South Korea Then
It was 1957. I was 17 years old. I was a soldier in the US army.
When I entered Taegu, now spelled Daegu, I entered a world
not of my own. The war between North and South Korea
had ended four years ago, but from what I would soon see,
its devastating effects on Taegu would be felt for a long time.
Taegu was a large, spread out city of over two million people.
People everywhere. Old people, papa-sans with starched white
clothing and round black hats. Young men and young women.
Boys and girls dressed in caps and worn, black school uniforms.
Girls of marriageable age with one braid trailing down their
cherry girls we called them--dressed in lively-colored kimonos,
each girl with another, both carrying tiny paper umbrellas:
redyellowbluegreen. But the city itself, like the sky, was gray.
What few buildings downtown were made of concrete block,
mostly beaten down, few over two stories high, and entering
the outskirts, where my unit was settled, I saw paper-skin
with poorly thatched roofs. The roads were basically dirt,
little cared for. In the months ahead, I saw the rats, the city
with small children and eldery living in cardboard boxes,
scraping, for food wherever they could get it. Leftover
of another war. What was clear to me then, and for the next two
years in Korea, this was a city ruined. A study of desolation.
Automobiles were scarce. What were called taxis were rumored
to be made of old beer cans. Ox carts were the main
for moving extra-heavy goods. A-frame carriers, strapped on
of able-bodied men or women, held heaping mounds of straw,
anything that was carriable. Along riverbanks were lines of
washing clothes. All and all, for me, it was a remarkable sight
Later as I was able to travel up and down this nation that calls
The Land of the Morning Calm, I realized that everywhere the
of war was made available to see. To this inexperienced country
South Korea was a mess, a disaster unfolded. The remains of war
in Taegu, and the whole of the country, was in my opinion a
that could only be fixable in several lifetimes. But it was not
I must admit I underestimated the determination of the Korean
For many years after my Army tour, I gave little thought to
and when I did, it was only in terms of my experience there and
So I was stunned when I heard Seoul was to host the 2012
What? That could not be. That downtrodden shambles of a country.
But it happened, the Summer Olympics was on every television
A grand spectacle. But what about Taegu, had it turned itself
as well? Some hasty cramming and research confirmed it....
Now it is a great city with a prosperous economy, huge modern
transportation of every kind, and comfort for most, if not all.
Then I remembered the work ethic of its people, their
the code of the Korean culture. It was there, everywhere, but I
and did not know what strength of purpose and dedication meant
If you have any comments on this poem, J. D. Heskin would be
pleased to hear from you.