Suddenly Richie Davis wanted to be my friend. He was the neighborhood bully, at once my nightmare and my secret idol. Bigger and tougher than any other kid at Blackstone Elementary, every child in the neighborhood feared Richie — and wanted to be just like him. He had punched me and bitten me, he had spat on me, pulled my pants down, shoved me into a puddle, pushed me into a snow bank. He had pelted me with ice balls, tripped me, commandeered my scooter and broken it, ridiculed my clothes, my haircut, my name. He had turned a hose on me, swiped my Popsicle, stolen my lunch. And he had called me a dirty Jew and a Christ killer.
Now he wanted to be my buddy.
I was seven and I knew something strange was going on, something was wrong if Richie was being nice to me. But I also knew that if Richie was my friend, nobody else would bother me. Harold Kaufmann and the other guys who worshipped Richie would stop picking on me. Better to be Richie's friend, I reasoned, than his enemy.
"Let's be buddies," Richie said, resting a forearm on my shoulder.
"Buddies?" I responded.
"Friends. You and me."
Mom had always said to avoid Richie, but if I refused now, he’d surely punch me in the face. Or worse.
"Okay, buddies," I said.
"Good!" he said, smiling. We shook hands, and I turned to go. It wouldn't do to have Mom look out the window and see me with Richie.
"Hey, I've got a nickel to spend at the store," he said, and held out his hand to show me. "You like ice cream?"
Ice cream! I loved ice cream, but Mom gave it to us only on birthdays and special occasions. It was a warm summer day; suddenly I was almost crazed with ice cream lust.
"How about an Eskimo Pie?" offered Richie. "Vanilla ice cream with chocolate outside."
"Okay," I said, marveling at my good fortune.
"Where'd you get that cane?" asked Richie as we walked toward the store.
"My uncle gave it to me," I said.
There were two canes, gifts from Mom’s favorite sibling. Uncle Duke was a furrier. He had a factory in the State and Lake Building downtown and lived in a big house in the suburbs. Every summer, when business was slow, he took Aunt Marge on vacation. This year they brought us souvenirs wooden canes from Mexico: one for me and one for Freyda, my big sister. Each was carved with pictures of wild animals — monkeys, lions, camels, and elephants — but her cane, longer and thicker, was bright red, yellow, and green. Mine was of dark wood, more delicate. Richie took it from me, whipped his arm and wrist, smiting air, listening to the swoosh.
"I need a cane like this," said Richie.
"You could have that one," I said.
"I want the other one," Richie said. "The colored one."
Freyda and I were playing with our canes on the stoop earlier, before Richie stopped to talk to me.
"That belongs to my sister."
"I want that one," Richie said. "I don't want this brown one."
Surely no kid in our neighborhood had ever seen anything so beautiful, so different and exotic as Freyda's cane.
"I'll ask her," I said. Maybe Freyda would swap with me. I started thinking of reasons that I could give her, but it was hard to concentrate. All I could think about was ice cream, the delicious cold on my tongue.
"Don't be all day," said Richie, scowling. "Or I'll give the ice cream to someone else."
I found Freyda in the kitchen with Mom, peeling carrots and potatoes. She had just celebrated her tenth birthday and Mom said that she could start learning how to cook. I wanted to help, too, but Mom said I was still too young.
"You know those canes that Uncle Duke gave us?" I began.
"What about them?" snapped Freyda, instantly on guard.
"Would you trade with me?"
"Because," I started, and stopped. I couldn't tell her that Richie wanted the cane. I couldn't say that he’d promised me ice cream if I gave it to him. Freyda would have demanded the ice cream or told Mom that I was hanging around with Richie.
"You have your own cane, why do you need mine?" Freyda asked.
"I want to trade. This one is brown, like your hair," I said, lamely. "Anyway, this is a girl's cane," I asserted, holding it aloft to show her how slender and curvy it was.
"You keep yours, I'll keep mine."
I went downstairs and told Richie that he couldn't have Freyda's cane.
"Are we buddies?" he asked, his hand again on my shoulder.
"Do you want that ice cream?"
"Then get me the other cane," he said.
I went back upstairs and tried to read a library book, but all I could think about was ice cream. Then Ila, the baby, needed her diaper changed, while Teddy, who was three, was ready for his nap in the room we shared. Mom sent Freyda to the store while she fussed over the babies. I crept into Freyda's room, found her cane, tiptoed out the door and down the stairs. I hid behind the building, my heart thumping wildly, until Freyda came out of the store with a grocery bag. When she was in the stairwell, I dashed across the street and into the store where Richie waited.
Richie took the cane and I selected a chocolate-dipped delicacy from the freezer case. He gave the grocer a nickel. Outside on the sidewalk, I took a tiny bite.
Richie snatched the bar away. "Ain't ya gonna share your ice cream with your buddy?" he said, and took a big bite.
"Okay," I said, and he took another bite. Then another. And another.
"That's my ice cream!" I protested.
"Sure," he returned. "We're buddies now, and I'm sharing." Gnawing greedily, Richie walked away, threw the stick into the street and ran off, twirling the cane.
The enormity of my crimes washed over me. My heart sank. I had sold my friendship. I had stolen my sister's property. I had given it to someone whom Mom had forbidden me to associate with. Dad would whip me with his leather belt.
I hid under the back stairs, contemplating one wild idea after another. I would run away, find a job. I would break into Richie's house and steal the cane.
I would — I would wait until Dad got home, and face the music, as he liked to put it. I would sleep on my tummy that night, if I slept at all.
The sun was warm and my throat was dry. I didn’t want more ice cream. I wanted water and then I wanted the earth to swallow me.
When I came through the door, Freyda pointed an accusing finger and wailed about her cane. Mom swatted me, twice.
"Wait until your father gets home!" she shrieked. Go to your room!"
Dad never threatened. He just removed his belt and told me how many times he was going to hit me. He made me take my pants down and counted the strokes aloud. Waiting for the next blow was nearly as bad as getting hit.
And so I waited, knowing that I was very bad, that Dad would be very angry and hit me very hard.
Time slowed. Half an hour became an eternity.
Eventually Dad came in. "Did you take your sister's cane?" he said.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Was it right to take that cane? Is that what I've taught you?"
"No," I sobbed. Dad gave me five strokes, each more painful than the last.
"This hurts me almost as much as it hurts you," he said. When I stopped crying, he asked why I took Freyda’s cane. I told him about Richie and the ice cream and that I got only one bite before he snatched it away.
"Richie should return the cane," he said. "Let's go see Mr. Davis."
Mr. Davis was a big man who spent most days in a tavern. He was even meaner than Richie. If Dad talked to him, I was sure Richie would beat me up.
"But Daddy, if you tell Mr. Davis that Richie has to give the cane back, won't he get mad at you?"
"Then let him be mad. He has to know how his boy took that cane from you. And that it was wrong."
The rancid odor of boiled cabbage oozed through the doorway as Mrs. Davis opened up. "He ain’t here," she said, in reply to Dad’s question.
"What about Richie?"
"Both’r down the corner, maybe."
There was a saloon on the corner. Richie liked to loiter on the sidewalk in front, pitching pennies and sneaking cigarettes.
Dad walked me to our building and told me to go upstairs.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"To find Mr. Davis," he said, gently pushing me inside.
An hour later he came back with the cane.
It had been snapped in two; the wood on either side of the break was jagged. Mom shot Dad an inquiring look, and he shook his head and said something in Yiddish that I didn't understand.
"What did you learn from this, Mordechai Yankel?" he asked me.
"That I shouldn't steal from Freyda."
"You shouldn't steal from anyone. And about Richie, what did you learn?"
"That he's a bad boy and I should stay away from him."
Dad hugged me and I saw the ugly, purpling welt on the side of his neck where Mr. Davis had broken Freyda's cane.
"Does it hurt?" I asked, gently touching the spot. He flinched.
"It was in a good cause: I learned something."
"When Richie acts like a bully, he’s imitating his father. When he grows up, he'll probably be just like Mr. Davis. Too bad."
With tiny screws, a little glue and paint, Dad made Freyda's cane seem almost new. It took a while before our sibling relationship was similarly mended. Long before my sister forgave me, however, I came to important decisions: If Richie was destined to grow into another Mr. Davis, then he could never be my friend. I still feared him, but my admiration had vanished as quickly as he’d eaten my ice cream bar.
And when I grew up I would not become a bully and a drunk like Mr. Davis. I would be brave and honest like my father.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
If there really were lots of books at the library, as Mom had told me, and if I could borrow them to read, then I could carry more of them home if I put them in my wagon. That was why I left my battered Radio Flyer, with its peeling red paint and rusted axles, next to the door. It was July, but inside it was cool, like the movie theater where my sister Freyda sometimes took me on Saturday afternoons, and as Mom had promised, there were books everywhere.
Behind a huge desk sat an old woman in a long, flowery skirt. "Is it true that I can borrow books?" I said, when she looked down at me.
"Do you have a library card?" she asked, in a tone of voice that made me feel as though I had violated some terrible taboo.
"No," I said, turning to go, fighting back tears over my long walk down the scalding sidewalks of unfamiliar streets.
"Just a minute," she said, a little less frostily. "Would you care to apply for a card?" She watched carefully as I printed my name and address. "You must sign the application," she said, pushing it back across the desk. "Don't print your name, write it out. Do you know how to do that?"
"Yes," I said, and applied the fourth-grade penmanship that Freyda had taught me the year before, when I was in first grade. My teacher had told me not to write in class -- everyone else was still learning to print -- but I practiced at home.
"You can pick up your card when you are ready to check out your books," said the woman, waving a bony arm toward the shelves.
I had first encountered books in a junkyard. My father was in the cluttered office with Mr. Rushicoff, who had few hairs on his head but many growing on his big, red-veined nose, and while they haggled over Dad's load of newspaper, rags and iron, I wandered around until I found a huge wooden bin. I pulled myself up and clambered atop a pile of old books. Some were filled with pictures, and some were written in strange alphabets with tiny, odd-looking symbols over the letters, but even these called to me. Fascinated, I lugged several volumes to the office. "Just one," said Dad, and after weighing it, Mr. Rushicoff asked for a nickel.
After that I made straight for the book bins as soon as we had unloaded the truck. Each week I took home a book or two, and through them I escaped into long-vanished worlds, into make-believe universes, into adventure and romance and intrigue. I wrote down unfamiliar words, and sometimes Mom told me what they meant, but only after I had failed to find them in her old dictionary, or to guess their meanings by the context of their use.
Most days, after Freyda and I had finished our homework, Mom started supper. Ted and Ila, barely out of diapers, played or tussled on the living room floor. My mother had begun her long descent into madness; inevitably she screamed at Freyda for setting out the wrong plates, for failing to clean a skillet properly, for something said or not said, for her deportment. Denouncements soon morphed into bizarre, paranoid accusations, and as Freyda yelled denials, Mom upped the volume. Neighbors pounded walls or ceilings; the babies wailed in terror. I crept away, found a book.
Soon I was over the Channel, hurtling down from 10,000 feet with a Messerschmitt hot on my tail, shells from the Jerry's cannon arcing past my Spitfire's windscreen until I pulled up into a tight Immelman, squeezed off a burst and sent him tumbling in flames. I was with Richard Halliburton, urging our reluctant pachyderm up a narrow trail beneath the towering Matterhorn. I tamed the fierce black stallion until he licked sugar from my palm. I resisted Big Brother until he forced me to obey, and padded silently through the forest with Hawkeye and Chingachgook. I built the lamp for Tom Swift's electric searchlight, took note of a London watchdog that did not bark, joined the posse to track down a bandit gang. I did not return to the daily screaming matches on Chicago's South Side until my father had shouted my name repeatedly, and shook my shoulder, and then I reentered the frightening, disorderly world resentfully and reluctantly, as though awakening from deepest sleep.
There came a day when Dad switched his allegiance to a junkyard that dealt only in metals, and my access to cheap books ended. That was when Mom suggested the library, and sketched a map to help me find it. But no one had mentioned that there was a system in place, that each book resided on a certain shelf, that the numbers inked on their spines were mirrored on paper cards in long wooden drawers, that with author's name or book's subject one could quickly find the proper volume.
Instead I approached the library on that first day like a neat and spacious junkyard, choosing books at random and reading enough of each to decide whether it seemed interesting or not. I wandered the vast room, stopping here and there, selecting volumes from lower shelves that I could reach easily. When my arms were full, I took them to the desk where the lady in the flowered skirt waited. "Those are not for you," she said. "The children's section is over there," she added, pointing.
"But I want to read these," I replied, and she shook her head and got up and came around in front of the desk. She opened a book and held it in front of my face.
"Read this for me," she said, and I did, stumbling over multi-syllable words, mispronouncing unfamiliar names. The old woman stared at me. "What does this word mean," she asked, indicating one that I had pronounced "mono-tone-nuss."
"It means boring, like doing the same thing over and over," I said, and her jaw dropped. She opened another book and asked me to read, and then another and another. When I looked up, I was surrounded by librarians. I returned the next week to hand in the books that I had finished, and they all stared at me.
Not until tenth grade did I ask about the strange wooden cabinet with its myriad brass-handled drawers, and thus discovered card catalogs. But by then I had formed the habit of roaming the library at random, and I had read many books that I am certain no librarian or teacher would have suggested.
Each week, as I returned with new books to read, I grew more excited with every step. I could hardly wait to find a well-lit corner, to open a book, to leap headlong into a world beyond my own, a universe of vicarious experiences. Reading was not only exciting, it was safer and more ordered than the world around me.
I wanted to share what I discovered in books with people whom I loved. But my father, with six children to support, had no time for reading books, much less for talking about them. Intelligent and curious, until illness overtook my mother she was keenly interested in her children's education -- but never had the luxury of reading for pleasure.
So what began as escape from family chaos grew into a private passion. I met few children who cared about reading in the way I did, and the few times that I attempted to share the excitement of a particular book, or to talk about something that I had read, my words were taken for bragging, and I was ridiculed. I learned to keep my literary discoveries to myself.
Yet, looking back, I know that books saved me from succumbing to the madness and rage that permeated our household. What would I have missed if that first librarian, or those who gaped at my pilgrimages, had guided me to a section appropriate to my years, had explained how a library was organized, had high-mindedly denied me the freedom to explore, to choose what pleased or provoked me, to venture past artificial literary frontiers? What would have happened if my mother had escorted her seven-year-old on his first visit to a library? How then would I have escaped, even temporarily, the shame and lunacy that permeated our household, the shadow that haunted Dad even when Mom, fresh from yet another psychiatric ward, seemed ready to live in the world that in the end, the unbalanced chemistry of her brain could never abide?
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
“You’re one of Siler’s boys, right?” shouted the pilot as I strapped myself into the door gunner’s seat.
Siler was the division PIO — the Public Information Officer.
“Yes sir,” I yelled back over the whining roar of the Huey’s jet turbine.
The pilot swiveled his head to look at me and I saw that he was Colonel Burdette, commander of the First Cavalry Division’s Aviation Group.
I was a combat photographer, not a door gunner. But every aircraft has its limitations, and aside from its crew of four, the UH-1B “Huey” could carry no more than eight infantrymen with weapons and equipment. So on the frequent occasions when I was assigned to document a search-and-destroy that began with an air assault, I usually replaced the starboard-side door gunner.
The colonel, Allen Burdette, waited for me to plug in the gunner’s headset, then asked if I’d gone to door-gunner school.
I shook my head, no. I hadn’t known there was such a school.
In 1965 the First Air Cav was a brand-new division, an evolving experiment in helicopter warfare. The men who dreamed up our table of organization and equipment hadn’t anticipated that the Bell UH-1D, with sliding doors on either side of the cargo compartment, would be available so quickly. They had instead based their manpower projections on the older Sikorsky CH-34, with its single, left-side cargo door.
And they hadn’t anticipated that aviators and infantrymen would learn that a key to successful air assaults was minimizing the period when the chopper was most vulnerable: landing troops under fire. By using the Huey, instead of eight men queuing single file up to leave through one door, we removed both doors to allow four men to jump out of each side almost simultaneously.
Thus the need for two door gunners per ship. The extra man came on temporary duty from an infantry battalion. Many had never fired a machinegun from a moving aircraft, so Burdette set up a school to train them.
By the time I got back from the operation, he’d called my boss to say that if I was going to ride shotgun on his Hueys, I’d have to learn how.
The five-day training schedule was mostly a practicum in firing machineguns from fast-moving aircraft. We spent six or seven hours a day zooming over rice paddies and through mountain valleys, flying nap-of-the-earth, hugging the ever-changing foliage contour, jinking and zigzagging, diving or climbing, every so often firing tracers at sand-filled oil drums painted different colors.
It was about as much fun as a dogface GI can have with his clothes on. A million-dollar aircraft, two highly-trained pilots, thousands of gallons of jet fuel hauled halfway around the world, real machine guns, an endless supply of tracer bullets — sorry Generations X,Y, and Z, but show me a better video game than that!
In late afternoon we cleaned our guns, then spent an hour or so learning how choppers fly and how to maintain them in the field.
One day a senior crew chief, pointing out the components of the rotor assembly, casually mentioned that the shaft was attached to the rotor with a single titanium bolt, called the jesus (lower case j) bolt.
“Why is it called that?” I asked.
“Cause if it breaks while you’re flying, you’re all going to Jesus,” he said.
On Friday we flew real missions; I fired my M60 in support of twol assault landings. Afterward there was a graduation ceremony and Burdette personally pinned an air crewman's silver wings on my fatigues: I was officially an Army aviator.
A month later he called Siler and asked to borrow me for a mission; I was incredulous but flattered.
We took off in two Hueys and followed first the Song Ba River and then one of its tiny tributaries north and west, deeper into the mountains. As we approached the Cambodian border we split up to fly individual search patterns, systematically quartering back and forth over thick jungle.
“What are we looking for?” I asked the crew chief manning the other gun.
“Down there’s the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” he replied. “Anything that moves is fair game.”
A few minutes later the pilot in the other Huey shouted “Tallyho!” into his radio and fired a Willy Peter rocket — white phosphorous — that zipped down through the jungle canopy and burst with a cloud of pure white smoke.
Burdette turned the ship around and we flew toward that smoke. He unleashed a pair of 3.5 inch rockets, each with a warhead capable of knocking out a tank. A moment later he fired two more. Four dirty clouds flew skyward from their impact points.
A moment later came a series of huge explosions that sent dark smoke and glowing smoke trails every which way.
“Bull’s-eye!” yelled the other pilot. “A secondary!”
The rockets had struck an ammunition supply train.
We dropped down low for a look-see and flashed past three or four big, gray splotches — elephants, used by the North Vietnamese Army as pack animals.. Burdette circled back and set down in a clearing near the biggest pile of raw meat I’d ever seen. Only the head, neck and shoulders were recognizably that of a pachyderm.
Feeling sick to my stomach, I manned my gun, keeping watch on the jungle ready to shoot anything that looked threatening.
And then, to my astonishment, Burdette chopped the throttle back to idle, unbuckled and hopped out.
“Come on,” he said. “Bring your camera.”
So this was why I’d been invited to the party.
Brandishing an M16 rifle, Burdette rested a leg on the great forehead and struck a pose so I could snap a picture: the mighty hunter with his trophy.
Now I really wanted to puke.
The other Huey circled overhead, watching for unfriendlies as our crew chief took out a hacksaw, carried for emergency repairs, and sawed off first one tusk, then the other. I was ordered to snap more pictures; then the tusks were loaded and we flew away.
When we landed at base camp, Col. Burdette asked for the film, and I gave it to him.
War is nasty, brutish, savage. Innocent people die, and rarely for any good reason. Except for two or three psychopaths, no combat soldier of my acquaintance ever enjoyed killing. And I doubt that even the nut jobs would have asked to be photographed standing over a human corpse that they were responsible for killing.
Pack animals bearing enemy ammunition and supplies were a legitimate target in our ugly war; as much as I regret the deaths of those gentle beasts, I understand and accept why they were killed.
But to bring a photographer along in anticipation of such a kill suggests pride of accomplishment: My photos were meant to convey the colonel’s prowess as a big game hunter.
As if killing a big, defenseless creature with an aerial rocket was sport.
Allen M. Burdette, Jr., went on to wear three stars and was inducted into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame. I knew him as a brave and compassionate commander and first-class combat aviator. He died several years ago.
If there is any justice in this universe, his soul will return as an elephant.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
It was a Quonset hut, galvanized steel bent into a huge, corrugated half-round, with puke-green walls and unfinished plywood floors, double-decked bunks, a latrine. An ordinary US Army barracks — until I peered through the high windows and saw the wire.
Great coils of razor wire shimmered in the floodlights, a Titan's Slinky carelessly spilling around my hut and throughout The Army Support Command's Stockade near Inchon — a mess hall, offices, supply and arms rooms, chapel, guard and prisoner barracks, all connected by narrow concrete walkways. Razor-wire fences lined every building and every walk, surrounding prisoners, guards, cooks, clerks, drivers. Ten feet high, twenty deep, another barrier surrounded the whole facility, steel beams supporting layer upon layer of thumb-wide razors spaced inches apart, wire designed to hook flesh and tear it. No man could hope to go through that and live.
Not that I entertained ideas of escape. I would face this, I had decided when I was arrested, use the system, prove my innocence. I couldn't blame the Army for assuming that I was involved. The package was addressed to my wife but I signed for it, put it in my room. And had no idea what it held. After my arrest, a Korean Customs agent, the one who beat me, hinted that it was gems. In my room — the CID would search it — were letters from Maideen in Hong Kong, and jewelry samples, proof that I knew the man who sent the package. That my relationship with him was innocent would be harder to show but I would have my day in court.
The system would work. I would get my life back. I was certain.
But being locked up without trial or hearing — that bothered me. No charges had been brought. I was confined on the spoken words of a three-star general. I couldn't think why, unless someone had convinced him that I was an escape threat — a blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned American in a nation of dark-skinned, dark-eyed, dark-haired people, a country surrounded by oceans on three sides and most of the North Korean Army on the fourth — or that I was dangerous.
The barracks held 140. But Army Regulations bar officers from being incarcerated with enlisted men; mine was the lone bunk.
I had no fellow prisoners but I was not alone. The guard was changed every two hours. Invariably over six feet tall, boots spit-shined to dark mirrors, starched fatigues with knife-edged creases, his gleaming helmet liner bore the crest of an MP regiment. White or Hispanic, rarely out of his teens, he stood at parade rest three paces distant, watching me. When I used the latrine, he looked on as I relieved myself. He observed my daily shower. If I turned my back to dry myself or dress, he moved until he could see my flaccid penis, the shame of my pale spare tire. I was allowed an hour daily for exercise and as I jogged slow dirt laps of the narrow yard, the guard stared from the doorway. When I stretched, did my pushups and sit-ups, he saw. At night he observed my tossing and turning, listened to my nocturnal somatic noises. Watched, unknowing, as I dreamt of my wife’s satin skin, of the exquisite fullness of her breasts with their dark aureoles, of the sweet fire between her thighs, of beating her face bloody.
How could she have done this to me?
After all that I done for her and for her family — what could she have been thinking? And where was she? Safe? In jail? What about our baby?
Guard at my heels, half an hour before scheduled meal times I walked to the mess hall, eating rapidly to finish before other prisoners arrived. These men awaited trial on offenses from desertion to murder and rape, or served short sentences for minor infractions like AWOL, assault or failure to obey orders; it would not do to have them share space with an officer awaiting charges. I ate in silence from a plastic tray; the food neither very good nor very bad, merely standard rations, prepared in the usual inelegant ways. When I commanded a company, I took pride in doing far better.
But I no longer commanded anything.
The guard watched me eat.
The guard spoke only when absolutely necessary. If I observed that it looked like rain, he did not reply. If I asked the time — my watch, along with other valuables, was taken for “safekeeping” — he remained silent but might display his wristwatch. When I asked to speak to the commanding officer, a guard might nod or make no response.
After a few days, a master sergeant came and told me to stop asking guards for the C.O. My request was forwarded through channels, he said; the C.O. would see me when he was ready.
I took this opportunity to ask for writing materials. The next day I got a pad, a pencil, and an envelope. "One letter a day to your immediate family, don't seal the envelope, we'll put stamps on," said the sergeant delivering these treasures. "When the pencil needs to be sharpened, the guard will bring a new one."
I wrote no letters. My siblings, I knew, were unable to help. My mother was in and out of the loony bin. What was I to tell my father, who was so proud of me? That I’d been arrested and needed a lawyer?
But I had done nothing wrong. That no charges had been filed must mean something. I would wait until I knew. Until I was cleared. Maybe I would tell Dad about it when I got home and we'd have a good laugh.
I saw no television, heard no radio, had no visitors, received no mail. I was disappointed that the Jewish chaplain, the only rabbi in Korea and my friend, didn't come, but perhaps he didn't know where I was being held. More likely I was not allowed visitors.
Every few days I was given back copies of Stars & Stripes. One carried a brief report of my arrest, and there it was: A million dollars in diamonds, that was what was in the package. The story said that I’d been charged with violating Army postal regulations, had been relieved of duty while awaiting court-martial. Nothing about pretrial confinement.
Noting the newspaper's date, I asked my guard to get the master sergeant. He turned up after lunch, a tall, bulky, balding man, mildly annoyed. "What's your problem, Captain?"
"I have now been here over fifteen days. I have not been charged. I want to know why I am being held, and if you can't give me an answer, then I demand to speak with someone who can."
A look of wonder spread across the noncom's face. "You're a prisoner. You don't demand anything. Sir," he said, the last word emitted like a curse.
"No one subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice may be confined without charges. That's the law. Now that this has come to your attention, it’s your duty to investigate," I added.
He turned on his heel and left. An hour later I was escorted to the commander's office. Tall, slim, perhaps thirty, the MP captain glared contemptuously from behind his steel desk, then muttered, "How the hell do guys like you and Calley get a commission?"
My head swam. In one breath I was equated with a mass murderer, a war criminal. Instead of replying, I cited regulations about pre-trial confinement, formal charges, written orders.
"This is a SOFA case," said the MP captain. The Status of Forces Agreement — a treaty between the US and the ROK. If an American was accused of violating Korean law, the ROK had ten days to inform the US Embassy if it would take jurisdiction. After ten days without notice, it was a US case.
I reminded him how long I had been held; if the ROK had taken jurisdiction, formal notification was required. "I'll check on it," he said.
I wrote a letter to my congressman, outlining my situation, and gave it to a guard to mail. Another guard returned it. “Immediate family only," he said.
To occupy myself, I wrote stories. I began with one about the winter night when my wife invited a neighbor to dinner. Then I read it aloud, describing how, after eating, my wife removed her clothes and stretched out on the floor. The neighbor opened a tiny briefcase, consulted a tiny chart, drew tiny circles on her long johns, deftly inserted tiny needles though the fabric.
The guard chortled. I knew that I was on to something.
I ate, slept, exercised, defecated, wrote. Daily I expected redemption, a personal messiah, a lawyer. Maybe today, I thought, on awaking. Probably tomorrow, I told myself each night.
Weeks passed. I realized that I was no longer in the same Army that I had joined as a teenager: this Army didn't know me. I no longer had a home.
So when I was driven to Seoul to meet an Army lawyer, I was not surprised to learn that he was no messiah. I was an embarrassment, he said. He wished that he, personally could nail me to a cross. Instead I would be tried by the Koreans.
I cited the SOFA treaty’s mandate that the ROK take jurisdiction within ten days. “The law is clear,” I said. “They can’t claim jurisdiction now.”
He passed me a list of names and numbers. “Korean attorneys authorized to defend US citizens,” he said, his voice dripping with contempt. “Pick one.”
My crucifixion had been outsourced.
I chose one at random: Paek. In an Army conference room, he shorthanded Korean jurisprudence: There was the law, and there was the practice of law. Korea boasted only one law school. Over the course of their careers, judges, prosecutors and attorneys — classmates and in many ways closer than family — played musical chairs. Three-judge panels decided cases – no juries. Those arrested are guilty until proven innocent. In 15 years as a prosecutor, Paek knew of no defendant acquitted at trial. “No judge will shame a prosecutor – his classmate,” he explained.
In a nation of notoriously corrupt police, Customs agents were inoculated against bribery with a bounty: half the value of seized goods. The agents who tracked the contraband diamonds from Seoul’s international post office to my unit postal clerk would share in the proceeds of their sale: $500,000 — a year’s payroll for 400 cops.
“If I am convicted?”
“When you are convicted.”
I turned it over in my mind on the ride back to Barbed Wire City. I’d never get a court-martial. The Koreans would find me guilty. Even if I avoided prison, my Army career was over.
Paek’s parting words rang in my ears: “Learn to think like a Korean.”
After much rumination, I told Paek — in the peculiar manner favored by Koreans of saying things without actually saying them — to have his prosecutor pals disappear most of the evidence — the diamonds — and destroy the paperwork. Then my faithless wife and our child were allowed to leave Korea.
After a mysterious office fire, the prosecutor's new inventory revealed that Customs’ appraisal was “overly-exuberant.” Felony charges carrying a mandatory 25 year prison sentence became misdemeanors, allowing judges discretion in sentencing. I pleaded guilty. To save Customs’ face, the judges gave me the maximum seven years.
Paek appealed my sentence. I sold my car; the proceeds went to the appellate court’s chief administrative judge — Paek’s uncle! — who then selected judges to hear my appeal.
Seven years became two — suspended.
In Korea’s tight-knit legal community, Paek became a peerless rainmaker. And rich. Diamond Jim Brady rich.
I resigned my commission, divorced my wife and started a new life.
Fast forward to the post-9/11 era: U.S. citizens detained in military brigs without charges or hearings. Suspects transferred to foreign custody for interrogation.
Old news to me.
Justice? Don’t talk to me about justice.
Call me lucky.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
Years ago, before the Internet blossomed into its present promiscuousness, before WIFI and broadband begat webcams and email became effortless, my beloved, the light of my life, my soul mate, lived in Pittsburgh.
I, alas, lived in Los Angeles.
Rising at 4:00, her time, Sat Siri, as my beloved is known in yoga circles, does a rigorous hour of yoga, bathes, eats a quick breakfast. At 4:00, my time, just before leaving for work, she calls and we chat for a few minutes.
Then she readies herself for a day as a university lecturer, where she is known by a more conventional name, the appellation of her Irish ancestors.
I share all this to emphasize that she is a solid citizen, a respected academic. Not a weirdo. Not crazy.
She was then perhaps a year from finishing her doctoral dissertation. After that she would look for a job; once she found it, I’d sell my house, pull up stakes, follow her. We would marry and start a life together.
One December morn my beloved begins our conversation with an apology. She eavesdropped, she says, on my dreams. Having yielded to a jealous impulse to check on me, she asks my forgiveness.
Whoa. Back up. Eavesdropping on dreams?
Come on. Get real.
“You went to a party yesterday afternoon,” she says.
“I told you, My cousin’s annual Hanukkah get-together.”
Mitch is a sort of shirttail cousin and softball buddy. But Sat Siri never met him, nor have I described him or his apartment.
“A man taller than you was frying pancakes,” she says.
Most men are taller than me. And one might suppose that people make potato pancakes, latkes, at a Hanukkah party.
“He’s slender. Salt-and-pepper beard,” she says. “Trimmed close.”
That’s Mitch. I’m intrigued.
“But that isn’t important, dearest,” she continues. “I want to talk about your dream.”
“I’m not on board yet. Finish setting the scene.”
“You’re in a corner on a kind of ugly yellow, almost mustard, sofa. To your right is a bigger sofa, sort of a burnt orange color, Above it is a Chagall print, the cow with a parasol. There’s an older man, very heavy, bald, sitting to your left. On your right, facing you but so close that your knees almost touch, is a pretty woman about my age. Red hair pulled into a bun. Flaming red hair.”
Every hair on my body springs to attention.
“Go on,” I say
“She has large blue eyes and very good skin. Slender, but, uh, buxom. And showing a lot of skin. Uh, cleavage. You’re looking at her breasts and you’re thinking—”
“Hold on,” I interrupt.
What was I thinking? I wonder. And how could Sat Siri know?
“I’m sorry,” she says. “This isn’t fair to you. I’m not supposed to do things like this.”
“What, exactly, did you do?”
“I left my body to visit you on the astral plane,” she sighs.
Sat Siri is a yogini, a yoga master, an incarnation of the sacred feminine force of tantric yoga. She has spoken more than once about journeys on the astral plane. Now I realize that I have not really listened.
“But how did I get on the astral plane?”
“Your energy, chi—your life force—is always present there. Everyone’s is.”
“I don’t know about this,” I say, still wondering what I’d thought when I looked into the redhead’s fabulous blue eyes, at her enticing bosom. And hoping that whatever it was then wasn’t what I now thought it was.
“You were talking to this—she’s a flight attendant?”
“That’s what she said. ”
“And you were thinking, ‘She’s coming on to me.’”
That’s exactly what I was thinking.
“And then you thought, “But I am with Sat Siri, and it would hurt her if I even considered seeing this woman, so now I’m going to tune her out and think about how to tighten the chapter I’m writing, make it shorter and more dramatic.”
“My God!” I say. “How do you do that?”
“I listened to your dreams, dearest. But I promise, never again. And I’m so proud of you! I love you without limits. You are my hero,” she says.
Then we talk about my impending trip to Pittsburgh and the moment is gone.
But I’m a little freaked out. I seek my rabbi’s counsel. He has met Sat Siri and knows how I feel about her.
He listens, stroking his curly beard, showing no surprise whatever.
“Rabbinical literature is sprinkled with stories about mystics and saintly rabbis leaving their bodies to converse with angels, or to perform vital deeds or good works in distant locations,” he explains. “some notable rabbis were reportedly seen in two places hundreds of miles apart at the same hour of the same day. The Zohar discusses various techniques for accessing what some call the astral plane.“
The Zohar. Kabbalah. Jewish mysticism.
He says that Sat Siri is, perhaps, an adept in an ancient art that was once the secret of holy men, a sort of white magic. There are many paths to the astral plane, he continues, including Jewish paths. There are many forms of yoga. Sat Siri’s form of yoga, the Tantric, is very powerful. It is not a forbidden path, but neither is it a Jewish path.
It’s a lot to think about.
Early in our relationship, Sat Siri and I had discussed religion. Tantric yoga techniques draw, in part, on Sikh theology and practices, but she regarded herself as a Christian and believed that yoga presented no religious conflict. My Jewishness, she said, was admirable. “Just be as good a Jew as you were a soldier,” she told me. “That’s all I ever want of you.”
I’d never told her much about my Army career, so I asked how she knew that I had been a good soldier.
“Call it female intuition,” she said. “Anyway, how could you have served so many years if you weren’t good at it?”
True enough, I’d thought, and put it out of mind. But now I realized that she knew more about me than I could ever have told her.
So I began to study Torah and Talmud. I prayed more often and with greater intensity. I began to live a more observant life. But now I can’t stop thinking about Sat Siri’s astral eavesdropping. She meant no harm, and sharing this dimension of her life helped us to grow even closer. But from that time on, I begin to notice how perceptive she was. When we are together she often seems to know my thoughts. I am not secretive; I show my feelings. Still, I begin to suspect that she eavesdropped, perhaps even monitored my libido, via some mysterious astral connection.
I am a man in good health and interested in women. Yet, loyal to a lover 2,000 miles distant, I think about sex far more often than I enjoy it. It crosses my mind, from time to time, watching a firm feminine body working out at the gym, or passing a beauty in a supermarket aisle or making casual eye contact at a social gathering, that it would be nice to…. But then, no. I remember, Sat Siri might be tuned in. And I switch my attention.
Little by little, I begin to resent it.
Sat Siri’s dissertation research encounters academic roadblocks. A year becomes two. I look for some way to move to Pittsburgh, but nothing works out. And as time passes and our visits become less frequent, as she further immerses herself in the tantric lifestyle, I feel her entering a strange cosmos. I feel her moving past me, away from me.
One evening she calls and I can tell she is weeping. She knows this will hurt me, she says. But she must tell me: She cannot marry me.
“You need a Jewish wife,” she says.
It is exactly what I’ve been thinking.
“I can’t ever be that wife,” she says. “I love you, but I can’t be with you in all the ways you need me. It isn’t fair to you. It isn’t good for me.”
She is right.
And so we part. She moves on, changes her phone, disappears.
I never found that Jewish wife.
And sometimes I awaken long before dawn, sensing Sat Siri’s presence. Is she on the astral plane, I wonder, tuning in my chi?
Or do I just miss her?
Either way, I think about having loved Sat Siri. About having been loved by her. Comforted, I drift back to sleep.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.