Thank you, Dr. Germany, for the kind and generous words of introduction.
I am truly honored to be given the opportunity to speak tonight. Nearly a year ago I was contacted about this Public Speakers Forum, Mind Alive. Reciting the credentials of my predecessors in the series, which duly impressed me, Dr. William Hildebrand, then in charge of the program, warned, “We may be retired but are all professionals.”
If he was concerned that I might underestimate the caliber of my audience, he needn’t have worried. I am well aware of the stellar achievements of many of you. Like Dr. Joseph Noble here, formerly Director of the New York Metropolitan Museum and a world renowned archeologist whose pioneering work has made the Easter Island Statues familiar to all of us. I was given to understand that he would be here but he wasn’t feeling quite up to it tonight. I am also personally acquainted with Dr. Shige Kondo, a distinguished physician, and Mrs. Kyoko Kondo, a talented origami artist and lecturer, both long residents here before they recently moved to Wellesley, MA, to be near their daughter. I also know the Nimitzes, Hank a long time executive with the power house AT&T. But his wife Carolyn deserves an even greater recognition for bringing up wonderful children, including a brilliant professor of geology and an award-winning architect. Every time we eat at Legal Sea Foods, Short Hills Mall, we feel the hovering spiritual presence of the elder Nimitzes, parents of the restaurant’s designer. We all went to the same church in town, Morrow Memorial Methodist, where my wife Young was Music Director until a couple of months ago. Lois Noble is a beautiful soprano. I know because she sang in my wife’s choir. So did Betty Sangre. Only recently did I discover that she and her husband, Rev. Charles Sangre, also live here at the Gardens. Whenever I talked to Charles in church I felt the glow of a true man of God. Although I haven’t met them personally, I also know about the Dorans, both eminent physicians, especially Barbara Noyes Doran, one of the few lady doctors of her generation, serving as a role model to the many to follow, like Susan Profeta, who has been our family doctor. Susan and her husband, Fred Profeta, reelected Mayor of Maplewood, are members of Morrow, too. And so are the Dorans, and many others, I understand. No wonder some people call this place the Wesley Gardens or Morrow No. 2. Actually, I thought Morrow was short for a Small World or the whole world when I met there Vickie and Raj Tatta, both alums from my alma mater, Bowling Green State University, Ohio. They were to be here tonight to give me moral support but a family emergency has kept them away. I salute Pastor Lee Van Rensburg for shepherding such a constellation of luminaries and regret not getting to know them all better during my membership. Being part of the choir, to which I belonged ex officio you may say, is conducive to close ties but also limiting, as we tend to stick together.
Here with us tonight are some of my friends from as far away as Edison and Franklin Lakes but mostly Maplewood, Morrow, especially its Chancel Choir, whom I had the temerity to invite. Because after only four years of her music ministry my wife had to resign and I wanted to make this a formal farewell, to express our love for them, our regret for having to part. They also happen to be people of outstanding achievements, so much so that you may think we are awful snobs. If wishing to know and befriend good, generous, hard-working achievers is snobbery, I will gladly own up to the charge any time. They have all gone out of their way to accept me and my wife into their midst, making us feel welcome and at home, to the point of forgetting that we are outsiders after all who stick out because of our looks, speech, and mannerisms. One of them must be mentioned, Trudy Skade, matriarch of Maplewood, Summit, nay, the whole state, the whole union, who needs no separate introduction. As elderly as any of you she must find an outing like this a chore but she was kind enough to make the effort. I thank you, Trudy.
Regardless whether I mention you by name or not, regardless of your church affiliation, residents and guests, I know and have heard great things about all of you. We are where we are today because of the exemplary lives you have lived, the good works you have done, to make life better for Maplewood, America, and the world.
The Winchester Gardens has always struck me as an elite community of the wise, loving and caring. You do not just sit back and watch the parade of life go by with detachment and amusement, though you could. You bring your knowledge, experience, and influence to bear on current issues from time to time, lest the young and incumbent should err irretrievably. I admire you for staying connected and getting involved. In fact such was my admiration that at one time I even contemplated residency here. Though many years your junior I have been a senior for some time technically as the Social Security Administration defines the term, in spite of my youthful looks. Or am I deceiving nobody but myself? I certainly hope not, at least for my wife’s sake, who won’t have it said that she lives with a senior citizen. A firm believer in the metamorphic power of color, she religiously dyes my hair every month, brutally subduing my screams and flailings. She may have a point, though. You may be surprised how easily animals, including humans, can be fooled, blessed though they may be with eyesight, so keen and precise that sometimes we wonder if it is not a copy of divine intelligence. I was watching an Animal Planet show. On a known trail of lions a group of scientists set up a dummy lioness. Along comes a pride, the dominant lion jealously herding his harem. Upon sighting the dummy, the lord of the pride perks and prances right up to it to try a few amorous moves, before breaking away, still reluctant and unconvinced. With uncontested and frequent access to his warm-blooded, real lionesses, he should know better, we would expect. But apparently that was not the case. So you may try dyeing your hair some youthful, alluring color, and I mean not just the ladies but the gentlemen, too, unless you dismiss the whole idea as silly and beneath your dignity.
I am a retiree, too. I was on the English faculty at the University of Hawaii for 17 years before I took early retirement to write. I have a few books to my credit, and have brought some copies, just in case. Though not best sellers, they have attracted some academic notice and led to invitations to speak at various campuses, including Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, Rutgers, George Washington, Stony Brook, NYU, University of Maryland, UC Berkeley and UCLA, not to mention other schools and civic groups.
I came to this country in 1965 at the age of 27, for my Ph. D. in English and got it in 1969, which took some doing, especially because I had no undergraduate degree in English, not that a Korean BA in English would have been a match for an American one. I had graduated from law school but instead of practicing law in Korea I went every which way, on impulse. Naturally, I blame the times, war and its aftermath, dictatorship, corruption, military government, lack of guidance by an authority figure like my father who died in the first year of the war, everything and anything but my own instability and lack of character, not to mention intelligence. The last job I held in Korea was reporter for an English daily, Korea Times, when Bowling Green State University, in its infinite wisdom, discernment, and daring, took a gamble and gave me a teaching fellowship in English, along with enrollment in the doctoral program. I taught at a few other universities before getting tenured at the University of Hawaii, thanks to the articles I churned out in the publish or perish atmosphere of academia at the time. Below this seemingly sheltered, serene, studious surface flows an undercurrent of turgidity and turbulence, some aspects of which are depicted in my stories, necessarily fictionalized to avoid serious consequences like lawsuits or divorces. So before I put my foot in my mouth any deeper I had better focus on what is undoubtedly uppermost at the moment in both our minds, my wife’s and mine, the wrenching sorrow we feel, the sorrow of the eternal wanderer, at having to leave Maplewood and Morrow, in particular, which my wife considered at one time her ultimate vocation. I remember her writing to the church’s search committee, as she was getting hired four years ago. She said she believed all her life had been a preparation for her music ministry at Morrow, where she wished to serve for the rest of her life. I also saw the hand of God pointing us to Maplewood as our final destination. Our coming here coincided with 911.
Before we bought a house in Maplewood, my wife was still commuting from our Manhattan apartment. Had she not started working for Morrow just a few weeks before 911, at precisely the time the hijacked planes hit the towers she would have been at the PATH train station in the World Trade Center to go to another church in Jersey City where she worked before coming to Morrow. At the time of the attack I too would have been on a subway train arriving at the Chambers Street station, directly under the towers, for an appointment at City Hall, except my alarm had failed that morning and I had overslept.
One of the first sad duties my wife had to perform at Morrow was therefore a funeral service for one of its members killed in the 911 attack, Doug Cherry, Vice President of Aeon Insurance, with his office on the 92nd floor of the South Tower. By the way Sarah Cherry, his widow, and Emma and Isabel, his daughters, are here at my invitation. Thank you Sarah, Emma, and Isabel for coming. I know it’s painful to go over this but your tragedy is our tragedy and has bound us together. Let’s give them a big hand. Shortly after the North Tower got hit, Doug called Sarah on his cell phone because the phone lines had all been knocked out to tell her he was okay. With more reassurances he was ringing off, when she saw on TV, unbelieving, another plane slice into the side of his tower, a puff of smoke blowing out the windows. Frantically she tried to call him back on the cell phone to no effect, until she watched with horror the North Tower implode in a thick column of black smoke, soon followed by its twin. His body was among the handful recovered and identified, which seemed like a favor, compared to the thousands of others who had nothing, not even a piece of their loved ones. The church was grateful that he was the only victim among its thousand strong membership. The commuter parking lot by the town’s train station had several cars parked and left unclaimed after two weeks, something that had never happened in the town’s recorded history. But this was eclipsed by Summit, which reported no fewer than 20 unclaimed vehicles.
The Cherry family funeral touched our family directly. Not only because Young, church organist and music director, had to take care of all the music for the service, but because Andrew got involved, my youngest son and a college junior at the time. The bereaved family wanted him to play the same hymn arrangement of Come Thou Fount of All Blessings he had played on the violin for the last Sunday service before returning to school after summer vacation. Doug Cherry had loved it and talked about it warmly afterwards. During the church picnic at the town park a week before he sought us out and told us his appreciation. Actually, the whole church had been “blown away” by Andrew’s performance, according to our friends. He had been a fine musician since he was 6, an award-winning violinist and pianist. In the spring of 2001 his MIT Orchestra had toured Europe, with him as soloist. His heart was in music but we had pressured him to go to MIT, so he would qualify for a more solid profession that would enable him to work at places of power like the World Trade Center. Andrew was going to miss a whole day of important classes in finance and management, his major, but he consented the moment he heard of the request, and flew down from Boston and flew back.
The sanctuary was packed with the largest crowd in its history. The whole town turned up, as well as the church and Cherry family and Doug’s colleagues from Manhattan. Not an eye was left dry as the service progressed, especially when Emma Cherry, the oldest of three, went up to the altar to say a few things about her father. At once I saw myself as Emma, for I, too, had been the oldest of, in my case, four, when my father died. She said what a loving, kind, and sensitive father Doug had been. So was my father. Doug was only 38, a rising star in his profession. So was my father, except he had been even younger, 32, when cut down by untimely death. How sad to die so young! My eyes fogged. My wife could barely go on playing the organ, blinded by tears. Andrew was still dabbing his eyes, even as people came up to him to thank him. Soon I shook myself from the somewhat maudlin identification of Doug Cherry with my long dead father, as I was gripped anew by fear: any one of my family could have been Doug Cherry. As I said earlier, it could have been Young or me, or any of our children, especially my son-in-law who works at Goldman Sachs, his office only blocks away from ground zero. We were all in it together. My heart went out and embraced every mourner who came to the service as my own brother and sister. This was my family, my church, and this was my home, my town.
Why, then, are we leaving Maplewood, where we have formed deep and lasting bonds with so many dear and beautiful people, intellectually stimulating, personally interesting, inspiring, and where Young found her work professionally satisfying, if demanding? We have to move to Honolulu. The Kondos went to Wellesley to be near their child but in our case we want to live with parents, Young’s parents. Ever since her father had a massive stroke earlier this year, which erased half of his memory, my wife had not been herself. Her heart broke when she heard that he cried whenever her name was mentioned in his hearing. He has since made a remarkable recovery and flew here with his wife from Honolulu for a visit, because they could be here quicker than we could be there. To our dismay, however, he missed the sun and warmth of Hawaii the moment he arrived. We bought him long Johns, sweaters, windbreakers, scarves, but he disdained their bulkiness. We turned up the heaters, but he wanted to open all the windows. To divert him we imaginatively scheduled outings and trips day after day, but as soon as the novelty wore off, he said he was not for these northern latitudes and importuned us to send him back. After only a month we had to give in and let them go, though the original plan called for their stay until we sold the house, so we could return to Hawaii together, doing a leisurely cross-country drive with stops at all the great national parks. It was sad to see the ravages of time: no one could recognize in him the spry former Chief of Chaplains for the Korean Air Force, a charismatic preacher to congregations of thousands. While with us he often lost the way to his room and our house is not all that big. We couldn’t let him out for a walk by himself. He needed constant attention, which Young was happy to supply, fetching him things, repeating the same stories or instructions ad infinitum, pampering and spoiling him rotten. Half the time I thought he was faking. I would, if I were him, to be waited on hand and foot by a doting daughter. But such impious thoughts quickly gave way to gratitude and joy. I had never seen Young so happy, talking her head off, laughing, singing, humming, fluttering about like a carefree bird. With her parents around the house, she seemed enveloped by the illusion that she was a little girl of nine or ten, as if time had stood still, not a mother, nay, a grandmother of 5.
But it’s not just for the beneficial effect he had on my wife that I valued his presence. I was grateful for his very being. Because I could see my own father in him. In fact, all of you, my venerable elders here, are reincarnations of my father, and to see you is to ease the acute pangs of loss I still experience from time to time. Your children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and loved ones are lucky to have you around, in a great supportive environment here at the Gardens.
I want to take you back fifty-five years, to June 1950, in Korea. A month before I had been admitted by tough entrance examination to Gyunggi Middle School in Seoul, ranked the best academically in the whole country. In Korea, perhaps in the whole of Asia, with its teeming populations, the Darwinian process of selection begins rather early, at middle school and now at elementary or even preschool, I hear. I am not sure whether that’s a good idea in the long run, though. My feeling is that the kids burn out and become motiveless by the time they get to college or afterwards, when the real work of life should begin in earnest. But so much for my philosophy of education.
Back to my middle school. My heart swelled and my father had great plans for me, as we talked often and long about my school work, world affairs, religion, politics, finance. Listening to me gravely, as if I were his equal, he gave serious, reasoned reply. We were close. I still vividly remember our discussion of moving the capital from Seoul about 100 miles south to Gongjoo. After establishing the military, economic, social, and political necessity for such a move, we worked on the logistics in great detail. Do you know that the Korean government has recently announced the projected move of the capital to the same site, Gongjoo, exactly along the Pak blueprint worked out 55 years ago?
On Sunday, June 25, 1950, North Korea, armed with Soviet-made tanks and guns, attacked across the width of the peninsula, taking South Korean and its ally US forces by surprise. The communist advance was swift and unstoppable. Within days the capital fell. It was a whole new world. Giant portraits of Stalin and Ilsung Kim hung everywhere announcing Communist victory. So began the first 90-day occupation of Seoul, a period of hunger and terror to those who had some money, education, or position, automatically branded “reactionaries” to be eliminated. My father went into hiding, but at one point he had to break cover and come home. He had to take some valuables to barter for rice across the river, because we had been starving, his wife and four children, me, 12, the oldest, and an infant the youngest. There was plenty of food for those who worked for the new rulers. In fact, partying went on day and night next door at the Hans. Mr. Han, who we all thought was some kind of traveling salesman because of his frequent absences, turned out to be a big wig in the new regime. My father’s food mission was lucky the first time but not so the second time. Captured, he was tortured and passed out from a blow to his head, what you may call severe blunt head trauma. Coming to during an air raid that had scattered his captors, he escaped and hid in a cave in the hills behind our village. I carried food to him eluding Communist sentries and spies.
The US Fifth Air Force flew their daily sorties of destruction from their bases in Japan and the sixteen-inch guns of the Seventh Fleet, anchored off the west coast of Korea, pounded away, dumping so many tons of TNT per acre on Seoul. Saturation bombing, it was called, the next best thing before the advent of smart bombs. The city burned day and night, night and day, until nothing remained but rubble and cinder. To prevent the populace from getting accurate war news the Communists confiscated radios and prohibited listening on pain of instant execution. But we hid ours and listened, under a thick blanket. From these broadcasts we learned that MacArthur’s Marines had landed at Inchon, but they seemed to take their time.
When I went up to the cave one day, Father complained of a wracking headache. I walked three miles to a pharmacist and, parting with the precious cash, bought twenty aspirin tablets. To my amazement he poured out and popped the whole lot into his mouth. That brought him no relief. In fact, he felt worse and wanted to go home that evening. I objected, pointing out that the Communists, carrying out last-minute roundups and reprisals, might raid our house.
“It makes no difference whether I die here or at home,” he said, gasping from the stabs of his headache.
“Don’t say such a thing, Dad,” I said, telling him it would soon pass.
“No, not this one,” he whispered, clutching his head in his hands.
I half carried him to the house. Almost immediately he became bedridden and tongue-tied, losing the faculty of speech. Then he started hiccuping. We did everything, turned his head, shifted his position, poured water down his throat, but the terrible hiccups continued, until he stopped breathing. My younger brother, an internist now in Los Angeles, who was then only three and doesn’t remember a thing, diagnoses the case as extra-cerebral edema. Blood pools under the skull, exerting pressure on the brain. When the build-up is rapid, blood can shoot out of the eyes, nose, or ears, killing the victim instantly, which wasn’t the case with my father, thank God. But even when slow, its unchecked progress is just as deadly, as it shuts down one vital function after another. However, treatment is possible, if done in time, by drainage through a hole or cutout in the skull known as trepanning or craniotomy. With no competent or timely medical help around my father died, a 32-year-old college professor and oil industry consultant, who everybody thought would go places. Miraculously, my fatherless family of five survived, but not unscathed. The Korean War left our people hateful and mean. I couldn’t take it any more. I had to get out of Korea and come to the US.
But there was a more positive attraction that pulled me irresistibly toward America. A US battalion was camped at our village, after driving the North Korean units into the hills. Having heard of the GI’s generosity I composed an English sentence describing my family’s desperate need for food. I had learned the English alphabet just a few months before. My head ringing with the memorized appeal, I set out in search of my potential saviors. I didn’t have to go far. On the grass by the roadside just outside the village sat a squad of GI’s eating their C-rations. I went near and stood, watching them, eyes blurring with tears of despair as no word rose to my lips, though I tried and tried to utter the prepared text. Then one of them looked up. There was the briefest eye-contact. He tossed me a can of pork and beans. I caught it and without even thanking him ran to my starving family, crying. We could be cynical about this gesture of the GI’s and say that he did what he did more out of annoyance than compassion, to get rid of me, that the 8-ounce can of pork and beans is the least appetizing entree in the generally unpalatable survival kit, known as C-rations. In fact, I don’t touch the stuff now. But at that critical moment that soldier had shown more humanity, done more for my family than President Syngman Rhee or the whole lot of my fellow countrymen. Right then and there I made up my mind to come to America, the home of this good man who cared.
It took me 15 years to attain that goal. For the last 40 years in the States I have asked every Korean War veteran I met when and where they had been in Korea during the war, hoping to run into my American soldier, but had no luck to date. I want to repeat the question here tonight, hoping to get lucky and meet my pork and beans benefactor. If any of you venerable gentlemen are a Korean War veteran, do you remember fighting in the northeastern outskirts of Seoul in September 1950? Well, I am used to disappointment. From time to time the thought of him comes to me, unbidden, with wistful sadness. I certainly thought of him when I gave a speech entitled, A Tribute to an Unknown American Soldier, at a Veterans Day Ceremony in a town nearby a few years ago at the invitation of the local Daughters of American Revolution. In fact, every Veterans Day is to me a day of remembrance for this blond, blue-eyed soldier, which is all I remember about him, whose name I never learned. Most likely he was killed in the next campaign in the Jungnung Hills near our village where the Communist forces, hard pressed, fought back ferociously, causing many American casualties. I sincerely hope he did survive it, survive the Korean War, and come home to his loved ones, to live to ripe old age in a healthy, safe, and beautiful town like Maplewood, worshiping in a church like Morrow, enjoying tranquility and contentment, so well deserved, among fellow Arcadians as here at the Gardens.
It breaks our hearts to leave Maplewood and Morrow, where we thought we had finally found a place to put down our roots never to move, where we thought we would bury our bones. It is in a real sense our second immigration. But it is not at all like the first one, our exit from Korea.
I left Korea, enthusiastically, decisively, with no backward glance. Brutalized by the Korean War, the most vicious of all civil wars, most of my generation were disenchanted with our native land. Eagerly we came to America, not so much to head out to a new world as to escape from Korea, their prison. Like jail breakers scaling the wall not caring what lay on the other side, they jumped into the unknown, chanting the mantra for America the beautiful, land of freedom, equality, and opportunity.
Now, after 20, 30, 40 years of voting citizenship, of determined but often futile efforts at assimilation and integration, they know better, the facts of life, boundaries, fences, ceilings. That’s why some 90% of Korean American families, according to a statistic, go to church, Korean church. Not because they are particularly religious or God-fearing but because they have to fill the void, the need, the social instinct, as imperative as any other human drive, to share and bond, to soothe their bruised egos, as a reaction and defense against exclusion from mainstream America. Actually quite a few of these Korean American churches are getting to be mega-churches, like Bethany United Methodist in Wayne or Pioneer Community in Norwood, boiling over with zeal, sizzling with fervor. When a Korean meets another Korean, the first question they ask, sanguinely, eyes dancing with hopes of recruitment, is “What church do you go to?,” meaning of course a Korean church. After a few evasive attempts Young and I finally disclose that we go to Morrow, that she is its Music Director. Stunned, they stare at us, as if we had spoken in Martian. With the least encouragement we reel off Morrow’s century-old history, its beautiful neo-Gothic architecture, and above all its educated, professional membership with musical sophistication unmatched anywhere. Turning up their noses, they shoot back, “Bet they are stuck-up racists?” Our answer is, “But they have hired her.”
In Maplewood and Morrow we have experienced no indignities of racism, especially the anti-Asian variety that some Korean Americans speak of elsewhere, as incongruous here as the odor of unwashed sheets in a five-star hotel suite. We felt part of the mainstream, felt that we had arrived. Actually America as a whole deserves a lot of credit. No other people have done more soul-searching over the race issue than Americans from the very beginning of their nationhood through the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement. No other nation has a Martin Luther King Day and we Asians are extremely lucky to be the beneficiaries of the long tumultuous, traumatic relationship between white and black America. We may in fact be the welcome third element, the arresting oddity, that gives everyone pause, to step back and take stock. Even more will be asked of America in the years to come, as it assumes moral leadership for the narrowing but intolerant world, for Kosovo, Rwanda, the Middle East, and other flash points. To this global challenge America will rise splendidly as Big Brother upholding loftier principles and ideals. I feel Maplewood has been at the forefront of this heightened awareness of America, this commitment to global moral leadership.
Margaret Prentice is here. Thank you. I know you had to rush from another important function. She took me to a meeting of the South Orange and Maplewood Coalition on Race. From beginning to end I was electrified by the sense of mission infusing the entire group, very much representative of the community at large.
But people of Maplewood are not just graced by nobility of sentiment, adorned by eloquence of expression. They live and act their convictions. From the moment we came here Young and I have been blessed with an outpouring of genuine friendship. Many have taken us into confidence, to their homes, to their clubs, opening up to the point of vulnerability. Basically loners outside our own immediate families, we haven’t had real friends until we came here. Their unreserved acceptance of us, products of Korea, ineluctably, unmistakably, no matter how much we rail and fight against it, has opened my eyes to my identity.
You cannot extend yourself to others, unless you are faithful to yourself, true to your heritage. My previous antipathy to Korea has mellowed to a point of tolerance. I can now accept my countrymen, take them for what they are, what they can do. It infuriates and disgusts me to see Korea the only country still divided. All they have to do is up and shake hands all around and be done with dumb saber rattling. There is no external power to stop them or to blame, not Russia, not China, not Japan, and certainly not America. Yet they are still dragging their feet, butting their heads across a DMZ, the last functional relic of the Cold War.
But I forgive them. I’ll forgive them even if they fail to unify before I die. In fact these days I am smitten more than ever with longing for my homeland of long ago, for its music, language, smells and accents, for the bubbly, gregarious, fun-filled people, all those memories, even the bitter ones. Maybe it is you with your outreach and globalism, anchored in your love of home and country, your humanity and perspective, that have led us to the painful decision to relocate to Hawaii, midway between Maplewood and Korea.
Thank you, Dr. Germany, for the kind and generous words of introduction.