Saturday, September 22, 2007

Chaper 1: Leaving Home

I received my draft notice when I was an intern. It really does say "Greeting." Along with it came a letter saying something to the effect that, being a doctor, I could enlist as a commissioned officer. Our hospital medical director suggested preventive medicine to me. "The Army has crash courses and training manuals in specialties that they need, and they always need preventive medicine officers. It's a better deal when you're a specialist."
Since I was interning in Washington, D.C., it was a simple trip downtown to talk to the man who did the placing of army doctors. "I would like to be a preventive medicine officer and I would like to be stationed in the States. Anywhere in the States will do although I have a preference for Fort Sheridan since I am from Chicago."
"You're a dreamer. However, we have a place for you as a preventive medicine officer in Korea."
"I think I would rather do general medicine in the United States."
"Actually the alternative is probably general medicine in Vietnam."
"Well I think Korea sounds like an interesting place, a chance to travel, see new places, a tremendous experience, really broadening." And my year of internship in Washington was supposed to have been my big adventure away from home before doing residency back at the University of Illinois, but fate does what it does.
So off I went to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas for four weeks of basic training and six weeks of preventive medicine lectures. To appreciate the depth of my training, you should realize that a real preventive medicine doctor puts in a few years of residency training and a life-time of experience. That's life in the Army.
South Texas is very hot and muggy in July, August, and early September. Mostly we went to lectures about how to be a soldier and later the basics of sanitation, a lot about how to dispose of feces, urine, and garbage. A group of us got together and rented an apartment in a building with a swimming pool which really made the summer bearable. The Army issued us these inflatable rectangular things to put under sleeping bags, like mattresses. They were great for floating in the swimming pool.
We spent about three days at a primitive place called Camp Bullis, where they gave us a taste of the real basic training. We slept on hard cots in dingy wooden barracks. One night, they deposited us in a wilderness, and we had to find our way out with a compass. Fortunately we were in groups, and there is always someone (an outdoors person) in the group who knows how to do that sort of thing and leads the rest of us out. Also, they took us to a place where we had to crawl over rocks and under barbed wire while they shot real machine gun bullets over our heads and made explosions in wired off holes in the ground scattered around the course. First we did it in the afternoon, and then we repeated it at night. There were some hot shots in the group who felt the need to complete the course quickly and be winners (although I don't recall any prizes being distributed). I, on the other hand reasoned differently. I took my time. I was careful not to hurt myself. After all, those rocks were sharp, and of course so was the barbed wire. So what if I were the last, or for that matter if I didn't finish at all? What would they do? Kick me out of the army? Not so likely. Once I came to that conclusion, I could relax, and it was actually fun. I was able to detach myself and enjoy the beauty of it, especially at night, the red tracer bullets whizzing over head, the explosions in the holes, like I wasn't really there but just watching a war movie. When every one else had finished the course, and I had gone barely half way, the bullets and explosions suddenly stopped, a search light went on, a bull horn shouted out, "I think some one's still out there! Is someone still out there?"
"Yes, I'm still here!" I shouted and waved my arms"
"O.K. Come on out! We can't wait for you all night!"
I was lucky to have learned this technique early. It made my stay in the army more pleasant. Perhaps under different circumstances, it would not have been appropriate, but fortunately I never ran across those kinds of circumstances.
I should mention that San Antonio is a very nice little city to visit. It has museums, restaurants, amosphere, and a wonderful entertainment area along the San Antonio River.
Then in late September, I returned to Chicago for a week. After that my parents drove me to the airport. It was a bit emotional. By chance, I happened to sit next to another army doctor draftee on the plane to San Francisco. We had a few hours in San Francisco before going to Travis air force base for the flight to Korea. My newly acquired traveling companion suggested we spend it having a drink at the top of the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Why not? So we took a bus into the city and a cab from the bus station up Knob Hill to the Mark Hopkins. I spent a half hour or so sipping whatever it was that I ordered. The sun was setting, bringing the day to an end, which reinforced the idea that one part of my life was finishing, making room for the next. I looked around at the people in the room, handsome men, beautiful women. They seemed so well dressed, so sophisticated, so much at ease, not going anywhere else because they were where they wanted to be, in their own element, satisfied with themselves. I'm sure that's not really how they all felt inside their own heads, but it seemed that way to me because I felt so unsettled, so ill at ease, not actually knowing what lay ahead of me in a strange land.
The time for the drink was brief. The sun had almost disappeared from view. We paid the bill, went down the elevator, took a cab to the bus station, took the bus to the air base, waited hours for the plane, and then around one o'clock in the morning we boarded the plane. There were two stops, one during the night in Alaska and another in the morning in Japan. Finally we arrived at Kimpo Air Base in Korea.
My orders originally were to go to Inchon, but on arrival in Korea, I found that they were changed to Camp Casey which was the headquarters of the Seventh Infantry Division. It was located at Tongduchon which the soldiers called "the Vill" but was actually a city of one hundred thousand people, most of whom made their livelihood by serving the American soldiers or other Korean people who served the soldiers. The end of town which faced the entrance to the camp, was full of bars where a few thousand local "business girls" met their customers. Also there were endless shops that sold various trinkets. There was one shop that had a large sign that said, "We Will Do Anything."
Staring out the bus window on the road to Tongduchon was like looking at a photo in National Geographic, rice paddies, small houses with thatched roofs, skinny little men carrying huge packs on their backs, buffalos (not the American kind), bicycles, rickety overloaded trucks, the rarity of automobiles, an endless sea of pedestrians, the smells of Kimchi and feces mixed together. I am told that since those times, South Korea has developed into a modern country with one of the most powerful economies in Asia. But you really had to look below the surface to see it in those days.

1 comment:

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