The Ballad of Eun Young-Ki

If imitation is the best form of flattery, then this post was directly influenced by Angry Staff Officer’s lovely memorial to his late grandfather.  I lost my maternal grandfather, Eun Young-Ki, in 2006, at age 84.  I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, since we had essentially lost him to Alzheimer’s related dementia some years before he passed; he also lived in Seoul, looked after by my eldest aunt, too far and too expensive a trip for me to make at the last minute.  According to my mother, my grandfather had his final lucid moment in his hospital room, when the nurse told him all three of his daughters, including the two who lived in the US, were there.

When I was one year old, my parents’ marriage was already on the rocks, a precursor to their divorce twenty-three years later.  Consequently, and in case they moved back to South Korea after they split up, I was sent off to my maternal grandparents.  My great-grandmother took me to Seoul, and I didn’t return to New York until I was almost five.  Side note: I was seriously cute in my first passport photo.

1972 passport

Because my grandparents were the only parental figures I initially knew; because the price of long-distance calls to New York was astronomical; and, let’s face it, because I was just a toddler; I came up calling my grandparents “Appa” (daddy) and “Omma” (mommy).  During infrequent calls to my actual parents, I called them my American mommy and American daddy, without knowing them besides a disembodied voice on the phone.  Three-year-old me thought nothing of the prospect of having two sets of parents.  I just rolled with it.

My grandfather was my north star then, a feeling that carried even into adulthood.  He was strong but quiet, never prone to histrionics like my grandmother or my mother.  He always had some dry remark when the world (at least, as I knew it then) went to shit.  His forbearance and patience eventually informed my own.  I’ve delved into the negative example set by my father here and here, but the one constant positive male role model in my life was my grandfather.  When I returned to the US before my fifth birthday, my grandfather accompanied me.  According to my mother, when we dropped him off at JFK Airport, and I realized he was leaving and I was staying, the word disconsolate doesn’t do my mood justice.

Just before I left for basic training, my grandfather took me to Cancún.  We did the usual touristy things like ruins, beach, and sailing.  We also talked a great deal, since this was ages before a teenager could bury his head in a screen to ignore his elders; for the first and last time, I got to truly know my grandfather.

Eun Young-Ki was born in a village near Osan in the midst of the Japanese occupation.  Like all other schoolchildren in the 1920s, he was forced to learn Japanese, which remained his second language (even better than his excellent English) until he died.  In fact, almost all of the books he brought on that trip were pulp-noir-yakuza novels he’d bought at the Japanese book store near his apartment.  My grandfather had had no electricity or running water, so when both came to his village when he was a teen, he said it was the last time everyone in his family was happy together.

Then the war happened.  Like all able-bodied Korean men, he was drafted press-ganged into the Imperial Japanese Army.  Not as a soldier, mind you – that would’ve been too much of an honor for a colonized people – but as a porter.  My grandfather was sent to Manchuria to build roads, barracks, airfields – anything that required manual labor deemed too lowly for a Japanese soldier.  Don’t get me wrong, the average Japanese soldier had it rough, especially compared to his American or Commonwealth counterparts.  The Korean labor battalions had it worse, though, because the Japanese saw and treated them as subhuman.

By 1942, with the war in full swing, my grandfather, unsurprisingly, had had enough.  He’d been a laborer for two years and hadn’t had any contact with his family during that time.  For the eldest child in a Korean family, the added pressure of having to care for his siblings undoubtedly sent him over the edge.  Eventually, he snuck out of their camp at night with two other Korean laborers.  One fell behind almost immediately, and my grandfather never saw him again.  About a week later, my grandfather lost sight of the other as they fled through a Manchurian forest.  Their roughest guesstimate had been, if they kept moving southeast, they’d find the Tumen or Yalu rivers that separated Korea from Manchuria, then simply trek south until they encountered more Koreans.

What my grandfather hadn’t anticipated had been a band of Korean gangsters-cum-partisans who “owned” part of the border.  Even accounting for my grandfather’s natural reticence, his distant, horrified expression when he recounted this part of the tale gave me chills.  They were Marxists in name only, the teachings of Mao Zedong and Kim Il-Sung but a cover for their lucrative smuggling business.  My grandfather had to join them in order to, essentially, earn his own freedom from them.  Details from him on this time were sparse, but capped by this gem of an offhand statement in English: “No one is a hero in a war.”  He was able to rejoin his family by the winter of 1944/45, after five years’ separation.  By then, he owned the Nambu pistol I described in this post.  His deadpan – and, in retrospect, certifiably badass – conclusion: “I lived.  Many didn’t.”

My grandfather didn’t waste much time after reuniting with his family, and promptly resumed the education that had been denied him by the war.  He matriculated at a teacher’s college that would later become the Seoul National University of Education.  An arranged marriage to the daughter of a wealthy Kwangju family was followed by three daughters.  First a set of twins, my mother being the younger of the two, then my younger aunt.  And because the good Lord has a sense of humor, another war.  They fled south to my grandmother’s family’s walled mansion in Kwangju, somehow avoiding North Koreans during their brief occupation of that city, then avoiding patrols from South Koreans who were involuntarily impressing young men into military service; they had apparently learned well from their former Japanese occupiers.  Luckily for my grandparents and their growing brood, the war and much of its attendant misery moved north and stayed there.

Until the ceasefire, my grandfather taught at an improvised school for his wife’s extended family.  He was press-ganged again immediately after the war, this time willingly.  The nascent Ministry of Education sent a hundred rising educators to the United States for their master’s degrees, seed corn for the Republic of Korea’s educational system.  Those were hard years, he told me, away from his family in a foreign land, communicating with them only by letter.  I’ve only been away from my wife and kids for a week at a time for business, and shudder to think what two straight years would do to my psyche.  Eun Young-Ki found himself in Nashville, of all places, earning his ME from Vanderbilt.  One probably well meaning person told my grandfather he didn’t have to use the colored water fountain.  My grandfather’s typically laconic response: water is water, the colored water fountain is closer, but thanks anyway.  This understandably gave my grandfather a view of America that he never shook: a wonderful and expansive country, but ultimately self destructive in its appetites and prejudices.

Once back with his family, now settled in Seoul, my grandfather began two parallel careers: one as a middle school teacher and, eventually, principal; the other as an advisor and ombudsman for the Ministry of Education.  It wasn’t a lucrative field, education rarely is, but it was the one he chose, a rarity during a time when the government used test scores to determine your future field.  Education gave my grandfather the kind of stability he’d longed for since he was a slave in Manchuria.  By the time I arrived in early 1974, my grandfather was pretty well established.  It was the confidence borne of this stability and accomplishment that made me gravitate more towards him than my grandmother.  It is the kind of confidence to which I still aspire, forty three years later.

His two younger daughters, my mother and younger aunt, eventually emigrated to the United States, as did thousands of their peers in the early 1970s.  Many Koreans saw America, despite its polarization over race and Vietnam, as a wellspring of better opportunities than could be had in President Park’s South Korea.  Since these daughters were leaving to pursue their master’s degrees, my grandparents took the loss in stride.

My mother, God love her, was not a great judge of character then.  My grandparents disapproved of their middle daughter’s marriage to this chon-nom (bumpkin) from Taegu.  Why, he wasn’t even Catholic!  NYU-Stern student?  Meh, still a bumpkin from Gyeongsangdo Province.  Amazingly, this prejudice is still alive and well in Seoul.  Imagine, if you will, the daughter of a buttoned up New England headmaster.  Now picture her marrying into a family of Southern evangelists who worship, talk, and eat loudly.  My father worked hard to soften his natural Gyeongsangdo accent, especially when speaking with my maternal grandparents.  I also know its occasional return grated on my mother until she finally divorced him.

As the father of three daughters, my grandfather loved having a male toddler around, all the more since I was also his first grandchild.  I learned from my own experience that a grandchild, specifically a firstborn male grandchild, can bridge many in-law chasms.  I suspect this was the case for my father; later still, both of my uncles, whose own first children were boys.  Looking back, do I feel sorry for my less fortunate cousins for the vagaries of birth order – yeah, nope.  I knew I was my grandfather’s prince, and still was until dementia took his marvelous mind thirty years hence.  After I returned to the US in 1978, I only saw him sporadically, about once every three or four years, when my grandparents came over from Korea, or vice versa.  One of my favorite photos of him was during a visit to Korea in January 1986.  If I’m beaming, it’s because I’m sitting next to my grandfather.  My cousins were relegated to the side across from us, and what I remember most clearly is that I had his undivided attention through the entire dinner.

IMG_2569 (2)

What did I learn from a man with whom I only spent a week as an adult?  Plenty, I’ve come to find.  Almost by osmosis, I picked up on an empathy that can and has served me well, in both the public and private sectors.  Like my grandfather, I tend to listen closely first before speaking.  Koreans have almost a cultural phobia of showing emotion, and my grandfather conformed to this, at least outwardly.  In private, however, he was demonstrative, quick with a laugh, and loving.  If you ask my kids, they’d probably say the same about me now.  If that is Eun Young-Ki’s legacy, then I’m more than happy to carry that on.  He was my grandfather, and my hero.

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Cheers!

I read this Op-Ed in the New York Times by Brittany Bronson and thought, that was me for more years than I care to count.  From bouncing and tending bar at a dive bar near George Washington University, to working at one of DC’s best restaurants at the time, and then managing restaurants in Washington and New York; until I met my wife, heavy drinking was just par for the course.  It always had, and it always would.  How wrong I was.

Restaurant happy hour usually begins around 11pm, or whenever the first waiters to cash out with their manager leave for the night.  Around midnight, after almost all fine dining restaurants have closed, the remainder of the crew will join you at the favored saloon.  The crew will then proceed to drink their faces off, because moderation and monogamy are for people with regular jobs.  In DC in the 1990s, the restaurant poison of choice was Gran Marnier; in New York, it’s Jameson; in both cases, beer only serves as a fill-in between shots of GM or Jame-o.  Darts may be thrown.  Pool may be shot.  Successive rounds of Jame-o shots may be consumed.  If you’re broke, no worries, you’re making more cash tomorrow.  Undying friendship may be pledged at last call, only to be forgotten before next year’s holiday rush, when everyone becomes surly and antisocial.  Years may pass without one noticing, because hangovers, not calendars, mark the passage of time.

Booze, of course, is only one component of the deadly spiral into which I’ve seen far too many peers fall.  There’s “go fasters,” a euphemism for speed that always made me smile, because that’s what my Marine friends – God love those knuckleheads’ Delphic patois – call running shoes.  Speed was usually reserved for nightclub staff, whose vampire hours didn’t see them leave the premises til dawn.  Then, naturally, blow; nose candy; yeyo.  Cocaine, the great arbiter between casual and fine dining, restaurants and saloons and clubs.  Pick your poison, but watch out because you’ll fall down a rabbit hole of addiction, recovery if your family can afford it (you sure as hell can’t, because you very likely don’t have health insurance), potential homelessness, and anonymous death.

I’ve attended 14 military funerals, but only one for a restaurant employee.  The key difference?  There was a body to identify.  Once, when I was running a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, I was walking quickly to Penn Station to catch a train home.  I passed a homeless man who looked vaguely familiar.  I didn’t think it was a guy I’d worked with, but then, 33rd Street at 1am was neither the time nor place to see if I was correct.

It could very well have been “Greg,” a waiter I’d had to fire for being drunk on the job.  When I’d dropped the hammer in my cramped basement office, he’d broken down crying.  “What am I going to do, Dan?  I got nothing else.”  This just broke my heart, but I had to remain firm.  We all knew Greg had a drinking problem, but he was so good at his job that we managers overlooked the minor slurring of speech and loss of motor function.  I felt like a hypocrite, because a Jame-o on the rocks for me wasn’t unheard of while I counted the bar drawers at closing time.  Ultimately, Greg had committed the cardinal sin of overindulging.  Indulging?  Hell, we all did.  Many still do, but keep it under deep enough wraps that it isn’t as noticeable.  I had Greg escorted off the property, and no one heard from him again.  A month or so after I let Greg loose, his brother called the restaurant looking for him.  With any luck, Greg is reading this as someone celebrating over a decade of sobriety; more likely, he’s buried at Hart Island along with so many of this town’s unclaimed dead.

Many of us are in this career for the long haul.  We chose this, and I’m thankful beyond measure that my wife, a fellow restaurant veteran, understands my odd work schedule.  As my kids grow, they’ve gotten used to having me off on weekdays, along with weekend mornings before I go to work.  Truth be told, I switched to the Dark Side (management) because I wanted health benefits.  The excessive drinking after work, often followed by extracurricular drinking after I got home, had taken a toll.  I missed being healthy.  In retrospect, it’s a sad reflection of my single years that it took marriage to (more or less) sober up.

My career is, with few exceptions, one of the most stressful around.  I’ve had to clean up little kids’ puke from a leather banquette, stand stoically while someone dressed me down for seating them 5 minutes past their reservation time, think quickly of an answer to “do you know who I am?” – these could comprise a full, separate post.  I still like the restaurant biz, but do I love it anymore?  The jury’s still out.  As the father of two young children, I envy friends who enjoy nights and weekends off.  Regardless of what time I might get home, whether 1am or 3am, I will still wake up in time to get the kids fed, dressed, and off to school in the morning; let’s face it, that might be my only time with them, since I’ll be working through the evening, and I cherish whatever time I have with them, however brief.  This is leagues beyond the Dan of 1999, whose mornings  generally consisted of black coffee, a Marlboro Red, and a greasy breakfast at Bob & Edith’s (free ad: fantastic diner, please go for the verbal abuse from the grill man around 0500).

But could I do this with my family if I were still drinking as much now as I did then?  Not on your life.

 

 

The Dark Side (of the Rebellion)

Author’s note:  This post can arguably be seen as a companion to this or this, but in all honesty, it was inspired by this brilliant podcast by Angry Staff Officer and Adin Dobkin.  If you don’t already follow them on Twitter, WTH are you waiting for?  Full disclosure: I consider ASO a personal friend, even if he is an engineer officer who turned his back on his prior enlisted infantry past, but I digress.  The former soldier in me had always wondered about what happened with pockets of resistance in far flung corners of the galaxy.  I’ve seen the disastrous second and third order effects of real insurgencies, so in a fit of writer’s extrapolation, I tried to imagine what the insurgency on one planet among thousands of Empire controlled worlds might be like.  Without further ado …


I’ve been leading this contingent of the Lothal Liberation Force for ten years.  Sometimes we number a hundred, as we did six years ago, for our attack on the TIE Fighter factory; more often than not, we operate in two or three seven-man sections.  Sometimes, as today, it just takes a crew of five.  It depends on what we think we can get away with, who might not be missed if they don’t show up at work.  We’re such a motley crew that we don’t rate a Jedi, or even a Padawan, on our home world – we just want the Empire out, and will do everything in our limited power to ensure that outcome.  A prehistoric sage had supposedly said of his ragged band: “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.”  Ever since a TIE Bomber incinerated my house, with my wife and children still inside, this is all I know.

I also own a souvenir shop near the Spaceport, and make a minor killing selling fake Rebellion-themed trinkets to the Imperial Forces.  Stormtroopers love the starbird flags we make in the basement, then splatter with enough dirt and nerf blood for verisimilitude’s sake.  I smile as I scan their pay cards, memorize the faces of those not wearing helmets, in the off chance I’ll see them through a scope one day.  The new governor has been searching for us both on the steppe and in the cities, hoping to prove his worth to the Emperor as if his job depends on it.  Which, of course, it does.  No one wants to be Force choked by a Sith.

Unless you were looking directly at us, you would have missed the handoff.  Two men walking in opposite directions, with a split second pause as they exchanged weapons.  The thermal grenades felt heavy, but they were a newer model, I could tell from the heft.  I was dressed like most men in Lothal City, with an untucked tunic over loose trousers and nerf leather boots.  There hardly seemed to be any colors in clothing since the Empire occupied us, just varying shades of brown or khaki.  If anything, that made it easier to blend in.  A few Stormtroopers patrolled the streets in pairs, at regular intervals, some accompanied by an unarmored officer wearing gray.

It was a sparkling new high rise building within walking distance of the Imperial governor’s mansion.  Loyalty to the Emperor and snitching on your fellow Lothalians were rewarded with amenity filled apartments in the Coruscant Glen.  Obsequious droids in each unit tended to every need including cooking, cleaning, and child care – and recorded your every move for the Imperial Security Bureau.  The restaurant on the ground floor of the Coruscant Glen catered to midlevel officers and Imperial bureaucrats – and their families.  It was nice but not too nice, its main feature a sprawling patio with a force field to repel rain, and a moderately priced Coruscanti menu.  These people do love the food of their home world.  I’d eaten there several times on scouting missions, and found the food bland by our standards.  Good selection of Lothalian beers, though.

The patio was packed, as it always was for lunch in the spring.  I used a dead Stormtrooper’s card for a coffee across the street.  Why tempt the ISB by using your own card?  One of my subalterns paid for his meal and left his table by the bar.  Two cooks emerged from a back door, quickly shedding white chef coats to join the subaltern in the crowd walking away from the building.  I looked at my communicator watch and counted down the seconds.  At the last moment, I took cover behind a thick column by the coffee stand.  Four proton grenades exploded simultaneously – one in the kitchen, one at the bar, one under the subaltern’s table on the patio, and one in the restroom.  Smoke and screams filled the air, then sirens as Imperial Gendarmerie hover tanks and speeders converged on the massacre.  The anti-rain force field had contained the  bombs’ explosions within the restaurant’s confines.  The result was butchery.  An armless woman wept over the corpses of her children and husband, an Imperial officer.  Limbs, large and small, littered the patio.  A man staggered out of the restaurant’s interior, his body charred as if he’d escaped a barbecue’s spit, then collapsed dead by the front door.  A smoking head rolled onto the sidewalk.

The first speeder Stormtroopers to respond removed their helmets to vomit on the ground.  A hover tank disgorged its band of troopers at the near corner to search for survivors.   Another hover tank took station on the opposite corner, to my far left.  I sipped my coffee behind the column, gawking with feigned horror as Stormtroopers established a perimeter.  Two black clad Deathtroopers roughly shoved hysterical civilians looking for loved ones.  The rest of the crowd milled around me as I pushed buttons on the grenades in my pockets.  Like many here, I held my wrist up to record the scene on my communicator watch.  With the other hand, I simply dropped the miniature thermal detonators.  They scooted around people’s ankles to autonomously seek large hunks of metal – like the broad bottom of a hover tank.

The subaltern’s thermals went off first, under that hover tank’s soft belly, fused for a blast radius of only five meters.  Anything within those mini fireballs of plasma was incinerated in a tenth of a second.  My own were set to ten meters, since the Stormtroopers here were more widely spread out.  Civilians were caught in this attack, too, but as I’d indoctrinated every member of my band: no sacrifice is too great for our liberation from the Empire.  Kill now, mourn later.  The innocent dead are unavoidable and necessary collateral damage in the pursuit of liberation.  With the sounds of even more screams and sirens building to a crescendo, I took a leisurely half hour walk back to my souvenir shop.


 

The moon Candra had already risen in the eastern sky, with her smaller sister, Tinne, shining brightly overhead.  Even at the end of summer, it was still hot enough for heat waves rising from the ground to give false readings in our ancient thermal viewers.  But we’d resurrected other ancient lessons, like how to take on a more heavily armed foe without blasters.  An Imperial sensor 20 km away can track a blaster shot’s plasma to within a few centimeters.  Other lessons we’d had to relearn: merchant by day, insurgent by night; close range is your friend; homemade explosives and deeply buried mines can cause heavier casualties than an X-Wing on a strafing run.

“Steady, Raiona.”

“Shut up, Gajari,” I hissed at my number two.  “I’ve only been doing this for all twenty years of the occupation.”  Two two-legged All Terrain Scout Transports – AT-STs – lumbered over the savannah.  A small patrol, thank the Force.  Their heads and accompanying main guns slewed right and left, controlled by the officer in the lead AT-ST.  Bagging these would be fantastic, but we needed bigger fish, and the bait was tramping over the grass covered plateau, interspersed with the bandy legged AT-STs.  About twenty Stormtroopers – were they still clones, and if not, did that even matter? – arrayed in three mutually supporting V’s, heading in the same direction as the STs, from our right to left.  Always creatures of habit, they were following a well used trail that we had helpfully cleared of grass two years ago.  You almost didn’t want to kill their leader, in case he was replaced by someone more tactically and technically proficient by several orders of magnitude.  This long stretch of grassland sat in the saddle between two ridgelines that loomed four hundred meters above us.  There was no cover besides a few folds atop the plateau, but concealment aplenty in the grass.  And the rocks above.

Gajari kept feeding me range information, even though we’d walked the area earlier this morning.  One missileer on each flank tracked the STs through their launchers’ scopes and, like the rest of us, waited.  A red triangle in my scope indicated that the lead vehicle had entered the kill zone.  The green arrows pointing at the STs marked the missileers’ aim points – the soft engine under the command module, where the spindly legs met.  You can’t hardly kill an ST from the front, even with blasters, a painful lesson learned during the TIE Fighter factory battle.

The red triangle flashed, meaning both the STs and supporting Stormtroopers were in the kill zone, a mere hundred meters away.  I raised my hand, because using communicators was an invitation for a squadron of TIE fighters to ruin your day.  This time, we wanted them to use their communicators.  And they would, as soon as I dropped my hand.  The missileers fired.  No one knew anymore how – or even why – these things worked, hundreds of years after production, but they did.  Primitive rockets, guided by the reticles in the missiles’ tracking sights, did yeoman’s work.  A soft thump as air canisters shoved the missile out of the tube, then a low roar as the anti-armor missile’s rocket ignited.  We saw Stormtroopers’ heads and blasters turn towards the sound, but they were already too late.   Gajari hit the detonators, and mines exploded along the entire length of the Imperial patrol.  White armor plates, flesh, a pink bloody mist, and bone fragments flew in a hundred directions.  Then the missiles hit.  Then another missile on each ST, just to finish the job.  Their balancing gyros failed, and they fell helplessly and sideways to the ground.

I pumped my fist up and down next to my head, the signal to disperse quickly.  The men followed my order without hesitation.  Only Gajari and I stayed to observe the kill zone.  Once the explosions’ echoes stopped rippling through the canyons, the ambush site became as quiet as if someone pushed a button.  A faint screech overhead, then another.  But TIE fighters don’t just operate in pairs, they work in threes or a full squadron of twelve.  Tonight they didn’t disappoint.

Three surface to air missiles streaked upwards from the ridgeline to our left.  Three more from the right.  Two TIEs evaded, only to collide in midair, flaming pieces floating down between us and the Stormtrooper patrol.  Missiles struck three more, which left only one, trying to put a ridgeline between him and the SAMs.  Two ion-seeking missiles hit him at the same time.  Even the solar panels disintegrated, likely killing the pilot before he had a chance to eject.

I saw him through my thermal scope, in the top hatch of the first smoking ST.  A colonel, from the rank squares on his chest, a gray forage cap instead of a helmet.  He held a communicator to his face, the strain on his face as clear as daylight.  Blood ran down his face from a head wound – those always bleed worse than they actually are, but make for dramatic news holo-vids.  I turned off my scope, because the fires started by our ambush obviated the need for night vision devices.  Gajari and I gathered up our weapons and equipment, and headed to the kill zone.

Gajari started on the far right, guided by any movement illuminated by the burning STs.  His pistol, another projectile weapon instead of plasma, coughed loudly as he applied the coup de grace to wounded Stormtroopers and AT-ST crewmen.  I did the same on the left, and we met in the middle, where the colonel lay on a bed of bloody sawgrass.  Both his legs were gone below the knee, no risk of exsanguination because the explosions had cauterized the wounds.

The colonel was unarmed.  He tried to raise himself up on his elbows, but I planted a knee on his chest and looked down.  I resisted the urge to remove the clumsy helmet with its cumbersome face plate and voice changer – this one might yet survive, so why risk it?  “Attacks like this and the restaurant bombing last month will keep happening, until your kind dies or leaves.  This our world, Colonel.  Not yours.  If you live long enough to be debriefed, tell them that.”

Two days later, I saw a much different colonel in the shop.  The burns on his face were covered in New Skin, and his trouser legs were empty below midthigh.  This far out in the galaxy, I knew he’d have the schlep all the way to Coruscant to get decent prosthetics.  “How much,” asked the legless man in the hover chair.  I told him, and he let me scan his Imperial pay card.  I placed the fake Rebel Alliance flag in his lap, we exchanged a nod, and he scooted out the door.

“Get some of those rebels, Colonel.  It’s bad for business.”

He stopped and turned his chair.  “I’ll be back, and they’ll bleed.  Count on it.”

I flashed what I hoped was a cheery grin.  “Look forward to it.  See you around, then.”

The war continues.

Divorcing My Team

We lived in a two bedroom apartment on Staten Island in 1981.  My father, who had no time or patience for football, turned on the radio because it was a long drive to my parents’ friend’s house in Westchester.  Somehow, providentially, my dad settled on the Giants-Redskins game on the radio instead of “all news, all the time” 1010 WINS.  I remember being upset, because a classmate had offered me (probably unbeknownst to his dad) an extra ticket to Giants Stadium.  It was just as well that I couldn’t go, because we were on our way to dinner in Tarrytown.

I don’t remember specific plays from the game, but 36 years later, other aspects still stand out.  First and foremost, my father noticed my interest and didn’t change the station, as was his wont.  The news literally bored me to tears then, as it undoubtedly does with my children, who’ve learned to dread seeing “1010” on our car’s radio screen.  Secondly, the announcers made it sound like the Giants were being beaten up by a playground bully.  For a third grader who was routinely picked on by white kids – bullies – often to negative effect, rooting for the “wrong” team definitely had an appeal.  I couldn’t and would never be someone who would taunt and torment another, but I could at least cheer for football players who did.  I didn’t appreciate at the time that this was the collective rookie year for legendary Redskins like Joe Jacoby, Russ Grimm, Dexter Manley, and Darryl Grant.  I was witnessing the birth of the Hogs and didn’t even know it.

I became a Skins fan in my dad’s 1977 Granada on 15 November 1981.  That year, I finally also learned the secret to fighting: if you don’t show pain, and instead keep hitting until your opponent stops, you win.  The same could be said for the Hogs, that lovable heavy drinking group of offensive linemen who ran at defensive lines like road graders on asphalt.  70 Chip was, naturally, an early highlight for me.  As the eighties progressed, I became more and more of a diehard fan, even after we moved to Houston.  Full disclosure, I’ve been known to sing “Luv Ya Blue” at the old Astrodome, but it almost isn’t cheating if your hometown team and your actual team are in different conferences.  Being a Skins fan in Texas could have borrowed a line from one of my favorite books, Tales of the City.  It was Anna Madrigal’s “logical family” vice “blood family” – but with football, which was infinitely cooler.  When I started playing football myself, since I was too skinny to be a Hog, I wanted to be 81; Art Monk, not Ernest Givins.  For better or worse, my football career ended with high school, but my love of the game and that team did not.

My fandom flared like a white phosphorous shell when I attended GWU, and I held onto it as a vestige of home when I enlisted in the Army.  I’ve lived through two owners; countless general managers, head coaches, assistant coaches, and players.  I helped make the lower deck bleachers shake on the last game at RFK, freezing my butt off because my buddies and I were painted burgundy and gold from the waist up.  I happily suffered in traffic before and after home games at FedEx Field, and even more happily paid exorbitant prices for tickets.  As a waiter and bartender in DC in the mid/late 90s, I also had the pleasure of waiting on a good number of them.  Norv and Nancy Turner were 100% class, and it was an absolute pleasure to wait on them.  Out of curiosity, a YOLO if there ever was one, I even once asked a player if I could try on his Superbowl ring.  It was a monster, wide enough for two of my fingers, felt heavier than a .45 caliber pistol, and I was in football fan Nirvana.  I told the player his check was on me, because he’d given me a story I’d tell for years.

Then the doldrums started, first with the Ol’ Ball Coach and his noodle armed Florida quarterbacks.  I was never a fair weather fan, and had even survived the one Ritchie Pettibon-helmed trash fire of a season.  I suffered and exulted through Coach Gibbs’ return, and hoped against hope that Chris Cooley was the H-Back Messiah we’d needed since Doc Walker retired.  The cycle never seemed to end, and it was maddening to say the least.  We would win the offseason with a huge coach or player signing, then watch other teams in the playoffs because The Danny couldn’t keep his little fanboy mitts off of the football program.  Or, we’d make the playoffs, which would inevitably raise our expectations for the following season, when the team’s play would tear our hearts from our chest.  We would watch a bad defense undermine a good offense, or vice versa.  We would watch as less talented teams played meaningful games late in the season, while our boys in burgundy and gold played out the string.  Casserly.  Cerrato.  Allen.  McCloughan.  Allen again.  Who the hell was in charge?  Hopefully not the meddling fan masquerading as a billionaire team owner, but then, this was also the man who forced RG3 and his “why are they sacking me” look on us.

Two seasons ago, my son, then six years old, asked me what a redskin was.  I’d been watching highlights on my computer, and he knew of my friendly rivalry with his uncle the Giants fan.  I told my son it was a bad name for Native Americans, then watched while he absorbed the realization that “redskin” was as ugly and powerful an epithet as the N word, or chink.  While I, his Redskins-loving father, absorbed the same realization.

As a person of color myself, the hypocrisy of my former self, singing “Hail to the Redskins” after a touchdown suddenly became too much.  The duplicity of a minority cheering for a team that George Marshall forced to be the last in the NFL to integrate.  I had known that, but hadn’t truly internalized it until my son, in his innocence, challenged every football assumption I’d built over thirty-plus years.  Then my son hurt me.  He asked, wasn’t one of my friends from the military Native American?  Did that mean I was calling this friend a bad name too?

Ultimately, I’ve come to the realization that I can no longer be a fan of a team named after a slur.  As with the divorce that ends a long marriage, this is a painful dissociation.  I’ve been hoping and praying (surprising even me, considering my heartfelt agnosticism) that Snyder will come to his senses and change the name.  This would be a fabulous and overdue idea, but Snyder has shown nothing but cynical disregard for a name change.  Mike Carey and Phil Simms even refuse to say the team name.  I’ve tweeted about it, written unintelligible Facebook screeds about it, but until recently could never condense my thoughts into a coherent post until now, though nowhere as well as Mike Wise.  I feel like an alcoholic admitting his problem at a meeting.  I’ve known no other team, so I find myself unaffiliated for the first time since that long car ride with my parents.

I don’t begrudge those who continue to root for the Washington football team.  Truth be told, I’ll still follow them, albeit not as closely as in the previous 36 seasons.  But gone are my burgundy and gold hat, my Sean Taylor jersey, the 44 onesie I got for my son when he was an infant.  Just Dan, a guy who has loved football for years and will continue to do so, but without the baggage of cheering the Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons.

The Taxman

“Now my advice for those who die / Declare the pennies on your eyes”

Among a thousand wonderful lines in the Revolver album, this one always stood out, even as a teenager listening to his mother’s vinyl record.  Then, because miracles abound, Stevie Ray Vaughn recorded a cover that blew the original out of the water.

If you’ve followed me on Twitter for any length of time, you may have gotten a hint that I am not the President’s biggest fan.  You’d be correct, but I won’t belabor the point since I believe my Twitter timeline speaks for itself.  What has stuck in my craw almost since the moment he announced his candidacy are his obstinate refusal to disclose his taxes despite promising to do so (among myriad other promises) after the election; the imperial attitude that we lowly serfs needn’t worry ourselves with the finances of a president who sold his business acumen as all the experience he needed to run a country of 300 million people; disregarding this historic petition (full disclosure, I signed); and simply not giving a damn about this alarming poll.  Even his erstwhile helper gnomes at WikiLeaks pushed back against this broken promise.

On 29 January, the military executed the first publicized counter-terror attack of the Trump administration.  The raid on a purported Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) compound in Yemen resulted in the death of Chief Special Warfare Operator William Owens, and the loss of one MV-22 Osprey aircraft.  The President, as is his wont, took to Twitter to claim a great victory over terrorists.  Interestingly, he also took the time to attack those who questioned any aspect of the raid, from its inception, planning, execution, and the disturbingly high number of civilian casualties.  Silly me, but I never equated criticism of the mission, or its planning, with denigrating the immeasurable loss of Chief Owens.  If anything, I believe that we – as a military, as a society, as a country founded on morals – can and should do better.

Chief Owens, like over a million of his comrades in the American military, swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  More telling, the oath of enlistment, but not the oath of office, includes “I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the officers appointed over me.” (emphasis is mine)  When I was a young soldier, we had several officers and noncommissioned officers counseled about derogatory comments towards the new President, Bill Clinton, punishable under Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  One of the kinder things said about him at the time, at least to me, was why on earth did I vote for “that draft dodging dope smoker who hates us (the military).”

There appears to exist a similar rift in the force today, but now I see the lines drawn more starkly, between those who question President Trump’s policies vs. those who seem willing to blindly follow him.  Neither is a bad thing, necessarily.  Soldiers love clarity, in their government, those in charge of it, and that government’s policies.

What remains chilling is the lack of anything resembling clarity in this administration.  In light of President Trump’s refusal to release his taxes, and the business interests from which he has not been proven to divest, who can authoritatively say that future military action might not benefit the President’s business ventures in the Middle East?  Will my comrades, acquaintances, and friends, die so that the Trump Organization can turn a profit?  How would we even know without substantive proof to the contrary?

How can the nation’s commander-in-chief, a man who is a living breathing antithesis of the Army Values, be trusted when he orders another mission like Al-Bayda last month?  What will he tell the widow and orphaned children when Daddy died on a mission to protect a the Trump property in the Middle East?  I’m sorry for your loss, but here’s a comp weekend stay and meal vouchers for Mar a Lago?  Since it’s been proven that anything that affects the President’s businesses also affects him personally, wouldn’t the natural extension of our foreign policy be to protect those businesses from the UAE to Kuwait?  Our new Secretary of ExxonMobil State doesn’t seem like the kind of person who could implement a foreign policy not guaranteed to protect the President’s business interests.

I’ve been telling folks that, in some respects, I feel like I’m reliving the early 1990s.  As the 90s opened, I was just another protesting college student in Lafayette Park with a sign that said “No War For Oil.”  Regardless of anything then-President Bush said about how he wouldn’t “let this stand,” or that the coming war was about containing aggression (true, as it turns out), it was also ultimately about making sure oil continued to flow freely from the Arabian Gulf.

We all want to believe in something, to know that sacrifice is worthy and serves our country.  The sacrifice could be to depose a Panamanian strongman in an extreme interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine, contain an Iraqi dictator, or to secure food convoys for starving East Africans.  But now?  I don’t know.  I’ve attended a dozen funerals in the last 24 years and honor each sacrifice.  I mourn them.  I miss them.  We want the loss to stand for something, to be worthy of what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”

But without a fully transparent divestiture from the Trump Organization, without releasing his taxes, we can and will never be certain that future sacrifices will not be in vain.

The Defection

I was ten years old, going on eleven, and spending an idyllic summer in Korea with my maternal grandparents.  The highlights included a trip east to visit relatives who owned a rice farm – holy crap, that was some hard work, and being told by my great aunt to get some chickens from the coop for dinner; a visit to the Buddha statue at Soraksan; exploring the military displays on Yoido Island; handling an M16 rifle for the first time; and, of course, reconnecting with my heritage.

I learned Korean before English, but hadn’t spoken Korean since I was five.  This was, in part, a vain attempt to seem more “American” to white friends and not be seen speaking a language besides English.  Indeed, my mother’s biggest reservation about the trip had been the language barrier, but by the end of my second week, my dormant first language came back – albeit with an American accent that frustrates me to this day.  By the end of July, my Korean had improved enough for them to trust me to explore by myself.  My early addiction to Galaga started this summer, since one game only cost ₩50 (worth about a nickel in 1983), and the arcade was only two blocks from my grandparents’ building.

The only way I knew it was Sunday was because I’d had to dress up for the 11:00 Mass.  My maternal grandparents were sticklers for Mass, the ceremony and predictability of it, along with a priest who celebrated Mass in Latin as if Vatican II had never happened.  The absurdist side of me enjoyed the incongruity of seeing a Korean priest speak in Latin, but I digress.

After Mass came lunch at a two-table restaurant across the street, parishioners waiting in line for a bowl of buckwheat noodles in icy beef broth, then spending no more than a few minutes eating at one of the tables, so the next family could have its turn.  My grandparents walked home, so that my grandfather could begin his Sunday ritual of a nap, a beer, and three newspapers; I took off with two ₩1,000 bills in my pocket – that was twenty games of Galaga and a glass bottle of “cola,” a nondescript Coke clone.

I had come home to watch a baseball game, probably the Lotte Tigers because my grandfather was a fan, when the air raid sirens sounded.  At that time, air raid drills were held at least monthly, serious in purpose but treated like a passing nuisance like the Emergency Broadcast System here in the US.  I understood the broadcaster when he announced that this was not a drill.  Ten floors down, cars that rarely drove over 50 kph on the Ichon-ro thoroughfare were suddenly speeding and blaring their horns.  My grandmother got what I’d now call a bugout bag ready: clothes, food, money, and jewelry.  She told me to fill a bookbag with clothes, toiletries, and more food that she handed me.

Then Grandpa came into the master bedroom.  He wore the same deadpan, almost emotionless, expression that I still admire.  He went to the dresser where the sleeping mats and blankets were kept.  Inside a drawer under the pillows was a cheap wooden box.  My grandfather took the box out; from it came a Nambu Type 14 pistol, two magazines, a rag, and a box of ammunition.  He still hadn’t said anything, which unnerved me even more than the air raid sirens going off across the country.  He loaded the magazines, inserted one into the pistol but didn’t chamber a round, then put everything back in the box.  The box went into his bag.  Following the instructions given between air raid siren blasts, we took the stairs to the building’s basement.  My grandfather nodded at the building’s super, and everyone waited out the alert in a cavernous space I now see was being used for its intended purpose.  My grandfather had me sit between him and Grandma.  He put his bag down, but not before taking the box out and setting it on his knee.  Jet fighters patrolled overhead, their roar competing with the super’s transistor radio.

I remember finally crying after the all-clear sounded, a pent up release because everyone in that basement had been terrified of a North Korean invasion.  I remember how calm my grandparents had been throughout the air raid alert and shelter-in-place order.  The jet fighter noises abated, replaced by airliners using Namsan Tower as a marker before landing at Kimpo Airport.  It was a defection, Colonel Sun Tianqin simply turning east and hoping South Korea and freedom lay on the opposite side of the Yellow Sea.  Not, as feared, a precursor to a second Korean War.  We waited in that basement for the elevator and returned home; my grandparents put everything back in place as if it were just another Sunday.  My grandfather even began laying out his suit for the following day.  But first, he unloaded that pistol, hid the box again, and life went on as before.

About fifteen years ago, while researching a story for which I’ve only written scattered scenes, I came upon this nugget: Korean partisans along the Manchurian border were partial to the Nambu.  Ownership of one gave a partisan instant bona fides outside his normal operating area, because you had to kill a Japanese officer in order to steal his pistol.  Conversely, any partisan captured with a Nambu was summarily executed by the Imperial Japanese Army.  I’m no historian, and 34 years after Colone Sun’s defection I still don’t know the provenance of my grandfather’s pistol, but I do know he would have used it to protect me.  As he undoubtedly used it in the early 1940s to fight his way back to his family, and possibly during the early 1950s to protect his wife and daughters as they fled south.

Lesson learned: you never know how badass your taciturn grandfather was in his day, until you do a little digging.  I miss him.  I wish I could have gotten that story out of him before he passed, I bet it was a doozy.

Storify #7

If I’m not writing, which is sadly usually the case, I’m usually ranting on Twitter.  I can hear you now – duh, Dan, we know, we found this blog via Twitter.  Still, it is difficult as hell to get Storify tweet storms to cross-post here, so I won’t bother.  Come for the lede.  Stay for the tough love for younger veterans.

https://storify.com/danielmkim/your-entitlement-is-showing