Friday, February 16, 2007

Military Stories

(If you are not familiar with the concept of Goon-dae, please read this post first.)

A reader sent the Korean this:

My daddy loves to tell his military stories! The most traumatic to me as a young girl (regretfully, his firstborn was a girl, and by over five years - although he adjusted by making me a badass) was the story about digging tunnels through snow in his underwear in the bitter Korean winters.

The most traumatic story about The War, which was always told when I would complain about my writing callus on my right middle finger, was that the Korean men who wanted to avoid being drafted into the war would cut off the top joint so as not to show that they were "learned." I think this story is a little questionable - but it was also echoed by John Irving in "A Prayer for Owen Meany."

Also, we used to torment my younger brother together by telling him to be tough because his military time was impending. This continued until my brother was about 14 or so and the weeping was no longer funny. Like I said - my daddy made me a badass.

Great column- informative and funny!

Korean Girl
Birmingham, Alabama

Honestly, the Korean is amazed by the fact that Korean people are alive in Birmingham, AL. The Korean's roommate in his freshman year in college is from Decatur, AL (which the Korean Former Roommate stresses that it is the fourth largest city in Alabama -- as if that means anything -- and home to the second largest Wal-Mart in America.) The Korean is invited to his wedding, and the Roommate told the Korean to bring a rope cutter, so that the Korean may get down from the tree after the Roommate's Klan friends attempt to hang him.

The Korean is certain that naked trench-digging must have happened during the Korean War. The Korean War was a low-tech, trench warfare, and the provisions for the Gook-goon ("National Army" of South Korea, as opposed to In-min-goon, "People's Army" of North Korea) were pretty crappy. So maybe not quite naked, but certainly in thin or tattered clothes.

But the callus part can't be correct; you need to cut off your index finger to avoid the army, so that you can't pull a trigger. (That is exactly what happens in Prayer for Owen Meany -- a good novel by John Irving.) The correct version of the story is this: during the Korean War, the learned men, who are the only people who developed a learning callus in their middle finger in those times, cut off their middle finger because the People's Army would kill anyone who is learned, because learned = no physical labor = rich = bourgeois oppressor.

But this is more of an urban legend. It is true that sporadically, the People's Army rounded up the landowners and learned men of a village and killed them all. But if the middle finger-severing was a common occurrence, there must have been a lot of old, learned folks missing a finger, and that is simply not the case. At best, it may have happened to no more than a few people, and the story spread due to its preposterous gruesomeness.

At any rate, thank you Korean Girl for sending in a Goon-dae story! Over the winter, the Korean hung out with some friends who finished their service, and again heard an earful of military stories. Here are the two funniest ones:

1. One friend of the Korean's friend served as a driver for a 3-star general. On the first day of his assignment, he was extremely nervous, because in the military, a general can punch out God. As he drove, military protocol required him to say "byeon-sok hap-ni-da!" ("switching gears!") every time he switched gears. Instead, he was so nervous that he ended up saying "byeon-sin hap-ni-da! byeon-sin hap-ni-da!" ("transforming! transforming!") After the unfortunate driver said that a few times, the general retorted, "hap-che-neun an-ha-nyah?" ("Do we also combine together?" -- a la Voltron.)

2. The Korean's friend served as a military photographer. One day, one sergeant was supposed to receive a medal from a 4-star general, and the Korean's friend was present to take the picture. Before the sergeant received the medal, he was supposed to first salute the general, then state "Byeong-jang, Kim Han-soo!" ("Sergeant Kim Han-soo!") Instead, he got so nervous in front of the general that he ended up saying "Byeong-jang, Kim Byeong-jang!" ("Sergeant Kim Sergeant!" -- this probably happened because in the Korean military, people address you by your last name, followed by your rank.)

The Korean is still waiting to hear hilarious Goon-dae stories, so please readers, email away!

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

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