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Alabama Slim: It All Started in Korea

Prelude

April 1984

    I was running as I normally do when setting trail and fleeing the pursuit of the hounds, with long strides, putting distance between me and them as fast as I can. It was an easy ten km mixed urban and cross-country trail, nothing too straining at the peak of my health, but nevertheless a requiring a some work from time to time. As I began to climb Namsan, I increased my pace and shortened my strides entering a wooded mountain area off the beaten track. I slapped a hand full of flour against trees as I passed and was in my element, happily marking and haring a trail.
    I heard some shouting behind me, but could not make out the words at first, then they came in clear, “Jungji!”. When it became “Halt!” in English, it was obvious. I remembered being told there were armed Korean guards who regularly patrolled these woods for infiltrators from the North who may be using this as a place to hide out in the middle of Seoul. After hearing police whistles, it took all of about three seconds to consider my strategy options at this point. Stop, raise my arms, be taken in and have to explain why I was running through the woods spreading a suspicious white substance everywhere, or run like hell. It was an easy decision. I glanced back and saw that the guards were now in view between the trees, but at least a hundred yards behind me. I also knew they used shotguns and not rifles, so that if they had to fire, the shots would not end up in someone’s house or building down the mountain. Which meant, fortunately for me, they probably could not hit me—yet. A warning shot behind me added a bit of adrenaline to the decision as I picked up my pace.
    So off I went, pouring on the steam and, still marking the trees. I mean, it was only fair that I give them a chance by laying a trail for them to follow me, right? Actually, I wanted them to follow me so that they did not bother the pack of runners, the hounds, who were probably only a few minutes behind me.
    Of course, I was in my peak condition during this time in my life, having competed in numerous races and running or bicycling up and down this steep mountain almost daily. So, the distance between me and the very angry Korean guards was widening at a satisfying rate and they were now out of sight.
    After reaching about half-way to the mountain top, I managed to come out onto one of the entrance roads into the park. Being an arrogant hare and confident I had the time, I briefly put a check (intersection mark) on the road and laid a short false trail up hill, then quickly sprinted down hill splashing flour as I went. I was going so fast that once I almost tripped over my own feet, but urgency seemed to be called for here. I was taking full advantage of my superior condition (or so I hoped) and with my Nikes vs. their combat boots, I quickly put more distance between me and the guards. Then, it happened - I could hear the distinctive whine of a jeep climbing the mountain road below. It was now probably only a couple of switchbacks away.
    I chalked a small arrow pointing into the woods that most people would not even notice, and left the road. It was steep down the sides at that point, so I had to run sideways so my waffle-bottomed running shoes could get a grip on the embankment as I run-hopped down the hill. Fortunately, I had plenty of practice negotiating steep cross-country like this, so I was well behind many trees before I saw a vehicle pass between them above. I was right, it was a military vehicle and it was probably answering the call to search for the illusive infiltrator who escaped the network of guards.
    My only concern at that point was envisioning the pack of about 15 runners stumbling out of the woods at the wrong time right into the hands of the Korean troops. Some of the members of my pack were U.S. military officers who would, at the least, be embarrassed to answer their presence in the woods, and at the worst, have their careers affected by my foolishness of laying the trail in this controlled area. There was nothing I could do now but keep laying trail and hope for the best for the pack and the ignorance of the guards not to be able to follow the trail.
    It was only a few minutes later that I reached the bottom of the mountain and finally hit pavement again. I wound the trail through the narrow streets and alleys of Itaewan to the bar/restaurant where I decided to finish. After reminding the girls I was married and did not need their company, I managed to get a cold OB (Oriental Brewery beer) and quickly began quenching my thirst. It was another twenty minutes before the first front running bastard (FRB), as we call the front-runners, came huffing and puffing into the bar. By then I was more slowly working on my second OB and had three others ready for the first runners who would come through the door.
    I decided to play coy and see what happened after I left the mountain. Sure enough, the FRB managed to get out some words after chugging half his beer, “Must be some Korean alert going on, the woods were swarming with soldiers.” It is rare to see Bill (hash name Spook) so serious, so I waited for the other shoe to drop.
    “But,” he grinned, “they were above the trail and did not see us. You sure took a chance laying trail through the woods like that. Aren’t those woods off limits?”
    I gave a knowing smile, but did not reply.
    “You bastard you!” Bill said with surprise on his face. “You did that on purpose. We are going to drown you later, you know that don’t you?” Referring the chugging ceremony known as the Down Down we hold after every trail.
    Just then, my other half, Kumiko (nicknamed Long Stockings), came into the bar with that sly smile she always has when she is not happy with me. Slamming her fist against my shoulder, she said, “Honorable Husband,” (oh here it goes, she is only in her ancient Japanese subservient mode when I am about to get it with both barrels) “you did it again. You almost make trouble with the Koreans. This is just like the time we learn not to blow whistles. Good lesson, as some of us would be in jail now.” My cute spouse was referring to our attempt to import the Okinawa tradition of the runners blowing whistles and bugles when spotting trail markings, the first day we started this group. It resulted in Seoul Korean police swarming on the pack. Her and the other members managed to squeeze out of any repercussions by protesting ignorance as foreigners and promising never to do it again. Of course, I was ahead haring the trail and missed all the drama.
    As others came in and began filling other tables up, I hollered, “On In!” which was echoed by others already in the bar. Beers were passed around and the general mood was elevated due to the adventure on the mountain. We conducted a brief Down Down ceremony where I drank a couple of chug-a-lugs for the hazardous trail and we sang some songs and welcomed new members to the Namsan Hash House Harriers, the first hounds and hares group in Korea to allow both men and women.
    Afterwards, I grabbed Kumiko and planted one on her to the echoes of “Get a room!” Such public displays were difficult for one raised in Japanese culture, but she responded briefly, then pushed me away in embarrassment. This was the second marriage for Kumiko and myself, but we were on our honeymoon and everyone knew it. Although we had lived together in Korea for about six months after we both came over from Okinawa, the paperwork and bureaucracy would not allow us to marry until this month. However, the delay did allow us to have the wedding on our birthday, which strangely enough was the same day for both of us, seven years apart. It was a major coup for a husband, who would thereafter never forget his anniversary.
    “Well,” said Bill, “speaking of the trail, that’s the most action I have seen since I’ve been here. This being my first tour in Korea, I expected more, but it’s been six weeks now of boring work. It is only these trips up here from Humphreys that offers some fun.”
    I turned to my friend and said, “Don’t ask for something you may not want given its history. You don’t know the half of it Spook, but Korea can surprise you when you least expect it. You may not know it, but I was stationed here before - back in ‘69 and ‘70. This was a walk in the park, no pun intended, compared to what happened to me here in ’69 when I went out for a casual jog. I’ll tell you about it later.”
    “Oh no!” said Kumiko, “no more war stories. We make love, not war!”
    “Oh, Kumiko, let the man talk” said an inquisitive Bill.
    “This is not a story I share with everyone, but considering what I know about what you do, and our history together in some trials and trails in Okinawa, I may tell you some of it another time.” I said.
    “But now, we have some business to take care of at home.” said Kumiko, pulling on my arm and dragging me out of the bar.
~ * ~

A week later...

    “Yo Bill, over here,” I waved to him from the table in the corner, “where is everyone else?”
    “I was the only one able to come up. Randy was called up north and Jerry has duty tonight. I’m it for today’s little gathering, unless somebody else drifts in from the local area.”
    “Can’t seem to get people here to both drink and run. It’s one or the other for most. Two regulars have duty today and Kumiko had to go to Japan and get a police report for her visa,“ I said.
    “There’s always that story you promised to tell me about your previous tour here,” Bill winked.
    “Yeah, no trail today. I can tell the story and we can still drink. That reminds me, I think I am going to have something I have not had in a while,” signaling for the girl to come over.
    “Hey GI, whatcha want?”
    “Do you have any Oscar Champaign?”
    “Igoo! What’s wrong with my beer?” she replied.
    “Get thee away from me Satan!” Bill shouted. “The last time I drank that Kool-Aid I was puking all the next morning.”
    I presented the waitress with a twenty dollar bill and told her, “If you don’t have it, go out and get a couple of large bottles for me and keep the change. And, I want them cold now.”
    She smiled and nodded, put the twenty in her bra and headed out the door.
    “Hey,” I said, “you want to hear this story, I need some liquid encouragement. I have some good memories, but some bad ones too. Just promise to keep it between us. You may have the clearance and you may be my best friend, but you really don’t have ‘need to know’ factor. But after helping me out of a tricky situation in Okinawa, I think I owe you an explanation.”
    “As a friend I would tell you that you don’t have to tell it if it’s going to be a bummer or a breach of security. But as a normally curious S.O.B., I can’t wait to hear it.”
    We made small talk for five minutes, then the girl returned with my bottles of sweet nectar and I quickly chugged the rest of my beer. She went to the bar and returned with a couple glasses, setting one in front of Bill.
    “Hell no!” Bill exclaimed, “I’ll stick to OB thank you. Bring me another,” handing back the glass.
    “Suit yourself,” I answered as I poured the first glass of Oscar, a pinkish sparkling mixed fruit wine that goes down like soda pop and hits you much later when you least expect it. “Ahhhh… now how to begin,” I said. “Oh well, we’ve got time, how about I start at the beginning. Bill did I mention that I was captured by the North Koreans?”
    “Bullshit!”
    “Well, it was like this...”


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