I’m going to Korea today. I’ll be back in a week. I will be with my father, who fought there, was wounded, and received the Purple Heart.
The entire ethos of my childhood memory banks are watered by the stories my father told me about his experience there, being a soldier, being a part of a team of men charged with putting their life on the line for their country. Dad was in college at the University of Florida when the war broke out. He was a smart kid, had gone to college when he was just 17. But when somebody in the SAE house told him that war had broken out in Korea, he asked: “Where is that.” Less than a year later, Lieutenant Lindsay Grant Peeples was in Korea. He was 21 years old.
I remember the story of the doctor who asked permission from my father to put his hand in his mouth after he was wounded, my father’s puzzlement about the question, and then the doctor saying: “I had to ask; I know you are from the south.” My father’s reply was, “You can put your damn foot in my mouth if you can get that shrapnel out of my neck.” The doctor…was black. I remember the stories of the men from Harlan County, who got my father to write letters for them to their girlfriends back home because…they couldn’t really write. I remember the love my father had for the Koreans who were assigned to his unit, and his telling me of the gratitude they had to the Americans for fighting for them. I remember the story about the time my father had been to Tokyo on leave, and bought a Butter Finger candy bar (a rare item) and stuck it in his coat pocket, and how a month later he was standing in the freezing Korean winter on some hill, shivering, and had his hands in stuffed in his pockets, where he felt the candy bar, and how he just pulled it out and ate it, without taking his gloves off to remove the wrapper. “I ate it paper and all,” he said, “though I might have spit out a little cardboard.” I remember the story about a truck load of Australians passing my father’s unit on some road as they marched along in the mud. One of the Aussie’s had on this straw hat, and as the truck passed my father said, “Hey, I like your hat, Aussie.” And how in an instant the Aussie swept the hat off his head and handed it to my father and said, “It’s for you, mate.” I remember the story about this guy from Kentucky who asked Dad in a foxhole one night what he thought was the best car. Dad said he didn’t really know. And the guy showed him a magazine photo of a blue Chevrolet, and said: “I’m buying me one of these when I get home.” They guy…didn’t make it home. The year my father did make it home…he bought a blue Chevrolet. And I remember the story my father told me about coming home after the truce, and how when he got to Seattle he was in his military uniform, with his medals and badges on his breast, and how some guy in a hotel lobby (I think that’s where it was) casually said to him in passing. “Hey, hero,” and how my father had to be pulled off the guy before he hurt him. But the most poignant memory of all is about what he found when he got home: people were going to dances, hunting and fishing, partying, going to football games and movies. They were so removed from the horror that he had just experienced. It was like they had no idea that over 50,000 Americans had just died on the Korean peninsula. Or, worse…didn’t care.
Those are only a few of the memories, and as I look back on what I have just typed out, I am struck by something: though my father told me stories of battle and death, of mortars and grenades, of hand to hand combat, these are not the stories that really informed my upbringing. Stories teach. At least good ones do. And I was taught by stories of human drama and compassion that he so carefully related to me.
Anyhow, I’ll be posting most this coming week about the trip. Not really sure what to expect. I guess we are just walking into this thing open ended. Like he did. Sixty-six years ago.
Footnote: Flying with us on the plane will be Boogie Howard, the medic who triaged Dad when he was wounded.