OCTOBER 2009 – NO. 36
The city of Seoul itself is a miracle, they tell me. Fifty-five years ago, when the American forces landed at Incheon, it was a bombed-out, burned-up shell. Today, it's the gorgeous center of the 14th largest economy in the world. My grandfather and other Korean veterans and I are here so they can "revisit" (the term the tour company uses) the place they once fought. Instead of machine guns and rucksacks with the name of the Company printed on them, today they carry canes and tote bags bearing the name of the tour company. This is not the same place, and they are not the same men.
We go to visit a military park. As we walk over the top of the hill, the veterans hesitate when they see the tanks. It's only for a second and they are not going to show it, but for a moment, they hesitate. We were told we were going to a park. I walk with my grandfather and the others towards the tanks. They examine them, and are thinking who only knows what about the last time they saw tanks in Korea. The tanks, vicious weapons, were coming towards them, coming to attack and kill, were filled with people who believed (or at least, they presume believed) different things that they did. I can see the veterans thinking and remembering. For some of them, it is clear that it is particularly painful. We round a row of tanks, and then we see them, sitting under the tanks. Once a source of terror, the tanks are now as harmless as an oak tree that gives shade. And sitting in the shade of the tanks are children laughing and eating a picnic lunch. My grandfather stops.
"Children", he says quietly.
"Yes …", I say, waiting.
"Look at them." he says. "Look." And he does and he is quiet for a long time. I just wait.
"The last time I was here," he starts, and then stops. "The last time that I was here, the children were naked. Sitting and standing and lying in the streets. Dressed in rags if they had any clothes at all. Not a one of them had shoes. They would go get periwinkles out of the river and suck the little things out, just to have something to eat. To keep from starving. And there was no way that we could help all of them. Now, just look at them."
We walk towards the children and they sit and look at us. Then they get up and walk to us. "Ello! Elllo!" they say in English they are obviously just learning at school. They are dressed in tiny matching school uniforms and have bright eyes and smiles. None of them are hungry, and the containers in front of them are full of food. They giggle at me as I try to say hello in Korean. They are happy and unafraid. They are exactly what everyone wanted for them to be. They don't realize how much they are helping, and I wish I had the words to tell them. I listen to them giggle and realize that the sound of children laughing sounds the same everywhere all over the world.
I watch my grandfather and the other veterans, and I see something I have not often seen before. I watch healing in the moment it occurs. I watch my grandfather come to understand that what he did here mattered, that his was a life that made a difference to other people. I see how genuinely happy he is to see the condition of the children now, and I understand how it must have broken his heart to see them the first time.
I also admire his bravery. Many people would not have been able to return to a place where they witnessed such atrocity. However, he came back, and it helped him. He has some closure now. He knows why he did what he did.
A year later, my grandfather appears to be in better health than he has been in years. In that moment, with those children, 50 years of doubt, pain, and uncertainty started to heal themselves.
Some people say that scars are forever and that they can't heal. However, I know now that this is not true in all cases because I watched it happen.
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