My “chin gu” (friend) , Dong Chul Lee, in Korea around 1977-1978.
A couple of weekends ago, we had the perfect snow storm here in Seattle and I wrote about it in my previous post, called “The Perfect Storm”.
In that post, I mentioned that on the first two days of that four-day snowy weekend, I listened to a playlist I made of songs by Lizz Wright, that I call “Freshly Fallen Snow”.
The last two days of the snowy wonderland weekend, I listened to another playlist I made of songs by Lizz, which I call “Seconds of Pleasure (Sighsmic Activity)”.
On that playlist, Lizz does a cover of “Old Man”, a song written and sung by Neil Young, written as a tribute to a caretaker of a parcel of land, who presented the land to Neil Young, which Neil eventually purchased, and lives on.
Neil Young was one of the most influential songwriters and guitarists during the 60’s and 70’s and he’s still active to this day.
In 1976, I was in Monterey, California, at the Defense Language Institute (DLI), studying my heart out, in a 47-week intensive Basic Korean course.
We studied six hours a day, five days a week. I usually went an hour earlier and stayed an hour later because I enjoyed studying it so much.
I was in the Air Force at the time, and I was so glad to be there on the Monterey peninsula. It’s so beautiful there and….
……..DLI sits majestically on top of the hill overlooking Monterey Bay.
I had a “room with a view” and I found that to be an inspiring place to be studying a language.
(This is not a great picture but you get the idea, right?)
I like studying languages, even though I don’t think I have a gift for them. I just study hard. But it is interesting to me, to learn about the language, customs and culture of other countries. I think that’s where the fascination lies.
I had been stationed in South Korea, previously, for one year, as a missile maintenance specialist. But maintenance “ain’t my thing” 🤨 and so I was cross-training to become a Korean linguist.
For the first time in my life I felt passionate about something, other than music. I thought it might be worthy to pursue, on a long-term basis. Of course, it takes time to learn a language, but I had time, and no other passion pulling me in a different direction. The best part was the Air Force was paying me to learn it. 😊
While I was there I met Dong Chul. He lived in the room next to mine in the Air Force barracks. He was Korean, also in the Air Force, and he was going through the basic Korean course. But since he came to America at the age of 15, his Korean was good so he was focused more on the English side of the course, not the Korean, like I was.
Before going to DLI, while I was in Korea for my first tour there, I learned a lot of Korean songs that I liked. And Dong Chul had already lived in the States for about nine years so he had learned some American songs that he liked too.
He had been a Tae Kwon Do instructor for several years and he was good at soccer.
We were similar in age and we had a lot of things to talk about, Korean and American and otherwise. At the time (1976), we would hang out at a Denny’s restaurant, close to DLI. We would ride down the hill to the Monterey Denny’s, in his little convertible MG (it was his “Baby”), which sounded like it was on it’s last mile and I could see the pavement through a hole in the car floor, so I razzed him about it all the time.
It looked similar to this picture of an MG I got from MG’s website.
So, anyway, we became immediate friends through similar interests and values. We sometimes played and sang Korean songs together at DLI cultural functions, at the request of the Korean Department Staff and instructors, and sometimes, just for the fun of it, with friends.
One day, when we were sitting around, singing and playing, Dong Chul started playing “Heart of Gold”, just like Neil Young played it.
He played the harmonica and the guitar and he sang the song,
frawressry oops! flawlessly. (I’m just kidding!! If Dong Chul was here, HE’D be laughing. 😂 )
Seriously, I was surprised and touched by his performance.
He said it was one of his favorite songs. He strongly identified with the lyrics.
He was 25, and he felt like time was passing by quickly and he might not find that “just right” person to spend the rest of his life with.
He wanted to find a beautiful Korean girl with a “heart of gold”.
I told him, “When the time is right, you’ll find her.”
Anyway, after that, whenever we would play guitars together, I’d always ask him to play “Heart Of Gold”. And when we played together with friends, it became his signature song, and they would ask him to play it every time we all got together.
Just as I was surprised at hearing him play Neil Young’s song, he was just as surprised to see and hear me singing Korean songs. He hadn’t ever known any other American who sang Korean songs.
Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas
After DLI, our whole class went to Texas for additional training for the job we would be doing in Korea. We were stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base (AFB), in San Angelo, Texas.
We went to school from 6 a.m. to noon. Then we had lunch, cleaned the barracks and the surrounding area, and then we were free the rest of the afternoon and evening to do as we pleased.
We ran 2-3 miles, played basketball……….
……….went to the gym, or went downtown to do whatever we needed to do.
Sometimes we would just gather together on the barracks lawn, sit down facing the west, and talk as we waited for the sun to set. One of us would make a Baskin’ and Robbins run.
Then we would make our own ice cream cones and eat them as we quietly listened to classical music or jazz, while “we watched the edge disappear in the night”.
(I borrowed that expression from a cool lyric in a song, called “Real-Life Painting”, written by Lizz Wright and Maia Sharp. It’s in the first verse. Click on the link to hear it.)
Lizz’s lyric went like this……“I wanna see the edge before nightfall. The sun is setting. Let’s go! Let’s go.”
On occasion, a group of us would go to a nearby river, which had a picnic area and a bridge crossing the river. We would jump and dive off the bridge, do the barbecue thing, and close it out with a little “songfest”, with Dong Chul and I playing the guitars and everyone else singing along.
I regret that I don’t have any pictures of the group of friends and the place by the river. I think we were all having too much fun to think about pictures. Also that was a time way before the internet and iPhones.
But I did find one picture of me that I know was definitely taken there by the river but it doesn’t reveal anything about the place…….
…….it only reveals one thing, about one person 🤪 ……
But I do think this picture typifies the fun we had down by the river.
Also since I was in the Air Force, it was easy for me to “fly up” into a tree, holding a guitar. 😂
Return to Korea
After Texas, Dong Chul and I worked in Korea for a year.
During that year, Dong Chul asked me and our friend, Larry, to go with him to the country, where his family was from, to visit his maternal Aunt, whom he hadn’t seen for over 20 years. Dong Chul’s Mom passed away when he was young.
Of course, we said yes. We wanted to see where Dong Chul had grown up, as well as see parts of the country we had never been to before.
So we got on a bus…….
……….to catch a train to get as close to the village as we could.
Then we took a taxi to get a little closer to a point where we then could start walking……😀😊
…….to the house.
Dong Chul’s aunt was so happy to see him and he, her. They talked for a while and then it was decided that the three of us should get a row boat and row around a beautiful and big lake which was well-known in the area.
We returned to the Aunt’s house and Larry and I helped thrash some beans from their pods, with a “Turichae”, a hand-made farm tool (bean pod thrasher) made specifically for that work…….
Then it was time to go. All in all, it was kinda fun and a good experience to have for several reasons.
After Dong Chul finished his year in Korea, he got out of the Air Force, and went to the University of Maryland to study computers. We got busy with our lives and didn’t communicate for long periods of time. But we always seem to run into each other, every now and then, either in Korea or at NSA.
After I retired from the Air Force I went to work at NSA as a civilian, doing the same thing I was doing in the Air Force.
National Security Agency
Unbeknownst to me, Dong Chul was already there, working as a contractor to NSA in computers, so one day he happened to come into my office and we both were surprised! So we got together and caught up on all the changes in our lives.
He was so happy to let me know that he found that beautiful Korean girl with a “Heart of Gold”, with similar beliefs and values, and they had two kids.
I met her and the kids and they seemed like a “really good team for life”, and she WAS beautiful and she WAS good-hearted. It was good to see that he had realized his dream.
But a few years later, one of my co-workers, and a mutual friend of Dong Chul’s, Rusty Harrison, called me to tell me that Dong Chul was on the plane that the terrorists crashed into the Pentagon, on 9/11.
I was devastated. I went to the memorial service for Dong Chul and offered my condolences to his wife and kids and told her to let me know if there was ever any thing I could do for them.
Dong Chul had been a great friend to me all those years and I have a lot of good memories of the things we did together and the things we learned from each other.
P. S. I was never much of a fan of Neil Young’s music so I only knew a few of his more popular songs, but as I was searching on youtube for the links to “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man”, for this post, I ran across this Neil Young song, called “Harvest Moon”, which I really like! It’s the kind of song I will never get tired of listening to.
If Dong Chul would have heard it, I believe he would have liked it too and learned it.
“Heart of Gold” includes a guitar, a harmonica, and a “miner searching for his heart of gold”.
“Harvest Moon” includes a guitar, a harmonica, and a “miner who found his heart of gold”.