On the day of the Dear Leader’s departure

In the picture, you can’t tell he’s dead. If any picture says a thousand words, 900 of them turn to lies as the facts change.

We might have toasted him back then, the chubby scion of the Great Leader. From across the DMZ from Radar Site 7 on Soi San Mountain, through the cavalry’s ship-to-shore binos you could see a billboard image of Kim Il Sung, progenitor of North Korea’s imperial line, pounding the snot out of a wide-eyed American G.I. who begged for mercy from his knees. I didn’t have a PSYOP MOS then, but it seemed like fairly crude propaganda to me even as a 19-year old artillery private.

It was one of the things they warned us about at the Turtle Farm, in between the vividly slide-illustrated VD lectures. Propaganda was everywhere, and we were not — under any conditions! — to read it or even pick it up. All propaganda was to be reported immediately to Military Intelligence, who would know just what to do. Disappointingly, I never found any. Nothing on the ground in front of my nearsighted eyes but U.S. SOFA cards (like the one in my wallet) and smashed empties of Jin-Ro soju.

No little handbills, scrawled with tawdry Commie lies.

I don’t have a copy of that picture anymore. It was probably taken by the short (but I repeat myself) Korean who haunted the Rainbow bar with lacquered hair, a Polaroid camera and a shit-eating grin. His job was to take pictures of the men and boys who poured off Camp Stanley to bury ourselves in the ripe, steaming diseases of the Ville. Half the subjects of his pictures were his people, and we were the people whose laps they were perched on. If you have to eat shit for a living, may as well man up and grin about it.

He was always professional.

I don’t have a copy anymore because when my Asian second wife found the stack of old Polaroids, her eyes went flat and hard and I found myself flipping through them one last time as I tossed them, one by one, into the big green plastic garbage toter. There was Jon, there was Hambone, there went Terry, Su Ji, Sergeant Wallace… glittery girls with bruised eyes, bright smiles and fishnets, draped lovingly over a bunch of young guys who ran all the way into the Cold War army, six miles down and six miles back to Camp Red Cloud and and “Move, you little girls, MOVE!” up Cardiac Hill to the Ammo Supply Point where I drew 18,000 rounds and loaded them onto a ’58 deuce with no perceptible braking ’cause we could run (“in the sun!”) and we could train (“in the rain!”) and we were never running away, not us. Not then.

Into the shitcan with the whole, carelessly abandoned past. May as well man up and grin about it. The girls, though — they were always professional.

Jon found his copy of that old bar shot — “only one and half dollar, GI; you buy!” — and posted it to Facebook. And there they are, our faces: more pimples than scars, and the kind of fire in our eyes that says judgment is for later and pain is weakness leaving the body (in other words, theoretical). They’re the faces of people who thought they’d rappel and parachute and ski and climb rock faces and go larking off to shoot on the two-way range, and those were the things — perhaps the only things — that we were right about.

Scott isn’t in the picture. Despite my admiration for him as the guy who showed me not only the ropes but how to create a diversion while literally stealing hookers out the back door of the club (but never our club; the Rainbow’s mama-san knew our commander and us well enough to stand behind E-TAB’s payday formations), I was secretly sure he’d end up a three-time felon and go down for life. If there was too much irrepressible ferocity in him for the army to hold back, how did the civilian world stand a chance?

Scott’s been married forever, holding steady at a 1:3 wife ratio, relative to the the big-eyed Private Lewis who always fancied himself a nerdy sort of good guy. After the time in Mi Ah-Ri when the KNP shot at us with their surplus .45 Gov’t blunderbuss Colts as we were scaling the fence at the end of an alley, I wouldn’t have pegged him to become an army officer –much less a police officer — but Scott became both, and an innkeeper to boot. Hospitality takes many forms, and he does know his beer.

Jon sits in the middle of the Polaroid scan. We were roommates in the new, improved barracks, which were plywood billets with central communal latrines, instead of frosty, war surplus Quonsets with dribbling pipes at one end. Our KATUSA (“Korean Augmentation to U.S. Army”) roommate and special affliction was Choi, a young man accustomed to privilege. KATUSAs tended to come from the “better families” who could afford to bribe them out of the more than occasionally fatal conscript hitch in the ROK Army. We got along fine with the ROKs when we came across them in the field, but the KATUSAs worked hard to secure their rep as lazy and feckless. Choi’s special fallback position for evading GI parties was to strike a martial arts pose, put on his war face and snarl, “I tae kwon do you!”

We usually laughed at him and stacked on more chores. When you’re junior enlisted, there aren’t many people you can piss on, so we rarely passed up the opportunities Choi so reliably presented.

He was not always professional. One time, when he decided not to laugh it off and came for me instead, I was duty-bound to pin Choi up against the wall by his neck. Jon and I had talked about it and decided we couldn’t really punch the guy out. He was too skinny (though taller than average at five-nine or so) and not all that bright.

A worldly E-4 to my Private rank, Jon maintained a practical attitude and an even temper most times. He was laughing his ass off by the time I dropped Choi, at which point “our” KATUSA let out a battle shriek, turned around and charged my 220-lb. room dog. Jon casually picked him up by his BDU collar and pants and slung him straight out the window. I hope we didn’t make him sleep out there, but I’ll swear to nothing.

Get over it. It was a single-story building.

Terry was our other roomie. A native Californian who always said his hometown Oakland was “where the sewer meets the sea,” Terry was three or four inches shorter than Choi. After watching him hit a few things, I became glad we were more buddies than we weren’t.

Boy had a fist like a drilling hammer. On a day pass one time, we took a taxi south to Seoul Park and found an amusement area featuring a punching pad with a readout in big, red digital numbers. It cost 100 won, or about 28 and a half cents, and the first time I hit it I set the record. The second time I hit it, I beat my own record.

Terry hit it once, and it has never worked since. Go ahead and check if you don’t believe me.

A few weeks later, he got wound up on Fringars (Korean speed, available OTC in the off-limits pharmacies; very serviceable for staying awake on overnight radio shifts but DAMHIK) and Crown beer — which was never a good idea; we usually stuck with the equally unreliable sour OB lager out of some misguided loyalty and also because it was marginally cheaper and came from the same fetid brewery — and punched the window out of the end of our barracks. Blind drunk, he’d forgotten that he had to pull the door, not push it, and he took it out on the glass — the chicken wire-laced, half-inch-thick, tempered safety glass.

Terry wasn’t a boxer, nor much of a door opener. Terry was a hitter.

I hadn’t heard from Terry for a long time, but he was quality: loyal, goodhearted, a little quick-tempered maybe but he’d drag your drunk ass back through the gate before you stepped on your pass and ended up doing a duty day or three wearing your NBC mask.

It was good to catch up a little with Scott and Jon, but after we couldn’t figure out what happened to Terry, I turned to the treacherous internet and remembered how much those pictures lie. He’s just standing there, you know… big as life, fire in his eye, the little guy who could punch the grill out of a deuce-and-a-half and laugh about it later.

“Yeah, that was pretty stupid,” he’d say. Then he’d grin. “It was cool, though!”

We both DEROSed in 1984, taking different flights to different places. I went to Fort Sill, OK and Terry shipped back home to get out and go to school. Local paper’s morgue article says he woke up fast one day and ran outside with a Louisville Slugger to find three guys stealing his girlfriend’s car. Contemporary practice would be to describe them as African-Americans, but back then they were just three black guys from Oakland. Just plain Americans, who happened to be thieves.

Terry had never been the biggest guy in a fight in his whole damned life, but he was used to that. As Jon might say, “Hell, that wouldn’t faze him none.”

Wearing nothing but Levis and his war face, he fired up his pickup truck and chased them down, but it turned out Terry had brought a bat to a knife fight. That was before kids; before college, wives, three good dogs, six busted legs and a dozen motorcycles; before arthritis and torn bits and occasional, tentative respectability. 1985 was the year I moved into rocket artillery, and Terry went into the ground without so much as a neatly folded flag.

It’s just as well I threw those pictures away. They were full of punk lies, anyway.

Good night, boys.


  1. Nice writing, that!

  2. Greg Froberg says

    Thanks Jack. Your writing takes me back to the times I spent far from home, making friends from every corner of the US. ’67 Merchant Marine, ’69-’71 Army in Germany then Viet Nam. I wish I would have kept better track of them. At least made a list of names. With “old timer’s” setting in, the names don’t pop into my mind anymore but I can see the faces and remember the good times (and some of the not the greatest) we had together. Wilbur Vanoy from the backwoods of Kentucky and Ronny Gilbeaoux from New Orleans (our firebase barber) pop into view. Sgt Jackson, our Platoon Sgt., Company Commander Capt. Catlin, who I got along with great, but he still felt he had to give me that Article 15. The only one I really did keep track of is my friend who lives in Columbia Falls Montana, Barry Dickinson. We went through basic training together and both ended up in Baumholder, Germany. He was the only guy in my Company who would ride with me in my Fiat 850 sports car. We came way closer to dying in that car than we ever did after we both got orders to spend our last eight months of duty in the 101st in Viet Nam.
    Thanks Jack.

  3. 23.
    That’s the number of e-mail addreses I just counted in our “shotgun” list. “Our” being myself and 23 other Gear Rats from the ship.

    Big Ski was a long haul trucker before he came down with the big “C”. He stopped in one day, had dinner and spent the night before jumping back in his rig.

    Burnie, my ol’ Topside P.O. jumped on a plane and came to hang out for a week — clear from Florida.

    Myself, Stone, Fried Fred and Gator all live in the PNW. We see one another several times a year. Stone has all of the photos. We all know to recite the same lies.

    Thanks for the reminiscing, Jack!

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