Tuesday, September 29

My Korean Journal

I kept a journal while stationed in South Korea, in the Army. I'm not a great journal-writer: I had a large, ragged paper-cover three-ring notebook in high school that I used during my senior year. I recorded various confrontations with a certain bully one or two years younger than myself (that's how pathetic I was: little kids felt safe in picking on me) and my depressive personal thoughts. I tried to get a girl to read it, this beautiful woman home from college and performing with me over the summer in a community theater troupe. She described my journal as something Holden Caulfield might have penned. I was flattered, but I got nowhere with the girl.

So I graduated from high school, went straight into the Army, spent 19 months in Fort Ord, CA, and finally transferred to Camp Carroll, South Korea. I felt pretty lucky: I'd requested getting stationed in Germany and got California, which I'd been given to understand was a highly desirable assignment. I put in for Germany again and got S. Korea, which I learned was one of those "best-kept secrets" places. I wasn't up on the border, no, not on the DMZ. I was a couple hours south of that. I saw no action and only trained in the field for two weeks out of my entire year there.

Out of curiosity, I just looked up my barracks on BEQ Hill, outside of Camp Carroll. Strong nostalgic sense, going back to how I used to skateboard down from the barracks, running along Happy Mountain, down to base and past it into the ville. All the bars, the tailors, souvenir vendors, all the women working to earn their freedom...

I befriended those women. Where other soldiers were looking to get drunk and get laid, I was still at the stage of looking for friends. Shy and socially awkward, I was best suited to practice social skills on a woman working at the bar, someone working to get money out of me. Her job required her to be patient with me, so I could be myself and she couldn't run away. Eventually I made very good friends with her and all of her "sisters" in the bar. They all liked me because I was gentle and sweet and respectful, and mamasan who ran the bar came to value me for that as well. Once they hid me after bar close so I could hang out with them at a soju tent and get drunk all night. Mamasan gave me a farewell gift when I outprocessed: a little ceramic vase with a blossom painted on the side. Unlike most treasures from the first half of my life, I still have this.

It must've happened that I brought my journal to the bar one night, purely with the intent to write a few thoughts down, and the girls wanted to know what this was. They immediately took it over, writing poetry in Korean, drawing romantic anime-style women and nature scenes. Everyone took a turn, from the naughty, flirty girl to the usually reserved and sedate "big sister." They wrote on several pages, little doodles or entire songs they liked. I was honored with the gesture and still take this journal out to look at once in a while.

It wasn't designed to be a formal journal, but rather a business planner. It has a black plastic tri-fold cover and reads "PROCESS TODAY," embossed on the front in gold ink. Inside are skinny folders for business cards and notes and a thick notepad of paper. The paper is warmed and blotched in places, so it must've sustained some water damage, probably when it was stored with a box of random crap in my mom's garage. And it's not a complete journal: I bought it after I was well into socializing with the locals, some of whom brought me out for a day on the town in Taegu. It has recorded the latter portion of my stay, the adventures toward the end of my assignment overseas. It also has notes from the start of my college career at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, friends I was making, women I was struggling with dating. Socialization was so much harder with people who had the option to walk away and pursue other interests.  Harder for me, anyway.

I also kept a sketchpad around, this obtained in California. For an exercise I used to bus out to Monterey and Cannery Row, hang out in cafes and sketch the interior. I wasn't a diligent artist but at one point I had a bug up my ass to practice scenic sketches.  I resumed it in South Korea, hanging out in the countryside around my barracks (the area was much, much less developed in 1991 than it appears now in Google Maps). This picture was a half-hearted doodle to study a vilager's house out in the country.  I was practicing my technique as much as I was trying to preserve my impression of the area. I wish I'd done more sketches like this, actually, since my photos were pretty much of my AD&D gaming group and a few women I had short-lived crushes on. I really didn't do much scenic photography, recording the downtown infrastructure or preserving the landscape as I passed through it.

I've had a long, long relationship with paper. I maintained a number of pen pals while I was in S. Korea, and I used to sketch little moments from my days for their benefit, too. One friend even reports she has saved all my letters and asked if I'd like to rifle through them. I think I would be hideously embarrassed by who I was back then and what I found suitable to talk about, but it might be worthwhile to scan in some of the illustrations.

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