Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A reminiscence of my Dad

My Dad, after whom I am named Roman, just passed away at the age of 86 years, in Florida. I was fortunate in being able to tell him before he reposed those things a son should say to his father before he leaves this world, like ‘Thanks for being my Dad… I love you… You are my hero… and, Wait for me on the other side.’ We used to talk by phone every week, and I visited him at least once a year, even though we were almost at the extreme antipodes of the continent from each other. Yes, my Dad really is my hero. He taught me so much, and passed on to me without knowing it the philanthropic heart he received from his father. Yes, my grandpa, Casimir, newly arrived from Prussia and managing a real estate development in Florida was quickly blacklisted and driven out, because in the first decade of the 1900's, he insisted on paying his black labor the same wage as his white. He said, ‘All men are the same.’ That was too much for his colleagues. He went north to Chicago and founded a Credit Union instead…

I've posted this reminiscence before, but anonymously, but here it is again, only now you know who the old veteran was... it was my Dad!

An old man sitting in his tiny room on a day bed. On the wall behind the bed are two glazed picture frames, the one on the left full of awards and ribbons from his American Legion days, the one on the right displays an arrangement of military decorations, bars and medals hanging from ribbons, with a sepia tone photo of a young soldier in his early twenties. He has company with him in his room, a rare event.

His visitor asks him about the medals, ‘What was this one for? And what about that other one?’ The old man’s eyes get a far away look in them when asked about a medal for his service in Korea during the war almost sixty years ago. ‘What did you do when you were in Korea to earn that? Were you in combat?’

‘No, not exactly what you’d call combat, but I was surrounded by it. Me and another soldier, we were assigned to carry mail between Pusan and the front lines. When we landed in Pusan, that’s about all there was of Korea, the Chinese had overrun everything. My original army unit was almost completely wiped out. I got placed in a different unit, and we took the mail back and forth.

‘We lived in the railway car that carried the mail, like a postal unit on wheels, it got hauled from the base at Pusan to wherever we had to get the mail to and from our troops. We took in a Korean boy, must’ve been twelve years old or so, named Kim Mun Heup. He spoke good English, he was from a rich family in Seoul, but both his parents were killed in the fighting. We took him in as our house boy. He cooked, washed our stuff, helped us buy food and supplies in the towns wherever we went. He lived with us in the railway car.

‘We paid him, of course, but I got a hold of a Sears Roebuck catalog, and we let him look through it and pick out clothes and other things. We sent away for them, and when they finally got here, boy, was he ever happy! He had a baseball cap and real American clothes, tee-shirts and blue jeans, and shoes. Boy, was he ever proud! Kim found five other boys, all orphans like himself, but younger, and became their manager. He got his orders from us, and gave them their work. He paid them, and shared with them, of course.

Kim Mun Heup (third from right) with his ‘cohort’
‘I was proud of him, too, and I wanted to adopt him and bring him back to America, but I knew that wouldn’t go over well. I’d just gotten married before being shipped off, and I had a baby on the way. I knew my wife wouldn’t want to see me bring home a kid just ten years younger than me, and not “one of us,” if you get my meaning.

‘When we were in the north, at the front, refugees would come to me and my buddy, maybe Kim told them about us, and we’d give them a place to stay and a ride in our mail car back to the south. We’d drop them off at various places along the way, where they had friends or relatives to take them in. Times were pretty rough, and they’d lost a lot. Once we even hid a bunch of Catholic nuns who escaped from the north and dropped them off in a safe area. They were Koreans, of course, but spoke good English, as did most of the people that came to us for help.

‘Boy, would we ever have gotten in trouble for hiding these people, if the base commander had found out! But he never did. That’s because we always dropped them off before the train got back to Pusan. We didn’t see any harm in it, helping those folks. What else could we have done?

‘I didn’t stay right to the end of the war. Our replacements arrived, and me and my buddy returned to the States. Like I said, I really wanted to adopt Kim and bring him home, but it just couldn’t happen. So before we left, we gave him a couple of thousand dollars and dropped him off in a small town where he had some relatives. The money was for his education. I hope he made it. We didn’t stay in touch after the war. Life had just changed too much for all of us.’

The visitor listened to the old man release his secret story and wondered, had anyone else heard this told in many a year? Was the buddy still alive, staying alone in some cottage like this old soldier? And where was Kim? Three whole lifetimes were lived completely apart, that once for a year or a little more had been more closely knit than family, two young men and a boy riding the rails together in a war-torn land, carrying messages between danger and safety, carrying souls secretly from oppression to freedom.

That’s worth more than medals.


Joan of Argghh! said...

I am so sorry for your loss, but so pleased to read of your wonderful father. May he be ever rejoicing as he awaits your renewed fellowship with him, on that Day.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Thanks, Joan, for visiting and leaving your comment. I much appreciate it.

Been a bit disoriented, and still am. Always had Dad there for me, and that's what made it possible for me to be Dad to my boys. Now, the rest of my life begins. Where will it lead? How will it end?

Without the crutch of mere religion, my Dad stepped out of this life, looking up and speaking inaudibly to someone his eyes followed, and then gaping in awe, he departed. I wasn't there at the last moment, but from his final expression, I was sure he had been snatched away into uncreated Light. The borderlands between the living and the dead, when we are privileged to skirt them, reverse our normal perception of what it means to be alive and dead. Then, in an instant, we realise, no, we feel, what it means to say 'the living faith of the dead' in contrast to 'dead faith of the living.'

No matter what it looks like, or feels like, to those of us still outside the door, death itself is truly the gateway to the Divine Splendor.

As I said when I offered the final Trisagion service before his burial, 'You are worthy, dear brother and father, of eternal memory.'

Sasha said...

It sounds like his memory will! be eternal.
May you two re-unite in gladness, brother!