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.