Uljin County in North Gyeongsan Province must be one of the most beautiful, or the least developed, regions located along the east coast. There is no highway or railway but a single two-lane road.
The windbreaker Korean pine trees on the shoreline at some points reminds you of the ancient road leading to the Roman Empire dotted with the same but Italian pine trees that Gen. Marcus Vinicius (played by Robert Taylor) rushed his chariot to meet beautiful Lygia (played by Deborah Kerr) in an MGM film “Quo Vadis.”
Not only will you find Uljin scenery beautiful, you will also notice that many women in the coastal towns are quite handsome – tall, slim and gracefully tanned by the ocean wind. “Sara Chang,” one of my second cousins, and I were born in a farming village called Riverdale in English. The ancient, sleepy village of some two dozen farming houses was, and is, surrounded by high mountains and a river with crystal clear water flowing.
When nightfall sets in and the thatched houses were covered by lingering white smoke from firewood burning in the kitchens, and after the birds and dragon flies had returned to their nests in the summer, a chorus of frogs in the rice field would awaken the lightning bugs to fly out of the grasses dancing to the music. The luminous bugs never flew straight, but each drew different curvatures vertically and horizontally, sometimes nose diving while switching the light under their belly on and off.
Sara was a beautiful girl who had a pair of clear and black eyes, a long hair covering shoulders and always wore school uniform tight. Her hemline revealed her knees when she walked fast. The school rule was never to show the girl’s knees.
Time passed, and the street trams were being replaced by regular bus runs in the Seoul streets in 1968 the rails in the asphalt and cobweb electric aerial wires in Samkakji were also removed. One day we Riverdale girls, three of them, had met at a coffee shop in Namyoung-dong not far from the Main Gate of the U.S. Army Yongsan Garrison facing the Hangang Blvd in Samkakji.
Sara, in her expensive looking dress and heels, walked in holding a hand of a tall American man who looked much older than her. He had a slightly tanned face with a crewcut hair and looked kind hearted, keep smiling at us. Sara’s English wasn’t perfect but we realized the fastest way to learn English was to have an English-speaking-boyfriend. She was a brave girl we all admired. We had never visited her home but we knew she once lived in an alley of Samkakji.
We were in our late 20s, all married. Sara told us they are going to marry as soon as her divorce is finalized. Sara said he is a civilian working at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan. The smiling American invited us to have a lunch and we all squeezed into his car which had a U.S. Army number plate. We ended up as I remember at a U.S. Army facility somewhere in Bupyeong, west of Seoul. Since we didn’t know how to read menu, we decided to eat a ham-sandwich each with Coco Cola or Root Beer which was not a beer but tasted like some kind of gaseous herb medicine.
I have met her a couple of times before she and he left for Hawaii. Sara and her boyfriend married in Hawaii and she had invited her parents to America. Her father was my uncle once-removed, called a five-inch in Korean, which makes Sara and I are a six-inch blood related. The last I heard about Sara, she had divorced but lives in a fine American house with two grown up daughters.
I have long lost contact with Sara but I hope she would see this letter and the current views of front and rear alleys of Samkakji and also the front of the Main Gate #1 (now #16) Yongsan Garrison
where she must have waited her lover in the evenings of the weekdays. I know beautiful Sara loved him very much despite her father’s strong objection.
Post Script: The old thatched farm house in Riverdale where Sara was born was demolished a long ago. So was my birth house.
(The writer, Chang Soon Hee, is a grandmother, originally from the Riverdale, now lives in Seoul)