Army Acting Career
One sunshiny day I got a call from Len, whose foot had healed by then. Korean weather is extreme. Brutally cold in the winter, especially as you get into higher elevation and suffocating hot in the summer. When you took a shower you sometimes had that “honey bucket” smell and there was no way to get rid of it. On the road you could see the honey bucket trucks loaded with human excrement which the Honey Bucket Honchos collected from the homes. The farms used the waste to fertilize their crops which meant you couldn’t eat fresh vegetables. Anyway he wanted me to accompany him to a tryout for a play the base was giving called Sabrina Fair*. He claims that he needs the moral support because the play is going to be directed by a budding Hollywood playwright by the name of Gary Marshall. None of this means much to me because I know nothing about the stage except for the fact that I enjoy watching plays. I got this from my mother who at one time had virtually every Playbill from Broadway from the 20’s to the 40’s. So, on we go to this makeshift studio with all kinds of people milling around. Most of them were still in their Army or Nurse’s uniforms. We sat down on these hard wood chairs and people are coming over to me saying that they can’t wait for me to read the part of Linus Larrabie (Sabrina’s father). I can’t imagine who they think t I am but I must have looked like somebody else. I keep saying that it is a mistake and that I’m only there to accompany and to give support to Len. It seems however that Len has told everyone that I was a budding actor and that after I got out of the Army that I would be famous. He also told them that I didn’t want to seem pretentious and publicize the fact. This is now serious so I try to explain to Len that by employing this ruse he was not doing the play or players a favor. They don’t stop insisting so to get them off of my back I read the part, though not very well. Since their minds were already made up it probably didn’t matter on how I read it so they gave me the part. I ask Len if they are all crazy but Len assures me that I can’t let the troupe down and that they are short of talent. Do they think that I’m talent? Rehearsals went on for a couple of weeks and I was not performing very well although I certainly knew my lines. I guess you could say that I was “tepid”. Also I was starting to worry because I could see the very concerned look on their faces. I said to myself that I had better shape up rather than embarrass myself. Now we are at Dress Rehearsal and I am scared completely out of my wits and I think I would have preferred combat to doing this. The rehearsal goes well and although I improvised some lines (directors love when you do that?) I ended up doing well. Now we are at opening night and now after a couple of shots of Seagram’s V.O. Whiskey**. I become as white as the driven snow when I took a peek out of the curtain and saw a full house with civilians and troops from 1st Cav, 24th Division, I Corps, 7th army and 8th Army HQ. the last thing I wanted to do is make a fool of myself by forgetting my lines or fainting on stage. I am playing an old man and boy I really feel the age. Once I am out there however I am completely transformed. Amazingly, which even today I can’t explain I did fantastically well and I believe that I got the loudest applause at the end of the show. The cast including Len swarmed all over me like I had just scored the winning touchdown in a bowl game. We went on to tour for a couple of weeks to the various division areas where they couldn’t attend the opening. In the months to come when I was not on special duty or teaching my Korean students English I do a number of other shows including the End Man in a minstrel show and even a short tap dance bit for a one and only time. I would have loved to become either a tap dancer or a drummer a la Buddy Rich but I just didn’t have the talent. So that was Lens’ revenge.
*Sabrina Fair was a Modern Comedy by Samuel Taylor
After the play it was due time for an R & R to Japan. I had been corresponding with some of my Korean student’s friends from Japan. Arrangements were made to get me on a VIP flight. I had learned on a previous R & R that it was important to have the green cloth document pouch handcuffed to my wrist so I wouldn’t be questioned. No matter what your rank classified material is available on a “need to know basis” only. On one flight the weather was G-d awful and one of the officers which I don’t remember was a colonel or general ordered the pilot to take off. The pilot’s response was that on an aircraft the pilot was the commanding officer. So we didn’t take off. Anyway on this particular flight all was calm and as luck would have it I was seated across from James Gavin, the famous general from the 82nd Airborne Division. We had in common the fact that we were both born in Brooklyn and we both smoked pipes, which you could do on VIP flights. Surprisingly he opened up to me saying that he was getting ready to retire as he was not happy with the equipment and conditions of the current armed forces and that he could not get the administration to listen to him He went back to the western novel that he was reading and he was also writing notes on a book that he was going to publish on the subject of “military preparedness”. The general retired in 1958. When we landed in I believe Camp Zama in Tokyo, we bid our goodbyes and wished each other the best of luck. The general offered me a ride and any help that I might need but I told him that I already had that set up. When I told him that he just gave me a wink and a somewhat quizzical look. Japan in the 50’s was a fascinating place. They were finally recovering from the war. It was clean, the food was good and varied and the shopping was excellent. The entertainment was great whether the theatre, Kabuki, Sumo wrestling, baseball, shrines or the interesting small bars. They were not always friendly to foreigners however. One day I found myself right in the center of an anti-American riot. Since I stood out as the only target for their immediate anger I was naturally frightened. I understood the Japanese language as I’d studied it from army manuals and tapes and I understood that they were not wishing America anything pleasant. For some reason they left me completely alone and I skedaddled out of there as quickly as I could. Often you would walk into a nice club and you would immediately be told; “No foreigners Allowed!”. Happily most of the time was spent with the group of Japanese students that had been introduced to me via mail from Korea. We became quite friendly and close and we corresponded for some years afterward. One of the student’s parents was a professor in Hong Kong, where I eventually arrived. The professor contacted me at the hotel and invited me to dinner with his entire family, which included his wife and two children. The diner was in a famous and in all respects magnificent, (the name escapes me) on the water in the beautiful Hong Kong harbor. My appetite was always quite large but I couldn’t believe the quantify, variety and the exquisite taste of the food.. Dish after dish after dish kept coming out until at one point it was impossible for me to take another bite. They all sighed a sigh of complete relief as I had not realized that the tradition was that they only stopped service when the guest stopped eating and had their fill. In the meantime while I was making a glutton out of myself the kids had taken a fascination to my smoking pipe which I had left on the table. They somehow managed to break off a piece of the chopstick into the shaft of the pipe since they had been using wooden chopsticks while we used large plastic ones. I had managed to overstay my R & R time on pretext or another and before I got into serious trouble I returned to Seoul. While I was gone they changed the MPC (military payment certificates which was the currency we used in Korea). This had caused panic and riots amongst the locals and I had to prove that I was out of the country in order to exchange my currency. I only had two pipes so I had to find a way to repair the one with the chopstick stuck up its butt. The sop at the base didn’t have a drill small enough so I was told that maybe a small Korean shop, doctor or dentist might have an instrument to get it out. So I took a stroll along the MSR, going way past the MSR toward town when I saw a two story building with a large sign: DR. KIM’S VD CLINIC. Aha! The doctor would surely have the tools to fix my pipe. At the top of the stairs there is a very nice receptionist who is dressed in traditional Korean garb. I tried to explain to her that I have a very embarrassing situation that I need to speak to the Dr. about. She replied that everyone that comes to see Dr. Kim has an embarrassing situation to speak about but in any case she will have him see me in a couple of minutes. I went into the doc’s office and he is very pleasant and with a smile bids me to be seated. I again mention and stress the fact that I am extremely embarrassed to trouble him as I am having a problem with my PIPE! He laughs and says that everyone that comes to see him has a problem with their pipe. When I pull out my smoking pipe from the small felt bag that I carried it in we both get hysterical laughing. In less than five minutes he fixed it and then refuses to get paid so I invited him for a night out at a local restaurant. We started by drinking the large bottles of Korean beer. Even then Korean beer was very good. We finished our dinner and a little bleary eyed I mention that I was wary of what we were eating and that as a member of the medical profession I was surprised that he didn’t caution me? Dr. Kim’s reply was that as an American with American standards that I didn’t caution him. Anyway we survived and became fast friends.
** Seagram’s VO had a gold silk ribbon attached to the front of the bottle. If you were a ‘Short Timer’ in Korea you wore the ribbon around your green fatigue hat.
On to a 30 day leave.