Monday, May 19, 2014

Chrysallization Part 3

North Korean Soldiers

“Okay, folks, gather around again. I just want to point out something else of interest to all of you. See that village over there, on the other side of the Demarcation Line,” he asked, pointed to a group of buildings surrounding a 480 foot tall flagpole on the North Korean side of the armistice line. “The North Koreans constructed that village as a propaganda move. No one actually lives in the village, and the flag is 90 feet long. It waves over there to show the South Koreans over here who is in charge. Not that the South Koreans pay any attention to it!” he joked. “The only inhabitants who actually live in the DMZ are South Korean farmers, and they may only tend their crops under constant military protection. Most of the villages have moved out of the DMZ to avoid this constant nuisance.”

“Imagine that – having to farm under guard,” Rich murmured. “How terribly… oppressive.” Rich’s uncle ran a farm in Michigan, and I think that he was making a very personal connection.

“This is all giving me the creeps,” I whispered. “I’ll be glad when we’re back safely at our hotel in Seoul. I’ve never felt this exposed and vulnerable before.”

“That’s kind of the point, isn’t it?” Rich responded. “What do we Americans know about real danger? In our relatively short history as a nation, we have not had to deal with true threats of war on our own soil. Imagine having to live with the daily possibility of an attack? It’s mind-blowing.”

Mind-blowing, indeed. I was having a hard time wrapping my mind around these events of the day, trying to reconcile what we were experiencing with our comfortable, happy middle-class life back home.

The Major cleared his throat to get our attention again. “Ok, folks. Over to your right is a monument to the fallen of the Korean conflict. You might want to wander over to take a closer look. Just be sure to stay on THIS side of the monument. We don’t want you wandering into Northern territory. We’ll meet back up at the bus in 15 minutes and head back to your tour bus.” He dismissed us with
a wave of his hand.

Rich and I strolled slowly over to the monument, my eyes still scanning the area surrounding us. There were many military personnel around, now that I was paying attention to them. I saw South Korean uniforms, and U.S. uniforms, and some other uniforms that I could not identify. I assumed they were part of the UN force. We reached the monument and I stopped to read the inscription, written in several languages at the bottom. When I finished reading, I turned to say something to Rich, but he was no longer beside me.

Spinning in a circle, I called his name loudly. “Rich! Where are you? God, Rich, don’t leave me alone like this!”

As I finished my rotation, I was startled to a stop by the sight of a platoon of soldiers jogging down the road on the other side of the monument. Dressed in uniform pants, white t-shirts, and of course army boots, it took me a minute to realize that this was a platoon of NORTH Korean soldiers, obviously participating in basic training exercises. The sight of a platoon of enemy soldiers, mere feet from me, took my breath away. I stood rooted to the spot, unable to speak or move, until I felt a hand on my shoulder.

I jerked to life, spinning with a cry, only to find Rich standing there. “Chris? Are you ok? I only walked over there to talk to Rudy for a moment. What’s the matter with you?”

All I could do was point in response. Rich’s gaze also fell on the training North Korean soldiers. His response, however, was a bit less intense than mine had been. “Oh, cool!” he said, whipping out his camera to snap a number of photographs as they passed by. “These will be great for my scrapbook!”

“Rich! How can you be so calm? Don’t you realize that they are the ENEMY?” I said.

“Whose enemy? Not ours. Not here, not now. There’s a truce, remember…”

“Yes, but didn’t you read the waiver we signed? There have been a number of attacks, or acts of aggression here, since 1953….We could still be in danger.” I started to retreat back towards the waiting military bus. “I’m going to get back on the bus now.”

Rich trotted to catch up with me, apologizing. “I’m sorry, Chris. I didn’t mean to upset you. But I don’t think we’re really in any danger, and it’s just so … COOL to be this close to something like this. I’ve never experienced it before!”

I sighed and accepted Rich’s apology with a wan smile. “It’s ok, Rich. But I’m tired. You go explore a bit more, and I’ll meet you on the bus.” With that I quickened my pace and left Rich to catch up with our friends.

Back on the bus, hunched down in my seat, I pulled out my journal and began to record my experiences. It had been a rather powerful day, and I had so much running through my mind that I wanted to get down before I forgot it. When I had left home just three weeks earlier, I had been a naïve teenager from Wisconsin, who had never been challenged by much of anything in life. We lived a comfortable, lower-middle class existence, I had stability in my family, and relative certainty in my future. Although I was a student of history, I hadn’t thought much about current events or global conflicts, except as a course of study. But now, here, being faced with the realities of global conflict, I began to see just how uninformed we really were.

The others began to pour back on the bus, and our driver made the engine roar to life as they all took their seats. The last ones on were Major Willis and Sergeant Carter, who smiled at the group and then took their seats in the front row for the ride back to the base. I looked down at my journal, and saw that I had written a bunch of gibberish. Nothing was making much sense today, it seemed.

Finally, after a long, hot trip, we were back at the visitor’s center, rejoining the other half of our less merry band and trooping onto our tour bus once more. Our driver blissfully had the air conditioning blasting as we threw ourselves aboard and into our regular seats. Rich had pulled out his Walkman and was listening to Air Supply, one of his favorite tapes. He gestured to me to plug my headphones in so we could listen together, which we often did. I shook my head at him, and let him melt into his seat in contentment with his music. I was much too thoughtful to enjoy the music now. I spent the bus ride staring out the window beside me.

Roughly 45 minutes later, our tour bus pulled into the outskirts of Seoul. As we drove through the city towards our hotel, the Major’s words resonated in my head. “Seoul is just 25 miles from the border. It is just a 60 second ride by jet from North Korea….” I sat up straighter and scanned the city sights more carefully than I had on our initial arrival in the city yesterday, and began to notice things I had missed earlier.

There, on the rooftops, were strange constructions that I did not recognize. I saw them on almost every high rise roof. As I looked closer, I noticed that they seemed to be military in nature. Suddenly, it dawned on me: they were anti-aircraft guns. Of course! They would have to have a way to defend the city from an aerial attack from North Korea. These buildings were innocuous, civilian buildings – banks, apartment houses, department stores – and yet they all had weapons on the roof. What must it be like to live with guns on top of your house? I just couldn’t even fathom that reality.

As we tumbled off the bus in front of our hotel, the group seemed slow to disperse. It seemed that everyone had been deeply affected by our excursion that day. The chaperones announced that dinner would be served in the dining room in two hours, and that we should all go get cleaned up and rest before we ate. They then disappeared as a group in the direction of the hotel lounge.

We all stood there, awkwardly, reluctant to leave the relative security of the group. I finally offered, “Hey, does anyone want to come up to our room and hang out and talk? I think I could use some company.”

Finally, the group began to move. About two dozen of our colleagues rode up the elevator with us and made their way down the hall to our room on the 14th floor. I slid the key in the lock (an actual key, no automated key cards here), and threw open the door and gestured for my friends to enter first. We gathered in the room, taking up every inch of available space on the beds, single chair, and floor, and sat in contemplative silence for a few moments. After travelling together for three weeks, our band had become quite close.

“So…..” I ventured. “Any thoughts about what we saw today?” I threw it out there, hoping to get the ball rolling.

“It was so … surreal,” said Mike , a student from my home high school, who was a year younger than I was. “I just can’t imagine living like that.”

“I know,” said Shannon, a bold red-headed Southerner with a booming voice. “It made me start thinking about what we have in the United States. We are so lucky. And we take it all for granted, every day. Every stinking day.” Her voice cracked a bit as she spoke.

Mike reached over and put a hand on Shannon’s shoulder. “Does anyone know anyone who has fought in a war? I mean, like recently? Not an old war, like WWII or anything…”

“I have an uncle who served in Vietnam.” Brad said. “He told me that when he got back, he couldn’t wear his uniform on the bus home, because people were throwing stuff at vets who came back. That’s just wrong.”

“Yeah, my uncle fought in Vietnam, too. He just doesn’t talk about it. At all,” said Mike.

“My dad was in the army during the 1960s, too, but he never served abroad. He drove an ambulance at Fort Augusta, Georgia. He never saw any action, thank goodness,” I added.

“We really haven’t HAD any wars since Vietnam, right? I mean, that WE were in – the U.S., that is. I guess we’ve been lucky to avoid conflict,” said Rich.

“Yes, the United States has not seen any direct conflict on our own shores since the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And before that, since the Civil War.” I said. “It’s easy to forget that war can be devastating, when you are in the middle of it.”

“We don’t know what it’s like to be under threat,” Rich agreed. “Not at all. I can’t imagine how you can have a normal life. How do you just go about your business?”

“And what about all these Koreans who have relatives on the other side of the border? What would it be like to live so close to your family and yet never be able to contact them? To see them? To know if they are ok? I think that would be torture.” Shannon said.

“Tell me, guys. What would you be willing to fight for? What’s worth risking your life to defend?” I posed.

“Freedom.” Mike said. “Duh.”

“Yeah, Mike, but what does that really mean? Did you catch how they were tossing the word Freedom around today? ‘Freedom Bridge,’ ‘Freedom Road,’ the ‘Freedom House’ – as if it were all just one big propaganda movie or something. What does Freedom even mean here? What does it mean to us as Americans? And if we were invaded tomorrow, what would you do? Would you be willing to serve in the military? Would you enlist to protect our freedom? How far would you go to do that?” I countered.

“Well, I would certainly enlist,” interjected Rich. “It’s what we are supposed to do.”

“Well, what about us girls?” Shannon asked. “We can’t serve in active military. And I don’t know that I could kill anyone, even if I were allowed to serve.”

“Not even to defend yourself, or your family?” Rich asked.

“I just don’t know,” Shannon replied.

The room was pensive. “Did you guys notice the anti-aircraft guns on the tops of all the building in Seoul?” I finally asked. “I didn’t notice them yesterday. It was only our visit to Panmunjom that made me take a closer look. Can you imagine living like that? With guns on your houses? Afraid that any day there might be an attack on your city from the enemy?” I shuddered.

Heads bobbed slowly around the room, as my colleagues digested that scenario.

“What if you were allowed to enlist? How many of you would do it?” I asked the group. As I surveyed the room, I saw all of the hands go up in the air, though Shannon’s was the last to rise. It was unanimous. We would all agree to help defend our nation against threat. I wondered what the response would have been back in my high school history classroom. Would any of them have raised their hands? Would they care? Would they even know what we were fighting for?

The group fell silent, each contemplating their own responses to the day’s events. Suddenly, one voice rose from the silence. It was Rudy, and he was singing our national anthem. With tears in our eyes, we all rose, latched hands, and joined in with Rudy, raising our trained voices in harmony. It was a powerful moment, in which each of us embraced the true meaning of being Americans. It was more than a song; it was a declaration of our pride and understanding.

We had already used our anthem on this trip as a powerful tool: while we were in China, we were “forbidden” to sing it by the Chinese officials, so we had defiantly taken to singing it whenever we were together, on a bus, in a hotel room, on a sidewalk. It had become our way to show that Americans can’t be told what to do. But this act of defiance had started as a bunch of smart teenagers standing up to authority.

Today, when we joined hands and voices and embraced our nation’s song, we were embracing the very ideals upon which our nation had been founded, and acknowledging that they were worth defending with our lives.

This moment was a transformation, my Chrysalization.

From that moment on, each of us would no longer be the naïve young people who had took flight from America’s shores just three short weeks earlier. We would never see our lives in the same light again. In embracing how fortunate we are to be Americans, despite America’s flaws, we also recognized that we cannot be complacent in our lives. We had journeyed to Panmunjom as a group of silly teenagers, but we had returned as discerning and perceptive adults.

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