Taegu, 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 backs--
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 houses
with poorly thatched roofs. The roads were basically dirt, gravel,
little cared for. In the months ahead, I saw the rats, the city dumps
with small children and eldery living in cardboard boxes, begging,
scraping, for food wherever they could get it. Leftover survivors
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 transportation
for moving extra-heavy goods. A-frame carriers, strapped on backs
 of able-bodied men or women, held heaping mounds of straw, wood,
anything that was carriable. Along riverbanks were lines of women
washing clothes. All and all, for me, it was a remarkable sight to see.
Later as I was able to travel up and down this nation that calls itself,
The Land of the Morning Calm, I realized that everywhere the decay
of war was made available to see. To this inexperienced country boy,
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 process
that could only be fixable in several lifetimes. But it was not to be.
I must admit I underestimated the determination of the Korean people.
For many years after my Army tour, I gave little thought to South Korea,
and when I did, it was only in terms of my experience there and then.
So I was stunned when I heard Seoul was to host the 2012 Olympics.
What? That could not be. That downtrodden shambles of a country.
But it happened, the Summer Olympics was on every television set.
A grand spectacle. But what about Taegu, had it turned itself around
as well? Some hasty cramming and research confirmed it....
Now it is a great city with a prosperous economy, huge modern buildings,
transportation of every kind, and comfort for most, if not all. But how?
Then I remembered the work ethic of its people, their intelligence,
the code of the Korean culture. It was there, everywhere, but I was young
and did not know what strength of purpose and dedication meant then.
J.D. Heskin

If you have any comments on this poem, J. D. Heskin  would be pleased to hear from you.