language School was taught mostly phonetically and orally, although we studied written Korean at the same time. We also studied Chinese characters because Koreans in those days used Chinese characters to stress learning. So I wound up learning about 1000 Chinese characters. But please, don't test me now.
I thoroughly enjoyed the school and Monterey, which, in 1957, was a little bit of heaven. John Steinbeck lived in Monterey and nearby Salinas and we often frequented a Chinese restaurant (Toms?) where he was rumored to eat. I ate a lot of good Chinese food but never saw Steinbeck. Monterey still had a flagging fishing industry and across the bay was the huge Fort Ord. As I recall we often attended class in civilian clothes although some days we wore the uniform.
The professors were truly outstanding. There was Mr. Ryu and Mrs. Swanson, the two teachers I remember most. Mrs. Swanson was married to an American serviceman and was beautiful and spoke Korean carefully and for us, helpfully. We were all in love with her. Mr. Ryu was an expert in Judo and proved his prowess with one of our students who was an outstanding wrestler.
I spent the weekends reading, often in a lovely park. I took bus trips to neighboring towns, including the Mission San Juan Bautista where the famous Hitchcock movie Vertigo ended. I also attended the first Concert by the Sea by Errol Garner and witnessed the Bing Crosby Invitational and saw Crosby, his wife, and his entourage during the golf tournament.
I have never written of my 13 months in Korea but they were wonderful in one way, and not so good in another. Korea is a beautiful country and Uijongbu and Camp Red Cloud where I was stationed was what we called "good duty". I was an E-5 and also a sergeant during my time. I was deeply disappointed that I was never asked to speak Korean officially while most Koreans I knew were more interested in learning English. The Koreans were the most studious people I have ever met.
Seoul in 1958 and 1959 was still more or less flattened by the war, ending by then only 5 years before. I can't recall any building in Seoul higher than two stories. Pictures of modern Seoul today truly shock and astound me, containing one of the highest buildings on the planet. While I was in Korea everyone wanted to travel to Japan or Hong Kong. I couldn't go to the latter but a week in Japan was a revelation. One of my most treasured memories was an evening in a Japanese restaurant, rumored to be the only one in Seoul, when snow was falling. The food was wonderful and I have never forgotten that evening.
Before everyone gets excited about the possibilities of conflict on the Korean peninsula, you must remember the huge and devastating impact war will bring to South Korea and North Korea, the latter also have an impressive, if hollow, set of building in Pyongyang.
When I was in Korea, Kim Il Sung reigned in the North, and Rhee Sung Man in the South (better known as Sigman Man Rhee). There were signs all over South Korea announcing Pook Chin!, or March North! The enmity between the two parts of Korea, colored by the bitter Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1905 and the awful Korean war left its mark everywhere.
Many in the Army's Seventh Division and First Division had fought in the Korean wars and the poised readiness by both sides was awful in its intensity. We had Marines posted in our unit for a while and they told of the bitter time when the Chinese surged across the border to fight MacArthur's forces.
For Americans who could not speak or read Korean the bitter memories of the Japanese occupation and the forced separation of the peninsula created constant tension that was poorly understood by most GIs. There were old landmines everywhere north of Oujonbu, and almost weekly a Korean farmer was killed by an old and unexploded mine.
After my discharge, I won a lucrative fellowship to study Chinese but resigned it after two months and left college. I had been discharged and separated in Laurel, MD and the sight of the huge NSA building was foreboding. Some of my friends in K-12-47 stayed in intelligence, learned Chinese and finished their careers in either the NSA or Taiwan. Most suffered chronic alcoholism.
The experience in Korea marked me in a not-atypical way. I grew up in a non-drinking family and my celebration of college life in Austin was focused more on starting smoking than drinking.
In Monterey, there was a service club on the campus/base where those of us under 21 (the drinking age in California) could drink beer. I don't recall ever having a beer in California; the excitement of California had me in its thrall. Most at the club preferred bridge over a beer.
Alcohol and drinking in Korea and Camp Red Cloud were different; some of the best and strongest beer in the world sold for .25 cents a bottle...Heinekins and Blue Girl. I quickly acquired a drinking habit that shaped my life for almost 10 years and led to divorce and a lot of heartbreak. I finally stopped after two years of marriage to Carole and we will celebrate our 50th anniversary in December. In a month I will turn 80. I am still a non-drinker.
My Army experience though was, all in all, wonderful; I only wished I had been among the two or three in our company who stayed away from the Club. I also regret my failure to become more expert in Asia and its politics. I took excellent courses in Japanese history and politics at the U. of Texas from Jim Soukup, a Japanese expert and graduate of the U. of Michigan, where many Asian experts were trained. I took Chinese history and politics at the U. of Texas from a woman who was a graduate of Harvard where many Asian experts were trained. I can't recall her name but she was a terrific teacher. Plainly the U.S government was financing a lot of East Asian experts.
In the end, I wound up winning Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins and excelled in my studies in large part because I put alcohol behind me. My career in public health changed me and Carole and I spent years official of the New York State Department of Health while Carole served as a Washington representative for the Department. I served as deputy commissioner for policy under Dr. David Axelrod who tragically suffered a devastating stroke and died 5 years later, never leaving the coma.
As I watch the developing crisis in Korea, I hope someone working for our rather unstable president prevents his stumbling into a terrible conflict. Those who still ignore his psychological instability will now see that we are entering a period of deep crisis with a leader in North Korea who is not only unstable but unpredictable. Trump also has his serious psychological impairment and his supporters will now see how these debilities can lead into a serious end game on the Korean peninsula.
Political resentment, which is the witches brew for the Trump coalition, will be pitted against a genuinely unstable and perhaps mad leadership in Pyongyang. So we all shall hold on for the white-knuckle months ahead of where the Trump coalition may lead us into a bitter result. The Southernization of American politics that John Egerton foresaw couldn't happen at a worse time.
Our smearing of Hillary Clinton may prove to be the worst outcome of our fractured and resentful republic, still divided over foolish memories of a lost Civil War.
God help us.