Sunday, December 11, 2016

Death of a Revolutionary

I was alone honing my pitching skills on the hill near my house by throwing rocks at empty soda cans. I used to do this after school everyday because I didn’t want to go to the abacus lessons. I mean we were living in a later part of the twentieth century. Who needed an abacus? Screw doing meaningless calculations. I had a future in major league baseball, not in being a grain grocer.

“Hey watch out!” Someone shouted. Before I got a chance to look back, a stray baseball from the other side of the lot hit me in the back of the head and knocked me down. I got up and retrieved the ball. Embarrassing. “Are you okay?” It was Jun, waving his glove from a far. I could tell that it was him because of his thick eyebrows. I nodded stupidly and threw the ball back to him.

Jun didn’t remember this when I told him about the incident when we were in class together in our high school senior year.
“I was intimidated by you back then, always looking sharp, hanging out with older boys,”
I was looking at a skinny, badly dressed teenager with a black eye. He just smiled. I remember these little things. I guess people don’t.
“Well, you like me better like this, right?” He said. And I nodded. Except for the black eye. I was worried about him.

Jun was around. A kid from the neighborhood. We went to the same elementary school. I don’t think we were ever buddy-buddies but we knew each other’s existence. He came to my mother’s clinic when he was sick. My mother knew everyone in the neighborhood. It came with the territory. She told me about Jun’s family; his family fortune dwindled when his father died in an accident when he was in middle school.

Being in high school, it meant only one thing- study day and night for college entrance exam. But the politics and what’s going on around the campus (our school was conveniently located right in the middle of the University Way, a cultural mecca and favored demonstration spot for college students), seeped into the classrooms. It was still dangerous time in Korea. Military dictatorship was still in place and dissidents were violently oppressed and persecuted. Student protests were daily occurrences. Molotov cocktails were thrown and tear gas lingered the street.

Even the teachers were divided. Young, idealistic recent college graduates were supportive of demonstrators. The older teachers just thought the younger ones were hopelessly idealistic or, worse yet, North Korean spies and communists! Study, they would say. Still want to take to the street? After the exam! If you don’t study now, you don’t get to go to good colleges and that means you won’t get good jobs and you will be a failure in life. Period.

Jun had become a studious fellow. He was one of the best in class. He excelled in English, Science and math but especially Korean Literature. He was a spelling champ. It was a well known fact that he was involved in student protests. There were times he would be called out of the class by some authority figures. And other times he would be absent. Teachers regarded him as a nuisance and would give him hard time. They picked on him and beat him- the practice was common when I was growing up. And they regularly called him a commie.

Mainstream media didn’t report missing persons cases that often. But there were always rumors of arrested college student demonstrators going missing and turning up dead, supposedly tortured by riot police squad. Most of us didn’t believe it until we saw some photos that were put up around our school by so-called agitators. A dead bloated body of a young man- one of the missing protesters, was fished out from a river. His eyes bulging out from a blackened face. The pictures were very disturbing. Couple days later they were taken down by the police. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jun had been involved in pasting those pictures up.

A lot has happened in the past seven years; Korean people democratically elected a president for the first time after a long military dictatorship, two of the former presidents were indicted of corruption and found responsible for the massacre of civilians with their roles in military coup, and then the end of the bubble economy in the late 90s. My mother told Jun that I am in town. He arranges a party for my homecoming. We hadn’t seen each other for a long time.
He is still living near where my parents live. I meet him near the bus stop. We ride the bus together, which is heading to the University Way. He’s aged. He got rid of his glasses. But his eyebrows are still impressive. 3 years of military service, putting head on the ground (military drill, where you do push-ups with your head and feet without using your hands) explains of his rapidly receding hairline, or so he says. All this time, I’ve been dying to find out about his revolutionary past. “You were pretty passionate back then, about things, “ “Like what?” He says. “You know, what was going on in the streets, demonstrations…” He waives off my inquiries as the bus turns on to a traffic jam. “That was long time ago, when we were young…” He trails off. Long time ago? When we were young? That is it? “It is important that you don’t give up what you believe in.” I say stupidly, He looks at me dispassionately. Then he looks away. It is an uncomfortable ride rest of the way.

Over unnaturally hot, cheap street food and Soju (cheap Korean malt liquor), a half dozen of us spew crass humor about women, making fun of our physical appearances and talk about good old days. But we never talk about Jun’s revolutionary past.