Up the road and clearly visible through the window of our first house was a mountain often covered in the rolling mist indicative of most Korean mountains. Ahn mountain, was a constant backdrop of our childhood experiences in South Korea, where at its base we lived in two different homes as well as attended two different schools; Seoul Foreign School and Yonsei University. The mountain, located at the northern reaches of Seoul at the time of the Korean War, played host to continuous battles from both sides. Soldiers from Communist China, Russia and the ethnic Chinese Koreans that made up the Korean People’s Army (KPA) would push south, and take portions of the mountain while South Koreans and its allies, from 21 other nations including the US and Australia would push north to retake the mountain. Heros were made and many died during the attacks, adding to the thick history and mystique of the area.
One day as we were walking down the hill from our first house, I pointed to the mountain and said earnestly “My horangi lives in that mountain.” But instead of a passing thought, I continued to mention it every time we walked down the hill for the next several years. The horangi 호랑이 was the the native Korean tiger and was feared by all travelers, especially those going over mountains like Mt. Ahn. In South Korean mythology, the horangi represented courage, pride and strength and many folk stories involved the tiger. I heard many of these stories in my youth, such as “The Tiger and the Magpie” or “The Sun Girl and the Moon Boy,” and they illustrated that although the tiger had great strength, it could be outwitted due to its lack of cleverness.
The mountain was a constant source of intrigue for me as a four-year-old and was the first of many mountains in my life that I dreamed of climbing. Every morning, Korean men would climb up the mountain and shout their chants as sun broke over the horizon; the sounds echoing down to the valley below. And sometime during my frequent passing down the mountain side, gazing at its slopes through the window or listening to the chants sounding from above, I set my mind that I was going to climb the mountain as well.
One morning I met up with a friend up the street – another young white boy in the land of black hair – and we decided in the spur of the moment that it was time for a grand adventure. We found a small hole in a chain-link fence leading up to the mountain by his house and started climbing. We purposed not to tell anyone, because we knew they would either stop us, or not come along. We also neglected to take any food or water, for we thought that we would be back so soon that those items would not be needed and that we would be back before anyone could notice we were missing. I can remember scrambling up the hill from the fence and climbing up the dirt trail, passing several older Korean men who seemed concerned at the presence of such young boys unaccompanied. When asked what we were doing and if we were lost, we pretended that we couldn’t understand Korean, ignored them and continued on. My only thought was “hopefully these old Korean men don’t kidnap us… or take us back to our home.” I figured both scenarios would end in death… either by a stranger or by our parents. At various intervals in the path up the mountain, there were wood workout stations that we encountered. Stopping at each one, we would attempt to figure out what workout was supposed to be done at each station, often realizing that our boyish frames were too small to even attempt to do the exercise properly.
It was around half way up the mountain… thirsty, tired and sure that we would not reach the summit in time to get home with our absence unnoted… that we decided to turn around and head home. From the moment we made that decision, all of the excitement and independence of our covert trip up the mountain melted away. In its place was an overburdening since of fear. It was only at the point that we came to the realization that we had probably been gone for several hours and our absence was sure to have been noticed. Unlike our leisurely pace going up, the weight of fear pushed us rapidly downhill. In our minds, we skillfully dodged the rocks and tree roots. Falls and trips were only a momentary pause – as there was no luxury of time to examine and lament any injury. As we were nearing the bottom of the hill, we were surprised to find a group of people heading up the mountain in search of us. Our meeting was of mixed emotions as recounted by the other boys’ mother: “They were actually quite pleased with themselves with their exploration until they realized the trouble they were in.” And finally the realization of the consequences bestowed upon a missing young boy in a foreign land started to flood my brain. I was certain that the consequences would be swift and certain… like the picture of Isaac and Abraham burned into my memory from a picture Bible somewhere, but with a different ending. I was awash with ideas of how I could act normal and what story I could possibly come up with that would excuse my attenuated absence.
Finally arriving home, it was time to face my fate. The first thing I can remember was being exuberantly welcomed home by concerned parents, followed immediately by an inquisition as to my whereabouts. As I watched, phone calls were made to friends to cancel search efforts and relief from all that both of us had been found and safely returned. It was also at that point I realized how much trouble I was really in. Search parties? Boy, I was a goner. And so the inevitable happened. I was sent to my room with instructions to wait there. So I waited. I sat on the edge of the bed in the dark, alternately swinging my legs and bouncing them off the sideboard in a nervous fidget. Then the time came and Dad entered the room. I don’t remember the spanking, although I do know that it was the list of top five memorable spankings I received in my lifetime. Even so, it was deemed a just reward given the circumstances – even from the viewpoint of a young boy. After Dad had left the room and consoled me, I chose to continue crying under my sheets. The pain had passed from the spanking, but the thought that some sympathy from Mom might be bestowed by loudly crying boy was singularly flowing in my head. And so I persisted. Huddled under my ever hotter, sweatier and oxygen deprived sheets, I continued wailing – not in pain, but in a desperate childhood attempt for sympathy. But I could have never expected the events that would happen next.
My father, a man of cool and calm who rarely showed emotion, came into the room and untangled me from the covers. It was at that point that I noticed that he was crying. But unlike my crocodile tears, his were real. As he held me close and rocked me back and forth against his chest, he explained how worried he was that I had been kidnapped or worse, and that he loved me and would never want to lose me. And as his tears soaked uncomfortably into my shirt, I found myself switching from needing consolation to giving it. Dad asked me never to run away like that again, and I promised. And I held true to that promise… at least in Korea. To this day, that memory of my father’s tears, his shaky voice and loving words stand as a vivid memory of the man my father was and is. Now a parent myself, those words stand as a yardstick of how I should love and approach my own sons. But in the end, my obsession with the horangi and Mt. Ahn met its conclusion in the most fitting way possible with the experience being summarized by something my mother said. “It was a well intentioned deed to show my strength but like the proverbial tiger, it was not clever.”
All around our neighborhood, Mom used to see rats, some as large as cats. Once she saw one waddling down the corridor at Seoul Foreign School and said to a guard, “Uncle, there goes a rat!” “Yea…..” he agreed calmly. “There are many of them.” In our second house, we had an encounter with one of these rats. His first appearance was in our bathtub as my sister was getting ready to bathe. She clambered on top of our Western style toilet and screamed, causing quite a commotion in the house. Dad arrived at the bathroom door with a cleaver in his hand, which lead to an even greater commotion from my sister. Dad managed to catch it in the folds of the bath mat and was whacking at it using the cleaver through the thick cloth, but the rat escaped and was able to scurry away. We searched house but it was nowhere to be found. In an attempt to rid the house of our rat problem, Dad laid and baited traps in the attic. Several days later when the traps were checked, they were all sprung with the bait missing and several pieces of grey fur left in the catch and hammer. Mom thought she heard it limping away in the roof above. The war against the rat then progressed to tar paper. I still remember Dad pulling the backing off of the sticky black substance and placing the sheets down in the attic. Several days later, there was a large mound of fur left on one of the traps, but no rat. We never did see the rat again, but that is probably for the best. We still sit around and talk about the lucky, three legged, half hairless rat in the attic.
The second house was also the scene of The Great Rope Incident. Up behind the wall at the second house was a forest of sorts. Many of Korea’s trees had been ruthlessly cut down and shipped to Japan during the Japanese Occupation 1910-1945, and thus, trees were highly protected and could not be cut down without a government official’s permission. Even when a typhoon blew them down they had to be inspected before removal. On the branch of one of our trees my brother had rigged a rope and would spend the afternoon swinging out several feet over the hillside, stopping, and then swinging back to the high ground on the other side. When I followed my brother outside for a turn, he would help me, but then as all brothers do, he tired of helping his persistently whiney little brother do basic tasks. When he was finally tired, he said that we should go inside, but I said that I wanted to keep playing outside for a little longer. “Just don’t try the rope swing alone,” he shouted as he walked down to the house. “Don’t worry, I won’t,” I lied through my teeth. Once he was out of sight, I grabbed the rope at the tallest point I could and leapt off the hillside. One second later, I had an epiphany of pendulum physics. My brother had grasped the rope from a high height and when the rope tightened, he only dropped slightly. I however, had grasped only a short height and as I jumped off, the rope stretched and dragged my feet on the ground behind me. Instead of swinging over the hillside, I found myself swinging head first into a giant grey rock. I thought through my options, but not before the rock started to work through my head. I WAS HIT! I quickly got up and wiped my head with my hand. My hand came back into my field of view with two red fingers. Drat, I thought. Now I am in trouble. The worry about being in trouble quickly passed as I heard several small rhythmic rain drops splashing down against the underbrush. Moving my hand, I caught a drop and red splashed over my palm. I quickly put my palm up to my head to verify the source of my worry was in fact, my head wound. This time the whole thing, my whole palm came back red. Crying and frantic, I started making my way back to the house. Mom, hearing me cry, looked up through the window as she was washing dishes and saw my bloodied face coming down the hill. Dad was immediately summoned and the next thing I knew, I was sitting in a chair with Dad applying gauze and pressure to my wound. Several minutes passed. “The bleeding is not stopping,” Dad said. We might have to go to the hospital. With that statement floating in the air, I lost it. I squirmed. I shrieked. “Please!” I yelled. “I don’t want to go to the hospital. I’ll stop bleeding. I’ll stop bleeding, I promise!” My worked up reaction had the opposite effect on my wound. A couple of minutes later, after the threat of going to the hospital had simmered down for a few minutes, the bleeding stated to wane. Several minutes after that, to my great relief, the bleeding finally stopped. I was cleaned up, patched and given a good talking to. Still to this day, one inch above my right eyebrow, I bear the mark in memory of that day.
We lived in South Korea during a critical time in their movement towards democracy, and student demonstrations at universities such as Seoul National University and Yonsei University were an essential part of the pro-democracy movement. While we were there in the 1980s, many student activists in universities struggled against Chun Doo-hwan’s military dictatorship and the aftermath of the 1980 Gwangju Massacre. When Chun Doo-hwan announced the choice of Roh Tae Woo as the next president, this was seen as a deferred process to revise the South Korean constitution to permit direct election of the President. Because of our proximity to Yonsei University the the frequent demonstrations there, it was not uncommon for tear gas to waft up the hillside and into our house. We had a routine of closing all of the windows and waiting for the demonstrations to end and the air to clear. After my burns, Colonel Thar had given my brother a military issue gas mask as a present. So while the rest of the family stayed indoors, my brother would don his gas mask and play basketball outside in the driveway. Incidentally, he would also use his gas mask while cutting onions, which was a creative use of his gift. Another time, the Pioneer Girls group mother led from Seoul Foreign School had planned a meeting at our home on a Saturday. They had arranged a day of hiking on Ahn mountain and a picnic following their return. The girls had just been dropped off at our house and all seemed well when pepper gas began pouring over the hill. Since the group could not safely climb the hill anymore, they decided to stay indoors instead, playing games and inventing activities in our rooms until the demonstrations wound down. Such were the oddities of living overseas. A year after we left South Korea, student demonstrations and the deaths at the hand of the government in June 1987, forced the ruling government to hold elections and institute other democratic reforms which led to the establishment of the Sixth Republic, the present day government of South Korea.
Winter in South Korea was cold. Being without a car for the first two years it was often difficult to get to church. After walking down our hill, slipping and sliding on the ice, we would wait on the corner as Dad tried to hail a cab. Some taxi drivers would not stop because there were five of us and it was difficult to squeeze four people in the back. So as we were waiting we would sing folk tunes such as, “Swing low, sweet chariot…”, and hug each other in the wind. On one foray to Southgate Market we decided to take the bus. As usual, it was very crowded so we had to stand. A haraboji or grandfather dressed in a colorful hanbok (native dress) picked me up and seated me on his lap and Mom said I thought nothing of it. I was glad to have a seat, and a warm one at that. Another time when it was just four of us returning home, Mom lost a dress shoe down a storm drain as she disembarked from the bus. A small crowd gathered murmuring their sympathy as she stood one-footed in the snow. Explaining her predicament in Korean to passers-by, one man even knelt on the ground to see if it could be retrieved, but the shoe was lost. Mom walked the rest of the way home one-shoe-off and one-shoe-on through the snow.
Winter was cold but also a time of wonder. I can remember the feeling of coming inside after hours of play in the blustering snow and ice: the sensation of reddened skin returning to feeling and life and the way the aroma of food filled the house with an intensity lacking during summer. Even saying that the house was cold during the winter is an understatement. I remember standing next to the kerosene heater that we used to heat one room at a time in our house. Our kerosene heater was a mesmerizing thing. It was warm, it was glowing, it was fire. I could (and did) sit for hours watching the hundreds of tiny blue flames spill through the circular perforated screen. If I would blow lightly on the flame on one side, the pattern of flames would dance across the screen in a wave across the burner. I lost count at the number of times I was told to stay away from the heater, don’t touch the heater, don’t play by the heater. But I was curious, squirmy and active which resulted in a steady stream of burns – normally on my hands. But in my defense, playing elsewhere was a production. I had to don my snow pants and snow jacket to play cards with my sister in the bedroom or layer my clothes further still if I wanted to play outside. Still, sitting there in the house was more fun. I could see my breath in my room without suffering from the wind. Given how cold it was inside of the house, one of the things each of us kids enjoyed was having our beds turned down – namely having a hot water bag put in our sheets before having to get in the covers. Mom would put the tea kettle on the stove and when the water was boiling, she would pour it into a red rectangular bag and cap it with a black screw cap. She would then tuck it into the covers, or we would lie down in bed with the water bag on top of our stomach. There was a chevron non-slip pattern molded on both sides of the bag and I would lay in bed running my fingers back and forth across the sticky, warm, undulating bag until I feel asleep. On one night, it was my brother’s turn to have the hot water bottle, but sometime during the night, it fell out of his bed. The next morning, with the bag missing, we searched for it and found it against the wall of the bedroom; frozen. Mom warned us not to fall out of bed! In the first house, I remembered lying down with our bodies snuggly positioned under the bed Mom and Dad had been given their bedroom. The dust ruffle on their bedspread would trap heat and it would keep us warmer while watching TV. But at the second house this was not an option. It made me realize anew the creativity and wisdom involved in the traditional ondol floor.
One time, after we had purchased our car, we were headed to Shiheung for a church service when it began to snow. Since it was dark by that time the roads were as slick as ice. Going over a particularly steep hill in that area, our car began to spin out and slide. I remember Mom shouting, “David!” as we careened down the hill. Inexplicably, although going downhill, the car began to slow. At the bottom of the hill, I remember the car spun once, gently bringing us to a stop one foot from a city bus. I remember looking up into the eyes of all the wide-eyed people staring down. Then we gave a prayer of thanks!
The second house marked a transition for us in our lifestyle and in our ministry. It was smaller, so it made entertaining the larger groups of church people more difficult. As a result, we had to travel more, meeting with others in their homes across the city. The house also had a remarkably long driveway so that it was more difficult for people to find. During the cold winters we would spend hours helping Dad shovel snow on the driveway so that we did not have to walk out. But it was also colder, lacking the insulation of the first house and its ondol floors. Dad had to work hard carrying the kerosene heater up and down the stairs. These were just minor inconveniences, but they made life more time consuming. Missionary housing is sometimes a tradeoff between appearance, affordability and productivity. To have the time and energy to preach, teach, mentor and care for one’s family in another country requires a certain amount of stability and provision. We were grateful for God’s safety and provision for us in South Korea, and for the families that continued to support us on the mission field despite our absence.
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