Ship me somewhere’s east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments, an’ a man can raise a thirst.“Mandalay” Rudyard Kipling
Ernie and I finished the black-market case in Pusan, did a little celebrating, and caught the Blue Line night train back to Seoul. The dining car served only Western-style food and a few snacks to go with the ice-cold liters of OB beer that they offered at inflated prices. Ernie and I avoided it, naturally, preferring to carry our own sustenance aboard, like the locals.
The U.S. government wouldn’t buy seats in the first-class cabin for Gls, but the coach was quite comfortable, with large padded chairs and plenty of legroom. It was nice enough so that Korean men usually wore suits and the women dressed up. But that didn’t stop them from bringing along small tins of pungent kimchi and rice, and maybe a little fish for their meals. Bringing your own was the only way, the Koreans pointed out, to have any “real” food.
The man and his wife in the seat in front of us were sharing the fermented bounty from the same tin while their three children bounced playfully around them. Occasionally the parents would pop a morsel in their children’s mouths and they would squeal and return to their frivolity.
It wasn’t doing my hangover any good. 1elbowed Ernie. His arms were crossed, his legs stretched out. One eye partially opened. He opened his arms, leaned forward, and from under the seat pulled out his brown leather traveling bag. He removed two cans of Falstaff.
“Breakfast,” he said.
My reaction was Pavlovian. We popped them open and white froth rose in a mound around the top of my can. 1 sucked greedily, letting the lukewarm liquid slide down my throat until the juices got flowing in preparation for the full onslaught, and then 1 tilted the can way back and let the hops revitalize my brain and body.
My eyes were watery; we both leaned back in our chairs to luxuriate in the feeling.
“You’re a genius, Ernie.”
“Logistics, pal. Simple logistics.”
Across the aisle sat a Korean peasant woman in a dark blue skirt and matching waistcoat. She had thick, sturdy calves and thighs, and a broad pelvic girdle made from squatting in the rice fields all day and lifting her lover of the straw mat at night. A tam-o’-shanter sat at an angle atop her round head and straight black hair, which fell to her shoulders. Her coal-bright eyes smiled at us briefly and turned back to her morning meal. She, too, had brought her own. My stomach growled and I turned away from the sight of food to look out the window.
The winter countryside was brown, white in places where snow clung: acres of frozen rice paddies. Farm folk hustled from chore to chore, bundled against the weather. Dark pillars of smoke rose lazily skyward; the clouds rolled and drooped low to the earth. Gradually the rice paddies gave way to storage yards, then warehouses, truck parking lots, factories.
“There it is,” Ernie said, sounding impressed, his breath clouding the window glass. The OB brewery stood out against the overcast, a huge gray plant with a monstrous red and yellow sign mounted on its tallest smokestack: OB. Extending for acres in all directions were countless rows of brown beer bottles in wooden slat-crates piled twenty high. It was a majestic sight for two serious drinkers.
We sped through Yongdonpo Station, past crowds of huddled commuters, through a small wooded area and suddenly out over a vast expanse of blue-the Han River. And we could see, off to our right, the city of Seoul floating on a cloud of river fog. Yongsan Station flashed by; the engineer was balling it to the end of the line. The windows radiated cold.
“Lock and load,” Ernie said, gathering up his bag.
We jumped off the train just as it stopped and tried to beat the crowds streaming off and up the stairways leading to the main hall. Seoul Station was old and large and Slavic-made of mortar and brick-a present to Korea from the czar, left over from the days when Russia dominated it.
At the top of the stairs, we hung a left and headed toward the Eighth Army Transportation Office in an adjoining old office building whose entrance opened into the hall. We used it as a shortcut out so we wouldn’t have to wait in the long lines of passengers turning in their expended tickets. Out on the street, we dove into a milling throng. The large, open area in front of Seoul Station was full of responsible citizens hurrying in all directions: uniformed girls on their way to school, businessmen toting briefcases, old ladies with huge bundles on their heads.
Stands of vendors offered refreshments and quick food, like kodung, being warmed in large pans. Kodung were a favorite of Ernie’s: insects in pill-sized shells from which you sucked the meat and conveniently discarded the shell. Signs advertised nakji, raw squid in hot sauce, and yakulut, liquefied yogurt sold in little plastic bottles. Despite our hunger and the cold, we resisted and hurried to get in line at the taxi stand. In fifteen minutes we reached the end of the queue and jumped into a small cab. In Korean 1 told the driver where to take us. He nodded, clicked his meter on, and jammed the gas pedal to the floor. He reached forty-five quickly, even in the heavy traffic. The driver weaved in and out, taking any opportunity to advance. The roadway ostensibly had four lanes, but at any one time the weaving, swerving cabs and trucks formed at least six.
Ernie stared serenely at the automobiles careening wildly around him. “I could use a little something.”
We climbed up the ramp to the Samgakji Circle and, without taking his foot off the gas, the driver forced his way into the bumperto-bumper flow. On the far side, he veered off the circle and, a few yards further, came to a screeching halt at a stoplight. The ROK Army Headquarters buildings, on the left, faced the Ministry of National Defense, on the right.
“Hana, tul, scit, neit!”
A high-pitched female voice was barking out a cadence. Two female soldiers ran to either side of the intersection. They each thrust out one hand to halt traffic, and came to a snappy parade rest. Marching proudly into the intersection was an entire platoon of the Republic of Korea Women’s Army. The drivers of the backed-up trucks and taxis revved their engines impatiently, cursing and jeering. The sergeant shouted out her orders, continuing to march, impervious to the petty civilians.
The women were in brown skirts and matching uniform jackets, with bright red stripes slashed across their arms. The black oxfords gleamed. Squared at the nape of the neck, their hair was uniformly straight and cut in bangs. Brown, box like caps balanced atop their bobbing heads. All seemed exactly the same height. We leaned forward in our seats, straining to catch glimpses.
The cab squealed off as soon as the last woman passed.
1 fell back in my seat. “Damn. I feel a little woozy.”
“Yeah,” Ernie said solicitously. “You do look a little flushed.”
Until you got to know Ernie you’d never guess. 1 mean, he looked normal. “1 make a good first impression,” he used to say, as if he were amazed by the fact. Physically he was fine-as far as giving a good first impression. He was Caucasian and just a little above average height at about five foot eleven. His weight was probably right at what an insurance salesman’s chart would say it should be. He wasn’t handsome but he was highly presentable. Wasn’t muscular or thin or fat, but uncompromisingly right in the center.
He wasn’t ethnic, but also not so white that he would stand out in a crowd. His ancestors were from Europe, though exactly where you wouldn’t be able to say. He lulled you to sleep. Officers tended to trust him; the girls in the ville would expect him to be civilized. He did look a lot, his eyes slightly bulged out behind thick round lenses. His nose was pointed and his lips were set in a simple, noncommittal parallel.
You couldn’t figure out what he was thinking. Not that anyone was trying. Ernie just fit into a crowd: he didn’t make anyone nervous.
It was me who made people nervous. 1 was big and noticeable and people always wondered what I was doing there. And while they were wondering about me, I was wondering about Ernie.
Worried about what was going on behind that noncommittal gaze. That gaze that lingered on every woman’s rear, head rotating behind his pointed nose like radar homed in on a target. The calculating mind behind the blue eyes was scheming. I spent a lot of time worrying about Ernie.
The taxi sped on. The city was everywhere. Building after building, sign after sign, an endless jumble of streets, alleys, and overhangs. People were crammed into buses full to bursting, jostling each other on the packed sidewalks, and riding bicycles piled six feet high with goods of all descriptions.
I looked at the girls: their dresses, their coats, their hairdos. My eyes jumped rapidly from one to another, each with straight black hair to her waist.
A Gl bus drew alongside, bearing the spare, stenciled markings of the U.S. Army. It didn’t stop for civilians. The Korean populace stood at their own bus stops, patiently waiting while the drab green bus sped by them, stopping only for Gls, or Korean women frantically waving their Military Dependent identity cards.
The Korean buses were packed. Heads and arms pushed up against the steam-smeared windows in a flesh-colored jigsaw puzzle. I spotted a pretty girl. She stared blankly ahead.
Large and green, Namsan loomed over everything, standing just south of the city’s center. The “South Mountain” was about halfway between the King’s Palace and the Han River. Radiating from it in all directions were millions of buildings and houses and the skyscrapers of the downtown business district.
“It wasn’t anything like this my first tour,” 1 said. “There weren’t hardly any buildings over two stories tall. And there weren’t hardly any girls asking more than ten dollars for an overnight.”
“The two must be related,” Ernie said.
Another two blocks and we came to an abrupt halt. Ernie fumbled with some coins and gave the driver the exact change indicated by the meter.
“Shit, pal,” I said. “You’re not going to embarrass me and not tip this guy?”
“Hell no, I’m not going to tip him.” He picked up his bag. “These guys don’t know what a tip is. Korean custom.”
Across the street we entered Yongsan Compound, headquarters of the Eighth United States Army. A block past the gate, we passed through the Moyer Recreation Center and went straight to the snack stand. I ordered a hot dog and a medium Coke and Ernie had the same.
The buns were steamed, the dogs hot, and we piled them high with mustard, sweet pickle relish, and onions. They didn’t last long. Then we looked at each other, hesitated… and got up to order two more. It had been a long ride from Pusan.
“How was the teenybopper?” I said.
Ernie shrugged. “She did what I told her to do.”
My voice husked down a few decibels. “What did you tell her to do?”
“Routine.” Ernie leaned back in the vinyl-covered seat and pushed his pelvis forward a little. “Had her work on my joint for a while. She wasn’t very good but she tried real hard. I like watching them while they try to figure out what to do with it.” He crossed his arms and stared straight ahead. His blue pupils threatened to melt the thickest part of his round wire-rimmed glasses. “That’s what brought me back,” he said.
“Brought you back? I thought that was the first time you’d ever seen her.”
“I mean back in the Army. Back here.” He twisted his head towards the window.“The American girls, they want you to talk. They want you to understand them. Even with all this stuff back in the States about free love, I never yet ran into one that didn’t claim she was old-fashioned.”
“Weren’t getting enough nooky, huh?”
“I could have,” he said. “I just didn’t want to talk to them.” He looked back out the window. “It’s better here, where you just pay them.” He leaned back, pushed his hands into his jacket pockets, and tilted his head against the hard metal siding of the snack stand. “The price in the States is too high.”
He closed his eyes. I thought of the college courses I had taken courtesy of Uncle Sam. The ones I had signed up for were mostly on the Orient: Asian history, Asian languages, the anthropology of the Far East. The friends I had made were mainly veterans, and there weren’t many of them. I had drunk a lot and tried to talk to some of the girls just out of high school but it hadn’t worked. It never had. But now it wasn’t working for a different reason.
“Come on,” I said, checking my watch. “It’s game time.”
Bile percolated up my throat and pumped gas into the hollow of my chest. I popped the last of my antacids and swore.
‘They found her at zero four hundred this morning,” the first sergeant said. ‘The body was badly burned but the neighbors are certain that it’s the young girl by the name of Pak Ok-suk who lived in that hooch.”
The first sergeant sipped his milky brown coffee, grimaced, and placed the porcelain mug in the center of his immaculate desk. Down the long hallway an ancient radiator whistled and clanged while the snow outside swirled in a howling wind from Manchuria.
Ernie Bascom fidgeted in his chair and tucked his tie into his trim belt line.
“So far, the Korean National Police don’t have much information on Miss Pak other than that she was a registered prostitute and her hometown was Yoju. The neighbors claim that she had an American boyfriend, actually a number of American boyfriends, but that for the last two or three months it had been the same guy. The KNPs didn’t get much of a description of him: under six feet, light brown hair, average weight, early twenties. Could be a million Gls. He’d been living with her, bringing her stuff out of the PX to black-market. Routine. They never seemed to have any fights, except around payday, when she pushed him a little, and no one noticed whether or not he came to her hooch last night. Normally he arrived around six P.M., after work. There were no other bodies found in the hooch, just hers, and by the time the neighbors were awakened by the flames, it was too late to save her. No one else was hurt since they were able to get out in time.”
The first sergeant rattled the paperwork in front of him and took another sip of his coffee. Ernie sat perfectly still, leaning back in his chair, his right ankle crossed over his left knee, a Caucasian Buddha in baggy coat and tie.
“All of this would be just routine-a fire starts in a business girl’s hooch out in Itaewon, she’s burned to death in her sleep, and life goes on-if it wasn’t for the findings of the Itaewon fire marshal. The girl had been bound hand and foot, trussed up, actually, and some sort of bonfire had been built under her body. So it was clearly arson and apparently murder. She might have been dead before the fire started. The neighbors heard no struggle or fighting that evening and were unaware of anything unusual until they smelled the fumes coming from her hooch. Strange enough by itself, but things sort of get worse when we get to the final entry in the fire marshal’s report. Upon examining what was left of the girl, they discovered that a large wooden stake had been shoved inside her body. This, taken with the unusual, trussed-up position they found her in and the bonfire that had been prepared, led them to believe that it had been some sort of ritualistic killing. It almost seems as if the girl had been skewered and prepared for roasting.”