American Interlude

by Fred Colton

There was a small US Army checkpoint building in the DMZ and the North Korean soldiers kept crashing their heavy trucks into it to be a pain in the ass. It was on a narrow road near the Joint Security Area and they’d purposefully take the corner by the checkpoint too fast so they would skid into the little building and knock the aluminum roof off. Vehicular bowling of sorts.

This was in 1973, my grandfather said. The war had been on pause for twenty years at that point but the passive aggression still simmered at the border. He was an Air Force engineer stationed at Yongsan and he got orders to construct a stouter building of reinforced cinder blocks with a sturdier roof on top that would rip open the next kamikaze truck like a can opener—which is what happened when they finished the building. It was an atypical job site, with North Korean soldiers buzzing by in their trucks. Atypical, but manageable. The axe murder incident was still a few years away and so the border tension hadn’t yet been cranked up to a full boil.

My grandfather told me this sliver of a story when I was back at home for Lunar New Year. My visit is a key stop on the hometown comeback tour. We each had a bottle of Beck’s, as per the ritual, and he started talking when I mentioned my visit to the DMZ. He was an Air Force lifer and did tours in Vietnam and Germany and wherever else the Pentagon brass thought a Communist domino was about to fall. He has on-the-ground anecdotes from the Cold War but he’s never been very forthcoming with sharing them. Comets pass by more often. I figured it was due to our lack of common ground. A shared last name only does so much to bridge the chasm between someone who remembers a time before North Korea and Israel existed and me, a member of the softest generation of all time.

Things changed when I moved abroad. I wasn’t of much interest to him until then. I’ve learned that what works is traveling to the same countries my grandfather did forty years ago and then coming back home with a few stories chambered. Usually they contain the right keywords to trigger a memory and when they do, you’re suddenly conducting a History Channel interview.

After the Becks we had braised lamb and wine with my grandmother to complete the ritual. They had opera coming out of the speakers by the fireplace. The grandparents went to bed and I went out to the brick sidewalk to be collected by two high school friends. I was home for the first time in a year, so we had to go drink. We rolled out of the colonial enclave my grandparents live in and slid around corners on gray slush. You could have hidden a column of tanks in snowpiles from the last blizzard. This is Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a seacoast city which could be a carbon copy of an English town except for the accents and that they drive on the right.

The bar’s ceiling was held up by rough wooden columns that will give you splinters. It was the setting for the most sacred of stops on the comeback tour: talking shit with the townies for a few hours. Putting down an imprecise amount of tall lagers and becoming very loud and very certain about things. Most of the reunions are devoted to reminiscing, running through our squad’s Greatest Hits, a set list sanded and smoothed over time. Stories that every group has, like the parking lot brawl five years ago that started when Brian made fun of someone’s Limp Bizkit shirt, a brawl we only won because one of our guys was a Division II linebacker.

Then we shifted gears and talk about who just died. There’s a new body every time I come home; one guy was a Marine who got shot in the head and the rest have been overdoses. You can’t really draw a clear cause-effect line from it all, but the deaths seem to underscore the bleak always-winter ambiance in the Northeast. My friends eventually asked why this is all it ever is, why I only surface for about seventy-two hours a year. I gave the rambling answer of a drunk, an expat’s manifesto of sorts. I said that I’ve been getting more detached the more time I spend abroad, and that it’s led me to appraise America as I would any other foreign country. Besides my family and twenty-four hour breakfast diners there’s not a lot I miss. You can get everything else overseas. Public transport in most cities is abysmal, if it exists at all, which means you have to own a car and pay all the hidden fees that come with it. It costs more to get sick here than it does anywhere else I’ve been. The rant continued: I’ve had to pay four figures in court fees because I got pulled over without proof of insurance in the glove box. What I didn’t say out loud, to not come off as such a highly-enlightened prick, was that I’ve started to weigh everything experientially, to think about what kind of stories I want to be collecting. You can stay busy punching Boston Irish guys in a cold parking lot or you can motorbike Filipino Islands and watch the run rise over the Tibetan Plateau.

Then it was back to the airport for the return hike to Asia. More places to see; that hunger never really goes away. We got airborne before the next storm hit. It was 6 a.m. and the plane made a slow cut over downtown Boston, with its small towers and stone churches, whited-out and glowing soft on the harbor. Beautiful, even if you’ve seen it a hundred times. But only from up here, really, and only from a distance.

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9 comments

  1. Yeah, every time I go home I feel a little more the odd man out, even though I have been missing home more and more lately. Nice, evocative piece. I still need to make it to New England one day. It’s the only region of the country where I’ve never been. Also, the stuff with your grandpa is similar to what happened with an uncle of mine. He was in the Navy for years and spent a lot of time deployed in Asia/Pacific. He never seemed to take an interest in me too much before–always a bit distant. Ever since I moved to Korea and started travelling and writing about my experience here, our relationship changed; he became very interested in what I was doing and writing and has become one my biggest supporters back in the extended family back home. Interesting how these dynamics play out.

    1. It’s hard to tell people what being abroad is like because they ask you about it, but don’t really listen to the answer. You have to have short, high-impact soundbites ready. Also, make sure you visit NE in the summer. Better weather and fewer obnoxious Patriots fans.

      1. Good piece, Fred. I found the same thing – people don’t really listen. Partly because they’re asking massive questions that take too much time (“What’s Korea like?”) and I think partly because unless they’ve been there they have nothing to relate it to, nothing to add, no way into the conversation. Living abroad has been great in many ways, but has a profoundly alienated me from a lot of people through no real fault on anyone’s part. Just how it goes I suppose.

  2. Funny how expanding your world is amazing an it makes you feel like a liar at the same time. You question previous opinions and it is embarrassing. At least it is to me most of the time.

  3. From the opening paragraph I thought it was another Colton historical fiction type piece like the Last Soju Factory. Then a lot of parallels to how travel changed my connection to my grandfather. We weren’t really interested in each other until I spent a month driving from LA to PV to DF and then up through the Chihuahua desert to Juarez. Things changed after that. The part about townies, Bizkit, and bar fights: yeah, sounds right. But the ending about the turn around downtown and appreciation for it from a distance, well done. Dig it.

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