The 38th Parallel

I’m standing next to my Uncle Wonnie.  He’s peering through a viewing slot in the bunker.  The opening is about six inches, and he’s looking out through the high-powered field-glasses they have here for tourists who want to get a feel for what is was like to live in one of these.

“What do you see, Uncle?” I ask.

“Well, Lanny, I can just make out some villagers working in a rice field right next to the river.”

“How far away is that?” I ask.

My uncle gives a thoughtful pause, then, “I make it just under two miles.”

I think about it, how we’ve been averaging 5 miles a day walking, even had one day where we did 8 miles.  This tour is more physical than some of us might have expected.

“That’s not very far,” I say.  “I mean they could walk over here at low tide, right?”

My uncle, a Hawai‘i-born Korean, still stands watching the North Koreans. “Uh uh.  No, Lanny, it would be too muddy to walk.  They’d get stuck right away, maybe even sink all the way down if the mud’s deep enough.”

“Huh.  Well, when it’s high tide, couldn’t they row a small boat across, even swim it?  I mean under two miles.  That’s easy right?”

“No,” says my uncle.  “That wouldn’t be easy.  They have guard towers stationed along the shore.”

“But they’re few and far between.  By the time an alert was raised, especially at night, they’d be over on this side and free.  I think the risk would be low.  I’d do it.”

My uncle says nothing, continues to watch through the binoculars.  “I count seven,” he says.  “If even one of them tried to come across, all of the family members would suffer.  Be imprisoned.  Who knows? Be killed.  These North Koreans, they don’t fool around when it comes to trying to escape.”

I stare out the viewing slot across the Han River.  The South Koreans call the Han.  The North Koreans call it the Imjin.  Same river.  Gotta have it their own way.

My uncle served during the Korean War.  He wanted to come back to see the bunker where he spent so much time.  Fortunately, it’s one of the ones they allow tourists to enter.  I can’t imagine living in this gray concrete tomb, built three stories underground.  The two doorways in, on opposite sides, are narrow.  If you had to run either in through them or out, I’d imagine that most men would need to turn sideways.  The stairways are equally narrow, steep, each step perilously shallow.  You can see no two people could fit side by side going up or down.  The rooms are claustrophobically small, and I can only imagine staying down here if you were under attack, the bullets and bombs bursting all around above you.  Once inside, you might not hear the noise of battle raging, but you could feel as though that didn’t matter anymore, that you are dead and buried in the tomb that will preserve you for the centuries that will drag on long after your dying for no reason.

“Was it worth it?” I ask.

“The war?”

“Yes, do you feel like it helped?”

My uncle still stands eyes ahead.  Maybe it’s a comfortable posture for him, his muscle memory stretching back far enough so that he eases into the position as observer once again, just as it was all that long time ago.

“The war,” my uncle says, “isn’t over, you know.  Neither side signed the peace agreement.  Technically we’re still at war with them.  Bombs could be going off all around us, blowing bodies apart, right here in 2022.  Bullets ripping people to bloody shreds.  More and more death and destruction.  All those lives lost for what?”

He turns and looks at me.  “All those lives lost for a tie.  A tie, Lanny.  That’s what this came down to. And despair.”

Uncle Wonnie turns back to watch through the glasses again.

“I’m so sorry, Uncle,” I say to him.  “I’m so sorry.”

Our tour guide comes up from behind.  “Who you talking to, Lanning?”

I turn around and say, “Oh nobody, nothing.  I was just thinking about my uncle, how he fought here during the war.  It seems like such a brutal waste.”

The guide nods his head.  “Yeah,” he says, “and those who weren’t killed – and there were a lot of them – so many of them died in a way anyway.  They survived the war, but they never recovered from it.”

I turn to look out the bunker viewing slot one more time, picture my uncle Wonnie standing watch.

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