I spent fifteen months in South Korea once on a military base we knew would be one of the first targets of the North Koreans in event of attack. They were hard months. I was time-zones away from people and places that I loved.
Our tiny base was located on the edge of the city of Ch’un Ch’on in the Gangwon region, famous for the Han and Soyang Rivers and a number of lakes and small islands. It’s a destination for residents of Seoul located two hours by train to the south. What I remember most are the mountains of the Taebaek range, gentle contours turning declivitous when you ventured among them. Narrow and unimproved trails led past Buddhist temples with painted story cycles brilliantly rendered in colors not meant to blend in but to inspire.
On occasion I came across a tiny old woman who hiked up in high heels to take care of the temple. She would smile and nod, and I would do the same, separated by culture and language but brought together by the mountains, a place we both thought was holy. Further along these trails, along the ridges and hilltops, were trenches and fighting positions from the Korean War.
On the base, differences not similarities, were in constant relief as we stumbled to navigate unknown customs to accomplish the smallest tasks. Our unit attempted solidarity by moving through holidays with mess hall meals. We officers wore class-A uniforms to serve the soldiers. They were traditional gestures that did little to ease the sense of separation.
And then, when I least expected it, came a moment of grace. A fellow officer who was Korean-American had family living in the city nearby. One fall weekend, he invited me and a few others to join him at his family’s home for Chuseok, a festival of the harvest scheduled by the lunar calendar.