Korea: Memories of a distant thunder

Thumbnail image for al-martinez-photo.jpgI do not think very often of the Korean War. My wariness of the twilight's "killing hour" is gone, I don't search hiking trails for land mines anymore and I don't usually jump at sudden explosive noises. Even when I see photographs of me in Marine dungarees on ground we took at the point of a bayonet they are only black and white memory shots, not deeply disturbing reminders of the physical and emotional pain of war. I have processed all of that over the years. It's only a distant thunder now.

But something happened the other night that took me back three decades to the killing fields that once bloodied the Asian peninsula whose division had become a symbol of the Cold War. Part of a mini-series on the war called "Fire and Ice" was playing on television. The set had been left on for background noise with no one watching. I sat before it reading a magazine and everyone else was in the dining room.

When I realized what the show was, I called for the others to come and see the war I had fought a long time ago. Come and see your husband charging up a hill; come and see your father loaded down with weapons; come and see your grandpa thin and hard and angry. See napalm blossoming like fiery red roses on an icy hillside. See tanks roaring and clattering by and Corsairs diving low; see me transfixed by the violent calligraphy, a witness to the end of the world.

But no one responded.

I think they were playing a family game that included our two-year-old Gracie. Her laughter tinkled like wind chimes over the happy chatter of the group, distanced from me by the stone wall of a fireplace and by, well, generations and interest. It was an attitude not unlike that which prevailed in the 1950s when the war was actually being fought. Interest even then was slim, though tens of thousands would die. It was a police action, not a war; a conflict; a U.N. response.

So I sat alone before the television set and was pulled deeper into my isolation to the Hwachon Reservoir where half of a Marine Battalion was lost; to Hill 749, the most terrifying night of my life where my best friend died in my arms; to gruesome images of napalm-blackened enemy corpses, fathers and brothers and sons, who had died in the posture of their flight.

I turned off the TV and sat staring at the set until Cinelli called for me to join them. My face, tired and old, reflected off the darkened screen. "Come on," she coaxed, "the war is over." The face left the screen as I rose from my chair, willing to walk away but knowing that the horror still festers in a corner of my soul, and that the war will never be over.

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