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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

I'm a Seoul Man

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

Back in 1966, Seoul Korea was a single dirt road -- some ramshackle stores with corrugated metal roofs. If a gent had his back to you, he more than likely was urinating against the wall. Occasionally, they would take their pants off to wipe their brow – it was hot and heavy there in the summer.

The authority of the 7th Army was the only thing that kept South Korea from becoming North Korea. The army built a ‘white elephant’ resort called Walker Hill in the countryside for the soldiers to blow off steam on the weekends. That would be our home for the next nine weeks.

The South Korean people were wonderful – kind, caring, and very grateful for our military presence. Their economy was pitiful, with people eking out an existence working in Mitsubishi shoe factories run by my father. Korea and Japan were still brutal enemies, with harsh memories of WWII still lingering everywhere. The simple fact that the Japanese controlled their economy was a bitter pill for them to swallow. Women made money the old-fashioned way, they sold themselves as instruments of pleasure to the GIs on the weekend.

We spent our first two days in a hotel in Seoul prior to relocating to Walker Hill. I was only 16, so I didn’t understand why young women hung around the entrance, getting more and more impatient as 9 pm drew closer. South Korea had a military curfew in effect, and Koreans had to be inside after the appointed hour. As the time drew near the girls’ prices grew lower, until just before the hour struck, they would just grab you and drag you inside and up to your room.

Unfortunately, health care was a luxury in the country at the time, and many of these women carried sexually transmitted diseases. One day when we were on base (my father served in the army in WWII and Korea, wangling invites frequently) and passing through the mess hall, we noticed a huge banner hung over the entrance: “VD IS UN-AMRERICAN, GO HOME CLEAN!” This was just prior to the onset of penicillin resistant strains of gonorrhea, so most of the soldiers would simply stop into the clinic for a butt full of antibiotics after their weekend romps. This knee jerk reaction to the pain they knew was inevitable may have been the launching platform for the antibiotic resistant strains that developed later in the late 60’s.

Walker Hill was a bit quirky. We’d go into the dining room for breakfast and I would order sunny side up eggs. The waiter said to me: “No have fried eggs today, only scrambled eggs.” We ate what we thought was steak for eight weeks until we found out we had actually been dining on Water Buffalo. When you see one of these beasts-of-burden walking through downtown dragging a cart of vegetables, snot dripping from their nose and lather around their mouth -- realizing what was actually on your plate for so long, well, it’s enough to make anyone a vegetarian.

The generosity of the Koreans was bottomless. They earned about $1.25 per month back then, and we became friendly with one of the hotel supervisors. He invited me and my brother to his home for lunch one day. Many of the Koreans lived in grass shacks with thatched roofs. We saw people living in caves. He and his family lived in a small hut, maybe 500 square feet. They served us a fried egg and watermelon – but would not sit down and eat until we had finished – they wanted to make sure we were no longer hungry. Regrettably, at 16 I did not have the maturity to understand the gravity of that type of self- sacrifice.

We were fortunate to arrive in South Korea just as the monsoon season was commencing. It was the first time in my life I have witnessed rain move sideways! We went down to the bank of the Han River and watched the Army’s Sikorskys (helicopters) pluck Koreans off the roofs of their grass huts as they floated helplessly down the swollen river. There was a palpable silence in the leaden air as they rescued as many as could fit in each chopper. I had never witnessed such stark poverty and desperate despair before. It left an indelible impression.

My father arranged a car to take us to the DMZ (Panmunjom). It was 4 hour drive in an un-airconditioned car in the middle of summer. My mother insisted we keep the windows up because she could not cope with the odor of the nearby farms. The Koreans wasted nothing, using their own fecal matter to fertilize the fields. The DMZ was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen – and I’ve been to the cemetery outside of Paris where Jim Morrison is buried…

There was a wide yellow line down the single lane road, indicating the demarcation between North and South. North Korean military sat on the roof of one building called the ‘Ice Cream Parlor’ manning a 30 caliber machine gun. At the end of the road was a bridge – aptly named “The Bridge of No Return” which led to North Korea. Travel was one way only. Again, the silence hung so heavily in the air it appeared to drape the buildings in an impenetrable darkness. No one complained about the scent of the farms on the return trip.

The day we left South Korea Marshal Law was declared. The Korean government was attempting to sign a “Normalization Treaty” with Japan, hoping to put aside the scars of the last war. The people were having none of it and riots broke out all over Seoul. We hurried to the VW van waiting to ferry us to the airport and were less than 30 yards ahead of the riot as it engulfed the city. The righteous anger of the South Koreans continued unabated for some time after we left.

While my memories are bittersweet of our extended stay there, I am grateful that Seoul has thrived into the metropolis it is today. I’d still avoid ordering the steak if you plan a visit…

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