This is an old archived version of Koreabridge.
The current active version is at Koreabridge.NET
My Brother Lost and Found
by Therese Park
One very hot day in August 1950, during the Korean War, our class was dismissed early because of the record-breaking heat wave, and coming home, I found our house empty and quiet. I didn’t expect to see my sisters and brothers at this time of the day, especially when we were let out of school earlier than usual, but Mother was not there looking out for me either.
I went to the kitchen, hoping one of the servants would tell me where Mother was. As always, Yong-ja was sitting on the floor, her face buried in a bowl of rice. Since the day she joined us two years earlier, I always found her in the kitchen, eating.
"Where's Mother?" I asked.
"She went looking for your oldest brother," Yong-ja said, barely lifting her round cheeks from her bowl.
"The soldiers took him."
"How do I know? A neighbor came and told your mother that the soldiers rounded up several boys, including your brother, and took them somewhere on a truck. Your mother was crying when she left. Now go! I have work to do," she said, waving her chopsticks in the air.
I asked when she was coming back, but Yong-ja said she had no clue. "She ran out without changing her clothes!"
It seemed serious. Mother was always careful about how she looked. She never left the house without combing her hair neatly and wearing her street clothes.
I went back to the front room and sat, fanning myself with my hand. Why would the soldiers take Eldest Brother? And where did they take him?
Mother adored Eldest Brother and called him her "phoenix." He was tall for his age, handsome with large dark eyes, and had long earlobes, which Mother considered the sign of nobility. Twice a year, he brought Mother his report card with its ninety-five or higher score which the non-phoenix children couldn't even dream of matching. Whenever Mother held his report card, her eyes gleamed like black gemstones, and she smiled unabashedly. On his fifteenth birthday the previous year, Mother awarded him with a Leika camera that my aunt, a medical doctor, had bought for him in Tokyo while attending a medical conference. He stole most of Mother's heart, leaving only a small portion for his five sisters and brothers to share, not counting Baby Brother.
Among her five non-phoenix children, I was the least noticeable child in our family of nine, a mere sparrow next to the phoenix. Nothing I did impressed Mother and nothing about me seemed right, even the way I walked. "Hold your shoulders back straight," Mother often said on the way to church. I sometimes resented Eldest Brother for his excellent academic achievement and his good qualities. "Why can't you do like your Eldest Brother?" was the beginning sentence of Mother’s lecture when I brought home my report card.
But our phoenix brother was missing now. What if he never comes back? It worried me. I couldn't imagine home without him.
My two sisters returned from school, arguing about something I couldn't understand. I told them about First Brother. "Mother went to find him," I said.
"What are the soldiers going to do with him?" First Sister said to no one in particular.
"Who knows," Second Sister said. "He might be having a good time somewhere. Maybe they’re are showing him what it's like being a soldier."
"He’ll go to the front," First Sister said. “It’s serious!”
For a while, we just sat there, lost in thoughts. I was more worried about our phoenix than earlier.
Second Sister said, "I wonder what's going to happen to his camera, if he doesn't come back."
"Is that all you can think about, his camera?" First Sister attacked.
"What's wrong to think about it? I bet you are thinking about it, too."
"I'm not as materialistic as you are, Little Sister."
"Oh yeah? You probably want the camera more than I do," Second Sister accused.
"Yes, you do!"
"I said I don't."
"You do. I can see it in your eyes!"
They could argue like this until I was sick of them. I learned with time that I should never try to break them up from an argument, because they'd both end up blaming me for taking sides with the other.
"You want some rice-cakes?" I asked, rising.
They said yes, so I opened the tall oak cabinet in the hallway and served them each a powdered rice-cake on a plate and saved one for myself. We quietly munched, not talking to one another. But in truth, I wondered about the camera too. I wouldn't mind owning one just like what Eldest brother had and take many pictures of my cat Mimi or our school on the mountain or the seashore faraway, where many American battleships floated, occasionally blaring horns.
Our parents returned together long after dark, not talking to one another. Mother, seeing us sitting before our dinner turning cold, ordered, "Go on, eat!" and we began eating. She didn't touch her chopsticks, though the table was loaded with grilled flounder covered with thick brown sauce, steamed vegetables, and sheets of toasted seaweed—-the dishes she loved to serve often. Suddenly, she broke into tears, covering her eyes with her hands. It took me a while to understand why she was crying. Eldest Brother’s favorite dish was flounder, the one we were eating now.
Mother didn't cry long. Lifting her face to Father, she said, "You should have gone to city hall and talk to the mayor. Instead, you went to the police station. The police have nothing to do with why our son disappeared!"
Father looked hurt. He said in a low voice, "I did all I could."
Our parents rarely argued in front of us like this, but now they seemed completely oblivious that we were there.
"Doing all you can isn't enough sometimes. You should have done more!"
Father pushed his rice bowl away. "Listen, when you called me and told me what happened, I called the police immediately, although I was busy with a client. The police are civil servants; they should know something about why our son disappeared. Anyway, the line was busy, so I took a bus and went there myself. About a hundred people were screaming in front of the police station, but the guard let only one person into the building at a time, only one person! I waited there all afternoon. At four-thirty, I was still waiting, so I called your sister, the doctor. She knows many important people in the political circles. What more could I have done? I did all I could."
"'I did all I could!'" she mocked Father and snorted. "Didn't you hear that the army sends boys to the front without even training them? What are you going to do if our son ends up in an army camp tonight? 'I did all I could!' Is what you'll say?" She laughed cynically.
Father stared at her for a moment and rose, without saying anything.
Mother began crying again and Father coughed loudly from the front room as if saying, "Crying doesn't take care of anything!"
Before going to my room after dinner, I stepped into the courtyard and looked at the dark sky. The air was hot and humid, but the stars, thousands of them, looked down at me cheerfully. They seemed to know something I didn't. I made a wish: Please let my brother come home.
Early the next morning, a man's voice woke me. "Auntie! Auntie!" he called. It was my aunt's new butler, a tall man with tattoos of a dragon on his upper arms. I heard the door to my parent’s room slide. "Yes, Butler!" Mother said.
"Auntie, the doctor wants you to show up at the mayor's office at nine-thirty. Lots of people will be there, she said, and she wants to see you there, too."
"The parents of the missing boys are protesting to the mayor and he invited some military officials to answer them. She said you should be there no matter how busy you are!"
Within ten minutes, Father and Mother left home with my aunt's butler without arguing.
That evening Eldest Brother returned. An army truck had dropped him off in front of our home. When he walked into the front room, he seemed fine: he didn't limp or wasn't bandaged all over. He even joked that the South Korean army served him and other boys a five-course meal every evening. "See?" he said, touching his belly. "I gained some weight."
Father said, "Tell us. Where did you spend the night?"
"In a concrete building with a room full of boys,” my brother said. “It was dirty but roomy. The soldiers gave us some cooked barley and bean-sprout soup for dinner, and then lectured us until our ears hurt."
"Did they give you a clean sleeping mat and a comforter?"
He laughed. "It wasn't a hotel, Mother. We slept on bare concrete, each with an army blanket. It was okay: I mean, it wasn't life threatening, except lice were crawling all over me. They had a feast, I'm sure." He rolled up his school-uniform sleeve, and we saw red bumps, the size of a mung-bean, all over.
"Tss, tss, tss... we'll have lice again," Mother said. "Anyway, I'm glad you're home."
Learning that the neighborhood boys were still disappearing, my parents decided to hide Eldest Brother. After considering many options, they picked the crawl space under the front room. Father carefully took the nails out of two floorboards, squeezed down into the dark space with a flashlight, and removed spider webs, rotten boards, and bricks and concrete blocks that were probably left there since the day the house was built. As soon as he came up, Mother went down with rags, a freshly made straw mat, and Eldest Brother’s sleeping mat and comforter. She wiped the concrete floor, which Father had cleared earlier, and laid the straw mat, and then spread his sleeping mat and comforter over it.
Watching her, I knew Mother wished she could hide her firstborn somewhere else, maybe a place with a view of the mountains or the ocean. It was torture for her even to imagine that her phoenix would soon be sleeping under the floor like a dog, where mice would nibble his toes or long earlobes, the sign of his nobility.
After dinner, Eldest Brother went down to his hiding place, taking several candlesticks, his book bag, and his Leika camera.
I saw Mother's eyes redden, but Father only cleared his throat and ordered us never to open the front door without making sure the floorboards were in place.
"Soldiers will come looking for him without advance notice," he said. "We don't want to see anyone, not even our relatives, until it's absolutely safe for your brother. Understand?"
It was difficult to get used to the idea that my phoenix brother was under my feet. When I least expected it, his voice resounded from beneath the floor, making me jump. "Who's thumping up there? Don't you know I'm down here?"
I’d run away. When I'd say, "Sorry!" he would growl at me, saying that I walked like an elephant or hippopotamus and that I should be in my room doing homework. Sometimes I had a strong urge to thump my feet as hard as I could to show him that he had no authority over me any more. But I could never actually do it. I hadn’t been able to say what I wanted to say when he had been above the floorboards, and it was the same now.
Once in a while, in the middle of the night, I‘d hear him crawl out of his hiding place, tiptoe to the courtyard, and exercise, jumping up and down. When finished, I'd hear him in the kitchen, opening and closing cabinet doors, knocking down a dish or a bowl. and clattering spoon against ceramic bowls. Sometimes, he stayed awake long after we went to bed, probably reading. when I went to get a drink of water late at night, I could see bright light shining between the floorboards.
A week later, at sundown, he liberated himself from all of his misery, along with everything he had with him, camera and books. "I've had enough," he declared, looking pale. "I'm not going down there again!"
Mother's mouth dropped. "What if they would take you again, son? We might never find you next time!"
"This is no life," he grumbled. "Sitting in a dark cage and smelling dirt and grime all day is pure hell. I want to live!"
That night, Father ordered us not to bothered them, and the three of them--he, Mother, and Eldest Brother--stayed in his office across the courtyard long into the night. The next morning Father left home early, without eating his breakfast. Mother explained at breakfast that Father went to see Mr. Song, the church usher who was a cook at the U.S. Eighth Army base.
"Your Father says Mr. Song knows some officers at the American army base who might use your brother as an errand boy,” she said. “If he can work there, no Koreans would bother him again," she said, her eyes glowing hopefully.
Two days later at seven in the morning, Eldest Brother left home for an interview with a U.S. military officer. Mother was anxious all day, turning to the door whenever someone walked in.
I hoped that the Americans would hire Eldest Brother so he could bring us some American goodies every evening--Juicy Fruit, Nabisco cookies, and chocolate bars. I could use some American pencils, too. The Korean pencils were terrible; the lead points broke easily, and paint peeled off, too. Only a few kids at school owned American pencils, including me. The only problem with taking the American pencils to school was that someone always stole them.
Eldest Brother came home around four o'clock that day, wearing a khaki uniform with "USA" stamped on his shirt pocket and carrying an army duffle bag. We had been sitting in the front room, Mother, Kwon, and I, and we each gasped in amazement.
"You can fool people as an American teenager," Mother said, looking him up and down, her face cracking with a wide smile.
Eldest Brother chuckled. "Not quite," he said. "My nose isn't tall like theirs."
"Buy a rubber nose, Big Brother," Kwon said, without laughing.
"I might," Eldest Brother said.
Even in my own eyes, Eldest Brother looked smarter, taller, and more handsome than ever before, and I kept looking at him. Surely, my friends would talk about him sooner or later, I thought.
"Is that uniform made in America?" Mother asked, fingering his sleeve the way she'd feel a bolt of expensive silk at the fabric store at the market.
"Yes. It fits well, too!"
"Very nice material," she admired. “Did they treat you well at the army base?"
"Yes, but the security is extremely tight. When I got there at seven, a long line of Korean employees stood in front of the gate, waiting, and I joined them. When it was my turn, the security guard checked all my pockets, front and back, and then had me roll up my sleeves and pant-legs and searched some more. I guess he thought he might find a grenade or a pocketknife. Who knows. It was the same at the end of the day. They acted as though I stole something from the army, touching me all over."
"Tss, tss, tss... You can't blame them for being careful," Mother said. "How many Koreans working there wouldn't steal from them? Probably only a handful. When they get to know you better, though, they won't be searching you as hard as they did today. What's your job there?"
"I work in the supply room. When a soldier needs a light bulb or a can of engine oil or a flashlight, he comes to see me, and I give it to him, writing down his name, ID number, and the unit he belongs to. It's an easy job for me, and my boss, Sergeant Bob, is a nice guy. He let me try his cigarette today, straight from America!" He smiled proudly.
Mother frowned. "You shouldn't smoke!"
"But Mother, I can't be rude to my boss on my first day at my new job!"
"You never smoked before. Why ruin your reputation now?"
Eldest Brother shook his head. Pausing for a moment, he said, "Mother, isn't there an old saying, 'With good company, Heaven is near you'? Sergeant Bob is a really nice guy. I like him a lot."
This time, Mother paused to think. "Do you remember the parable in the Bible where Satan tempted Jesus to sin? Didn’t Jesus say, Away with you, Satan? Maybe that sergeant is a Satan dressed in an American military uniform!"
My brother cracked up. "If he is, he's a kind devil, Mother. He makes sure I understand everything about my job, showing me around, introducing me to his co-workers."
"Were you able to understand what he was saying?"
"Yes," he said confidently.
"Say something in English."
"’Break your leg, son-o-bitch!’"
"What does it mean?"
"Have a good day, my friend!"
"Great! Say something else!"
"'Shove off, goddamm you!' I just said, 'Leave me alone. I’m busy.'"
"I'm proud of you, son," Mother said and smiled.
A fly suddenly came down from nowhere and sat on
Mother's arm. She waved it away. Then it landed on Kwon's head.
Eldest Brother opened his bag in a hurry and produced a tall red can. Pulling off the cap, he aimed it toward Kwon and pressed the yellow button on it. It sang, psssss... The fly lifted itself into the air and then, almost immediately, it landed on the floor like a speck of dirt.
I smelled a strange odor, like caustic soda, only stronger. I coughed.
Mother looked terrified. "What are you trying to do, son? Is it poison gas?"
"No, it's a hand bomb,” Kwon volunteered. “Isn't it, Big Brother?"
"It's insect killer," said Eldest Brother. “Sergeant Bob gave it to me when he saw the mosquito bites on my arms. It kills all kinds of flying insects--flies, mosquitoes, moths, gnats, and even bees. We don't need a fly swatter or mosquito nets any more."
Mother let out a sigh. "How amazing," she said.
Two weeks later around four, Eldest brother returned with a long face. I knew something had gone wrong at his job, but I didn't ask him. When he looked like that it was better to leave him alone, otherwise, he’d let off his steam on me. At dinner I heard him tell our parents that Sergeant Bob's unit was assigned to join the U.N. troops at the Nakdong River area and that they'd be leaving soon.
Mother asked, "You didn't want to go with them, did you? I'm just curious."
"I did,” he said, without hesitation. “Sergeant Bob asked me to come with him, promising he would help me go to America when the war is over, but... "
"But what?" Mother pressed.
"I said no,” he said painfully. “I knew you'd be upset if I went with them."
"Upset?" Father roared. "You might end up dying at fifteen, and we'd only be upset?"
March 6 , 2005