The 38th parallel, where perhaps 1 million soldiers faced each other across an area boobytrapped with over a million land mines, was the line drawn in the sand during the Korean War. Cross it and a soldier could quickly die in a hail of bullets.
My uncle, Pete, was there in the 1950s, stationed just across the 38th parallel. And during his entire 26-year career in the U.S. Army, the time he served in Korea was possibly one of the worst times of his life. More on this in a moment.
Now, after turning 82 just last month, my uncle is in a Philadelphia hospital where doctors recently performed emergency surgery on his already weak heart. When I left the hospital last Thursday, well, things looked pretty grim. He hadn’t been awake since surgery the previous Monday, and his vital signs were diminishing, along with the function of his kidneys which were heading into a slow downward spiral.
Denene and I traveled back to Philadelphia last Saturday morning, just two days after the doctors’ pessimistic opinions regarding recovery, we found him sitting up in bed chatting with a neurologist. No ventilator, no more blood transfusions, no mechanically-forced inflation of his lungs, etc.
He was fully conscious and alert, and extremely hungry. So the nurse ordered him a solid and nutritious lunch.
His kidney functions were back to nearly normal. Heart rate and blood pressure were absolutely fine. Although, he was was experiencing a bit of numbness along his right side, possibly caused by compression of fluid on a nerve in the neck. Other than that, though, he was doing well, considering.
Actually, he was feeling well enough to be frantically searching the TV for his favorite show, SpongeBob (Don’t ask me). SpongeBob, golf, Jeopardy, and The Wheel of Fortune. Those are his “can’t miss” programs.
After having no luck with the TV our conversation turned to the days “back when,” and the topic of Korea came up. He told us about standing guard at night, hearing the enemy soldiers just across “the line” yelling, firing their weapons, and banging on things, an effort to prevent sleep for our soldiers. Then, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, groups of them charged across the line, firing their rifles and pistols in short bursts aimed at the U.S. soldiers. Then they’d run back from where they came. This occurred night after night after night.
He told of having very little to eat except rice. Rice, rice, rice, and more rice. After he left Korea he swore he’d never touch rice again. Just the thought of it turns his stomach.
He recalled nights when soldiers were forced to burn drums of alcohol to keep warm during -60 degree temperatures. They’d remain huddled around those barrels, moving away only to start the tanks every thirty minutes to prevent the grease in the gun turrets from freezing solid. If that happened the tanks would only fire once since the frozen grease would prevent recoil of the tanks’ gun barrels.
He told war tales that would curl the toughest and straightest of toes. Then he switched to stories about other assignments around the world, from different bases where he was stationed throughout his career. His favorites were in Germany and a long term serving at the Pentagon in Washington D.C.
Back then, he said, D.C. was a fun city and his job at the Pentagon was quite rewarding.
On January 20, 1961, Uncle Pete was one of the sixteen thousand U.S. soldiers who marched along Pennsylvania Avenue in President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural parade. It was a proud moment for him when he passed the reviewing stand, seeing out of the corner of his eye, President Kennedy; First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy; the President’s parents Rose Kennedy and Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.; Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson; and Lady Bird Johnson and other dignitaries. He also received an invitation to the president’s inaugural ball. This was a high point in my uncle’s life.
But there were times when things in Washington weren’t so rosy.
In November of 1963, Uncle Pete again marched as a soldier along D.C. streets for President Kennedy. This time, though, the march was for President Kennedy’s funeral procession after he was assassinated.
My uncle has seen and done a lot in his day. He’s been “there” when times were tough, and he’s been practically on top of the world. He’s a fighter. Always has been.
Today, Uncle Pete is receiving physical therapy to help him walk again, and to help regain the use of the muscles on his his right side. He’s very weak but his spirits are high and he grows stronger each day. He thanks you for your prayers and well-wishes, as do I.
*Remember, I said my uncle’s appetite is back and he’s now allowed solid food and that the nurse ordered him a nice hot lunch? Guess what they brought him … turkey, and a steaming mound of RICE!
Needless to say, he sent it back untouched.