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Jade Lady burning

Martin Limon

Ship me somewhere’s east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,

Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments, an’ a man can raise a thirst.

“Mandalay” Rudyard Kipling

1

Ernie and I finished the black-market case in Pusan, did a little celebrating, and caught the Blue Line night train back to Seoul. The dining car served only Western-style food and a few snacks to go with the ice-cold liters of OB beer that they offered at inflated prices. Ernie and I avoided it, naturally, preferring to carry our own sustenance aboard, like the locals.

The U.S. government wouldn’t buy seats in the first-class cabin for Gls, but the coach was quite comfortable, with large padded chairs and plenty of legroom. It was nice enough so that Korean men usually wore suits and the women dressed up. But that didn’t stop them from bringing along small tins of pungent kimchi and rice, and maybe a little fish for their meals. Bringing your own was the only way, the Koreans pointed out, to have any “real” food.

The man and his wife in the seat in front of us were sharing the fermented bounty from the same tin while their three children bounced playfully around them. Occasionally the parents would pop a morsel in their children’s mouths and they would squeal and return to their frivolity.

It wasn’t doing my hangover any good. 1elbowed Ernie. His arms were crossed, his legs stretched out. One eye partially opened. He opened his arms, leaned forward, and from under the seat pulled out his brown leather traveling bag. He removed two cans of Falstaff.

“Breakfast,” he said.

My reaction was Pavlovian. We popped them open and white froth rose in a mound around the top of my can. 1 sucked greedily, letting the lukewarm liquid slide down my throat until the juices got flowing in preparation for the full onslaught, and then 1 tilted the can way back and let the hops revitalize my brain and body.

My eyes were watery; we both leaned back in our chairs to luxuriate in the feeling.

“You’re a genius, Ernie.”

“Logistics, pal. Simple logistics.”

Across the aisle sat a Korean peasant woman in a dark blue skirt and matching waistcoat. She had thick, sturdy calves and thighs, and a broad pelvic girdle made from squatting in the rice fields all day and lifting her lover of the straw mat at night. A tam-o’-shanter sat at an angle atop her round head and straight black hair, which fell to her shoulders. Her coal-bright eyes smiled at us briefly and turned back to her morning meal. She, too, had brought her own. My stomach growled and I turned away from the sight of food to look out the window.

The winter countryside was brown, white in places where snow clung: acres of frozen rice paddies. Farm folk hustled from chore to chore, bundled against the weather. Dark pillars of smoke rose lazily skyward; the clouds rolled and drooped low to the earth. Gradually the rice paddies gave way to storage yards, then warehouses, truck parking lots, factories.

“There it is,” Ernie said, sounding impressed, his breath clouding the window glass. The OB brewery stood out against the overcast, a huge gray plant with a monstrous red and yellow sign mounted on its tallest smokestack: OB. Extending for acres in all directions were countless rows of brown beer bottles in wooden slat- crates piled twenty high. It was a majestic sight for two serious drinkers.

We sped through Yongdonpo Station, past crowds of huddled commuters, through a small wooded area and suddenly out over a vast expanse of blue-the Han River. And we could see, off to our right, the city of Seoul floating on a cloud of river fog. Yongsan Station flashed by; the engineer was balling it to the end of the line. The windows radiated cold.

“Lock and load,” Ernie said, gathering up his bag.

We jumped off the train just as it stopped and tried to beat the crowds streaming off and up the stairways leading to the main hall. Seoul Station was old and large and Slavic-made of mortar and brick-a present to Korea from the czar, left over from the days when Russia dominated it.

At the top of the stairs, we hung a left and headed toward the Eighth Army Transportation Office in an adjoining old office building whose entrance opened into the hall. We used it as a shortcut out so we wouldn’t have to wait in the long lines of passengers turning in their expended tickets. Out on the street, we dove into a milling throng. The large, open area in front of Seoul Station was full of responsible citizens hurrying in all directions: uniformed girls on their way to school, businessmen toting briefcases, old ladies with huge bundles on their heads.

Stands of vendors offered refreshments and quick food, like kodung, being warmed in large pans. Kodung were a favorite of Ernie’s: insects in pill-sized shells from which you sucked the meat and conveniently discarded the shell. Signs advertised nakji, raw squid in hot sauce, and yakulut, liquefied yogurt sold in little plastic bottles. Despite our hunger and the cold, we resisted and hurried to get in line at the taxi stand. In fifteen minutes we reached the end of the queue and jumped into a small cab. In Korean 1 told the driver where to take us. He nodded, clicked his meter on, and jammed the gas pedal to the floor. He reached forty-five quickly, even in the heavy traffic. The driver weaved in and out, taking any opportunity to advance. The roadway ostensibly had four lanes, but at any one time the weaving, swerving cabs and trucks formed at least six.

Ernie stared serenely at the automobiles careening wildly around him. “I could use a little something.”

We climbed up the ramp to the Samgakji Circle and, without taking his foot off the gas, the driver forced his way into the bumperto-bumper flow. On the far side, he veered off the circle and, a few yards further, came to a screeching halt at a stoplight. The ROK Army Headquarters buildings, on the left, faced the Ministry of National Defense, on the right.

“Hana, tul, scit, neit!”

A high-pitched female voice was barking out a cadence. Two female soldiers ran to either side of the intersection. They each thrust out one hand to halt traffic, and came to a snappy parade rest. Marching proudly into the intersection was an entire platoon of the Republic of Korea Women’s Army. The drivers of the backed-up trucks and taxis revved their engines impatiently, cursing and jeering. The sergeant shouted out her orders, continuing to march, impervious to the petty civilians.

The women were in brown skirts and matching uniform jackets, with bright red stripes slashed across their arms. The black oxfords gleamed. Squared at the nape of the neck, their hair was uniformly straight and cut in bangs. Brown, box like caps balanced atop their bobbing heads. All seemed exactly the same height. We leaned forward in our seats, straining to catch glimpses.

The cab squealed off as soon as the last woman passed.

1 fell back in my seat. “Damn. I feel a little woozy.”

“Yeah,” Ernie said solicitously. “You do look a little flushed.”

Until you got to know Ernie you’d never guess. 1 mean, he looked normal. “1 make a good first impression,” he used to say, as if he were amazed by the fact. Physically he was fine-as far as giving a good first impression. He was Caucasian and just a little above average height at about five foot eleven. His weight was probably right at what an insurance salesman’s chart would say it should be. He wasn’t handsome but he was highly presentable. Wasn’t muscular or thin or fat, but uncompromisingly right in the center.

He wasn’t ethnic, but also not so white that he would stand out in a crowd. His ancestors were from Europe,

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