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Inchon Landing and Grandfather’s Exile
by Therese Park
excerpt from "When A Rooster Crows At Night"
Publisher: iUniverse 2004
In the middle of September, 1950, the Pusan Daily News printed a large picture of General MacArthur on a boat with other American officers, wearing sunglasses and smoking a pipe. Below the picture was the caption, "Inchon Landing! 'God is on our side,' General says." I looked at his picture for a long time. I read every printed word in the paper about him, too. He seemed more powerful than God Himself, turning around the war situation overnight, when all we heard was what city had been taken by the Reds, how many UN and South Korean soldiers were killed, and how many tons of bombs were dropped where, killing how many.
My parents couldn’t stop talking about MacArthur. It was as though they had just found a new deity.
Later, at our mountain school, we saw flyers coming down like snowflakes from an American airplane and landing on the field. We had been studying on this slope of the mountain behind our neighborhood since the day the retreating South Korean army took over our school building to shelter wounded soldiers, and we were glad to hear the good news. Teacher Kim seemed to be happy, too. The rims of her eyes turning red; she said, "Children, our soldiers and the U.N. troops are heading to the capital at this very moment. Isn't it exciting? This is a grand triumph of the U.N. soldiers that'll be recorded in the history books."
That evening, Father was in good humor. He poured himself a glass of rice wine, and said, "This is for General MacArthur and every U.N. soldier involved in the Inchon landing!" He drank it in one gulp. Pouring another, he said, "This is for your grandparents, uncles and aunts, and all who are trapped in Seoul," and drank it, too. When he poured another and said, "This is for the future of South Korea..." Mother took the wine bottle away from him.
"That's enough, Yobo," she said. "By the time you're done toasting, you'll be drunk. I don't want you to spoil a good day like this with soju!"
"How else can I celebrate, then?" he asked. "Should I kneel and pray?"
"There you go!", mother said.
A telegram arrived the next day, announcing that our grandparents were safe and that they were arriving at two in the afternoon on Saturday by train. Father couldn’t hide his excitement. He had a few drinks that evening, before Mother took the bottle and his wine glass away.
On Saturday morning after breakfast, Father began ordering the servants in his booming voice, telling them to clean windows, the guest room, and to sweep the courtyard. Mother was busy in the kitchen with the cook, preparing the meal for nearly twenty people who would come to see the grandparents.
I didn't know how long our grandparents would be living with us. A week? A month? I hoped not too long.
Grandfather had a booming voice even louder than our father's. He looked scary, too, like Confucius in the history books. When we had visited them in Taegu before the liberation, I was nervous about being in the same room with Grandfather. With one loud call, he'd gather all of his six servants before him and shoo away sparrows and crows from his property. He had strange attitudes about his grandkids, too. To him, we were merely his live toys. He did whatever pleased him with us. His favorite pastime was torturing us with questions. With my older brothers, he'd ask something about Korean history or mathematics, and when the answers were correct, he would praise them, saying, "I'm proud of you!" and smile, showing his gold teeth. With my sisters, he'd ask something about school or girls' etiquette, but he never gave them the same kind of smile he gave the boys. But for me, it was worse, because I wasn't in school yet, and he knew better than to ask me a question that required a brain or education. "How old are you?" or "How many fingers and toes do you have?" were all he could manage.
After answering him again and again, I was tired of his game. Instead of giving my age or saying how many toes and fingers I had, I pretended my arm itched or my foot went to sleep. One day he was persistent that I answer him, so I pointed at the large mole on his chin and asked, "What's that, Grandfather? Does it hurt?" He laughed, tilting his head back, but then thought better of it. Turning to Mother and pointing at me, he said, "This one will be a problem someday if you don't raise her right!"
Mother was furious. On the way home, she lectured me about the proper demeanor of a girl my age before an elderly man like Grandfather, and what she would do next time if I behaved like I had that day.
Another thing about Grandparents coming was that Mother would make me bow at them until my forehead touched the floor. Mother disliked the way I bowed. "Don't look at the person you're bowing to, Jong-ah," she had lectured me many times. "You look like a frog about to leap! Lower your head."
I hated bowing, but Mother seemed to think that it had some traditional value which deserved to be passed on generation after generation, and insisted on it whenever our relatives visited us.
At two-thirty, my parents brought my grandparents home. But Grandfather wasn't feeling well from the long train ride and bowing was omitted. While Father carefully helped him to the guestroom, I couldn't help but smile. It was a lucky day for me.
Until dinner, my sisters and I made about two hundred meat dumplings, while our brothers went out for bicycling. Here again, Mother was never pleased about our artwork. "It's too big and shapeless," she often said.
That evening, my Big Aunt and her tall physician husband, Little Uncle and his young, sleepy-eyed wife, and about ten kids my age or older, all arrived. Little Aunt, whose husband had been abducted to the North in the beginning of the war, was there too with her five restless kids.
Grandfather joined the crowd in his white silk Korean topcoat with delicate leaf patterns and baggy ash-gray pants. He looked dignified and wasn't as scary as I remembered. Grandmother was the same as before. She quietly sat next to Grandfather, like his shadow, nodding when Grandfather nodded and laughing when Grandfather laughed. How boring she is, I thought. I'll never be like her when I'm her age.
Little Aunt had no choice but to retell Uncle Kyong's abduction to the North, and for a while the room was filled with sniffles and the sounds of nose-blowing, while her five little kids argued among themselves.
Third Uncle, Father's younger brother, unexpectedly bent his head toward the grandparents and said, "Forgive me, Father and Mother, for not stopping by your house before we left Seoul."
"What are you talking about, son?" Grandfather asked, acting surprised.
"There's no excuse, no excuse at all for leaving you alone in the enemy-occupied city and runaway! Will you forgive me?"
His sleepy-eyed wife suddenly woke up and nudged her husband’s elbow. " Yobo, we had no choice. Bombs were dropping and the Reds were shooting everywhere. We could have died, if we..."
“Hush, woman,” Third Uncle grunted, his facial muscles twisting.
Grandfather raised his hand, like a priest before a benediction. "There's no need to apologize, Son,” he said. “You have six young kids to look after. Even if you didn't have kids, who could worry about others at such a time? We're all here! We must celebrate our good fortune to be alive today. Let's eat. I'm hungry."
Third Uncle touched his eyes, and his wife nudged his elbow again. We began eating. I saw Grandfather's hand holding the chopsticks shake violently as he reached for the meat dumplings before him. Father came to the rescue. Lifting one with his own chopsticks, he put it on Grandfather’s plate. Grandfather took the dumpling to his mouth, but it escaped his unsteady chopsticks and landed on the table instead. While Grandfather coughed to hide his embarrassment, Father picked it up and put it on his plate again.
What’s changed him so much? I wondered. Pulling Mother's sleeve next to me, I whispered in her ear, "How old is Grandfather now?”
“Shhh!" she hissed, rolling her eyes. "You should never ask a grownup's age!"
Everyone looked at me, even the little kids. I wanted to hide. I didn’t know why asking Grandfather's age was such a big deal. It's only a number, I thought. He used to ask me my age, too...
Grandfather turned in my direction. “Who wants to know my age?” He didn't seem annoyed about what I had done but rather amused.
“Never mind, Father,” Mother said, giving me a cold look. “This child doesn’t know anything about manners."
Manners, manners, manners! I wanted to scream.
To my surprise, Grandfather chuckled. "I'm sixty, Jong-ah. I'm a very old man. When a man reaches my age, nothing bothers him. You can ask me anything! What else do you want to know about me?"
"Nothing," I said. If I asked another question, Mother would surely skin me alive, I thought.
"Tell us, Father," Mother said, "how did you survive in Seoul all this time? We were so worried about you."
Now everyone's eyes turned to Grandfather, which I was glad about.
Narrowing his eyes, Grandfather seemed to be gathering his thoughts, while his audience waited.
"As soon as the communists entered Seoul," he began in a calm voice, “all stores and shops closed, and my house employees vanished one by one, along with our sterling silverware, cameras, watches, and anything else they could sell. I heard on the radio that thousands of politicians, religious leaders, medical doctors, and professors were captured and taken to the North, and I thought about Kyong." He looked at Little Aunt. "I prayed for him, daughter."
Little Aunt bit her trembling lips, trying hard not to cry.
"Our next-door neighbors disappeared, too," Grandfather went on, "without telling us where they were going. Then came the nightmare we had been worrying about. The Red soldiers forced their entry one night and entered without my consent. The first thing they said was they would send us somewhere, and I almost lost my temper. But I knew what could happen if I wasn't careful. 'I'm a sick man,' I said, acting sicker. 'I might die on your truck. Please, keep us in the servants' quarter. You can have all you want in the house and the storage room. They're yours.'
"They gathered and whispered to one another. 'All right,' the tall man who seemed to be the leader said to me. 'We'll let you remain in the servants' quarter on one condition: You can't go anywhere and you can't talk to anyone other than our comrades. Is it clear?'
"'Fine,' I said. Immediately, we moved to the servant's hut next to the gate. All day we heard gunshots, bombs exploding and tanks rumbling nearby. We were prisoners in our own home. They knocked down the front gate and widened the entryway so that their trucks could go in and out of the courtyard. The pond was filled with dirt and rocks and leveled. The trellis at the entrance of the garden covered with red roses was plucked and thrown away. All of my antique furniture, books, calligraphy, and scrolls were piled into the courtyard and burned, except the pottery collection and your grandmother's jewelry. They divided the jewelry among themselves but they packed my ancient jars and vases in a wooden box.
"At dinner that evening I recognized the soldier who brought the tray of food to us. It was my old tenant's son. Do you remember Chang-ho?" he asked our father.
Our father nodded. "He was about twelve or thirteen when he lived on our property. I remember him climbing our apple trees at picking season."
"Yes, that's the boy. I asked him if he lived in Taegu a while ago. He recognized me immediately: he whispered, 'It's so good to see you, sir." I said, 'I thought you joined the South Korean army after the liberation,' and his answer was, 'I did, sir, but our regiment commander defected to the North in February, and we had no choice but join the Red Army. Several commanders defected to the North about the same time, dragging thousands of troops with them like cattle, sir. Kim Il-Sung lured them to the North, promising them rewards.'
"I just sat there in disbelief. He was very brave. Though he could get in trouble for helping us, he told me not to call him by his name but always Comrade and to do exactly what the Red soldiers told us to do. 'If I can do anything for you, please let me know,' he said. As he got up, I asked about his parents. He hesitated. I had a strange feeling that something might have happened to them.
"’I'm sorry to break the bad news, but they passed away during a bomb in Taejon,’ he said, then hastily left the room.
"Chang-ho brought us two meals a day, morning and night, and we lived peacefully compared to others. He informed us what was going on outside, too, even things he shouldn't have. It was he who told us about the Inchon landing a week ago and that they were leaving that day. We were more scared than glad at hearing such news. We had no idea what might happen to us. Who’s winning or losing isn’t important to people a day at a time, but would they survive another day is. At dusk, the Red soldiers began packing. No food came, and we feared that Chang-ho might have already left, leaving us in others Red soldiers’ hands. Around nine or ten that night, our rice-papered door was kicked open, and a short man entered, holding his rifle. He said, 'Get up and come with us.'
"I shook my head. ’I'm very sick, comrade," I said. 'Why don’t you shoot us now? It'd be an easy solution for you, and we don't have to die on your truck. This is our home, and we want to die here.'
"He hesitated, but when he heard a man's voice shouting outside, 'Let's go', he lifted his rifle. I heard a metallic click, while Grandmother wept loudly. Then another soldier came in. 'Wait!' he said. It was Chang-ho’s voice, but I pretended that I didn't know him.
"'Why waste bullets on them?' said Chang-ho. 'They're as useless as rotten boards. Didn't Chairman Kim always tell us not to waste bullets?’
“The short soldier said they were running out of time, and Chang-ho told him to go. ’I'll take care of them!’ he said. ’I'll drop them in the well or strangle them so that their lips will be sealed. Go on, comrade. Don't fall behind the regiment!’
"'Don't be late,' the short soldier told Chang-ho. 'The Yankees are getting closer.’ I heard his boots kick the door and run toward the gate.
"Chang-ho waited until no communists were around and took us to the loft in the storage shed and covered us with hay. 'Don't move until the Americans get here,' he said in an urgent voice.
"I grabbed his elbow. 'How can I thank you?'
"'Don't mention it, sir,' he said. He then walked away. I cried like an orphan. A few minutes later, I heard different sounds of machine guns approaching and almost wished that the Red soldiers were still with us.
“We ate uncooked rice and raw potatoes that we found in the storage shed for the following two days. On the third day, we heard voices shouting, "Americans are here! Americans are here!" Grandmother and I ran out to the street to see what was going on.
"The bodies of Red soldiers were strewn everywhere. They were young boys about sixteen or seventeen, some even younger-looking. I didn't see any South Korean soldiers among the dead. For some strange reason, I began searching for Chang-ho. I never wanted to find him lying among those corpses, but I couldn't stop looking for him. It was strange... We walked about two blocks when Grandmother stopped me, covering her mouth and pointing.
Chang-ho lay on his back with other dead North Koreans, his uniform soaked in blood and his eyes fixed on the heavens. I bent down to close his eyes but straightened myself immediately, because a marching band was approaching, playing a lively military tune. I wasn't a bit glad to see an American military band or hear its music. I wanted to be alone with Chang-ho for two minutes, only two minutes, but it was impossible. People were everywhere, shouting Manseh (hooray) or singing our anthem.
"A few feet away, two beggar boys were talking to one another. One of them said, pointing at the corpses, 'I found this one, this one, and that one hiding in a ruined building over there and told the police about them.' The other said the same thing, except that he showed something in his hand. "See?" he said proudly. 'I found this watch in that guy's pocket. It might be gold, I don’t know. He might have stolen it from an American soldier after...’
"I was sick to my stomach. Grabbing Grandmother's hand, I hurried home, leaving Chang-ho on the street and the boys nearby. I was afraid that the boys might get the wrong idea about me, an old man standing next to a dead Red soldier, and report to the police. I'm such a coward, compared to Chang-ho."
January xx, 2005