“PAH-KOO-RAH! PAH-KOO-RAH!” Tom yelled at the red lights to change as we drove to my dance class. At nine years old I didn’t understand the sounds of Korean. When I was raving through the house, hyper, bored and anxious for dinner he would quiet me with, Shee-koo-rupt-tah (too much noise). Sometimes I snooped through his briefcase to find linear drawings on Post-its in his daily planner. When written out, the language looks like graphite scratches of boxes, horizontal L’s and K’s with short, crossed lines that look like fractions, all over a zero denominator.
Tom said, “Someday, when you’re older I’ll tell you about Korea,” and it made me wonder who he’d been before us.
Every mention of Korea changes the wrinkles on Tom’s face. They iron out and then re-form. They crash together like the plates under the earth, or tensions between north and south. Every day Tom reads the newspaper, front to back, with his coffee while smoking Winstons, and making his grocery list in Hangul.
My brother Brian never asked about Korea. I think my mother considered it part of Tom’s old life, but I knew he still carried it with him. I found an ammunition box in the basement with a few creased pictures, his faded passport, and other musty military memorabilia I didn’t understand.
I started small at ten years old trying to find English words in the Korean sounds, “Onion-hi-say-you” (hello), or “Eat a guy – bayou” (goodbye). Tom was patient, rolling the sounds around in his mouth and spitting them out so I could see. He introduced new words as our lives became more and more entwined. When I turned eleven, and twelve, and thirteen he made my favorite birthday dinner without any reminder and hollered up the stairs when it was ready, “Hannah Rose! MO-GO-RAH!” (Come eat).
Almost twenty years later on the front porch of our vacation beach house, listening to the waves and smoking Winstons after the rest of the family had gone to bed, I probed Tom’s memories about his time in Seoul.
With the day’s paper rolled up between us containing the latest news about threats to America, and the 28,000 troops currently stationed in South Korea, Tom told me about his first marriage. He was just 22 years old and planned to bring his new wife with him to South Korea. He said it was the best year of his life.
Before he was deployed General Park Chung-Hee was assassinated and the Korean people were jolted. It was no longer safe to relocate significant others. He didn’t see her for over a year. They divorced.
Like marriage, national security, raising teenagers and politically correct responses to uncomfortable questions: the situation is highly complex and sensitive. He was sent to a base on top of a hill. Buried in the hill underneath the modules were explosives. He had to learn 100 Korean words every day. In storage containers the size of school buses filled with radio and computer equipment Tom spent hours a day translating Korean radio transmissions.
Both my brother and I were on the brink of our worst adolescent years when Tom told my mom, “Sometimes I don’t know who I love more. You, or those kids.” Tom married my mother when he was 44 years old. He said it was better than being 22.
He kissed me goodnight and said, “Tahng-shee-noon-sa-dahm-hum-nee-dah.” We practiced this phrase every night.
“No. Listen, tahnng, tahnng…” I watched his tongue draw a line in his open mouth from behind his top teeth to his bottom teeth.
“Th-own shee noo—”
“Tong shee noon…” He started the phrase.
“Sah- daham-humn-ee-dah,” I finished it.
We said “I love you” in Korean one syllable at a time, over and over again until the foreign language and this new man became natural to me.
Hannah Rose is a recent graduate of CCSU with a quick wit, a big heart, and an elastic mind. She still shakes when she reads aloud and writes her drafts in notebooks with black pen; never blue. She recently wrote for The Mark Twain House & Museum and is currently a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine.
Originally published in the FALL 2018 edition of the Helix.