Monday, May 31, 2010

명. 고맙습니다 (Thank You)

My father's war was not a war, officially, but only a "conflict." He's never called it anything but what it was, on the rare occasions that he's ever said a word about it. Like most men of his generation, perhaps like most men who have been to war, my father saw nothing in war that he wished to remember, certainly nothing he cared much to share.

The few stories I've heard -- of the troop carrier where every man was sick for days and weeks, of frozen K-rations at Thanksgiving, of a prank that left him trapped in his bunk in a snowbank, where he nearly died of the cold, of the deadly efficiency of the Turks his unit followed into a captured position, of finding a brass incense burner in the wall of a foxhole, -- none of these brief anecdotes told me much of what he actually saw in Korea, of what it must have been like there, for a green boy, never before away from his hometown in Pennsylvania.

When I asked him once, directly, what the war meant to him, he said "it meant nothing," and left it at that.

He's never spoken of what it was like to kill another human being, though I know he did. I know that the thought of it, and of all the death he saw in the war, the one time in my company that he could not keep the memory of all that from his mind, undid him, a sight I'd never seen before and have never seen since.

He told my mother, when he came back home to marry her, only that he was glad to be home, and with her.

Some years ago, at one of the perpetual yard sales with which my father has supplemented his meager retirement pension, he came down off the porch to help a couple of customers looking through the stuff he'd arranged on tables in front of the garage. He watched them for awhile first, not wanting to make them feel shy of just looking, until he happened to hear these two young men, "college boys," my father guessed, speaking a language he hadn't heard in years, a language he hadn't thought to ever hear again.

When he said hello to them, in Korean, they were understandably startled. When they returned his greeting and tentatively tried his memory with a little more, he smiled, and told them that that was about all he could actually say now in their language, though he "remembered the sound of it." The three of them stood there in my father's yard and smiled at one another.

They asked him, in English, if he had been in Korea? He told them, he had. They asked him, had he been in the war? He told them, yes, he'd been in the war. They asked him, much to his surprise and embarrassment, if they might take a photograph, with him? He said, he couldn't imagine why they would want "a picture with an old man," but they were gently insistent, and so he let them have their picture. He wouldn't let them buy anything, though they tried, and they wouldn't let him give them anything from the tables. The stalemate made them all smile again, even laugh a little. Finally, they turned to leave, and as they did, they bowed, stiffly and very low, and my father remembered another word or two of Korean:

"명. 고맙습니다 ," -- "Thank you," they'd said. They said it again and again, until my father waved them away, and went back up onto the porch and watched them get in their car and drive away.

"That meant something," he told me, "that right there."


  1. Thanks for posting this. I am always impressed when my fellow liberals remember Memorial Day as more than a day off work. I certainly didn't always understand what Memorial Day is about. My own father, like yours, rarely mentioned his wars (WWII and Korean), and when he did it was about good times on shore leave (Dad was in the Navy). That changed one day toward then end of his life, when he knew he was dying. He sat at the ktichen table with his children and their spouses (those what have thm), and broke into sobs because he had killed three men that he was certin of during the war. Kamikaze pilots he had shot out of the sky as they tried to sink his ship. I cannot and will never be able to imagine what these men and women went through and lived wtih for most of their lives. Thanks again.

  2. Thanks, Richard. And thanks to your father.

  3. Brad, a very nice piece, you captured it all beautifully.