When magnolia and lilac blossom in New York City

Contributor: Kay Lee

It was in 1973 when I was a second grader at Sangmyeong school when you were with an American design firm named Trans-Asia Engineers (TAE) in Main Post of Yongsan Garrison.  You had to pick me up at my school in Samkakji as my class ended about 2 p.m. While you had to stay with a large slanted drafting board until five in the afternoon, I walked around the offices peeking into here and there.

Topic: architecture, cultural exchange, Education, Engineering, History, Language, People, Yongsan Legacy

KayNam standing in front of the main gate of Building S1510 on Main Post in Yongsa garrison in 1973. Source: Kay Nam

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Dear Dad,

Thanks for letting me know that the U.S. Army Yongsan Garrison was opened to public on October 2, by a limited bus tour.  The caption for the photo of The Korea Times says that the area is now open to the public for the first time in 114 years, following the occupation by the Japanese Imperial Army and later stationing of the U.N./U.S. Forces.

The other photo by Chosun Ilbo shows a stream running through the garrison from east to west which discharges the rainwater into covered stream along Sangmyeong Elementary School after crossing Samkakji 삼각지 (the school has been relocated). I remember the granite stone walled trench running clear water originating from the foot of Mt. Nam and Itaewon. I didn’t know it had a name “Mancho” 만초.

It was in 1973 when I was a second grader at Sangmyeong school when you were with an American design firm named Trans-Asia Engineers (TAE).  You had to pick me up at my school in Samkakji as my class ended about 2 p.m. While you had to stay with a large slanted drafting board until five in the afternoon, I walked around the offices peeking into here and there.

Building 1510 (TAE Headquarters on Main Post Yongsan garrison) and Kay standing in front of the main entrance 1973

And I’ve met, among others, the Korea’s last Prince Kyu Lee 李玖 and Mr. Gifford Cheeseman who were sitting at flat desk. “Hi,” they said smiling and that was my first English lesson. Mr. Lee was about your height but Mr. Cheeseman had a puffy stomach.

There was a soil and concrete testing laboratory where you were giving instructions to technicians. They used a round sieves to shake gravel and sand and made some concrete samples and put them into a bath tub like water tank. You told me they need to be cured before making breaking tests – bending and compression I’ve learned later in my college years. The next to the laboratory was a large printing machine, like a vertical piano, to produce large blue prints. The room smelled terrible – it was ammonia to process the blue drawings.

One day Mr. Cheeseman took me to magnolia and acacia treed area behind the TAE’s office marked 1510 on the hill of North Post of U.S. Army Yongsan Garrison.

There was a large furry dog with his leash end loosely hooked on to a horizontal wire of some 40 feet long, like a low hanging laundry line. The dog was happily running sliding along the wire for exercise.

The white magnolia flowers had fallen and it was blossoming season for acacias. The aroma of acacia flowers was fragrant. I gestured to Mr. Cheeseman it’s a good idea to keep the dog in this way, and I also said about the perfuming smell coming from the acacia flowers were sweet.  The old man understood every words of my Korean. He seemed to be not too busy – holding my hand and tried to introduce me to everyone.

Nearly a half century of time has passed since.

Promenading alone in early spring around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in New York City, the magnolias and lilacs in the Central Park remind me of that groves behind the building 1510 in the Yongsan Garrison.  Somehow, I don’t see acacias here in New York park but the scent of lilacs retrospect me of the honey flavor of Seoul’s acacia flowers.  Would the new Yongsan Park management office of Korea demolish the building 1510 next year?  Since they may not consider it as a historical structure, I fear it might disappear ending some 56 years of existence in Yongsan Garrison, along with my childhood happy memories, and with your reminiscences as well, I’m sure, Dad.

Kay in Central Park and Kay with her Mother in NYC_2018_ Photo Source: Kay

American as well as Korean soldiers wear rather loosely fitting camouflaged combat uniform and boots nowadays everywhere in their garrison or in the town.  I hope the time will come again soon when they could wear well starched, pressed smart khaki uniform with the old flat Garrison Cap. Everyone would feel peace in town.

Very best wishes to you and Mom,

Kay Lee, New York City, Oct 16

P.S. The upper deck of the George Washington Bridge was closed yesterday due to early snow storm in New York, New Jersey, creating a chaos in the traffic.

P.P.S. I’ve read about Marsha Altvater’s returning to Seoul from America in search of lost family. It’s a sad yet happy ending story. Marsha remembered the “Mancho” stream near the Gate #1 at Samkakji, which she called it a gully. I hope the new Yongsan Park Management won’t cover the gully which may be only open stream in Seoul and as so many of U.S. Army veterans from Yongsan Garrison would long remember the brook.

Map of Seoul locating Former Gate 1 to Yongsan Garrison (current gate16) and the open stream. Source: Kay