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Alabama Slim: It All Started in Korea

Chapter 3
It Just Gets Better and Better

March 1970

    I awoke to another cold splash from a bucket of water. “So you wear intelligence brass, but you say you no spy. You think we stupid?”
    Now normally, I would have found this another lead in from the straight guy in a comedy routine, but my back was sore and I was still catching my breath from a recent fist to the stomach. So I decided I should at least try to follow the directions of that old veteran of Vietnam and kept my wise retort to myself and avoid commenting on their intelligence.
    “Again, what are you doing in North Korea?” said the inquisitor.
    Forgetting resolve to play it quiet only seconds later, I responded, “I told you, I was having a little jog in the country when your people kidnapped me,” raising my voice to emphasize, “on the South Korean side of the border!” As I got couple of slaps on the face, jarring my teeth and picturing old toothless in my mind’s eye, I realized that I had again failed to take good advice.
    He spoke more Korean to his subordinates, then I was untied, dragged across the floor, and taken back to my cell, where I was thrown into the urine stink of the concrete floor. I pushed myself up and moved into a corner and propped my back against the wall, wincing and wiping a bit of blood, rice paddy dung and floor scum from my face with what was left of my sleeves and shirt tail. My dress greens coat, torn and tattered, provided some warmth, otherwise the cold damp cell would have been completely unbearable.
    At times like this, despite my wayward youth over the last year, I would reach out to God. In fact, thoughts went through my brain about all those people in the bible who were punished when they strayed to far from God. I began to think about my time so far in the Army when I began to drink occasionally, perhaps too much and when I finally succumbed to the flesh as they talk about in the bible. I had let Satan bring me down with the peer pressure and taunts, when I should have held firm to my beliefs. So I began praying the Lord’s Prayer slowly at first, then more loudly and boldly. I added in the 23rd Psalms, repeating and rotating the only lengthy bible memories I had. Somehow, it gave me a good feeling, especially after a guard came by and began beating on the cell door with his night stick. Finally, he left, shaking his head. I added a chorus of Amazing Grace, Onward Christian Soldiers, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic in the mix, at least the first verses of each.
    It was about an hour later that an officer and two soldiers came to the door and had me dragged out of the cell, pounding my shoulders along the way. I got quiet then—no sense antagonizing them. At the table once again, the officer sat across from me and stated, “There is no God. I am your god here. Don’t make this god angry!”
    I continued, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…”
    “Good,” the officer said, “rod and staff, good,” then he nodded and lights out once again. Later, when I awoke lying on the floor, my face in vomit, I decided to keep my religion to myself. I was not sure how many more raps on my head I could take without permanent damage, and I certainly felt the last one may have caused a minor concussion considering my raging headache.
~ * ~

    The next few days were a blur, but I was not interrogated again. I had only the piss buckets and food passed in and out of the cell to keep track of the days and nights. The food was usually a bowl of barley gruel with some green, unrecognizable vegetable slime in it. Occasionally, the barley was even left out. However, every few days I’d get a cold baked potato. I ate the latter with skin and all— I remembered reading somewhere that the skin had vitamins. They sneered at me on potato days like it was a despised meal, but I thought it was great, under the circumstances..
    Two meals and one piss bucket I took to mean a day had passed, so it was about a week before I was brought out again. Two soldiers came in and roughly shackled and handcuffed me and dragged me out of the cell and took me outside into the biting cold. I then realized the cell was a warm place by comparison. I ended up in another building which was sided with gray concrete. The entrance opened into a large room brightly lit with florescent bulbs. The big room had a large poster of Kim Il Sung on the far wall and several other propaganda posters adorned the other walls with uniformed men and women in various poses or formations. I assumed the Korean lettering on them giving the propaganda of the day. The only furniture was a table at the other end, with one Caucasian man in gray civilian clothes seated behind it. A chair was facing him on my side of the table. I was roughly seated in that chair and had my hands cuffed to the rails on the gray metal chair back.
    The white guy spoke some Korean and the cuffs were removed, but the shackles remained. I pulled my arms onto the table and rubbed my wrists and tried to get some circulation. The room was still so cold that I could see my breath, but it beat my cell and was a hell of improvement from the wind outside.
    “Hello, I’m Charley. I am here to help you if you will let me,” he said with an American accent, making an effort to smile, but you could tell it was forced.
    I just kept my mouth shut and did not respond.
    He looked down at some sheets of paper in front of him, the top one had Korean typed on it. “I understand that you were captured on the wrong side of the border and were caught with a camera. I also understand that you are intelligence. You are in some very serious trouble here. They shoot spies here - without a trial. You are only alive today out of the benevolence of the local military.”
    Again, I did not say anything. Too bad I had not learned that a few bruises ago.
    “OK, I get it, you’re a tough guy. That’s what they teach us, keep our mouth shut; name, rank and serial number bullshit. I understand,” he said. “However, if you do not wise up, you are going to be one dead hero and there is nothing I can do about it. And, you want to know the worst part, they just say that you deserted and came over to our side. Nobody will be the wiser, you’ll be dead and your memory will be a disgrace to family and friends back home.”
    Silence. The last part stunned me, but I had put on my best poker face from the time I sat down. Hey, I’m getting good at this.
    “OK,” he drawled out, “You don’t have to tell any secrets or sellout your buddies. You can make this easy on yourself. All you have to do is sign this paper,” he pulled out a piece of paper, stapled with carbons and other sheets beneath it. It was typed in Korean and English, with my name at the bottom. He then passed it over to me and said, “Then, just make a brief interview on a tape recording reading the English part below and you will not be shot. It’s that easy.”
    I looked it over and realized it was the same ol’ propaganda bullshit about how I was a spy and I invaded their country and that I realize now how wonderful North Korea is and how thankful I am that their great leader Kim Il Sung has been lenient and understanding of my American brainwashing and has forgiven me—only minor paraphrasing here.
    “So let me get this straight, I sign this and you send me home a free man?”
    “Oh no, you then become a welcomed citizen of the People’s Republic of Korea and live here happily ever after. Just look at me. Once I defected, I got a free apartment, a beautiful wife and a good job. I’m doing a lot better now than I was when I was in the States, struggling in a shit job, when I could find work, or getting drafted and mistreated by the Army. They can help you, provide you with a better life as well,” he said, a little less enthusiastically than I think he wanted to portray. Even more soberly, “You don’t want to go back after you signed that anyway, do you?”
    “OK, what’s the catch? What’s in this for you?” I asked, playing for time out of that stinking cell and portraying myself like a chump who was just short of falling for his sales pitch. I heard about what happened to the Korean War defectors who returned to the States later and wanted no part of it. The Alabama boy in me said ‘Piss off. I ain’t no traitor,’ in my mind, but my brain kept all that in check. The more they thought I was a possible turncoat, the more chance they would make a mistake and I could break out of here. At least, that was my new strategic theory, or more like my desperate hope.
    “OK, I see I cannot bullshit a bullshitter, so here’s the bottom line. You sign this paper, I get in good with the party and we both win. You don’t die, I get a better deal here,” he said sourly. “You either learn how to play along in this country, or you don’t play at all, get my meaning?” I guess he figured honesty and the tough sales approach would work better with someone with half a brain.
    “How long do I have to think about it?”
    “Are you stupid or just plain crazy! They are going to shoot you in the morning if you don’t sign this.”
    I stared at him blankly and we began a ‘who will blink first’ contest.
    I won as he said, “OK, they told me that I could give you one day to think about it, then come back tomorrow morning for your final answer. But I swear, if you do not sign it by tomorrow, you are a dead man, do you understand me?”
    “Thanks. I’ll give you my answer then.”
    He motioned for the guards, who returned, cuffed me again and led-dragged me back to my cell. This adventure was looking more like a B-rated war movie more and more. What next?


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