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Afflictions & Departures: Essays

Posted: 02/13/2012 11:20 am

Over the next few weeks, the Huffington Post will run excerpts from the five finalist books vying for the prestigious Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. Each of the authors has personally chosen the excerpt for our readers, and in his or her intro, explains the choice. After all the excerpts have run, Huffpost readers will have the opportunity to vote for their favorite book in advance of the announcement of the 2012 prize winner on March 5.

From the author:

The recent death of North Korea's dictator Kim Jong-il and the succession of his son make this excerpt somewhat topical. Perhaps people are thinking about the potentially destructive effects and long lasting repercussions of foreign policies. Perhaps some are remembering the Forgotten War. In this excerpt, I recall the Forgotten War via memories of my father, who had been a U.S. soldier in Korea in the 1950s.

From an early age, I'd been curious about my father's time in Korea. He didn't speak about it unless pressed, and then much of what he said reflected what he would have liked to have lived, rather than what he had actually experienced. There were no medals displayed in our house, no military reunions attended, no friends from the field dropping by for a beer. He spent much of his spare time reading books about the war, puzzling over it, smoking cigarettes. An aura of secrecy pervaded the military episode of his life, and I would discover many years later when reading David Halberstam's book, The Coldest Winter, that this was common among many who fought in Korea.

I have always been drawn to secrets and mysteries, to gaps in a narrative that yearn to be explored. I write not to tell a story, but to discover one, and when I began working with the mystery of my father, there were a number of questions that immediately surfaced: "What was the impact of this war on him? On our family? On me?" I knew there were no definitive answers, but these nascent questions offered a natural perspective: World events do influence who we are and who we become, most frequently without our ever knowing.

My parents read newspapers when I was a child and knew what was happening in the world. They predicted outcomes, finding, as mostly everyone eventually does, that it's those things not even on the radar that come to dominate one's fate. Like so many of their generation, my parents blindly stayed the collective course. They did this, I believe, because they truly thought it was the best path and they were willing to repress and deny anything that might threaten it. As Mark Twain wrote at the turn of the 20th century, "a man is not independent, and cannot afford views which might interfere with his bread and butter. If he would prosper, he must train with the majority," and both my parents had stopwatches set to the specifications of mainstream success.

My father's Korean life, however, presented a fly in the ointment, or a spider in the kimchi, as they might say in Korea. When overseas, he'd fallen in love with a woman he planned to return for, perhaps not realizing immediately the censure this decision would entail. His friends and family made him aware of the numerous difficulties, and whether this influenced him or not, I can only speculate.

Which brings me to my final point about facts and speculations and my relationship with the genre of literary non-fiction. In many different cultures, there exists the myth of the bone gatherer: a character who collects the nonperishable remains of animals or ancestors and through an act of recall, with soul infusing art, reanimates what had, for all intents and purposes, been dead and lost to the world. As I planned to write about my father's time in Korea, all I could collect was a handful of facts, but these were enough to lead me to speculate and carry me into a larger understanding of my father's life and mine and the history we inhabited together.

IN THE HOUSES of my childhood, in all of the bedroom closets that my father has ever had, there hangs a velvet robe the colour of golden poppies. It is lined and lapelled with satin burgundy brocade, with dragons and phoenixes, and contrasts conspicuously with the blacks and greys of his business suits. One day, when I am playing hide and seek, I find it and ask him what it is and when he got it. I have never seen him wear it. "A smoking jacket from Korea," he tells me, and I go to smell it, to see if I can detect the fragrance of smoke. This is the first time I hear him use the word "Korea," a word that to my preschool ears sounds as unpleasant as "diarrhea," and I am disappointed that such a beautiful robe should have associations with such a distasteful word. "Where is Korea?" I ask him, and he takes me to his globe in the study to show me the small neck of land the colour of olives, protruding from China. "I was a stamp collector there," he tells me, and goes to the bookshelf where he picks up an album containing hundreds of colourful stamps. I see him in my mind's eye, a contemporary Johnny Appleseed, walking through valleys of tall green grass -- but instead of disseminating orchards, he is gathering these precious patches of paper, rectangles of sticky fruit, abandoned by letters like dross.

My father confirms my suspicions that the country's name does indeed have a connection with "diarrhea," when he tells me about the portable toilets (honey-buckets) that soldiers used. Local farmers would purchase their "honey" to fertilize crops. Though the crops looked very healthy, they often contained bacteria and worms that would make people sick and sometimes even kill them. Later, he tells me about the extremes of hot and cold, of hungry refugee children, half naked in the snow, who come begging soldiers for K rations. "There was one little South Korean boy who was crippled," he recounts, "and a soldier pushed him into a pile of trash. The other soldiers laughed," he continues, until my eyes fill with tears.

"But what did you do?" I demand from him, and he knows that he can only give the following answer: "I helped him up and gave him some K rations." True or false, his words allow me to stop crying.

My father does not tell me that U.S. soldiers were ordered to slaughter South Korean refugees--that they machine gunned old women and small children because they might have been Northern spies. If my father knows about such things, he does not speak of them. It is decades before anyone publicly will.

"Did you ever kill anyone when you were a soldier?" I ask, hoping he will tell me "no."

"I collected stamps," my father says.

And the image of a contemporary Johnny Appleseed reasserts itself, but this time wearing a combat helmet and army boots, stepping gingerly over portable toilets, disseminating K rations to crippled children in the same green valley where he gathers stamps.

I am too young to understand the complexities of war, to be told of a land controlled and oppressed by strangers, then carved up by decision makers who did not take into account the symbiosis of a nation. I am too young to comprehend sanctioned killing and destruction; too youthfully honest to entertain the idea that torturing and bullying others into submission is sometimes the only way a country can settle its disputes or satisfy its greed. Such concepts would never pass muster in playschool. But I am not too young to envision some of war's horrors, to understand that napalm is a jellied blend of chemicals and gasoline that can burn longer and hotter than fire. I am not too young to imagine how containers of napalm were dropped from planes onto building and people. For weeks, I have nightmares of jellied blobs of fire sticking to the clothes and flesh of faceless people, turning them to ash. I tell my father these dreams when I wake up in the middle of the night. Sometimes his restlessness wakes me too, and I discover him in the wee hours of the morning in quiet contemplation, smoking cigarettes at the dining room table.

Hidden in the basements of the houses where we live, there is a box that contains mementos from his past: a pearl white Korean/English dictionary; an abacus made from ivory and bamboo; a large black-paged photograph album and three bundles of letters tied with red ribbon. The box is private and my brothers and I know we aren't to touch it, but one day the temptation grows too strong. Before we are discovered, we see pictures of my father, dressed in khaki. He stands in front of barbed wire. The soil under his heavy black boots is barren and dusty. These pictures contrast markedly with others in the album, in which he is in a wooden boat, paddling on a lake with a beautiful East Asian woman. There are some pictures just of her, surrounded by lush green trees and flowers. Her hair is long and black, her face serene. When my father discovers us, he takes the album from my hands and wordlessly packs it away. He then seals the box with moving tape and tells us firmly that his personal things are off limits.

There are secrets that my father holds. Secrets of his past that he will never reveal. In 1974, when he dies at age 45, he bequeaths a chasm in his history, a vacuity which my speculations will endlessly attempt to fill.


Next Monday we will feature the next Charles Taylor nominee. Keep watching this spot for news of the others, and information on when it's time to vote!

Learn about the other nominees:

Wade Davis - Into The Silence
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From the jury: "In this monumental volume, Wade Davis narrates explorer George Mallory's heroic attempt to scale Everest following the Great War. With remarkable new research in previously unexplored British archives and in the Himalayas, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest powerfully links the devastating carnage and demoralization of the War to the transcendent aspiration of Mallory and his compatriots to ascend Everest. With skill and insight, Davis explores the meaning of this valorous yet tragic climb for post-war Britain and the world."

(Ryan Hill Photo)

 
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