Saturday, November 17, 2007

Chapter 8: The Assembly

As a preventive medicine officer, my job was, as you might guess, the prevention of disease, and the biggest disease problem among the troops was venereal disease, especially gonorrhea. It was an epidemic of monstrous proportions. The numbers were astronomical. They ran something like four hundred per cent, which means that, on the average, each soldier would have a bout of gonorrhea four times during his year in Korea. Considering that many of us never had gonorrhea at all and many cases were never reported, there were others who had it even more frequently. In fact there were some who had a continuous string of gonorrhea episodes, so that the times in between when they were free of the disease were few and short. There was also a lot of syphilis, but the numbers were not so huge. Also there was what we then called non-specific urethritis or NSU, lots of it. The numbers there would also have been astronomical if we would have counted, but we didn't. NSU gave a kind of watery discharge. We didn't know what caused it, and we didn't have a very good treatment for it. It wasn't an official venereal disease although we all knew it was, but if the government and the public had tuned in to it, they would have been on our tails. Then there would more gathering of meaningless data for silly reports, and life would be more difficult. So, we kept quiet and did the best we could with it.
You see, venereal disease was a social problem as well as a medical problem. The public back home was disturbed by reports of a venereal disease epidemic among our soldiers in the Far East. What disturbs the public, disturbs our elected government officials, and in turn disturbs the Army. But an army is a community in which the vast majority of people are young testosterone filled men. At least that's the way it was then and there. Those young men, far from their homes and families, were unleashed in a very poor country, poor after many years of occupation by Japan followed by the devastation of the Korean War which had ended only a decade earlier. I am told that since that time the Korean economy has changed dramatically, but then it was very poor. A soldier's salary might seem like a pittance to us, but there and then he was like a millionaire at a bargain sale.
Where there is extreme poverty, most people will make do, but some will succumb to whatever it takes to make a little more. And so, the thousands of prostitutes servicing Camp Casey probably altogether outnumbered the troops. The "business girls" made their contacts in the bars in the town. Each bar had its own group of business girls. They had some unofficial recognition by the local government and were supposedly checked regularly for V.D. at one of the four local clinics. Prostitution was officially illegal, but it was necessary for the local economy. There were also "street walkers" who freelanced on the streets. The most ragged and undisciplined of all were the "ridge runners" who came down from the hills to solicit along the fence. I am told that fornication often occurred through the fence between the barbed wires, even in winter, even with guards on guard duty.
One of my jobs was to visit the four local V.D. clinics in Tongduchon. Supposedly, every business girl was checked for V.D. twice a week. If that were really true those clinics would have been bursting at the seams, but generally they seemed pretty quiet. Occasionally, some colonel from Seoul (Eighth Army Headquarters) would come to visit us. They all wanted to visit the local V.D. clinics. I remember that at one particular clinic, each visitor would ask the same question, "How many girls do you examine each day?" Each time the Korean doctor in that clinic would scratch his head, look up at the ceiling, appear to be deep in thought, and come up with a number. Each time it was a different number. He just pulled the number out of the air.
Dr. Jose Mendez was one of our battalion surgeons. Dr. Mendez had come to the United States from Colombia to take his residency training in gynecology, but one year before completion of his program, he was drafted into the army. To have refused would have been to have abandoned the training time he already had put in and to have gone home without the prestige of completing an American residency. So this gynecologist found himself in Korea providing medical care to a battalion of a few hundred men with not one woman among them. Major Fratelli suggested I take him around to the V.D. clinics in the Vill. Maybe we could make use of his gynecologic knowledge? At the last minute on the afternoon we were to tour the clinics, Fratelli informed me that there was a change in the plan. There was going to be an assembly that afternoon in a movie theatre in Tongduchon. It was to be an assembly of the local business girls put on by the local officialdom, and Dr. Kim, the Korean district public health physician was going to speak there on the prevention of venereal disease. I was to be there as a courtesy to him. Anyway, I knew him. He was a nice guy, honest, and dedicated to his work. I had met him on a previous occasion early after my arrival in Korea when the Corps Surgeon, whose name I don't remember, and I paid him a courtesy call at his office in Ui Jong Bu, the district capitol. The Corps Surgeon accompanied me because Ui Jong Bu was also the location of Camp Red Cloud, the Corps Headquarters, and army courtesy demanded that the Corp Surgeon be included, or at least informed, when I was going on official business in his territory. Dr. Kim was a tall, aristocratic appearing, intellectual gentleman. He spoke a number of languages, Korean of course being his native tongue, Japanese from the occupation, German because that was the language of the medical school in Manchuria where he had studied, and English because of the American presence. The Corps Surgeon on the other hand embarrassed me tremendously by talking to Dr. Kim in the pidgin English which was the language of communication between the G.I.s and the bar girls. It was bizarre. Here were two doctors conversing. Dr. Kim's English was somewhat limited but grammatically correct. The Corps Surgeon added ee to the end of every noun that ended in a consonant and peppered his speech with words like hootchie instead of house and papa-san or mama-san instead of man or woman.
To understand the Corps Surgeon, you must first understand the Corps. The Corps is the level of command between the army, in our case the Eight Army which was the American Army in Korea, and the two divisions that sat between Seoul and the DMZ (the border with North Korea). As far as I could tell, know one knew what was actually the function of the Corps. In case of a war it probably did have a function, but in peace time it seemed like it was a receptacle for high ranking officers who somehow had risen in the ranks despite their incompetence and now had to be put somewhere. Another example of the Corps mentality was the Corps general who thought he could solve the venereal disease problem by putting out an order, "There will be no venereal disease." But I am digressing too much.
Getting back to the matter of the assembly, when Jose and I arrived, the assembly had already begun. The room was packed with prostitutes. It seemed like every harlot in town was there. They were a boisterous group, booing and cheering as the mood struck them. The mayor was the first speaker. I didn't understand what he was saying because it was in Korean, but it produced more boos than cheers. We found two seats in the back of the hall and sat down, waiting for Dr. Kim's talk, knowing that I would not understand a word of it.
On the stage, along with the mayor and Dr. Kim, sat the town chief of police, the district police commissioner, and a young U.S. Army intelligence officer. There were also a few empty chairs. When the town police chief saw me, he beckoned me to come up on the stage and sent down a police officer to escort Jose and me up to our seats. Until then, it had not dawned on me that we could not just sit unobtrusively in the back of the room. We were celebrities of sorts. After a few minutes the police chief came over to me and said, "You will give speech." I politely declined the offer, explaining that I was not prepared. The police chief walked back to his seat and then a few minutes later returned. "You will give speech. You will say I understand your condition. I want you be healthy. You go doctor all the time for check up." At that point I realized that my purpose there was to give a speech, to not give one would have been an insult, and I'd better think of something to say pretty quickly because I was the next speaker. The Korean officials received silence from the audience punctuated by occasional boos. A few police women walked up and down the aisles, putting a lid on things if the crowd got out of hand. At one point a firecracker was thrown into the aisle. Immediately after that one of the young ladies was hustled out of the hall by the police. When the young intelligence officer and I spoke, there were mostly cheers. I don't know if they really listened to or cared about what we said. They just liked Americans, especially the intelligence officer because he was good looking. He spoke about not unwittingly passing information gleaned over the pillow to people who might be enemy agents. I don't remember exactly what I said, but it was innocuous and not too different from the police chief's recommendation, "I understand your condition. I am concerned for your health. Make sure you have your regular check-ups." The last speaker was the district police commissioner. He spoke endlessly and sternly. I could not understand the words, but the tone was unmistakable as well as the silence from the audience, no boos, no cheers, just silence. Actually, Dr. Kim's talk on V.D. prevention was supposed to have been the last of the afternoon and what I had thought was my reason for being there, but by the time the police commissioner had finished there was no time for Dr. Kim.
Dr. Mendez went back to the men of his battalion and never saw a woman professionally during the rest of his tour. I saw Dr. Kim once more. He had sent me a note asking me to visit him in Ui Jong Bu, which I did. He said his position was in jeopardy because of some political problem and could I help him? I still don't know what I could have done for him. I mentioned it to Major Fratelli, but he said there was nothing he could do. Sure enough, a month later there was a new district public health physician in Ui Jong Bu. The new guy seemed pretty nice, easy to get along with, less cosmopolitan, less passionate about his work, apparently a better survivor.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Chapter 7. Passover

Winter ended and Spring began. The snow melted and the hills were just beginning to bring out their green color. Passover in the Spring, like Rosh Hashonoh and Yom Kippur in the Fall, were strange times in Korea for me, a dipping back into reality, that is to say my reality, not the U.S. Army and Korean reality to which I had become accustomed. For months I had been living in an American outpost, not the America that I had lived in since birth, but a strange far away military America with different customs, a different language, and a different way of dress. Outside my American island, I was surrounded by a basically friendly but strange people who looked, acted, ate, and dressed differently than I, and spoke a language which I for the most part could not share with them. Yet, on a Sunday afternoon in Seoul when I would wander through a park or ancient palace or museum, I would see Korean families on their Sunday outing or picnicking on the grass. I felt a kinship, a certain warmth. They reminded me more of home than Camp Casey, my safe but sterile outpost.
Anyway, on the Jewish holidays, in the middle of this foreign land, out would appear Jews, not just American Jewish soldiers, but people who were there for one reason or another, old people, young people, women, children, families. Some were there temporarily on business. Some might have been permanent, maybe the remnants of people who had fled there to escape the Holocaust. I don't really know where they all came from. There was one Korean man who came to services on all the Jewish holidays. He wore his yarmulke (skull cap) and tallis (prayer shawl), davened (prayed), and obviously knew what he was doing. Then there were the Korean observers, young men and women, who would stand in the back, a different group each time. I guess we were interesting, perhaps exotic, to them. It reminded me of the time back home when I went with a friend to midnight mass on Christmas Eve just to see what it was like. Watching someone else's religious services can be fun.
There were two Jewish rabbi chaplains in the Army in Korea, one stationed at Camp Red Cloud in Ui Jong Bu, the other somewhere further south. But the holidays were celebrated at Yongson Compound, the main army post in Seoul. That compound had been the headquarters for the Japanese army when they ruled Korea. It was a rather nice looking place. Some of the old buildings had a kind of elegance, for an army post. There were big old trees. All in all it was a rather nice place.
The seder was held in a soldiers' mess hall (dining hall in regular English). Where soldiers of the Imperial Japanese army had eaten for many years and later our American soldiers had eaten, we now were eating matzoh (unleavened bread) and saying brukhas (blessings) over the four cups of wine. One of the children asked the Manishtana (four questions). There were moror (bitter horse radish) and kharoses (a sweet mixture of apples, nuts, and wine). There were greens, salt water, and hard boiled eggs. After dinner, the men raced through the prayers until we got to the songs. We all sang together, the soldiers, the business men away from home, the obviously Jewish Korean man, the Korean observers, the Jews who just lived there for whatever reason, the men, the women, the children, the old people, we all sang together. The next morning we reassembled in the chapel for services. That afternoon I pretty much just hung around. I ran into Fishberg and some other guys sitting under a tree talking about all sorts of things, like what we planned to do when we would go home. Fishberg was going to go back to New York. He was already accepted into an internal medicine residency at some hospital back there. Lieutenant Pepper, the food service officer, was undecided about whether to go to graduate school to study archaeology or go into his father's restaurant business. I wonder what he actually ended up doing, maybe something else altogether. Passover happened to fall on a weekend that year, so the next day was Sunday and we had an extra day in Seoul. As the sun was dipping low in the sky, our conversation turned to what we would do that evening. By the time it had fallen below the horizon, we had decided on the Green Door in Yong Dong Po rather than the Ranch. When night had come and the stars twinkled in a cloudless black sky, the spell had already been broken. We were off in a taxi, like mice in Cinderella's pumpkin, dashing to our usual entertainment.