Wednesday, June 27, 2012

You Encounter: Men Behaving Well

I would be remiss if I only complained about (what I think is) awful behavior from people without ever noting the good behavior. Consider this entry part of my attempt to be fair and balanced. (Har.)

My friend Max's father was stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War, up at Camp Casey. Two weeks ago, Max, along with his fiancee (Kirsten) and another one of our mutual friends (Frank), came up to visit me at Uijeongbu. It was a two-birds-one-stone trip, since they hadn't seen me for a few weeks and they had been meaning to see Camp Casey since they got to Korea, anyway.

The trip to Dongducheon and the walk around the weird Americatown in Bosan is worth another entry on its own (I'm waiting for Kirsten to upload the pictures), but I didn't want to forget the ride back. It was substantive enough to warrant its own entry, anyway.

While we were waiting for the subway back to Uijeongbu, another foreign guy asked us if this was the train back to Seoul. He had a Southern accent, hair too long and face too scruffy for either the army or a hagwon. We said yes, it was, and then he got to talking.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I'm the queen of the socially awkward penguins. Among other things, unexpected conversations on the subway (or anywhere) stress me out. I end up just kind of standing there, mouth hanging open, grasping for follow-up questions or responses, so hung up about "doing it wrong" that I end up...doing it wrong.

 This is seriously a thing I have to do.

Fortunately, my company that day was all much better at these things than I am, so they drew out the conversation much more easily and naturally than I would have been able to do on my own.

It turns out our interlocutor had been stationed in Korea in the mid-80s. He was here on vacation. Before this trip, he had spent seven years trucking in the states, saving up money to buy a bar. I do have to say, he would make an excellent bartender, as he never ran out of interesting conversation fodder. Before he wanted to buy the bar, he said, he decided to come back to Korea on vacation to see how much had changed (the answer is: a lot). I think he was even considering buying a bar somewhere in Seoul. He also got to talking about army stuff with the military couple next to us, about the hoops you had to jump through to get your spouse over, life on the base, and so forth.

There were two things about the conversation that struck me. First, you wouldn't think it when you first looked or talked to him, but he displayed an incredibly remarkable level of self-reflection and self-awareness, aware of the ambassadorship he held for whatever category he happened to be representing at the time: army, American, trucker, etc.

"When you're a trucker, those big truck stops will offer you a free shower if you fill up the tank there. Since the company's paying for the fuel, it's like a free shower. Well, one of these I was at there was a waiting list. The girl told the guy in front of me he'd have to wait, and he freaked out. 'I'm gonna have to wait how long? Aw man, I haven't had a shower in a week!' And I took him aside and I was like, 'Jesus, man, did you even think before you talked? You haven't showered in a week? When you say something like that, it makes all of us look bad.'" He shook his head.  "Didn't even think, man. No wonder people think truckers are the scum of the earth."

The second thing that struck me was twofold: the extent to which the government and also private enterprise will go to fuck over anyone, as well as the depth and strength of my own hang-ups about American servicemen and women. I have met some really cool and decent officers, but my instinct when I'm sharing space with someone with a military aura is to get the hell away. My first thought is: Nuisance. Is this good or fair? No. Absolutely not. I forget that they're someone's son, brother, uncle, father, what have you: both the ones that are behaving badly, and the ones that have adapted well.

Our interlocuter's son—his only child, from the sound of it—served in Afghanistan. He was killed in an attack on his unit. That's already heartbreaking and awful. "No father should have to bury his son," to paraphrase Theoden in Lord of the Rings. What takes this to an awful, and previously unknown, level of fuckery, is that the private insurance company that's the de facto (maybe only) option for soldiers initially refused to pay out benefits to his surviving father because they didn't have proof that he had worn his helmet. No matter what happens, apparently, if you are not in full combat gear and you die during an attack, you get squat. The other military guy on the train with us relayed a story about a guy whose family had been denied benefits because he wasn't wearing kneepads.

I'm sorry, but a helmet or kneepads is not going to save you from enemy mortars.

It took some amount of paperwork (not sure how much, but honestly any paperwork in this situation is too much), but the company eventually conceded that he had indeed been wearing his helmet and paid up the money owed. One of his son's friends, fuming with rage and grief at the death of his friend, made sure to help him fight the good fight.

"When I went to collect this things, lots of the generals shook my and told me how sorry they were. My son's friend was with me, and he looked pissed. Later when we were alone, he said, 'They don't give a fuck about your son. They don't care about anyone here.'" The other military guy with us nodded his head in assent.

"I've got his dog tags tattooed here." He rolled up his t-shirt sleeve to show us. "It was hell over there. I'd talk to him on Skype a couple days a week, and ask how it was. And he'd just say, 'Applebee's.' Like, 'I'll tell you when I get home and we have dinner at Applebee's.'"

The extent to which people will go to make money, including trying to screw over grieving families, set a a hard little ball of nausea in my stomach. Why isn't this a huge news story? Why did I hear about it by chance on a subway trip back home?

Safe travels to you, Mr. Carolina-raised Hoosier. If I could, I'd stop by for a few drinks at your bar, wherever it ends up being.

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