THE DISAPPOINTMENT OF GOING HOME…
by Ramon Rhodes
My family lived in Korea from February 1977 until February 1979, and I vividly remember when my father said he had orders to go to Korea, the trepidation that I had about leaving the United States for two years and living overseas. At 14 years old, I was just discovering what my teenage years had in store for me and I was not thrilled about leaving Fort Sill Oklahoma where I knew that I would have a car in a very short time. To move to Korea where I learned that each family was allowed one vehicle and that dependents couldn’t drive until they were 18 was just heartbreaking! Some of my older friends not only had cars, but had motorcycles and were zooming all over post and having a ball!
Upon arrival in Korea I realize that buses were available to take you everywhere. If you couldn’t get there by bus there were cabs. Not having a car wasn’t that big of a deal since no one except our fathers had a car. All the teenagers were in the same boat, so it wasn’t like you needed a car to go to the movies on a date or pick your girlfriend up to go to a dance. You both rode the bus just like everyone else.
By the end of 1978 when I turned 16, I remember thinking that if I was back in the States, I’d be able to drive and have my own car. And I started longing for the freedom that my own vehicle would give me that I didn’t have in Korea. Those last 6 months before we were scheduled to return in February of 1979 were really tough. I remember counting down the days until we could leave.
Now don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute of Korea, but at that time I was starting to feel that I was missing out on stateside life as a teenager. I was beginning to feel like I was being left out of the grand stateside experience called “teenage life” that was going on back there without me.
To make things even worse, kids who were newly arrived talked about television shows that I had never seen or heard of and how wonderful it was to hang out at McDonald’s and go to movies that had just been released, and we had none of that on Yongsan.
Those of us who were there in the late 1970s remember that everything we got was fairly old and outdated by the time we saw it. We might as well have lived on another planet when it came to what was going on in the States. Letters, magazines, and newspapers could take two weeks or more to reach us. The only contemporary thing that we got from the states were the latest dance songs from AFKN’s Don Tracy show, which unfortunately aired during the middle of the school day at 10am!
And if it wasn’t bad enough not having a car in Korea, for the 1977 Far East football championship game, the Korea All-Star Team flew to Yokota AB in Japan, and there we all realize that some of the kids that went to the high school on the base had little Datsuns and Toyotas of their own. A bunch of kids on base even had motorcycles and scooters! They were zipping around all over the base and we guys from Korea couldn’t be more jealous.
So February 7th 1979 finally arrived and our family went to Kimpo Airport for our flight to Japan and then home non-stop to San Francisco. Upon arrival in San Francisco exhausted and jet-lagged, there was a distinct look and feel to the place that was familiar yet still alien and strange after being away so long. I remember sitting in the airport feeling exhausted and relieved at the same time to finally have put Korea in my rear view mirror.
That same night we took a non-stop flight from San Francisco to Atlanta where we rented a car and drove to my paternal grandparents home in Tuscaloosa Alabama. My first cousin, who was my age and lived with my grandparents had a little four-door Toyota that he zoomed all over town in and I was completely smitten with the freedom he had and the fact that he could go anywhere anytime he wanted! I couldn’t wait to get to our next assignment at Fort Monroe Virginia so that I could put money the I had saved from summer hire in Korea towards a car.
As soon as was humanly possible, I had my father teach me some basic driving skills and we went to the DMV to get my learner’s permit. My father spent the next couple of weeks teaching me how to drive proficiently and then told me that he felt I was ready to go take my road test to get my license.
On that fateful day we arrived at the DMV bright and early and I walked proudly up to the window and presented the license form to the clerk and said I wanted to take a driving test. The I smiled brightly and proudly at him. He looked down at the paper, flipped it over once or twice, and said where’s your certificate of driver’s education completion? I said my what? He said your certificate of driver’s education, you can’t get a license in the state of Virginia under 18 until you’ve taken driver’s education!
I vaguely remember the air seeming to slowly seep out of my body as the disappointment overwhelmed me. I was 16, a junior in high school, and the year was almost already over. The only way that I could take driver’s education would be to do it in the summer time, which meant that I had to go to summer school in Virginia, “in the summer”. If you’ve ever spent a summer in Virginia you know what I’m talking about.
So that summer I took driver’s education and qualified to get my license midway through July. Once again, I went to the DMV to take my road test and get my license, which I successfully passed. On the way home from the DMV, driving my dad’s Buick Skylark, I told him that I planned to buy a car. He casually asked what kind? I excitedly told him that a friend had a sporty old 68 Mustang that I had just enough money to get! I think I remember the sound of air rushing out of my father’s mouth as he looked at me and said no way in _______ you’re getting a car like that. Not straight out of the gate you’re not!
He said the only car he felt comfortable with me driving was the little Vega Wagon that he had bought upon our return from Korea to use until our new car could be delivered from the dealer. It was an international orange ’74 Vega Wagon with a blistering top speed of 45mph downhill with hurricane force winds at your back. It had absolutely no power and certainly no sex appeal, but no matter how hard I pleaded to buy the Mustang, he was unrelenting.
He wanted me to have a car that didn’t have a lot of power because he knew that if I had something that was sporty and fast, I’d probably wrap it around a tree two weeks after I got it. So I bought the Vega Wagon from my father and drove it through my second year in college when I finally bought a 1977 Firebird Formula, the car of my dreams.
In retrospect, I think now about how desperately I wanted to get back to the United States so that I could get a car and have my freedom, but after being home for a year and graduating high school with an unfamiliar class of people that I barely knew, I longed for my time back in Korea and would have gladly relinquished my car to go back to Seoul American and graduate with the people who I knew best and loved the most.
Somewhere in the back of my mind the old phrase that says the grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence comes to mind.