BITS and PIECES # 56

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December 23, 2014 by palamow

BITS and PIECES # 56

Hello again from Luquillo,
While anticipating the Christmas hubbub for the last few weeks, I’ve been pleasantly distracted from writing and editing tasks – so, instead of something new, I offer this (sort of) Christmas story…
It’s my most recent revision of a memory I recalled and then wrote a few years ago for ‘Snapshots from the Road’, my first (and so-far only) attempt at a collection of memories in book format. Re-reading it I became aware of its narrative and grammatical shortcomings and polished it where it was needed…
As always, I hope you find it a satisfying read…
Thank you for persistently dropping by the BITS and PIECES neighborhood, and please accept my heartfelt wishes for a Happy and pleasant Christmas day, surrounded by family and friends…

Every blessing,
am

MAXIE
We first saw him standing by the side of the road, clutching his little sister’s hand. They were both dirty and their clothes were torn and tattered. She was crying, the tears coursing through the dust on her pretty little face…
Our truck was part of a convoy moving through the devastated Korean countryside, as the war wound on undeterred by the acrimonious, seemingly endless peace talks taking place at Panmunjom. The squadron was relocating from a site near the 38th parallel to an airstrip on the main supply route, a few miles to the south..,
We pulled over to the side of the road while the Korean interpreter accompanying us stepped down to see if we could help them. Their story wasn’t good – they had been separated from their parents and relatives during one of the see-saw battles of the war. They had been wandering aimlessly, living hand-to-mouth since the death of their parents had made them orphans…
After sharing some rations with them, we directed our interpreter to ask them if they would like to come along with us to P’yongt’aek where we’d heard that there was a Christian mission and orphanage. They exchanged nervous glances. When they eagerly bobbed their heads, we swiftly lifted them both over the tailgate into the back of the truck. We kept them with us in our new compound for a few days, fattening them up on canned C- rations and powdered milk. The boy’s name was Rhee Seung Man – for no particular reason, we began to call him Maxie…
When we visited Mr. Lee, the pastor of the Christian mission church, he readily agreed to accept the two children and settle them in the orphanage…
Then, a curious thing happened. Maxie grabbed Pastor Lee’s sleeve and began gesticulating with his free hand while blurting a rapid-fire discourse in their native tongue. He paused when he ran short of breath and, turning to us, Pastor Lee carefully translated Maxie’s plea: if we would allow it, Maxie would prefer to stay on at the airfield and work for us. If we agreed to hire him, he planned to save his wages until he had amassed enough money to support himself and his sister. In his impassioned speech, Maxie also made it quite clear that he would flatly refuse charity, he only wanted a chance to succeed through hard work. Although he had only recently passed his eighth birthday, the war had launched him headlong into premature adulthood – as a consequence, he had selflessly taken charge and assumed responsibility for his sister’s welfare when their parents were slain…
We hired him on the spot…
Although we lived in a canvas, twelve man tent, we installed him as our houseboy. Soon he was scrubbing the tent’s rough wood planked floor each morning and washing our dirty socks, underwear and flight coveralls, lugging them to a nearby creek to soak, while pounding them incessantly with a large stone until all the grime was vanquished. When we noticed that our laundry, although scrupulously clean, was becoming threadbare before its time, we provided him with laundry soap, a corrugated washboard, and a bucket that made the cleaning process slightly less primitive…
A born innovator, Maxie presciently sensed our every need, constantly adding new household tasks to his ever expanding repertoire,
He visited his sister at the orphanage most evenings when his work was done, always coming back to the tent to sleep so he could be ready to work the next morning. We had ‘issued’ him his own bedding – a sleeping bag and a mattress that he curled up in near the tent’s potbellied stove…
Like most boys his age, he liked the social aspects of school, but abhorred schoolwork. Since we were still teenagers, barely out of high school ourselves, we clearly understood his reluctance, but as his surrogate ‘older brothers’, we insisted that he attend school. Grudgingly, he plodded off to P’yongt’aek’s tiny, one-room school each weekday morning, returning in the afternoon to do his chores. We soon discovered that Maxie was extremely bright, we applauded his rapid mastery of Basic English, but were quick to admonish him when he copied our often unrefined GI slang…
We helped him with his homework where we could; mostly his arithmetic assignments. Since math is a universal symbolic language, it didn’t require a knowledge of complex Korean ideographs. We did our best to ensure that he finished his studies before he went to bed…
When we wrote to our parents, we often asked them to include items for Maxie, his sister and the children at the orphanage in the packages that they periodically mailed to us, which arrived, travel worn and crumpled via the Army Post Office (APO) in far off San Francisco. Maxie’s steadfast refusal to accept charity in any form caused us to invent extra jobs for him (shining shoes, cleaning mess gear) so that he could ‘earn’ the items that our parents had sent for him. He was a serious boy who rarely smiled. We did everything we could think of to cheer him up, to no avail…
Until the month of May and Eorininal, Korea’s traditional Children’s day…
We had concluded that although the season was wrong, this would be an ideal occasion to introduce the children at the orphanage to Santa Claus…
We collected all the toys and clothing that our parents had sent us, awkwardly gift-wrapped them with discarded copies of the GI newspaper ‘Stars and Stripes’. We patiently fashioned a facsimile Christmas tree out of glued together C-ration boxes, spray-painting the cardboard branches with olive drab military paint, We used shears to carefully cut-up discarded c-ration cans into , festive shapes, turning them so the shiny inside surfaces served as makeshift ornaments. I tied a floor mop around my ears and put on a poncho that we had painted with red, rust inhibiting primer, topped this improvised Santa costume off with a jaunty red wool cap my mother had sent me, and we were ready to roll…
‘Santa’ and his ‘elves’, laughing and singing carols, arrived at the orphanage just as the children were cleaning-up after their meager evening meal of rice balls and bits of fish…
In April, we had teamed-up as volunteer workers with some likeminded Seabees on the airbase, and a few more guys from a nearby Army engineer battalion, to construct the mission’s newest building – a combination kitchen/dining area and chapel – it was a simple cinder block structure with a corrugated iron roof, — the Seabees provided the cinder blocks, the Army engineers donated the corrugated roofing materials – and we supplied the paint…
While the guys sang Christmas songs, I strode to the center of the freshly painted dining area, sat on the floor and started handing-out gifts to the excited, albeit extremely mystified children, Maxie, wearing an overlarge ‘elf’ hat which engulfed his ears and almost obscured his eyes (a woolen, winter issue military cap, spray-painted red) had been enlisted as Santa’s helper. He couldn’t help himself – tentatively, he began to smile and then he laughed – at first reluctantly, but at last giving vent to an enthusiastic “ho-ho-ho” in proper Santa’s helper fashion…
From that day forward, cracks in his stoicism began to appear – miraculously, he would smile and even laugh occasionally. We taught him how to play simple card games like hearts and crazy eight (his favorite – he called it “crajy ache”) and in return he taught us a popular oriental card game called “Hana Futa” which was played with much gusto, slapping-down of the tiny ‘flower cards’ and laughter…
All went well until I received orders to report to another squadron located ninety miles to the south – in less than a week! By this time, all of Maxie’s other foster brothers had already rotated home and suddenly, I was a ‘short timer’ at P’yongt’aek…
Overnight, Maxie retreated into his former stoic shell, preparing himself, for the day that his last ‘older brother’ would be gone…
I passed the responsibility for his care over to a recently arrived airman and Maxie seemed to like him, but it was very difficult for him (and for me) to envision cutting the cord with which we had tied ourselves together on that fateful day on MSR #1…
I made a final trip to the orphanage to say goodbye to Maxie’s sister, the children and Pastor Lee. When I returned to the compound, Maxie was gone. He never returned that night, or the next. The morning I was to leave on a Marine Corps C-119 shuttle flight, I lugged my B-4 bag out to the truck that would take me to the airstrip, looking around, hoping to see Maxie. As the truck began to pull-out of the compound I saw him. He was standing by the side of the road, tears streaming down his cheeks, furiously wiping them away with one coat-sleeved arm, while waving wanly with the other. I pounded on the cab of truck to get the driver to stop. When he finally did – I jumped off the truck and Maxie ran up to me – we hugged wordlessly for a moment, I reached into the pocket of my parka and pulled-out all of the Korean currency that I had, rubber-banded it to a slip of paper on which I hurriedly wrote my home address printed in big block letters, stuffing it all into his coat pocket. I hugged him again as the truck driver honked the horn and in a moment I was back in the truck watching Maxie’s forlorn figure retreat into the distance – he never stopped waving as we drove out of sight…
I never saw Maxie or heard from him again – but I have never forgotten him – the vital lessons I learned by watching how unflinchingly he assumed responsibility for his sister’s welfare during that long forgotten war will remain with me forever…

© 2010 – 2014 – Alan Mowbray Jr.

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2 thoughts on “BITS and PIECES # 56

  1. wendy Rhead says:

    What a fabulous story. Thank you for sharing it. I am sure Maxie often fondly remembers you and your kind heart.

  2. wendyrhead says:

    What a fabulous story. Thanks for sharing it. I am sur Maxie often, fondly remembers you.

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