Mike, Jesse and I are walking across the square in front of Pusan train station. The Korean summer is forcing on us the smell of pickled squid, diesel exhaust and the sweating flesh of millions jostling inside the urban center. Hazy afternoon sunlight filters through the smog and stains everything the dull nicotine yellow of the old woman's teeth who is banging a metal box on the sidewalk in front of our trio. We're slightly lost, not really lost yet, but working on it about as hard as we can. Given stuttering directions half in Korean and half in bad English to a coffee place several blocks from where we started which naturally was a bar. We've managed to take three wrong turns and wind up on the opposite side of the street from where we began to get us to the point we're at now.
The police, forming up in riot gear, hustle into a ranked formation and load the weapons that they're carrying in response to the barked orders of the man obviously in charge. We pass within a few feet of their ranks as we walk toward the steps and the ramp leading up toward the train station. As actions slide back and then into place in a sort of sexual tribute to death, I notice the dark rubber bullets at the end of brass casings.
Protesters press toward curving lexan, more orders are barked and the red flags of the North Korean Communist Party snap under the false wind of waving arms. The police are nervous, the protesters are nervous, and I'm more than a little nervous about being inadvertently shot while wandering around lost in Pusan, Republic of Korea. You try being two inches short of six and a half feet tall and see how innocuous you can be someplace where the average height is something closer to five foot eight. Mike as usual picks up on this and steers our group at a ninety-degree angle away from the brouhaha. Fading into the background comes the sound of a protester hitting the ground, we walk a little faster and begin looking for suitable shelter.
The inside of the train station smells like urine. Ceiling fans make lazy orbits fifty feet overhead, the pea green tile extends halfway up the wall and is smeared with the grease of a countless hands everywhere within reach. Almost like a high tide line of humanity, the marks bear mute witness to everyone and everything that has come through this building. Two rows of chairs extending down one leg of the ell-shaped hallway open to the stairs and the courtyard on one side are held down by people who seemingly have no other purpose than to look bored. Mike is the first person to notice and the pervasive smell of effluent and makes the enlightened observations par for the course for him.
"Smells like piss in here, man." Vapidly staring at the ceiling Mike is wondering if it is a good idea for us to go back outside. The minor scuffle between police and protester has escalated into systematic beat down of the unarmed. This has in turn garnered the attention of an even dozen or so people in the train station who are apparently only slightly more amused by this than what is printed on their newspapers.
"You wanna go back outside with the commies?" I comment tersely while trying to figure out if that is actually blood or paint on the ground. With the red tinge of an actual sunset filtering through the perpetual dusk of the smog it makes it nearly impossible to tell. "I mean come on, the police are beating the shit out of those guys."
"Yeah, not like they're going to care if they nail us in the process either." Jesse is watching the old woman with the metal box drag a large sheet of cardboard with flyers rubber banded to it across the stairs. Her apparent destination is a large sloping ramp on the right side of the building. After another minute of our collective watching she has set up station again and has resumed banging effectively on the concrete, yelling in Korean. "You know, I remember something about these protests."
"What, like we're s'posed to stay the fuck away from them?" Light glints off of plastic as it arcs down into a shoulder with a red armband. The armband comes loose under the shock and flutters halfway to the pavement before the owner attempts to retrieve it. For his efforts he is rewarded with a sharp blow from a nightstick and suddenly slumps to the concrete, motionless. Standing where I am I find the scene difficult to digest. Not because of the brutality, the surreal quality of the environment makes it seem like some far off dream that I'll wake up from in an instant. Back on the ship, safe, the sound of the ocean rolling past the hull while I wonder about how many minutes I can sleep before I have to get up for work again. "Jesus, I can't believe we're just watching this happen."
"Whaddya wanna do? Go get our asses kicked too?" Mike mutters almost inaudibly.
"I know what you mean Yurei." Turning away, Jesse tries to concentrate on something other than what is spreading like cancer into the rest of the square in front of the train station. By this time, there are large numbers of spectators surrounding the area containing a hundred riot gear clad police to twice that number of protesters.
"It's just fucked up." A CS gas canister pops from a dispenser at the center of a phalanx of police near the edge of the square, floats in a lazy arc to bounce twice and begin dispensing it's rather dilute payload. Protesters scatter and red flags begin to disappear from the concrete playing field. Apparently the local law enforcement has had quite enough of this and has begun to bring out the icky toys.
Gas masks appear on uniformed faces and the spectators begin to fade farther and farther back. Slow tendrils of air push the dispersing gas clear of the square, more police rush up the steps of the train station and begin pushing the occupants out of the clear exit and down the ramp.
The idea strikes us at this point that it would be a good time to follow the now mobile lake of humanity, as they probably know where to go right now. We on the other hand, still have no idea where it is that we're going and don't really care.
My eyes begin to burn and water a little as we walk through a white tendril of the tear gas now almost completely faded from the station square. Scattered amidst the garbage on the concrete are several red armbands, the now dead CS gas canister and a huge number of political pamphlets. As we walk down the ramp we again near the old woman banging the metal tin on the ground.
Her hair is a shock white helmet pulled severely back across the top of her head into a tight bun at the back. The skin on her face is darker than most everyone else's around us and worn into a series of folds and ridges like an old pair of dogged leather hiking boots. Pamphlets arrayed on the cardboard sheet in front of her depict imagery that I can only assume is from other protests, some of it featuring the hammer and sickle logo I learned to fear as a child.
I was eight. My father and I are in the backyard. California's summer sunshine three thousand miles and seventeen years earlier. Yellow and cream electric lawnmower purchased from 84 Lumber two years earlier stopped due to my father not being able to cram anymore grass into the catch lies unplugged and on its side in the grass.
Chipping at the caked matter with a long flat head screwdriver has been interrupted by my questions, one of the most difficult I have ever asked my father. Lawrence Livermore National Lab's fence line sits as a gray bar in a wheat field two miles away, the buildings and complexes of Z-division just off Vasco road clearly visible.
"Dad, why do the Russians hate us?"
"What do you mean Mike?" He lays the screwdriver in the grass, adjusts the glasses on his nose and removes the grass stained gardening gloves protecting his hands. "They don't hate us. Don't be silly."
"Dad, if they don't hate us why are they pointing nuclear bombs at us?"
"Mike, they're different than we are, meaning they have a different system of government than we do and because they are afraid of us."
"Because we have nuclear bombs too."
"Yes, we've talked about mutually assured destruction before." My father's words cause me to shiver. I am probably the only eight year old within fifty miles of this ground zero who has a grasp of the concept. The explanation came after I had snuck out past bedtime and watched 'The Morning After' over my parent's shoulders.
They had known I was there, my little brother next to me as imagery more powerful than anything I had ever seen before flashed across the screen. The lingering fear of that white light haunted me for years afterwards. My dad pushes the glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose and continues, "you know how unlikely it is that nuclear war would ever happen."
"Why don't we get rid of them all?"
"That's very complicated. There are politicians that intend to do something like that."
"Do you think there's a Russian dad and a Russian kid like us?"
"Yes." My father and I stared at each other for a few silent moments. "Anything else Mike?"
"No dad." I thought for a few seconds and then added, "I don't hate them. The Russians."
"Good Mike, that's good." My father beckons me closer and we embrace. The cold fear of someone I have never met prepared to kill my mother and father, my little brother, forces a slight shiver down my back. I could see them there in a drab green uniform, eyes I hope clouded by tears, torn by guilt while turning a key and signing the death warrant of his own son. That man knowing the total gravity of the decision to make a simple turn of the wrist. The finality of the circuit being closed echoing hollow through the bunker like a gunshot as ICBM's warm up and began to prepare for a now inevitable flight.
Fifteen minutes to live, fifteen minutes to say goodbye.
Then white light and I find out if the Reverend at church is right. I wonder if the Russian Yurei has the same fears, the same humanity. It is a well-traveled path worked out mainly for my own benefit and I invariably at the end decide in favor of the human. The doubt in the rationale of the politicians who would use such weapons keeps the knotted course of the argument fresh.
I release my father and wander inside the house to bury myself in Asimov's '2001.' Even HAL doesn't wash away the incredible guilt of being from a country prepared to undertake the wholesale slaughter of the harmless simply because it can. The horrendous weight of the knowledge that there is a Yurei somewhere in Russia who wonders why his American counterpart would do something so abominable. At church on Sunday as on every other I will ask a plastic Christ to forgive me, and feel no better.
The old woman watches my eye and begins to elevate the pace at which she is banging her metal tin against the ground to a fever pitch. Her voice climbs into the summer air, almost becoming a wail at the sight of our little group. A final slam and the square tin skitters across the pavement toward us, she stands and begins to walk with an outstretched finger. Switching from Korean to heavily accented English she now directs the wailing tirade at the walking infidel invaders.
"Cheaters." A bone-like finger shakes at me, bent by invisible time she is nearly half my height. This makes her no less intimidating. "You cheaters."
"Ma'am." Beginning to say something, I attempt to dodge what looks like it will rapidly become a public spectacle. Anticipating the move, she positions herself between me and the golden promises of being excused from culpability lying just down the ramp from where I am now. "Excuse me, ma'am."
"Ma'am, uhh. I have no idea. Uh, Mike, uh help?"
"Yurei, the cops are coming man."
"YOU CHEATERS. YOU ALL CHEAT."
Deftly remembering something from high school gym class I bounce one way and then the other, using my frame as a sort of fulcrum to swing around the old woman. The plan succeeds and seconds later I am past, the old woman now rapid several steps behind. Still yelling, she has retrieved her tin and is banging it against the ground while yelling and shuffling forward. The police are now eyeing the old woman and have begun the slow orbit that signals arrest in all countries.
"What the hell she mean 'cheaters?'" Mike asks in voice bearing far too much self-assurance to be genuine. "Shit, I haven't cheated anyone here."
"I thought she said 'cheetahs.'" Jesse half-jokingly says. The tension of the last ten minutes has worn nerves a little thin all around. We pass a line of protesters fifteen feet away being shuffled into boxy blue paddy wagons with steel mesh over the windows. They're singing amidst the sirens both on scene and arriving. He paws at an eye still slightly red from the gas. "That was directed at us though. Cheaters huh?"
"Yeah, I guess." Slipping back seventeen years I wonder how wrong the name is, if we are indeed cheaters.
How many lives did a silent war cost that we supposedly won and that we are still fighting? How many kids were cheated? Considering the house odds as we push across the street, I wonder if we actually won anything.