D. E. Larsen, DVM
There was a chill in the air as Truman, and I walked over to the motor pool in the dark.
“Who’s idea was it to leave at this hour?” Truman asked.
“They changed the time for the game, and if we are going to make it for the kickoff, we have to get on the road pretty soon,” I said.
“How many times have you driven a deuce and a half, Larsen?” the motor pool sergeant asked.
“Never,” I said. “But I had a commercial driver’s license before entering the Army. I have driven trucks on the farm since about the age of ten.”
“Will, the roads in Korea are a long way from the farm,” the sergeant said. “Where are you going at such an hour?”
“The 508th ASA Group is playing in the semifinals for the football league,” I said. “One of the guys from our shop is on the team. We are going up for the game.”
“You are going to be dodging ox carts and foot traffic all the way to Seoul,” the sergeant said. “And the traffic in the middle of Seoul will be like you have never seen before. You just have to lean on your horn at every intersection. Otherwise, nobody will pay any attention to you. This truck has these yellow rebar posts welded onto the front bumper’s edge; you will find them invaluable to knowing where you are on the road. If the rebar clears the papa-san, you are fine.”
“You make it sound like we are going to be dodging people the entire way,” I said.
“Like I said, Larsen, we are a long way from the farm,” the sergeant said.
Following the basic instructions, we were good to go and pulled over in front of the mess hall to load the crew up. It was before shift change for the operations building, but we had twisted the mess hall for an early breakfast.
“Okay, guys,” I said as I picked up a couple of bananas from the fruit stand in the mess hall. “We need to load up and get on the road.”
“I’m not in the shop, but I was wondering if I could ride along,” Bob asked.
“What do you mean you’re not in the shop?” I asked. “You’re in supply. Get your butt in the truck.”
Everyone was loading into the truck in front of the mess hall. Truman was waiting to secure the tailgate.
“Lauser, why don’t you ride up front with Truman and me?” I asked. “The seats are a little softer, and there is plenty of room.”
With everyone loaded up, we drove the half mile to the main gate and turned the truck down the main street of Anjeung-ri. The street was teeming with people. There was hardly enough room for the truck in the middle of the road.
“Hit the horn, Larsen,” Truman said. “Let’s see if they jump.”
I gave a short blast on the horn, and the road cleared as if by magic. That was our first lesson in driving the roads of Korea.
“We have fifty miles of this. I hope the horn holds up,” I said as we drove into the countryside of South Korea.
The people thinned out, but the ox carts seemed to be everywhere. In early October, we were in the middle of the rice harvest. There were several times when people would seem to appear out of nowhere. One old man stepped out onto the road, and the yellow rebar on the front bumper couldn’t have missed his elbow by more than an inch.
“That was close,” Truman said. “Where the hell did he come from?”
When we got close to Seoul, the ox carts thinned, and the people increased in numbers. I laid on the horn at every intersection. People and vehicles seemed to part in front of the truck and collapse behind it. Sort of like driving through a flock of sheep on an Idaho highway.
We arrived at the football field with plenty of time before the kickoff. The game was not much to watch, but everyone enjoyed the break away from the company.
“Watching these guys, I should have tried out for the team,” I said.
“I think Mr. Neal was happy to get Ed out of the shop for a couple of months,” Lauser said. “I don’t think he would have let you go.”
It started raining before the game ended, and many of our group spent the last couple of minutes back in the truck. The 508th lost by a couple of touchdowns.
I checked with Ed after the game to make sure he wasn’t planning to return with us.
“The coach is going to take me back tomorrow in a jeep,” Ed said. “That will be more comfortable than riding in the back of a truck.”
We loaded up and headed back to Camp Humphreys. Thinking we had the system for driving in Seoul down pat, we sailed through the first few intersections with the horn blaring.
Then the horn went dead. We could hardly move and ended up stuck in the middle of a large intersection. Six streets came together in a giant maze, and people swarmed from everywhere.
“What the hell are we going to do now?” I asked.
“I’ll show you,” Truman said. “You get ready to move this thing.”
Truman rolled down his window, crawled halfway out, pounded on the truck’s hood, and shouted at the top of his lungs. The way forward cleared almost as magically as if we had a horn.
With increasing rain, Truman was getting soaked, but he didn’t complain, and before we knew it, we were back in the countryside. The traffic was heavier than our trip up to Seoul in the morning hours. There were fewer ox carts and more people, but they were confining themselves to the edge of the road better because of the traffic.
As we drove south out of Suwon, we were in a line of trucks. Most of the trucks were loaded with large sacks of rice. The rain was heavy now. The highway was elevated on a dike passing through a long stretch of rice paddies.
Suddenly, the truck in front of us started braking, and he twisted this way and that way.
“What the heck is wrong with him?” Lauser said.
About then, we could see this guy rolling down the highway ahead of the truck. He had just been struck by the truck. The truck continued to fight for control and finally headed off the road and into the rice paddies some fifteen feet below.
As the truck went over the edge of the dike, his rear wheels rose high in the air. When the wheels came down, they struck the man, stretched out on the highway, squarely in his midsection. Splat!
“Oh my God!” Truman said. “Did you see that?”
In Korea, whenever there was a traumatic event, a crowd of people would appear, seemingly from out of the mist.
A hundred people surrounded us almost instantly. We were all out of the truck but couldn’t move through the crowd. I got back in the truck to watch as things unfolded before us.
Several Koreans stopped the first truck in the northbound lane. They folded the dead guy up, picked him up, and stuck him in on the floor of the passenger side of the rice truck they had stopped. And off the truck went, heading to Suwon with his dead passenger.
The crowd dissipated as rapidly as it had formed. Everything was back to the way it had been moments before the accident as if nothing had happened.
We looked at each other and shook our heads. Truman laughed.
“Check the back, and make sure we have everybody and the tail gate is secure,” I said. “We need to get home and unwind now.”
“Yeah, tonight might be a good night to have a purple Jesus party,” Lauser said.
“I don’t know. I think I will stop by Bob’s hooch and play with his new puppy,” I said.
“What’s up that?” Truman said. “The Koreans don’t have pets. Where did he come up with a puppy like that?”
“I don’t know, but it is sort of a touch of home,” I said.
The rest of the drive was uneventful. All the guys were happy when I dropped them off at the mess hall, just in time for dinner.”
“How did the trip go?” the motor pool sergeant asked.
“It went well until the horn stopped working,” I said. “And then when the truck squished a guy on the highway, the fun was sort of over.”
“Did you hit someone?” the sergeant asked.
“No, it was a rice truck ahead of us,” I said. “We just had a front-row view of the event.”
“You had me worried for a minute,” the sergeant said. “We would be buried in paperwork if you had hit someone.”
After finishing up at the motor pool, I went to the mess hall for dinner and then changed clothes and went to the village. I stopped at Bob’s hooch and played with his puppy for a bit before going to Duffy’s Tavern to drown out the day’s events.